The new US policy in the Middle East is the pivot to China. For the first time in over a half-century, the Iranian-Arab balance of power has been broken and the US doesn’t seem to care. Apparently East Asian security concerns now dramatically trump West Asian imbalances. The new “post-American Middle East” has left open the question of regional hegemony. Discussions on a comprehensive nuclear deal with Iran don’t even address the future of Syria, Iraq, Lebanon or Jordan. So-called Iranian policy experts in the US claim the entire issue of Iranian hegemony is overblown. At any number of policy briefings, US think-tank analysts give short shrift to nearly all the Arab journalists who deign to challenge them on Iranian regional intentions. The China pivot has become the hidden dimension to explain the unprecedented shift in US Middle East perceptions.
The Israelis also appear hesitant on the consequences of Iranian hegemony. Perhaps the radical Islamic nature of the opposition in Syria has spooked Israel into indecision. Yet regional uncertainty and hesitation can only exacerbate the problem. The closer the US and Iran get to a comprehensive deal on nuclear capability, the greater the risks for both Arabs and Israelis. The bottom line is that the Obama administration will allow Iran enrichment capacity and therefore some measure of capability. The question then becomes: How much time will be on the Iranian atomic clock (breakout speed), and what happens to the region once the deal is done and the sanctions are lifted?
Nuclear proliferation is certainly a possibility. Depending on Saudi, Turkish and Egyptian perceptions of the deal, the desire for these states to buy or develop their own independent nuclear programs will be strong. But there will be another key factor to drive motivations. The sectarian divide across the Levant and the greater Middle East is not being addressed by the P5+1. On the contrary, once a comprehensive deal is signed, this divide can only intensify as the Iranian economy heals. With more resources available for Iran’s regional allies, the added pressure will become extremely dangerous. If the nuclear deal is perceived as bad but is called “good” by the P5+1, proliferation becomes a certainty. If the deal itself is uncertain (the time on the atomic clock becomes unknowable), proliferation will become a high probability. If the deal is really good (the atomic clock has over a year on its dial), the danger of proliferation might recede, but the region will still be left to its own devices. Even with a good deal, the balance-of-power tilt could cause the Arab Gulf states to seek nuclear help.
Another serious matter that also gets short shrift in the administration is the Iranian government’s attitude toward Israel and its future. The Iranian Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, recently called Israel an “illegitimate and bastard regime”. He wasn’t just joking around. Yet the president of the United States said and did nothing. For a leader who claims that Israel is not only a close ally but a friend, Obama’s silence speaks volumes. There was no protest or postponement of the nuclear negotiations. Mum was the word. Israelis, like Arabs, can feel the abandonment. It is palpable. How is it that the US can feel so sanguine about the thawing of relations with such an anti-Israel ideological regime as Iran? Have the last thirty years of history meant nothing? And what makes the administration think that the Iranian leopard has changed its spots? There can be but one explanation: The pivot to China is so important to this administration that the regional consequences of its Iranian detente have become negligible. Yet Israel and the Arabs will be left to deal with the leopard, alone.
A war is raging in the Middle East, and the US appears either unable or unwilling to alter the course of events. The pivot to China will only make the war worse. Not only is the future of the NPT (Non-Proliferation Treaty) on the line, so too is the future of the Security Council. Cooperation among the P5 can be the only answer to the regional war in the Middle East. But cooperation is in short supply. Only a long overdue regional solution sponsored by the US, France, Russia, England and China can save the Levant from even more destruction. Instead, a kind of Cold War mentality persists within the respective establishments of the great powers. The European continent remains divided. Asian peace balances precariously at its Eastern Pacific vortex. Nationalism has once again become jingoistic. The world economy is mired in confusion as Keynesians and Austrians blame each other for the stagnation. Beggar-thy-neighbor trade policies and far-right racism and anti-Semitism are on the ascendancy. All the while, futuristic environmental catastrophes loom. Global warming and the future of energy both need solutions that only an international context can provide. However, the 21st century has the appearance of the 20th but condensed into a shrunken time frame with an environmental science-fiction veneer. Has China become such a threat to US security interests that all other issues pale by comparison?
A comprehensive solution to the Iranian nuclear file will require a comprehensive solution to the Middle East. Sooner or later, without a peaceful non-hegemonic conventional structure in place, the shifting balance of power will cause the non-proliferation regime to snap. Once that happens, the global security environment will also deteriorate. The idea that the NPT gives all signatories an “inherent right to enrichment” is misguided. Enrichment capacity leads to nuclear weapons capability. Nuclear weapons capability then becomes a magnet for more and more countries to enrich. A vicious circle is created. The future of the NPT must be directed in the opposite direction. It is paramount that the permanent members of the UN Security Council show leadership on this issue. Not only must they lead by the example of their own nuclear arsenal reductions, but regional conventional divisions must also be negotiated. First and foremost, they must provide a plan for the Middle East which can bring peace to Syria, security for the region, and an end to the nuclear issue in its entirety. All countries of the Middle East must become signatories to the NPT if the plan is to work. A nuclear-weapons free zone is everyone’s ticket forward.
President Obama was a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. He has done nothing that I can see to earn that accolade. He certainly didn’t win the award in order to establish a strategic understanding with Iran. Such an understanding could leave the Middle East in chaos as the US turns toward East Asian brinkmanship. The pivot to China will only work to set the world peace agenda backward. The pivot is a concept from a bygone age. The 21st century must become the century of non-hegemony. Human civilization is at a crossroads. As the world begins the centennial year of the Great War (WWI), a new spirit of goodwill must be created. It is in this spirit that the US must help to structure a peaceful Middle East. This peace will not work by implementation of 20th century power politics. Power politics have been dominant throughout history. But the future holds promise through the cooperation of all nations, including the most powerful of potential partners — France, Russia, England, the US and of course, China.