The American Interest
Essays & Longer Thoughts
Published on October 25, 2013
Threading the Needle

Israeli PM Netanyahu Meets With President Obama At White House

A grand historical drama in the Middle East is moving towards a moment of decision, and the fate of President Obama’s foreign policy and much else besides is hanging by a thread. As two storms shake the foundations of the region’s political order (the Shi’a-Sunni war and the crisis of legitimacy across the region opened up by the Arab Spring), American foreign policy has entered a period of enormous vulnerability and risk.

As I’ve written here and elsewhere, the American strategy during President Obama’s first term ultimately failed. The attempt to reconcile moderate Arab opinion to the United States by withdrawing from Iraq, pressing Israel to make concessions to the Palestinians and aligning the Americans with moderate Islamist forces like the AK party government in Turkey and the Morsi government in Egypt was well intentioned but unrealistic. But as the White House contemplated the ruins of its first-term strategy, a shining new hope appeared: a new President emerged in Iran, speaking words of peace. A new opportunity for a great triumph appeared in the Middle East even as the old hopes faded away; an end to the long standoff with Iran would redeem the earlier failures and potentially usher in a new and much more stable era in world affairs.

It is a tantalizing and agonizing moment. On the one hand, so close that the President can sometimes feel it within his grasp, is the prospect of a “grand bargain” with Iran—an arrangement that would stop the nuclear drive, integrate Iran into some kind of regional system and end the chronic instability and crisis that has dogged America’s regional policy since the old alliance with Iran collapsed in 1979. On the other hand is the possibility for catastrophic failure: the outreach to Iran may fail, and in pursuit of this new ally the President may have irretrievably damaged his relations with the three powers (Egypt, Israel and Saudi Arabia) that have grounded our policy for a generation. If President Obama pulls off a grand bargain with Iran, his foreign policy legacy will be secure. But if a second strategic initiative in the Middle East ends in definitive failure, historians will likely see the foreign policy of the Obama years as an inglorious mess.

The prospect of an Iranian bargain is irresistibly attractive in theory; it is hard to reach in practice. It is very hard to read Iranian intentions; Iranian diplomacy characteristically moves behind a screen of feints and deceptions. There are some reasons to think that the Iranians may be ready to deal; economic sanctions have taken a serious toll. On the other hand, the regional picture is looking bright from Tehran’s point of view. The United States will soon be leaving Afghanistan, and it has given up any hope of influencing Iraq. Assad is still holding out in Syria. The Fertile Crescent is a Shi’a Crescent from Basra through Baghdad to Beirut.

One could argue that it is in Iran’s interest to strike a nuclear deal while its regional position is so strong. Equally one could argue that if Iran is doing so well in advancing its regional agenda in the teeth of Washington’s opposition and sanctions, the mullahs have no need to deal. If they stand pat and continue to play a strong hand against an indecisive America, they have little to fear and much to gain.

In a best-case scenario, the exhausted mullahs are hungry for a peace with honor that would end the sanctions. In a worst-case scenario, they are playing on the American administration’s desperate hunger for a deal, holding out false hopes of an accommodation even as they consolidate their position in Syria, drive a deeper wedge into America’s Middle East alliances, and enrich more uranium.

It is likely that most Iranian diplomats and officials don’t really know what course the Supreme Leader will ultimately take. He himself may not know what is going to happen. He may not have made up his mind. There are good arguments for conciliation and for confrontation, and the Supreme Leader could be keeping his options open as he waits to see what comes next. One dour reality that American Iran-optimists need to keep in mind, though: whatever outcome the Supreme Leader seeks, he is not looking for a “win-win” deal with the United States. While stubborn facts may force him to concede on some points, he does not believe that our core interests are aligned. He wants his power to grow and ours to diminish, and that is the lens through which he will examine his choices.

During the hostage crisis, Iranians fairly consistently worked to keep the US and the West engaged in negotiations even as the political authorities milked the confrontation and used American helplessness and fecklessness to raise their own prestige and cement their authority at home and in the region. That may be happening yet again; it is likely that the White House and the State Department don’t know which way the Iranians will jump.

