When President Obama met with the GCC representatives at Camp David last week, he must surely have told them that he has gambled everything on the premise that the revolutionary nature of the Iranian regime would be altered by allowing them unlimited nuclear capacity. Obama appears certain that this transformation would happen within the timeframe of a short decade. Why else would the president have agreed to a sunset clause within a nuclear framework as flimsy as the one he now claims to be “historic”? But like Israel, the Gulf Arab states consider the president’s gamble both naïve and reckless.
Unlike Obama, Israel and the Sunnis believe that Iran’s revolutionary nature is deeply Islamic. They believe that the Islamic Republic is an attempt to recreate the Shiite Persian empire of old, but with a new twist — the absence of an Ottoman Empire to inhibit its reach. In other words, the rest of the Middle East believes that the Islamic Republic of Iran has the mega-historical desire for a Shiite Caliphate and all the messianic pretension that accompanies such an enterprise. This might even include an apocalyptic element, in an attempt to mimic theology using the nuclear tools of the 21st century. Why else would such a regime consistently decree that it stood for the destruction of the Jewish state, knowing full well that Israel had in its possession hundreds of nuclear weapons?
Once the realization becomes apparent that the defeat of a state in possession of nuclear weapons is a form of suicide, accommodations are instituted and peace treaties usually signed. This the rational scenario which developed at Camp David in the late 1970s when Egypt and Israel met in the aftermath of four wars. After all, the last war (1973) initiated the potential for an Israeli nuclear response. But when it comes to Israel, is Iran all that rational? As a distinct minority within the Islamic world, and with a history of being invaded in the modern era (England, Russia and Sunni Iraq), Iran has a geopolitical interest in expanding its strategic depth and achieving nuclear weapons status. Is it any wonder that, given the chance (by the total withdrawal of all US troops from Iraq), Tehran has expanded westward into the Arab heartland?
Historically, the Gulf Arab states have relied on Washington in order to deter both Iran and Iraq. This has placed the Americans as the hegemonic power within the region. But since the second Iraq war, Iran has pushed back against US influence. And through a series of proxy wars, Tehran has achieved a great deal of success in eroding American resolve to deter Shiite advances — via the Sunni populations of the Levant. And with a weakening American resolve, there has developed the advent of the new American isolationism (Obama’s Democratic Party and Paul’s Republican wing). Now the members of the GCC, Jordan, and Israel have begun to seriously doubt US perseverance in the face of Iranian expansionism. But whether the issue is Iranian political theology, US regional hegemony, or a combination within a region searching for a stable balance of power, the breakdown of Arab-state legitimacy and the vacuum created by the new American hesitancy are harbingers of more chaos, not good neighborliness. The Obama administration is simply malfeasant in the practice of foreign policy by believing that the Iran nuclear file and its regional consequences will simply work themselves out in terms of a stable Middle East balance of power.
The Middle East requires an outside force to establish some semblance of coherence, or it risks becoming a failed region. In other words, the search for an internal balance of power could easily fail as the regional war tilts in one direction or another. The idea of a thirty years war in order to sort out winners and losers will leave everyone as losers. This includes both the US and Israel, because with all dramatic tilts (in one direction or another) further interventionism eventually becomes a certainty. Obama said exactly this at Camp David. If his nuclear gamble fails to halt Iranian intervention within Arab capitals, Obama promised the Sunni Arab states protection from direct invasion. But what if the Iranian intervention comes as an increased proxy response to Sunni victories in Syria, Lebanon or Iraq? Certainly Iran would not sit idly by, if Shiite holy places came under Sunni fire. The same is true for the oil fields in southern Iraq or Baghdad itself. And what about Hezbollah, aren’t they in increasing danger from both Sunni extremists and the potential intervention of the IDF into both Syria and Lebanon?
Iranian hegemony, while spurred by the lifting of sanctions with a nuclear deal, is by no means the only outcome of the current regional hostilities. Tehran could once again find itself backed into a corner similar to 1980. This could only broaden the regional war, leading to an Iranian reaction that could surprise everyone with the severity of its consequences. An uprising by Shiites in the eastern provinces of Saudi Arabia could damage the oil fields, leading to a massive international economic crisis and leaving the whole world at the mercy of a financial meltdown without precedent. The global economic system is in an extremely fragile condition, with interest rates at zero while growth remains anemic. A dramatic spike in oil prices would devastate the global stock markets and cause bond prices to collapse. This would cause chaos within the unregulated abyss of trillions upon trillions of dollars in derivatives. Simply put, the idea that a nuclear agreement with Iran is the antidote to all these potential happenings only shows how out of touch Washington, London, Paris, Moscow, Delhi and Beijing are in relation to their own national economic interests. The Middle East as a failed region could easily lead to planetary economic chaos.
The Camp David summit showed that US hegemony in the Middle East is a concept not grounded in reality. The US seeks to pacify both camps (Iran and the Arabs) at the same time by advancing a nuclear deal without understanding its consequences. Yet the region needs some kind of international support in order to find balance and stability. The addition of a nuclear sunset deal with Iran can only make matters a thousand times worse. I predict that it would lead to a horrifying arms race. But its only alternative is not war, as Obama claims. It is a much broader peace. Israel and its nuclear arsenal need to be addressed in conjunction with Iranian nuclear capacity. This cannot happen without a plan for regional security and a framework to establish a Palestinian state through direct negotiations between the two parties themselves. The conundrum at Camp David was the lack of a regional dynamic for peace, other than the Obama administration’s wild gamble that the region will somehow (magically) right itself. This is an example of farfetched and optimistic Western thinking, and it totally misreads the nature of the Middle East.
The Middle East cannot right itself. The current regional proxy war has been fluid, and it can shift any number of times before an outcome might be decided. Perhaps after many years a permanent stalemate might ensue, but perhaps not. However, the introduction of nuclear weapons potential (a mere decade out) into what could be a thirty-year war is a prime example of Obama’s magical thinking. A nuclear-weapons-free zone as the peace alternative to Obama’s flawed framework deal is impossible without a regional dynamic, including a Palestinian dimension. The conundrum is how to link nuclear weapons with an internationally-sponsored regional peace initiative, and at the same time unfreeze the Palestinian state concept from its present moribund paradigm (the so-called two-state solution).
The two-state solution failed at Camp David in July of 2000 under the auspices of the Clinton administration. At the time, it was clear that Palestinian rejection was the cause of the failure. After two more attempts at a negotiated settlement, Palestinian rejection has now been met with Israeli right-wing rejection — as the Left in Israel has failed to win an election since the events at Camp David fifteen years ago. The Israeli-Palestinian peace process is in desperate need of an entire new concept in order to achieve reinvigoration. And without a new concept, there can be no hope for a region-wide peace alternative to Obama’s nuclear framework with Iran.
The status quo is not working on any Middle East front. Even the Israeli-Egyptian peace, first established at Camp David, cannot be relied upon in a failed region. The Egyptian government is especially vulnerable, as oil money transfers from Gulf nations cannot be assured in perpetuity. Meanwhile, regional trade and tourism among Arab states have broken down. This continues a trend of regional poverty, leading to the prospect of even more social unrest. Now, everything in the Middle East appears to be linked. Where will the new thinking come from? Not the Obama administration; it has invested too much of its time compartmentalizing the nuclear problem from the other problems of the region. The new thinking will not come from the war hawks in the Republican Party; they are far too invested in a unipolar American military response to the Middle East which is out-of-touch with the American electorate. And neither US political party (nor anyone in the Washington think-tank community) has even the remotest idea as to how to turn around the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Stayed tuned.