President Obama’s Middle East foreign policy relies on “might”. If he makes enough concessions to Iran, then they “might” change their regional behavior. But don’t count on it. The Islamic revolution in Iran was, first and foremost, a serious remaking of the Shiite theological understanding. It had little or nothing to do with economics. And how it will be rolled back probably will have little or nothing to do with economics as well. Religious fervor can’t be bought off by mere dollars, yet Iran has played Washington like Heifetz played a Stradivarius. Obama has given away not only the store, but the warehouse, the trucks, and even the front office, in a very desperate hope. And for what? The premise that the Shiite Caliphate in Tehran will alter its regional design and conduct its foreign policy in accordance with Washington’s liberal capitalist values. This is a long shot at best.
The Islamic Republic of Iran has placed the pillar of Shiite theology within the state apparatus of the Tehran theocracy itself. This puts the activists of Qom (Iran) in direct opposition to the quietists of Najaf (Iraq). But the Shiites of Iraq have more to worry about than complex theological philosophy, as do the Sunnis. Since the American invasion overturned the power dynamic between the Sunni and Shiite communities of Iraq, the country has gone through three distinct phases. First, with the disenfranchisement of the Baath Party in total, the country went into a three-way civil war — Sunni vs. Shiite vs. American. Second, there was the US surge and the Sunni awakening, where US military power induced both sects into a promising political phase. But then came Obama, and the disastrous third phase — a complete American withdrawal accompanied by a strong tilt toward Tehran in hopes of a successful nuclear agreement.
But as any Arab Shiite knows, the Sunni Arab world is the majority population of the Levant and Arabia. Regardless of Iranian Shiite theological posturing, the modern equilibrium between Persia and that Sunni world has yet to be decided. Since one hundred years after the fall of the Ottomans, no regional balance of power has emerged. So with rise of the Shiite Caliphate in Tehran (and the retreat of the Americans) came an immediate Sunni geopolitical response, the 1980s Iran-Iraq war. This of course had the blessing of the US, who wanted to roll back its prodigious losses in both Iran (to the mullahs) and Afghanistan (to the Soviets). At the time, Iran got no help from the Soviets or anyone else. They were isolated and on their own. But the long war settled nothing, neither a permanent balance of power nor the feeling in Tehran that Iran was surrounded by nuclear and potential nuclear powers (Russia, Pakistan, Israel, and US forces in the Gulf).
Meanwhile the Shiites of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq suffered egregiously in the “false dawn” aftermath of the UN Security Council’s US-led retaking of Kuwait (1991). This action, sponsored by George H.W. Bush, was limited solely to Kuwait. Bush 41 wisely refused (for geopolitical reasons) to topple Saddam for fear that the Shiite takeover of Iraq would throw the Middle East into a balance-of-power chaos. But just a decade later, Bush Jr. (George W. Bush, the son) did just that with his non-UN-sponsored invasion and toppling of Saddam and the complete dismemberment of the Baath Party of Iraq. It didn’t take Iran long to realize its great opportunity. If they could create enough chaos they could eventually drive the Americans out of Iraq, thereby opening a gateway to the Mediterranean from Shiite Iraq, through to Alawi Syria, and on to Lebanon.
This possibility was a tremendous boon for a regime with revolutionary theological pretensions. But how could a Shiite Caliphate be accepted by the majority Sunni Arab population of the Levant? This was a far-fetched premise, given that Mecca and Medina were firmly in the hands of the Saudis, and the US still patrolled the Gulf. But the American invasion of Iraq offered the isolated Iranians a unique opportunity to use their state power to arm Shiite Arab militias, whose leadership and protection were outside the scope and direction of the Grand Ayatollah Sistani in Najaf. Iran even helped the Sunni jihadists who were anti-American and ready to fight US forces. Even so, the surge and the Sunni tribal awakening worked toward a truer conception of Iraqi democracy, but at a very high price. The American people tired of Iraq before the job of democracy could be completed, and in 2008 they elected Barack Obama.
With Obama, there came Iraqi political negligence and the inability to act with any kind of coherent strategy. This was also true in Syria, where a secular non-violent revolution for democracy was crushed by a ruthless dictator. Obama stood by and, to his great shame, did nothing about it. Obama had been elected to get the US out of the entanglements of the Middle East. He was true not only to his base but also to many Republicans who were increasingly tired of war. The Americans had spent far too much money and couldn’t understand the potential democratic success that they had created. In a region that they had little understanding of or sympathy for, the American people had lost patience with overseas nation-building. So as Syria drifted into civil war, and Iraqi democratic potential vanished with increasing Iranian involvement, the US withdrew further into a kind of isolationism, as Obama seemed paralyzed with inaction in the face of his campaign for reelection.