Caught between hope and fear, Washington doesn’t yet know how to manage Iran—but any movement toward Iran risks destabilizing its carefully built alliances. Iran’s carefully arranged diplomatic outreach has revealed a deep gap between American interests and those of the Israelis and the Saudis.

Any arrangement between Iran and the United States would have two principal dimensions. First, it would involve some kind of agreement over the limits to Iran’s nuclear program and a verification protocol. Second, there would be some kind of regional political understanding, written or unwritten, that would delineate the nature of Iran’s regional role and, in particular, address the future of the Sunni-Shi’a conflict, defining America’s attitude toward the Shi’a Crescent.

The two questions may be disconnected in Washington’s thinking, but viewed from Tehran they are linked. The “grand bargain” the Iranians are most likely to embrace would be some form of a “Crescent for Nukes” exchange, in which the US agreed to accept an Iranian sphere of influence in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon in exchange for an acceptable agreement on the Iranian nuclear program. It’s a larger version of the Russian-brokered deal Assad hopes to get from the White House: Assad gives up his own WMD capacity in exchange for American acquiescence in the perpetuation of his regime. In dealing with Tehran over the nuclear program, the White House is likely to find that the more tolerant the United States is about Iran’s regional ambitions, the better the atmosphere at the nuclear talks.

As the prospect of serious negotiations between the Americans and Iranians comes closer, both Israel and Saudi Arabia become nervous. Their interests are not identical with those of the United States, and the prospect of a US-Iranian grand bargain is stressing American ties with both countries.

Israel’s problem is primarily about the nuclear issue and secondarily about the non-nuclear elements of a possible US-Iranian agreement. The Israelis worry most of all that the US will accept a nuclear agreement that leaves Iran closer to a bomb than the Israelis would like to see them, sacrificing Israeli security interests as understood in Jerusalem in order to keep the US out of a war.  That is their big worry and it appears that reassuring them on this score has been a major focus of US diplomacy. The Israelis also worry about the rise of Iranian power in their neighborhood, especially as it involves Hezbollah’s access to arms and support. It’s possible to imagine a US-Iranian grand bargain that is acceptable to Israel, but there will be challenges on both the nuclear and non-nuclear elements of the deal.

The Saudis have much more at stake. They are, like the Israelis, nuclear hawks on the subject of Iran, and they will want the US to drive as hard a bargain as possible. But the Saudis are more interested in geography than in physics. They aren’t as interested in centrifuge counts as the Israelis are, but the possibility that the US would accept Iranian primacy across the Fertile Crescent in exchange for a nuclear deal is something close to a mortal threat. Saudi legitimacy at home and abroad rests on a claim to express and defend the true spirit of Sunni Islam. The sectarian conflict is an existential one for the Saudis, both because they have a restive Shi’a minority at home and because their domestic support and international prestige is linked to the prosperity of the Sunni cause in the struggle against what many Sunnis see as an imperial Shi’a surge. The fear that a newly empowered Iran would step up support for Shi’as in the Gulf monarchies keeps Saudi royals up at night, sweating and gnashing their teeth. If anything, the Saudis care more about Iraq, Syria and Lebanon than they do about Iran’s nuclear program; this makes them even more nervous and angry about US-Iranian negotiations than the Israelis.

So here’s Obama’s problem. Not negotiating with Iran drives him toward the fateful decision he has tried to avoid since the first day of his presidency: he doesn’t want to be in the position of choosing between accepting an Iranian nuclear arsenal or launching a war. But negotiating with Iran throws the Middle East into upheaval and may stress his ties to his closest allies to the breaking point—with no guarantee that it will pay off in an agreement.

For Iran, it’s an interesting and perhaps enjoyable position. Obama is in a box: negotiating with Iran and not negotiating with Iran both undermine his regional position.

