The US interest in the Middle East is for a sustainable balance of power. It seeks a peaceful region without a supreme hegemonic power. During the 1970’s a tentative balance was achieved through the pro-US Saudi-Iranian detente and the ongoing friction between the two Soviet client states, Iraq and Syria. With the overthrow of the Shah in 1979, Iranian policy turned hostile toward the US. However, Iran did not shift toward the Soviet Union. Throughout the decade that followed, a war between Sunni-dominated Iraq and Shia Iran severely tested the regional balance of power and which way it would tilt.
For Iran, the war with Iraq was a geopolitical revelation. Without a buffer to its west and/or superpower protection, Iran became victim to a seriously unbalanced coalition arrayed against it. During most of the Cold War, this was not a problem. The US and the Soviet Union underwrote the balance within the region because both superpowers feared that client-state confrontation could lead to a major power nuclear standoff. But with the rise of the ayatollahs, the two superpower underwriting of the Middle East balance disappeared. Iran was isolated and on its own against Iraq. In the end, Iran basically lost the war and was forced to sue for peace.
With the demise of the Soviet Union, the 1990’s brought a whole new challenge to the Middle East balance of power. Fresh from its war against Iran, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq attacked and occupied the little country of Kuwait. At that moment in history, there was absolutely no power in the Middle East that had the military capacity to roll back the Iraqi advance. The long-time US understanding with Saudi Arabia and all the Gulf states had come under a severe test. President George H.W. Bush met the challenge by organizing an international coalition. Through the efforts and direction of the US armed forces, the Iraqis were defeated and the Middle East balance reestablished. Throughout the 1990’s the sole underwriter of the balance shifted onto the shoulders of the world’s only superpower, the US.
From the Iran-Iraq War to the American-led victory in the first Gulf War, the fault lines of the Middle East balance of power came sharply into focus. For the Gulf states, a hostile power to its east (Iran) or north (Iraq) must be balanced by some other coalition of regional states or an outside power. For most of their history, the Gulf states relied on the power of either the US or Great Britain. For Iran, the presence of outside powers along its territorial waters and the prospect that a Sunni-dominated Iraq could at any time achieve a rapprochement with those same Gulf states was the nightmare scenario. Thus, the regional balance of power into the next century rested on the glaring contradiction that an outside power protected the Gulf states at the expense of both Iranian and Iraqi security.
With the US invasion of Saddam’s Sunni authoritarian state, Iran saw a path forward to overturn its isolation. Through the gift of American military power, the reversal of government in Iraq had for the first time in centuries empowered the Shia Arabs. This historic event shocked the Gulf states and the entire Sunni Arab world. If and when the US was to withdraw from Iraq, an entire new balance of power within the region could be created.
On the margins of the Middle East balance-of-power fault lines (Iran, Iraq and the Gulf states) lay the western Levant. Jordan has always been a Sunni buffer state for Saudi Arabia and the Gulf. Syria, while not controlled by its Sunni majority, had cordial relations with the Gulf states and had a somewhat loose alliance with Iran. Lebanon was nearly half Shia but very divided politically. However, if any one power could control the Tigris and Euphrates Valley (both Iraq and Syria), they could control a vast part of the Levant. Since Syria and Saddam’s Iraq balanced each other, the western Levant had been in a relative equilibrium. But with the Sunnis out of power in Iraq, the balance of power fault line shifted dramatically eastward and expanded. The US had let Iran out of its geopolitical box and then, to the astonishment of its regional Sunni allies, removed its ground troops from the region. Like jumbo jets on the tarmac, Iranian influence now spread from the Gulf to the Mediterranean, while confidence in the US began to be questioned. It was the outside regional power who blinked, not the Iranians.
Enter the Arab Spring. Again the US severely disappointed its Sunni Arab allies. First in Egypt but most importantly in Syria, US leadership has come under blistering criticism. Syria and Iraq are where the Middle East balance-of-power fault line lies. If Iraq was to be a Shia majority state, Syria would have to become a Sunni majority state. Without at least this shift, not even a tentative balance of power could be achieved. The Sunni Arab states expected the US administration under President Obama to concur and take action to overthrow Assad, like they had done to Saddam. With the Sunni-led demonstrations against the Assad regime and the Arab cry for democracy, early 2012 was ripe for American leadership. But 2012 was an election year and the American public was in no mood for further foreign entanglements. Obama the politician came before Obama the international strategist.
By 2013, Syria had drifted into a far more complex and deeply stalemated civil war. The moderate democratic opposition represented only half the fighters on the ground. US support has been limited because of the presence of many AQ elements and other jihadists. But Saudi Arabia and the other Sunni Arab states needed for Iranian encroachment in the Levant to be rolled back. The balance-of-power problem still remained. Recently, the entire issue has been compounded by the US nuclear negotiation with a so-called “moderate” new leadership in Tehran. Israel and the Sunni Arab states simply do not understand the direction of US foreign policy in the Middle East. What will be the future structure of the Iranian nuclear program, and how will a regional balance of power be achieved? And most importantly, if the US cannot remain the guarantor of the Middle East security structure, who or what will take its place?
Iran, on the other hand, has legitimate balance-of-power questions of its own. No country likes an out-of-region superpower situated on its borders. Furthermore, a non-hostile Iraqi buffer state is as important to Iran as it is to Saudi Arabia. Iran fears the reverse domino effect. Syria cannot be allowed to become a radical Sunni AQ base from which the Shia in Iraq could become overthrown. Iran clearly remembers its long isolation and the dire nature of its long, eight-year war of the 1980’s.
But the Iranian leadership doesn’t appear to want to create a true balance of power in the Middle East. The fundamental ideological goal of the Islamic Republic is the elimination of the Jewish State of Israel. Unlike most of the current Sunni Arab states, Shia Iran holds as its guiding principle the domination of the Levant as a stepping stone to a final war against Islam’s Zionist enemy. Most likely the AQ Sunni radicals feel the same way. Certainly the US doesn’t want to empower AQ in Syria or Iraq.
So what is Obama to do? Sooner or later all tightrope walkers must reach a safe destination, or fall. But this US administration doesn’t seem to have a plan. By separating the regional balance-of-power issues from the nuclear file, the president risks both a wider Syrian-Iraqi war and/or nuclear proliferation. By moving in lockstep with the Saudi agenda, he could toughen the hard-line opposition in Iran and inadvertently aid his AQ enemies. If he allows himself to follow the Israeli prime minister, the “peace president” will become totally isolated internationally and without a clear negotiating strategy. If he does nothing, Iran will continue to move toward the bomb, and the Israelis will be forced to respond. If he continues piecemeal interim negotiations, he would certainly break the back of the sanctions regime, leaving the military option as his only recourse.
Time is clearly not on the president’s side. He needs the help of his Middle East allies (whom he has alienated) and he needs the help of Russia and China (who distrust his intentions in Europe and Asia). President Obama is a man on a Middle East tightrope. Without a revolutionary plan, sooner or later he’s going to fall. That will be his foreign policy legacy.