I have accepted the Saudi analysis. The US under the Democratic administration of President Barack Obama is incapable of exercising power. Nothing could be more clear after this weekend’s debacle in Geneva. In the aftermath of the so-called “sucker’s deal”, as described by French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, there can be no other conclusion. The US was ready and willing to sign onto an interim agreement which would have allowed the Iranians the opening to activate the Arak heavy-water facility. Once this reactor becomes operational, it would be next to impossible to stop Iran from becoming a threshold nuclear power.
How could Washington have been so cavalier in its approach? The answer lies with President Obama himself. Like all US presidents, the buck stops with him. Obama is the Neville Chamberlain of our time. He is so willing to cut a deal for “peace” that he would risk the entire non-proliferation regime in order to bring back a worthless piece of paper. The great irony is that Obama once prided himself on being the leader who would energize the nuclear non-proliferation global project. Yet now a Middle East with many nuclear weapon states has become a distinct possibility. If on November 20th, when negotiations between Iran and P5+1 are scheduled to continue, France can’t convince others to rethink the entire process, a very dangerous deal might still be signed.
I have never trusted the US administration’s tilt toward Iran. Obama has accepted Iran, under Rouhani, as a legitimate actor within the region. But Iran isn’t under Rouhani. Iran is led by its Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei. Khamenei’s reaction to the French objection to Obama’s interim deal was vehement and ugly. If ever there was a barometer of Iran’s intentions, it would be Ali Khamenei’s reactions. For Khamenei, the bottom line is for Iran to become a nuclear weapons capable state and get the sanctions lifted. The Obama administration has bought into this concept, lock, stock and barrel. The world bore witness to the “daylight” between Washington’s acceptance of nuclear capability versus Israel’s objections in 2012. Nothing has changed, except that now the endgame is upon us all. Time is running short, and interim deals are more likely to run out the clock than produce a breakthrough. Iran wants an interim deal with sanctions relief as it moves forward with the plutonium reactor and keeps its entire stockpile of enriched fuel. As Forest Gump said: “Stupid is as stupid does”. Any country who could sign on to this deal must answer to Forest Gump.
Once the sanction regime is even partially lifted, it risks unraveling completely. Without sanctions and the threat of US military force, the lever will slip its fulcrum. Without leverage there is absolutely no chance of a decent nuclear deal with Iran. Yet the Obama administration claims that all options are still on the table. After this weekend in Geneva, does anyone really believe that? If all options were truly on the table, the chance that the Arak nuclear reactor could have fallen through the cracks of the US-led interim deal would have been nil. Instead the US would have insisted that all work on the plutonium reactor must be stopped. Because if the US had seriously been planning for a possible armed attack, it would not want to bomb a potentially active nuclear reactor. This is precisely the reason that PM Netanyahu stated unequivocally that Israel would not be constrained by such a “bad, bad deal”. Netanyahu’s appropriate reaction must have seriously impelled the French to action. The two key questions for the next round of negotiations are: Will the French be able to hold off the American tilt toward Iran, and will they be able to craft a policy that can appeal to the other European continental powers?
France appears to view the Iranian nuclear file in its regional entirety. What’s the point of a nuclear deal (even a good nuclear deal) while the entire region of the Levant is imploding? The same argument was used for the Syrian chemical weapons. What’s the point of engaging with Assad on chemicals, assuring the survival of his regime for a good long time, while all along he kills tens of thousands of his own countrymen with conventional explosives? Only a dramatic tilt toward the Islamic Republic, Assad and Hezbollah could possibly explain a nuclear deal without a long enduring regional structure. The balance-of-power consequences of such a deal would implant Iran into the Arab Middle East for generations to come. Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have all repeatedly warned the US of just such an imbalance. These countries continue to move closer together conventionally, while rumors have it that Saudi Arabia and Pakistan could be considering a transfer of nuclear weapons. In other words, a nuclear deal which leaves Iran with capability, or a deal without addressing regional issues, will certainly backfire. Either Israel or the Sunni Arab states (or both) will utilize military force. The US appears to have two feet and a hand in all three camps (Israel, the Arabs and Iran) at the same time. Is it any wonder the French have jumped into the spoiler role of the P5+1?
But France can’t go it alone. It is one thing to blow the whistle on a bad interim deal. It is quite another to come up with a workable strategy for the entire region without serious diplomatic help. Eventually France will become isolated and unable to shepherd a permanent regional balance in a nuclear-weapons-free zone. And a nuclear-weapons-free zone within a non-hegemonic regional structure is precisely the only outcome which would avoid war or nuclear proliferation. Because without addressing nuclear capability and regional balance, all other deals are partial deals by nature. France needs help. France needs partners. France needs Germany and Russia.
The Arab states, especially Egypt and Saudi Arabia, have long called for a nuclear-weapons-free zone in the Middle East. Recently Israel attended a meeting in Switzerland to bring forth an agenda for just such a zone. If Israel is to join such a convention, its strategic depth must be a central part of any security package. Similarly, the completion of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations must be independent of the regional nuclear and balance of power format. For the immediate future the structure of the region must come first. In order for this to happen, at least three members of the P5+1 must begin to advocate for a comprehensive alternative to the unworkable American design. With the Sunni Arab states, France, Germany, Russia, maybe China and potentially Israel behind the initiative, an enrichment-free and plutonium-free Middle East can become a possibility. In this scenario, if Iran refused to oblige the regional and international community, it would become totally isolated. There can be no such thing as a “right to enrichment” or plutonium reactors in the Middle East.
As the situation stands, the Obama administration doesn’t believe a super initiative is possible. Meanwhile, its definition of a “good deal” is not the same as its allies in the region. Something has to give. Make no mistake, the region of the Middle East is on a path to a wider war, with or without a US-led nuclear deal. The only way to prevent such a disaster is through a far-reaching “Grand Bargain”. As US leadership appears befuddled, it is time for Paris, Berlin and Moscow to step forward. In the final analysis, Europe is much closer to the Middle East than America is. Also, the US is about to achieve a level of energy independence that it has not seen since 1945. Finally, WWII ended nearly seventy years ago. It is time for the European powers to envision a continent at peace from the Urals to the Atlantic. The same is true for the Middle East. A new dramatic structure is in order. If not now, when?