Judging from what we see from the outside, the White House does not appear to have a clear strategy in mind at this point, but the trajectory of its internal drift suggests that many there (perhaps including the President) would be ready to sell the Crescent to Iran in exchange for a face-saving, war-avoiding nuclear deal. This is probably how Jerusalem, Moscow, Beijing, Tehran and Riyadh are all reading the President’s deep reluctance to take decisive action against Assad. In Jerusalem, this belief leads people to want to engage closely with the Americans in an effort to make sure that any deal addresses Israel’s red lines on nukes and Hezbollah. In Tehran it strengthens the hands of those who favor the course of negotiations; Obama appears willing to pay a substantial price for the nuclear deal and the very act of engaging weakens American power and promotes the Shi’a cause. In Riyadh this perception heightens the rage and fear that people there feel and has led to what, by Saudi standards, is a public tantrum of epic proportions. In Moscow this is seen as both a satisfying symbolic setback for the United States and a substantial victory over the Sunni jihadi threat the Kremlin sees as a major threat. In Beijing it is read as another chapter in the story of American decline.

Trying to build a new relationship with Iran without wrecking the old relationships with longstanding allies was always going to be the hard part of any negotiation over the nuclear issue. For the Iranians, wrecking those other relationships is a strategic objective in their negotiations with the US; past US administrations have refused to consider paying that price, but Tehran, Jerusalem and Riyadh may all now be wondering whether this is the deal President Obama will ultimately try to make.

If so, Israel and Saudi Arabia may start to cooperate in unprecedented ways to thwart the White House drive for a deal. Especially if Israel believes that the United States will accept a weak and unsatisfactory nuclear deal with Iran, our two oldest and strongest regional allies could act very quickly to take the initiative out of Washington’s hands.

[Image: U.S. President Barack Obama (R) speaks while Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu listens during a meeting in the Oval Office, September 30, 2013 in Washington, DC. President Obama was meeting with the Israeli Prime Minister to discuss the situation in Syria and Iran; courtesy Getty.]

  • BobSykes

    Expect a joint Israeli/Saudi attack on Iran soon.

    • S.C. Schwarz

      I don’t think so Bob. Rather, I expect the Saudis to make their own deal with Iran. The elements of the deal will be: (1) Iran goes nuclear, (2) Saudi Arabia agrees to back Iran in OPEC, (3) Iran agrees to leave Saudi Arabia alone militarily, (4) Iran uses nuclear/oil price blackmail against Europe to break the sanctions.

      The US will be a helpless spectator as this unfolds.

      • rpm73

        The details may not work out this way, but I do think you’re right in that the Saudis will buy their security before they’ll fight for it. That may mean cutting a deal with Iran. It may mean getting closer to Russia.

        Either way, the US will be a non-entity.

      • Pete

        Sounds plausible.

      • CiporaJuliannaKohn

        The Saudis will never acquiesce to a nuclear Iran.
        If they cannot stop Iran from getting nuclear weapons, they will get their own.
        The Saudis will never accept to be under the domination of Iran.

      • justin bristow

        If things got that far it would mean the Saudi regime is breath takingly incompetent. Iran and Saudi are scorpions in a bottle, their foundation for existing is to promote two alternative interpretations of Islam. If they didn’t border on each other this wouldn’t be as big a deal. If they didn’t find fundamentalist appeals to a violent religion the basis of their power there could be a grand bargain. But here’s the problem for Obama: in the end Israel can be brought to heel. It relies on the US defense industry, it cannot survive without the US defense industry. We hold the cards. We can detect and we can punish any Israeli preparations to go rogue on Iran. Saudi Arabia is quite another story. Saudi Arabia is a wealthy and powerful regional player, the cards we hold do not dictate the survival of the Saudi regime. The Saudi’s will use their considerable influence to scuttle the Iranian deal in its final stages(all of the above levers you talked about can be threatened alone by Saudi without allying with Iran). The Iranians know this. Once the deal has been scuttled the Iranian leaders can turn to their public and say: look, all we wanted was the independence guaranteed to us by treaty to have nuclear reactors. And now we have a light water and heavy water reactor. But due to double standards and the hatefulness of Saudi Arabia, the great and little satan etc. Etc. We have no choice but to leverage nuclear weapons to get the sanctions removed. Iran withdraws from the NPT “temporarily” and makes a few nukes before we detect them. Break out is achieved, the US is embarrassed but now it’s time to contain Iran elsewhere in the region. The next chapter begins. Guess what the US has actually done this whole time? Delay the inevitable and deny reality. Sound familiar?

