The White House is lifting a hold on major weapons exports to Egypt that has been in place since President Sisi supplanted the Muslim Brotherhood government of President Morsi in 2013. The New York Times reports:
Mr. Obama removed his holds on the delivery of F-16 aircraft, Harpoon missiles and M1A1 tank kits and in a telephone call assured President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt that he would continue to support $1.3 billion in annual military assistance for the Cairo government, the White House announced.
The White House said in a statement, “The president explained that these and other steps will help refine our military assistance relationship so that it is better positioned to address the shared challenges to U.S. and Egyptian interests in an unstable region, consistent with the longstanding strategic partnership between our two countries.”
This rapprochement with Sunni, military-ruled Egypt, comes on the eve of a potential landmark agreement between the U.S. and Shi’a Iran—and just as Egypt has entered into a Sunni coalition attacking Iranian proxies in Yemen. Coincidence? Contradiction? Not hardly.
It looks as if the Obama Administration is now realizing that Sunnis can make life very difficult for their long-sought Iran deal. Simply by threatening to start a nuclear arms race, the Saudis can undermine the arguments for the deal. And since many observers—Sunnis, Iranians, arguably even Americans—see the deal as implicitly ceding regional hegemony to Iran in return for nuclear forbearance, the Sunni pushback also works at cross-purposes to the negotiations. Both the pushback and its destabilizing effects are something that some of our more myopic negotiators should have seen coming, but didn’t—until now.
Instead, the Administration is moving quickly to soothe America’s traditional allies, who are now restless. Combine this decision with the live feeds from U.S. drones and other intelligence help that we are providing the Saudis with in Yemen, and a clear pattern emerges. Don’t worry, we’re saying: deal or no deal, the U.S. will still have your back.
Both the substance of the assistance (Egypt is, after all, about to go to war) and the symbolic aspects (the Egyptian government has long viewed the weapons hold as impugning its legitimacy) will be appreciated by the Sisi regime. But will it be enough to reassure the Sunni alliance?
Could the Sunnis hold out instead for U.S. aid in toppling Assad in favor of a Sunni regime in Syria, and assistance for Iraqi Sunni tribesmen? Would we meet the price? If we do, can the Iranians still say “yes” to a deal without a loss of face? And even if they get Syria and some of Iraq out of it, could the Sunnis live with a nuke deal they might find awfully porous?
A lot of strategic questions are apparently being considered at the 11th hour. With missiles already flying, we’d better hope we have a President as visionary as he seems to think at the helm.