Nuclear proliferation in the midst of the current regional chaos would be the most foolish move that any national leader could allow to happen. But this is precisely what PM Netanyahu worries about. Iran with a nuclear “breakout capacity” is, for all of the Middle East, the nightmare scenario. But so deep are the misgivings between the Israeli government and the Obama administration, that the so-called “bad deal” nuclear agreement with Iran has once again taken over the grip of the PM’s cabinet. With Israeli President Peres at the White House receiving assurances that Washington is in sync with Jerusalem’s concerns, even he felt it necessary to reiterate that “no deal would be a far better outcome than a bad deal”. Enough said. The last thing Obama would want for his legacy would be to anger the ninety-year-old “great man” over the final cut on the Iran nuclear deal.
But PM Netanyahu was not reassured, not by a long shot. For both the Israeli majority and the Sunni Arabs alike, the current US president has made far too many mistakes in his handling of Middle East foreign policy to be trusted blindly. First of all, after five and a half years in office, Obama’s general direction in the region remains uncertain. Yes, he has his allies. But his support for their political concerns–Iran, al Maliki, Assad and Hezbollah–appears soft. Unlike the Russians, whose support for the Shiite crescent holds firm, Obama is plagued by the twists and turns of the previous administration. He can’t support support the Sunnis with unwavering affirmation because the al Maliki government (for all its sectarian ills) is still a creation of official Washington. In Syria, the problem has always been al Qaeda. After nearly three years of fighting between Assad and his myriad of Sunni enemies, the administration has still not vetted an opposition militia that it can trust.
Obama’s second problem is the current nature of US politics. Liberal interventionism is not necessarily the current majority position in the Democratic Party. The peace wing of the party is no longer a simple minority that can be finessed because it has nowhere else to go. The same might be true for the Republican Party. Last September, when the president was deciding on whether or not to bomb Syria for its use of chemical weapons, in many districts across the US, e-mails were running a hundred to one against military action. Obama is a politician; he’s not Martin Luther King.
If anything, Obama’s inability to forge a regional strategy, contesting the unwavering support Moscow has given Assad and Tehran, makes the inexperienced president’s words seem hollow. And in the Middle East hollow words are the same as silence. President Obama would be wise to remember that silence, in this region of treachery and shifting alliances, is hardly golden. Perhaps Martin Luther King did say it best when he said, “There comes a time when silence is betrayal”. In the Middle East betrayal doesn’t have to be actual to be felt. In a region where conspiracy theories are rife, inaction is more potent than half-deeds and dithering. Even in rational and truly democratic Israel, the paranoia of the Jewish people runs deep. For Jewish history has never been a bed of roses, and when enemies (like Iran) speak, the Jews listen.
But as Obama hesitates, the Russians and Assad know exactly what to do. Their support for their alliance with Iran and its surrogate, Iraq, is unambiguous. And once again they have done so quickly. While Obama pressures al-Maliki for a political solution, the Russians send war planes. So too does Assad. With all the talk of the US being potentially accused of being the “Shiite air force”, in reality it’s the Russians who supply the tools for al-Maliki to get the job done himself. Whether or not the wounded Iraqi leader survives, in the face of the ISIL offensive it was Moscow and Damascus who knew what needed to be done. Whether or not these actions can take back the Sunni regions are unclear (probably not), but from a Sunni perspective, they were certainly decisive. There appears to be no “sitting on the fence” in Moscow.
So with every incident of US half-measure and/or hesitancy, the rumor mill starts to grind in overdrive. “Washington is on the cusp of a ‘bad nuclear deal’ in order to placate the Iranians.” “Obama needs the Iranians to help straighten out the Middle East.” “The pivot to Asia means that the US needs a hegemonic partner in the Middle East and only Iran can fulfill that role”. A silent policy has many offspring. So what are the Sunni Arab states and Israel to do? The Sunnis, at least for now, are willing to work with anyone who will work with them. ISIL hasn’t achieved its victories on its own. At this stage the entire Iraqi Sunni community appears to support them. So too do the Gulf states. Could the intelligence services of the US government been caught so off-guard? And why didn’t our satellite system pick up the river of traffic on the roads from Syria into Iraq? Either the CIA was in on the operation, or American intelligence is sorely lacking. The question becomes: What did Obama know, and when did he know it? But like the Kennedy assassination, the American citizenry will never find out the truth.