    • Andrew Allison

      When Hades freezes over. An agreement by the Saudis to do no more than express outrage is conceivable, a joint attack is not.

  • Jacksonian_Libertarian

    The incompetent Obama and his leftist advisors have a nearly infinite capacity to delude themselves. The Iranians are going to continue their drive for nuclear weapons, using a successful strategy of false negotiations (its worked for 12 years so far) to gain time and block military strikes. They figure that once they have nuclear weapons they can hold hostage everyone within range of their missiles, and so project power over the entire region. The US and her allies will be out of options at that point, as any action risks the lives of millions of innocents. Iran can’t be attacked after that point, and a simple subterfuge like that of the North Koreans is all they need. They might already have nuclear weapons, and are just building a stockpile to add gravity to their coming nuclear threats.

  • Pete

    Why would the Persians give up their efforts to get a nuclear bomb? Obama surely has not given them any reason to pause.

  • lukelea

    Armchair amateur statesmen unite! That will be the day!

    For my own part I can’t see how Israel will ever accede to a nuclear Iran (I know I wouldn’t in their place) or the US either in the final analysis. It’s weird to have to be guessing the secret intentions of Iran’s “Supreme Leader” hiding somewhere in the sacred precincts of Qom. But then no weirder, I suppose, than trying to placate the Sunni fanatics behind the throne in Saudi Arabia. In any case I don’t see why we should not prefer Shias to Sunnis in Syria at least. There will be less killing in the long-run probably if Assad stays in power, and Israel knows they can live with him.

  • Ooga Booga

    Given the specifics of the Syrian “deal”, it’s hard to see why the Iranians wouldn’t just try and play us for suckers at this point.

  • Anthony

    WRM, a caveat: does Washington have both reduced capability and less willingness to engage fractious Middle East in spite of traditional alliances? In other words, a grand historical drama moving towards denouement with sobering foreign policy consequences for Obama administration must have context (as much as hope and fear).

    As a counterbalance, let us “start at the global level. For all the brave talk about continuing American potential, it’s pretty obvious that Washington has vastly reduced capability – and not only willingness – to engage deeply in the problems of the Middle East. The refusal to intervene in Syria is not simply a matter of President Obama’s gum-chewing indifference. It is rooted in a deeply and widely held, bipartisan public opposition to any new military adventures in the region, grim opposition from an exhausted and wary Pentagon, the growing internalization of Iraq’s painful lessons, and disillusionment with the failures of the Arab uprisings and the Libya intervention. Invocation of the need for bolder leadership by the administration’s critics ring hollow in the absence of any serious alternative policies to back up the louder words. A United States that can’t keep its own government open is going to retrench in the Middle East because it has little choice to do otherwise.” (Marc Lynch – Middle East Power Vacuum)

    Perhaps, subtext to Threading the Needle could be the problem of alliance management will continue to be difficult in Middle East where power diffusion and pathologies therewith make diplomacy with Iran attractive. This is geopolitical backdrop for U.S foreign policy going forward in region (with or without status quo of old relationships).

  • wigwag

    Obama’s foreign policy is a true disaster; his courtship of Iran will lead to nothing but disappointment and grief and in the process he will alienate the only Middle Eastern allies that the United States has. Maybe that’s the point; Obama has wanted to wash his hands of the region for a long time; a fact he has never been shy about advertising.

