The Sunni Arab world led by Saudi Arabia has been the primary victim of an ad hoc US Middle East policy without clarity or vision. In attempting to solve the Iran nuclear file without the advice and consent of the Saudi leadership, the Obama administration raises the risks of both the escalation of the Levant civil war and/or a regional nuclear arms race.
Obama’s linear approach resembles a game of checkers. The problem is that the region as a whole is involved in a complex game of three-dimensional chess with at least four players.
The Sunni Arabs are a little less concerned about the Iran nuclear file than they are about the effect of the negotiations on the future of the Levant. It is the ad hoc nature of the nuclear negotiations which most concern the Sunnis. A successful endgame negotiation will work to enhance the Iranian regional position as all sanctions will eventually be lifted. However, the balance of power within the region is currently under severe test. From a Sunni perspective, the US-Iran negotiations without a concomitant regional understanding is correctly understood as the beginning of a dramatic tilt. This scenario is also perceived as only the latest in a series of American Middle East mistakes. For the Sunnis, the Obama approach toward Syria has been a failure of the highest order of magnitude. The combination of the political stalemate in Lebanon, the empowerment of the Shia in Iraq, and the lack of any coherent policy to remove Assad from Syria (the stated goal of the Obama team) has completely alienated the Saudis and their allies from US leadership.
Alongside the diplomatic angle lies another grave concern for the Sunni Arabs. It is the fear that the seventy-year military understanding between the Gulf states and the US has eroded. The American role of the superpower is in crisis. It’s not that the US lacks power projection capability. It is the political psychology of debt with economic stagnation that drives an American public away from foreign entanglements. As the global economy weakens, wars become even greater financial burdens.
In the US the level of inequality has ballooned the fiscal crisis of the federal government. As the Liberal agenda of the welfare state becomes far too expensive, the degree of political paralysis intensifies. In the 1930’s and 1940’s military Keynesianism was the solution to the Great Depression. Today, however, the opposite perception holds true: Further wars (most likely in the Middle East) will bankrupt the government, leading to another financial meltdown.
The Obama political base constrains any American military option. Recent polls have revealed the depth of the public’s superpower rejection. Under no circumstances will the center-left in the US allow for a military action. Meanwhile, on the right, the split between the neo-cons and the isolationists have divided the Republican Party. The US interest now lies in East Asia. It is this theater of operations that most affects US security. China, Japan and the future of the Pacific have returned to dominate American geopolitical thinking. The Obama administration has far too much on its plate to craft a comprehensive Middle East policy that can address all the varied issues of the region. With a domestic agenda in shambles and a watchful eye on China, it has become extremely difficult for the administration to do much creative thinking and paradigm adjustment. The fiasco in Geneva (where the French put an abrupt halt to Kerry’s failure to address the Arak plutonium reactor) is a prime example.
As the concerns of the Sunni Arabs mount, so too does Israel worry. However, there is a qualitative difference. For Israel, the future direction of the region is more ambiguous than the zero-sum game being fought over on the Sunni-Shia divide. While the Iranian nuclear program is most certainly Israel’s first priority, the region as a whole still rejects the Jewish state. Saudi Arabia remains committed to the PLO agenda of the 1980’s (the Fahd plan, now being packaged by the Arab League). Meanwhile, the Saudi answer to the totality of the Middle East’s nuclear dilemma is a region free of all nuclear weapons. Israel might be able to live with a zero enrichment/zero plutonium nuclear weapons free zone, but not without strategic depth. Similarly, like the vital Sunni Arab concern over Iran’s hegemonic designs, a nuclear weapons free zone must have a permanent solution to the region’s balance of power. For Israel to be interested, the essential nature of the Oslo Accords must metamorphose.
The Arab Peace Initiative (a West Bank Palestinian state) has become an outdated concept within a strategic environment that demands Israel give up both nuclear and strategic depth advantage. Those two concessions, together, will never be made.
Another major problem for Israel is the extreme nature of Islam’s sectarian civil war. Both Saudi Wahhabism and Iranian statist Islam reject the linkage between modern Zionism and the Koranic injunction of Sura V, 4:22-23. “Remember Moses said To his people: `O my People! Call in remembrance the favor of God unto you, when He Produced prophets among you, Made you kings, and gave You what He had not given To any other among the Peoples.` `O my people! enter The holy land which God hath assigned unto you, And turn not back Ignominiously, for then Will ye be overthrown, To your own ruin.`” In other words, the Republic of Iran’s and Sunni Islam’s rejection of modern Israel as the culmination of the direct word of God, as understood in the Koran, is either a test by Muslims as to Jewish commitment to a land divinely assigned or it is a political rejection of God’s word. For Zionism is the vehicle by which the Jewish People have brought themselves back into history. Judaism, like Islam, believes in a G-d of history. Until now, Islam’s rejection of Zionism has lead to stalemate and permanent war. Nuclear proliferation is the natural progression of permanent war to its logical conclusion. One leads directly to the other.
The only answer to this nuclear enigma is disarmament. On this score, the Saudis and the other Sunni Arabs are correct. But the continued Islamic theological rejection of a Koran-approved Israel and Palestinian phased struggle theory prevent the timely advocacy of a Saudi initiative to address the nuclear issue in its full regional complexity. The safety, security and prosperity of all Arabs, Iranians and Jews in the Middle East can only be achieved through peace. But the Islamic Republic rejects peace. The rhetoric of the Iranian supreme leader is an abomination to both Torah and Koran. It is genocidal in nature. Yet Sunni Arab religious leaders say nothing in response. Is it any wonder that Israel’s reaction should border on the hyperbolic? Is it any wonder that President Obama has squandered the goodwill that his trip to Israel might have created? The correct manner by which the president should have proceeded (when Iran’s leader called Israel a rabid dog and Jews less than human) would have been to call off the talks until such time as true moderation had prevailed.
Israel, like Saudi Arabia and the other Sunni states, has serious doubts about the direction of US foreign policy in the Middle East. But without a plan to come together themselves, little can be achieved. The uni-polar era of US power is over. As yet nothing has replaced it. Until the UN Security Council can become the guarantor for a Middle East without hegemony (either nuclear or conventional), the prospects for Syria and its continued spillover look bleak. In the context of Syria and the region, the P5+1 comprehensive negotiations with Iran have become too narrow, and therefore anachronistic. The world awaits an Arab-Israeli alliance for peace. The world awaits a zero-enrichment, zero-plutonium, nuclear free zone in the Middle East.