Martin Indyk is in the news again. As the current vice-president of the liberal Brookings Institution and a former key Obama Middle East advisor, Indyk has finally come around to the policy position that the US needs a total approach to the region. According to Indyk piecemeal solutions won’t work in the Middle East, and the US must choose between two distinct alternatives: Either Washington develops a cooperative Iran relationship to defeat “violent extremism”, or it presses on with its current allies in the Middle East in hopes of defeating ISIS. For Indyk, the Iran nuclear issue is now being positioned within the totality of the regional dynamic and not as a separate issue. This regional approach is a distinct step forward, but the very idea that the US can forge a cooperative relationship with Iran is as farfetched as Israel forging a cooperative relationship with Hamas, Islamic Jihad or Hezbollah.
Iran is a revisionist power, while the US remains the outside-the-region superpower hegemon. The Iran nuclear file must be firmly positioned as an important subset within this straightforward geopolitical category. For Iran not to be a revisionist power, either the US must completely retreat from the region (making Iran the new hegemonic power) or a completely new understanding of the region’s balance and stability must be developed through the cooperative efforts of the UN Security Council. The future of Israel, Jordan, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon depend on how the US chooses to achieve its aims. The question becomes: What are the US aims for the region?
Under the Obama administration, nothing is completely clear. But there is much visible evidence of a strong attempt to forge a cooperative relationship with Iran, by fostering a sweetheart nuclear deal with the Islamic Republic in hopes of getting them to change their behavior. However, this strategy poses huge dangers for the region. With the nuclear component isolated on a separate tract and any linkage to the region absent from the negotiations, what would compel the Iranians to forestall their current policy in Iraq, Syria or Yemen? In fact, if the nuclear deal runs as short as ten or even fifteen years, what would then prevent Iran from also becoming a potential “breakout nuclear power” within less than a generation? The nature of the potential threat is that if Obama signs a nuclear deal with Iran, yet Tehran presses forward with its aggressive agenda, what would Obama do then?
In such a situation, war and nuclear proliferation are the two most likely scenarios. A war is likely between Israel and Hezbollah (probably involving Syria and Lebanon as well) because any continued buildup of pro-Iranian forces near Israel’s borders will be met with counterforce. And such an escalation would most likely derail any potential nuclear deal with Iran, because any direct confrontation between Israel and Tehran’s key allies would require an Iranian response to Israel’s monopoly on nuclear weapons. In other words, without a regional understanding beforehand, any nuclear deal with Iran runs the risk of unraveling as a result of events in Syria. Also, with a sweetheart deal, as Israel’s nuclear advantage becomes limited to a modest time frame, Israel’s conventional options become limited as well. Without a way to balance Iran conventionally (because it possesses the potential for a quick nuclear breakout), many Middle East states will seek their own nuclear program. Within this environment, proliferation becomes inevitable.
So, in a sense, Indyk is right. The US doesn’t just need a nuclear deal with Iran, it needs a strategy for the entire region which would include a nuclear deal. But if rapprochement with a revisionist Iran is highly risky, what might happen if the policy decision tilts toward America’s traditional allies? What are the risks then? First, Shiite-US cooperation against ISIS in Iraq will evaporate very quickly. In fact, Iraq will probably cease to exist as a nation state. Second, as pro-Iranian militias attempt to carve out a strong presence nearer to the Jordanian-Syrian borders, ISIS will probably be forced to retreat into Syria. Instead of a policy coordinated through Baghdad to US spotters and other forces within the region, both pro-Iranian militias and the Shiite-led Iraqi army could move strongly (with Iranian coordination) against all Sunni positions. The Americans could be left high and dry, or even worse.
In such a scenario, the entire northern Levant might just become a larger battlefield, especially Syria. Thirdly, this could also easily include a swift decision within the region to move toward nuclear weapons. This is especially true for Iran, and then it could quickly include Saudi Arabia (who could buy them from Pakistan). This could lead the entire region into a nuclear domino effect. In the absence of a large US ground force presence, and without a direct attack on America’s key allies, pro-Iranian forces could concentrate on defeating the Sunnis in what is left of both Iraq and Syria. If they are successful, the pressure for direct American involvement could only intensify.
America’s Sunni allies are weak and have tended not to support democratic forces. However, the Sunnis have global numbers on their side. But Israeli, Jordanian or American interests are not enhanced by the further promotion of Sunni Islamists. Finally, Iran will anticipate the hard Gulf-state pressure for a direct US military ground force to protect the Sunni communities of the northern Levant. An Iranian nuclear breakout (to deter the US) will become a distinct possibility. Israel’s response to such events could also lead to even greater regional and international instability. Equally distressing is the fact that a US ground response is not only a political nightmare for the candidates of the 2016 elections, but it also runs the risk of a Russian or Chinese response (either within or outside the region).
Martin Indyk’s two choices: A US-Iran rapprochement or a traditional US tilt towards its long-term allies; both run extreme risks. By election season 2016, the Democratic Party can be accused of either tilting toward Iran (and “throwing Israel under the bus”) or of grossly mismanaging a region engulfed in a full-scale war with Iran and its proxies. If a nuclear deal is to be had with Iran, it better not be a short and sweet deal from an Iranian perspective. Such a deal would be disaster for the Democratic Party. Because in the absence of a stable regional balance of power, nuclear weapons proliferation and continued war would make almost any nuclear deal irrelevant. Without an Iranian withdrawal from Syria and Iraq, Israel and the Sunni states will never trust Iranian intentions.
On this issue, in 2016, both US political parties better have a strategy for the region that is based on peace and not war. Tilting in one direction or the other, as Indyk advises, is not the answer. Both paths lead only to expanded war. On the other hand, further extensions of the nuclear negotiations would make a mockery of any future deal. If Obama can’t get a good deal in the present extended time frame, a good deal is essentially out of reach. But the Republican approach — of a return to the days of the US hegemon exerting its authority over the region — is clearly not the political answer, either. America cannot afford another go-it-alone ground war in the Middle East.
What is needed from both political parties is some in-depth, out-of-the-box thinking. The US election season begins this summer and runs for over a year. If Obama doesn’t come up with an international answer on the Iran issue soon, he will have no foreign policy legacy at all. Only through UN Security Council cooperation with Russia and China can Obama protect his party in the next election and assure himself a place in world history. While Obama certainly doesn’t want a war with Iran, he also doesn’t want to be the US president who lost Israel and the pro-American Sunni states.