For Israel, the absence of a concrete US policy (to roll back the hegemonic designs and the nuclear ambitions of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps) has an alternative address. It’s in Moscow, at the Kremlin. Russia is a P-5+1 negotiating partner on the Iranian nuclear program. And unlike the Americans, they’ve made their intentions clear. So why not send them a message, direct and unambiguous: A bad nuclear deal will bring Israel into the Syrian-Iraqi war in direct opposition to Hezbollah and/or Assad. Let Tehran mull that one over. Israel has its own capacities too. After all, the Sunnis are on the march in Iraq and with a strong Israeli push, they could once again impose their will on Syria.
So with a regional war raging and the US position unclear, Bibi called Putin. For PM Netanyahu (and he has said it more than once), the war between Israel’s enemies (ISIL and Iran) is an incentive to do nothing. But with a region in chaos and fragmentation merely a recipe for continuous strife, a bad Iranian nuclear deal would be the worst possible outcome for everyone, including the Iranians. To put it even more bluntly, the de facto partition of Syria and Iraq can only lead to a perpetual war between mini-states whose separate and sustainable existence is simply not workable. In this scenario, total victory becomes crucial. Without oil, investment, and water, none of these so-called “states” could support themselves. While the Shiites have the oil, the Sunnis would have the water. In an environment of constant war, investment would be up to outside powers (like Iran). But total victory is not in Israel’s interest. The perception of an Iranian nuclear weapon would lead directly to a Saudi nuclear weapon. Just as the perception of conventional victory by one side or the other would lead to a direct Iranian or Saudi involvement.
So what did the Israeli PM say to the Russian president? He probably said (of course I can’t be sure) that all the countries of the P5+1 must be vigilant in their pursuit of a nuclear deal with Iran, or the consequences could be horrendous. For the Israelis, a nuclear Iran would be an existential threat (President Peres told President Obama the same thing). Hopefully Bibi was blunt; a bad deal will bring Israel into the war full force, and that can’t be good for Russia’s key allies.
He probably also discussed with Mr. Putin the fact that the region cannot be separated from the Iranian nuclear program. The very countries of the region themselves would not allow for this to happen. They may also have discussed that any attempt by the P5+1 to separate out the regional chaos from the nuclear issue has now become impossible. If Iran likes the deal it is getting, Israel won’t. If Israel becomes satisfied with a strong and good deal, the complete removal of Iranian sanctions would cause the Saudis to counter the deal by a strong action of their own. Either way, the expansion of the war becomes inevitable. Because the partition of Iraq and Syria is unsustainable (through mixed population and divergence of resources), only by total victory and dictatorship can a fractured state system become whole again. This portends disaster and can only be solved by international cooperation and a far-reaching political solution.
Finally, Bibi must have told Putin that Russia’s pro-Assad, pro-al-Maliki and pro-Iran policy has become counterproductive. The longer the Americans and the Russians refuse to cooperate, the worse it is for everyone. Support for Iran’s hegemonic design only triggers greater and greater Sunni resentment. Moscow must become serious about a regional political solution which not only maintains the long-standing state system but also negates any Iranian hegemony. The longer Iran remains a threat; the deeper the extremist Sunni entrenchment will become. But Bibi must have reminded President Putin that total victory by Iran now appears impossible because of the threat of alternative regional actors and the vast Sunni stream of outside Jihadists. Only with a balanced regional political solution can Iran’s fears of a Sunni dominated Iraq be alleviated. The reverse is true for the Sunni states. For the war to end both fears must be taken into consideration.
In the final analysis, a world without UN leadership will become a world on the brink. In such a world everyone in the Middle East will want nuclear weapons. It is hard to imagine that such a bleak and nerve-racking impasse could be in any way fortuitous for the Jewish people or anyone else. It’s in everyone’s interest for Moscow and Washington to come together with a strong P5+1 position. Perhaps soon, President Putin will call Bibi and ask: “What would it take for Israel to accept the idea of non-hegemonic and nuclear-weapons-free Middle East.”
As the saying goes–“With the L-rd, all things are possible.”