    An intelligent opposition political party should have an easy time explaining how disasterous Obama’s policies have been in the Middle East and elsewhere. Unfortunately, the GOP is anything but intelligent. Like lemmings rushing to the cliff’s precipice, instead of rationally explaining why Obama has it all wrong, Republicans have been working overtime to demonstrate to the American people that they are even more craven and clueless than Obama is. Then, as if to put an exclamation point on their lunacy, they are doing everything they can to alienate each and every one of the constituency groups they will need to attract in order to win the next presidential election.

    Obama’s foreign policy is a disaster, and the silence of his Democratic colleagues (some of whom surely know better) is deafening. If only we had an opposition party that could explain all of tugs to the American people.

    Instead, the Republicans respond to every stupid move that Obama makes by putting a gun to their own head and threatening to shoot if they don’t get their way.

    Obama and his GOP colleagues have way too much in common. The policies they support may be different but they are exactly alike when it comes to providing the American people with capable leadership.

    • Anthony

      WigWag, capable leadership (politically) how do we truly address it exclusive of partisan inclinations.

      • wigwag

        Anthony, there was a time not that long ago that we had a centrist and bipartisan foreign policy. The Democrats may have been marginally more supportive of treaties and international institutions and the Republicans may have supported somewhat more muscular measures, but the foreign policy debate between the two parties was pretty much played between the forty yard lines.

        Of course, the Cold War made a bipartisan foreign policy not only easier, but more critical. Things are obviously more complicated now.

        On the Republican side of the equation, the Party is in disarray. The GOP’s neoconservatives thoroughly defeated the Party’s realist branch about a decade ago and had been ascendant but now the long dormant isolationist wing of the GOP is making a strong comeback.

        It’s hard for the GOP to offer a credible alternative to the idiocy of Obama while it is engaged in an internecine struggle of enormous proportions.

        On the Democratic side of the equation I once thought that the adults in the room were people like Carl Levin and Hillary Clinton; unfortunately they’ve gone AWOL. Levin is retiring and Clinton is intent on protecting her left flank so that her presidential aspirations aren’t derailed in 2016 as they were in 2008.

        Superimpose on all of this, the fact that the American people are in no mood at the moment to become entangled in foreign conflicts and we have a real problem on our hands.

        With the economy and employment still far from robust and with failure after failure in the international arena committed by both the sitting president and the last president, perhaps this is not surprising, but it is still dangerous.

        Those of is who believe in American greatness and American exceptionalism have a lot of very good reasons to worry.

        • Anthony

          The greatness and exceptionalism you ascribe were once part and parcel of our civic virtue; now, not as much and an indirect catalyst of inferred worries.

          Yet at this moment (transformational or critical juncture) in our history, leadership (political) of the type that transcends parochial/provincial interests appears noticeably absent.

          A national leadership (not local, regional, sectional, etc.) that engages on the basis of shared national motives, values, and goals WigWag is sorely needed. Ultimately, the Cold War dividend has brought transactional leadership to a more prominent place in our political arena – very few real competing alternatives.

  • jonathan

    Perhaps I’ve been missing something but when has Iran ever been willing to negotiate their nuclear option? That’s never been on the table and in fact, the rhetoric has been quite clear about what they believe they have a right to do. The only possible option and sanctions are not hurting enough obviously, is for Iran to promote a nuclear free zone which of course Israel could abide by and Iran would cheat as did North Korea.

    The best outcome we could hope for is for the Supreme Leader to leave the stage and a truly moderate, perhaps even democratic government could be elected.

    In the absence of this, Israel and it’s new-found enemies of my enemy have no option other than to take action. And the sooner the dead end talks can end, the sooner Israel and it’s partners can act. It doesn’t have to be long range bombing. Perhaps there’s a Stuxnet 2 approach that can result in crippling facilities.

  • Matt B

    What strikes me about this analysis is that I don’t see any outcome where the interests, power or prestige of the United States is enhanced. No “Grand Bargain” with Iran is worth selling out our allies.

