It is unclear if President Obama understands the regional component of his nuclear interim deal with the Islamic Republic of Iran. But whether the president understands or not, the Sunni Arabs have made their position crystal clear.
In an interview in the Arabic international newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat (headquartered in London England), Salman Shaikh Director of the Brookings Doha Center (Qatar) spelled out precisely what is at stake for America’s Arab allies. As negotiations between the US and Iran continue forward, the necessity to address the shifting balance within the region has become paramount.
While the nuclear issue is important, Mr.Shaikh maintains that the broader regional perspective is what most concerns the moderate Arab states who have historically been allied with the US.
Since the US invasion and occupation of Iraq, the balance of power in the Middle East has tilted toward Iran and its regional proxies. The Sunni power structure in Baghdad was utterly destroyed by American firepower. This has worked to open a wide swath of political space for ethnic and sectarian advancement by the Islamic Republic.
According to Mr. Shaikh, “that’s one side (the nuclear issue), but there is a second leg, and that is regarding the intra-regional situation, where there is a lot of work to be done. If you are talking about a rebalancing of the region–a region which seems to be unbalanced right now–this will take a very long time. The regional powers, at this time, do not believe that Iran has peaceful intentions. This is what they see when they look around, especially with regards to Syria. They also saw how the US, with its intervention in Iraq, unbalanced the region.”
A regional balance cannot be achieved through nuclear negotiations alone. In fact, Mr. Shaikh described the six month time table to reach the final nuclear deal to be unrealistic. “Well, of course, it hasn’t even begun (the nuclear interim deal). Now we understand that the deal signed in Geneva still awaits technical discussions involving the IAEA with regard to inspections and how the limited sanctions release will come about. Secondly, we will have a long way to go, well beyond six months. This is just the initial first step. I suspect there will be many steps–and maybe some steps back–as the world powers build confidence that the Iranian nuclear plan is peaceful and as the Iranians accept that the world powers do want them to have the capacity for developing nuclear energy.”
Meanwhile the war for the Levant drags on with little hope that a decisive Sunni advantage can be achieved. Furthermore, it is almost a certainty that President Rouhani of Iran does not even have a mandate to discuss the Syrian situation with the US. Most likely, the supreme leader, Ali Khameini, has played the Revolutionary Guards off against the moderates in an intra-Iranian quid pro quo. In other words, the hard-liners stay mum on nuclear negotiations, while the president and his foreign minister leave the Syrian War, Hezbollah and other balance of power issues to the most conservative factions.
But according to Mr. Shaikh, this kind of non-negotiable separation is simply not going to work. Even with a back channel to the supreme leader grave doubts remain. “Through this back door, I’m sure there were elements within the Iranian delegation that had a direct line to Khameini, which of course is where the real negotiations have to be: with Khameini and with the security establishment in Iran. So I am certainly sure that this facilitated things (the interim nuclear deal). Let me say again that this doesn’t necessarily guarantee that everything will go well, especially given what is going on elsewhere, particularly with regards to Syria. If the approach is just on the nuclear issue and ignores the actions of the Iranians in the region, then the deal will not work. It has to be both, and the back door seems to have focused on the Iranian nuclear issue, all the while the situation intensified in Syria with the use of chemical weapons.”
The Iranian presence in the northern Levant, from Iraq to the Mediterranean, puts great pressure on the Gulf states and Jordan. Without an Iranian pull-back the Syrian conflict will only worsen. If, in fact, a nuclear deal with Iran is allowed to progress without a balance of power component two outcomes will most likely ensue: First, nuclear proliferation is a distinct possibility and second, the region could explode in total regional war. Again the response of Mr. Shaikh to the all important question of whether the Sunni states are thinking of building nuclear programs of their own? “I’m sure they are already thinking about it. Of course, the UAE has a model program in terms of developing nuclear energy. It’s been done to very high standards and in many ways represents a model for the development of peaceful nuclear energy. It crucially doesn’t include enriching uranium in the UAE, but buying it from France and other countries. That is one part of it. Let me stress this: There is a genuine desire in this region for making the Middle East into a nuclear-free zone. What happens with the Iranians is very crucial, and if we are not careful, we will start to have a proliferation of nuclear activities.”
With respect to the region and the potential for an expansion of the conflict, the goals of the Obama administration remain uncertain. However, there is one clear sense of certainty. All options are not on the table. The US will simply not allow itself to become involved in another Middle East war. The Sunni Arabs have certainly grasped the American pacification; but that doesn’t mean they like it. Again Mr. Shaikh: “The Obama administration is quite clear that this nuclear issue has to be resolved peacefully and through negotiation. In that respect they have to communicate how they’re doing it with their friends and allies. This is absolutely crucial. If you ignore your friends and allies, the situation, which is already unbalanced, will begin to tip over. Your friends and allies are going to take matters into their own hands, or they’re not going to trust what you are saying. And that is only going to make the situation much worse, especially in the theater of conflict, whether that is Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen or elsewhere.”
How does Israel’s position fit with the Sunni Arab view? On the question of nuclear strategy, the Israeli leadership favors the complete dismantlement of the Iranian nuclear program. However,it appears that Israel has already lost that battle. Unlike the Gulf Arabs and Egypt, the idea of a nuclear-weapons-free zone has not taken hold, at least outwardly, within the Israeli security establishment. This is most unfortunate. The Arabs are correct. The only way to achieve a zero-enrichment and zero-plutonium Middle East is through the vehicle of a nuclear-weapons-free zone. Yes, this strategy would be a gamble for Israel. It would certainly place the utmost burden upon conventional forces and strategic depth. It would probably entail rethinking the Arab peace initiative and the idea of an independent third state to the area of the original Mandate for Palestine. But the two-state solution has been going nowhere for twenty years anyway. And we all are in desperate need of a paradigm shift.
On the question of the balance of power in the region, Israeli policy is unclear and uncertain. This is also most unfortunate. Iranian power is Israel’s greatest threat. Assad’s Syria and Hezbollah must be rolled back or all the Sunni Arabs, including the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, face a dire future. Israel would also probably not survive in a region dominated by Iran. But a Sunni majority government in Syria can become a bulwark against Iranian hegemony. Regional peace with the Sunni Arabs, including potential governments in Lebanon and Syria, would only work to expand and deepen Israel’s now fragile and shallow peace with Egypt and Jordan. Only by placing a non-hegemonic Zone of Peace together with a nuclear-weapons-free zone, can both the balance of power and the Middle East nuclear question be solved peacefully. All other roads lead to chaos, including the ill-conceived American one. Nuclear proliferation in an unbalanced region would be a nightmare. Whining and complaining are not strategies. Israel and the Sunni Arabs need a real strategy. We have finally arrived at history’s fork in the road. G-d willing, we will take the right one.