Slowly but surely, the American withdrawal had severe consequences. And to everyone’s astonishment, a second Caliphate arose to champion the Sunni Arab world against the machinations of the Shiite Caliphate. This challenge occurred because Tehran had expanded its control across a crescent spreading from an axis in Baghdad, Damascus and Beirut. As the Sunni Arabs saw the situation, the national boundaries of the post-WWI Near East had become usurped by Shiite Iranian proxies and non-Sunni authoritarians. The old cohesion of Arab nationalism, anti-Zionism and the rejectionist front had lost its allure due to Iranian advancement. Only the Palestinians seemed bent on following the extreme anti-Israel and anti-Semitic rhetoric of the Tehran-based Islamic Republic. For most Sunni Arabs the Palestinian cause was shifted to the back burner, as Iran was now perceived as the real threat to the region. But Sunni Gulf money would only back proxies without democratic aspirations. This meant every possible variant of Sunni radical jihad was conscripted into service against the Shiite forces across the Levant. By the summer of 2014, ISIS (the Islamic State) arose and conquered over a third of Iraq from its base in eastern Syria. Once again, the US found itself scrambling for a strategy and a policy. Obama was caught between a Caliphate and a Caliphate.
This is precisely where we stand today. Obama operates within a paradigm of economic progress and sees Iran as the best Middle East hope to fulfill that paradigm. But will the Supreme Leader of Iran cooperate? For Obama, everything rides on a nuclear deal. But for the Sunni Arabs, everything rides on rolling the Iranians back from both Syria and Iraq. Obama hopes that his nuclear deal will usher in an era of liberal capitalism, and that Tehran will become a normal, non-revolutionary state. The Sunnis Arabs believe Obama to be naïve, at best. They will use any means necessary to stop their perception of Iranian hegemony. This includes ISIS and the Nusra Front (al Qaeda). In this context of Caliphate vs. Caliphate, the chances of any one side backing down appears remote. It seems like the second leg of the 1980s Iran-Iraq war. However, this time it involves the entire northern Levant and Yemen. And it could very easily spread to include Jordan, the East Bank Palestinians, and therefore Israel. Between Caliphate and Caliphate, there is no compromise. So where is American policy?
It’s either with Iran, as emphasized through the administration’s nuclear concessions, or there is no discernible policy. Obama is gambling wildly on economics (lifting the sanctions) or he is plain hamstrung without the slightest idea of how to proceed. Either way, for Israel and the Sunni Arab states, this is not a policy they can accept. Luckily, in Syria the tide appears to be turning, but what of the future? Both Syria and Iraq need a political solution, and that will require outside military power to usher in a pluralistic democratic constitution. ISIS must be defeated across the entire Levant. But Iranian proxies can’t do the job. The Sunni Arabs and Israel will never allow Iran to dominate the Middle East. Plus, there is always the wild card of the Grand Ayatollah Sistani in Najaf. Who really controls the Iraqi Shiite militias? And how much Iranian influence the Grand Ayatollah Sistani will withstand depends on how long ISIS can remain viable and growing. But the longer ISIS stays viable, the less strength Najaf will have with respect to Qom. And a political solution for Iraq depends on the Grand Ayatollah, not the Supreme Leader. Any political solution for Syria will depend on strong US leadership and the rest of the UN Security Council’s agreement.
Is the president up to the job? So far the answer is an emphatic — NO! But his term is not over, and his job in the Middle East will not be complete just because he “might” sign a nuclear deal with Iran. On the contrary, such a nuclear agreement will almost certainly complicate the prospect that any political solutions could emerge. A nuclear threshold state with clandestine military sites (off-limits to UN inspectors) is certainly not conducive to a regional political solution. Only democracy and non-aggression can save the Levant. Non-action will only make matters worse, especially if the Iranian nuclear file is allowed to proceed without a strong regional component. The Middle East remains caught between a Caliphate and a Caliphate. It has become like a sinkhole that continues to spread. And the next two locations in its direction are Jordan and Lebanon.