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.]