    • CiporaJuliannaKohn

      Obama’s “Grand Bargain” is a fake deal.
      Iran will retain its nuclear weapons capabilities, while also retaining the Shia crescent.
      The United States will be largely weakened and will lose long standing allies.
      It is obvious that Obama does not care about US national security interests.
      Obama’s biggest fear is that Israel will attack Iran, not that Iran will develop nuclear weapons.
      A nuclear Iran will be a catastrophe for the security of the entire Middle East and will put nuclear weapons in the hands of the premier terror state in the world.
      Obama does not seem to care as long as he has his fake deal with the Shia terror regime. Obama thinks that such a deal will earn him a significant place in history. He does not understand that only winners earn such place in history, and if Iran is allowed to retain its nuclear weapons capability, Obama will be remembered as a loser of monumental proportions.

  • Kavanna

    This argument assumes that “initiative” is what Obama has. What he really has is a weak hand, an empty head, and a gaggle of dunce advisers.

    And yes, regional cooperation amongst former American allies (Israel, Saudi Arabia) will accelerate, just as former allies Canada and Germany will start doing their thing.

    This is what happens when a void opens up.

  • circleglider

    One dour reality that American Iran-optimists need to keep in mind, though: whatever outcome the Supreme Leader seeks, he is not looking for a “win-win” deal with the United States. While stubborn facts may force him to concede on some points, he does not believe that our core interests are aligned. He wants his power to grow and ours to diminish, and that is the lens through which he will examine his choices.

    This reality completely negates the possibility that a “grand bargain” between the United States and Iran is possible.These sorts of essays are enormously frustrating. Professor Mead has just spent nearly 2,000 words forecasting that President Obama will permanently weaken America’s position in the world and burn our long-standing relationships with key allies because he lacks the intellectual balls to choose “between accepting an Iranian nuclear arsenal or launching a war.”

  • ljgude

    I think the notion that the Islamists like the AKP and the Morsi government represent anything like moderation in the Arab world is species of straw man designed to construct a false scenario of choice for the president. It is pretty clear WRM that you don’t think there is much of a chance for a grand bargain but it clouds the issue to treat either hope for the Arab spring that ended in Benghazi or make the change in tone of the new Iranian president an opening to any kind of bargain with Iran. I read you because I don’t want to read this kind of ungrounded faux theorizing in the NY Times. Rein in your inner Tom Friedman please sir!

  • Mark Thomason

    The US voting public will not fight another Middle East war for a long time. That was made clear when the war party pushed an attack on Syria.

    The choice is to negotiate, or accept nuclear weapons without benefit of any negotiations. There will be no war.

    True, Israel can attack, and then re-attack. Iran can dig more Fordow plants under more mountains. The end of that cycle will be a nuclear Iran determined not to be attacked by Israel any more. All Israel gets from that is an infuriated nuclear power already at war with it.

  • eboreen_hasmadop

    As a tour guide in Teheran that takes groups to our ancient persoplis and other historical sites, I can tell you americans that the fanatical mullahs still prevelant amongst the many that are hijacked, the same way americans that are decent have been hijacked by the Nazi Obama, no-one believs the fool Obama and his Persian master the primitive harlot jareet stands a chance against the monsters that rule teheeran.

  • davelnaf

    I beg to differ with the notion that a deal with Iran would give Obama a positive foreign
    policy legacy. Nothing he can do will ever
    pull off that miracle. But it will be amusing to see how the MSM Ministries of Truth try to spin any Iran ‘deal’ as a great accomplishment.

    Obama never intended to do anything about Iran; he’s just found what he thinks is a convenient way to get out from under any possible US involvement there. It’s also about getting the dupes here to believe that not everything with his name on it ends up an unmitigated disaster.

    The Iranians have Obama sized up—not that it’s all that hard to do.

  • Bob

    Alright, most of you guys have said some smart things in response to a smart essay. So, riddle me this:

    It is claimed the sanctions have driven Iran to (at least the appearance of) this willingness to deal. If so, doesn’t it make sense the right approach is to keep the sanctions on (and toughen them if possible)? Maybe the problem is Obama opened his big mouth short of victory, when he might have gotten a better deal from an even-weaker Iran.