The Middle East Nuclear Conundrum

Whatever move you make, whatever road you take, you lose. It’s called checkmate, the end of the line, game over. That’s where the Middle East and all its players sit today. They are all at a complete loss. Even the Russians and the Chinese are involved, right up to their necks. So too are the Americans, especially the Obama administration. This current president will most likely become the biggest loser of all. Syria is involved. So too are Lebanon and Iraq. Turkey is swimming in water way over its head. Hezbollah and Iran are in the crosshairs. Israel could suffer a devastating missile attack and then be branded by the world community as the aggressor. Even the US Congress is involved (really involved). But as the certainty of the nuclear logic continues on its inevitable path, there is a way out, but it’s becoming more and more of a long shot with each passing day. Let me explain why the game is nearly over.
First, you can’t have a successful nuclear deal in the midst of a raging regional war. Iran owns the Assad state and is at war with the vast majority of the Syrian people. Any agreement with Iran over its nuclear program, regardless of whether it’s good or bad, will have a negative impact on all the Sunni Arab states, Turkey and Israel. That’s because with any successful nuclear agreement, the sanctions on Iran would be lifted, and the money for an expanded war effort in Syria would start to flow unabated. The prospect of hegemonic Iran even without nuclear capacity would still be a deal killer. Check.
Second, without the near-total dismantling of the Iranian nuclear program (the very best of all possible deals) the potential for nuclear proliferation within the region is a certainty. With a bad deal, Saudi Arabia would go nuclear within a matter of weeks. This would produce a domino effect, followed most likely by Turkey and Egypt. Even if a near perfect deal could be accomplished, as described in the paragraph above, the Sunni Arab states and Turkey might still go nuclear to prevent Iranian hegemony. Even the best-laid American plan could be sabotaged by legitimate Saudi fears. Check.
Third, a perfect deal with Iran is impossible without much broader US concessions in order for Iran to save face. This would not be just about sanctions, but about the US fleet on Iran’s doorstep. Check (also refer back to the previous two points–a perfect deal can’t be perfect without a regional context). Triple check.
Fourth, Iran wants to roll back what it perceives as US and Israeli hegemony by at least having a threshold nuclear capacity. The Congress of the US and the hardliners in Tehran are apparently on a collision course with respect to nuclear threshold capacity. Unless President Obama can steer the process in a different direction, a legislature-to-legislature stalemate most likely could ensue. Check.
Fifth, If Obama stakes his entire foreign policy legacy on a nuclear deal that is perceived as bad, his fate could become like Woodrow Wilson’s. In 1920, Wilson’s own party (the Democratic Party) rejected his idea for a League of Nations. The same could happen, with a weak nuclear deal, to Obama (a real legacy crunch). Check.
Sixth, without a nuclear deal Iran would be free to continue on the road to nuclear weapons development. This would be an unacceptable outcome for all parties (except Iran and its allies). Check.
Seventh, An Israeli air attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities could lead to an all-out war, including the Gulf states, Iraq, Hezbollah, Lebanon and possibly even Jordan. Civil wars would undoubtedly spread. The entire region would become destabilized as the Sunni-Shia divide widened to include the Jewish state. This would most likely happen with a bad deal, whereby Israel perceived that Iran had unacceptable nuclear threshold capability. Check (refer back to the sixth point).
Eighth, a series of interim deals would either be vetoed by the US Congress or by the Israeli Air Force. If Israel attacks, the US Congress has the constitutional authority to declare war. Recent polls have shown that if the American people felt threatened by the Iranian nuclear program, or if their ally Israel suffered a setback, they might very well back a strike. Check.
Ninth, an all-out regional war would spike oil prices, collapse the world stock markets, and melt down the international financial system. The global economy has remained mired in an unprecedented debt crisis, and it simply couldn’t withstand the shock of a war in the Persian Gulf. Check and double check.
Tenth, only a “grand bargain” could possibly alter the present trajectory of events. But a “grand bargain” in the Middle East would require the international cooperation of the UN Security Council. With a second Cold War brewing in Europe over unrestrained NATO expansion and an unauthorized Russian annexation, with tensions rising in East Asia over military buildups and contested natural resources, with a global geopolitical divide between China and Russia on one side and the US and its allies on the other — the prospect for a “grand bargain” in the Middle East engineered through the UN Security Council appears remote. Checkmate?
But what alternatives are there other than a “big power” dedication to peace and a new harmonious approach to international politics. It won’t be easy. However, the anarchy of war has been a path that the world has been on before and, in this nuclear age of mutually assured destruction (MAD), nuclear confrontation (like during the first Cold War) remains unthinkable.
A “grand bargain” would require not only a nuclear component ( a nuclear-weapons-free zone), but an extensive regional component, the Zone of Peace, to establish a non-hegemonic balance to maintain the current nation-state border dynamic. It also would require a remote security regime for the Gulf, as a face-saving device for Iran. In order to interest Israel in giving up her nuclear weapons, a major concession over the future of the West Bank would be necessary to enhance her conventional security. In other words, it would require a new peace plan for Israel and the Palestinians that assures an end-of-conflict resolution with a permanent Israeli presence in the disputed territories.
Yes, it all seems utopian and borders on the miraculous. But Jews and Muslims believe in miracles. And why should this hundred-year religious war end without a miracle? The rebirth of the Jewish Holy Land in the center of the lands of the Muslims had been foretold long ago in the Koran. In the Torah, the Covenant of Abraham and his offspring has finally been fulfilled, and war has never been envisioned to be the final scene. We all should expect a miracle. Because without one, the road leads nowhere.
The Middle East nuclear conundrum is real. It is not a fantasy. If the world does not act in an idealistic way, events leading to the anniversary of WWI (this July) could spark something much greater. It is up to all nations to work for peace. No nation is exempt. This includes both Germany and Japan as well as Russia, France, England and the US. Of course the people of the victimized nations of Europe and Asia, especially nations who have suffered from occupation and genocide, must have their voices heard. The US-China-Russia divide must not be allowed to harden. Hegemonic strategies and/or balance-of-power schematics have always broken down in the past. As a species, we humans are at a crossroad. Our ecology and its economy require us to work together. However, if we don’t find some permanent answers to war and our “geopolitics as usual” mentality, civilization’s destiny will become bleak.
As a Jewish believer, I find the “hand of G-d” behind the march of history. I am sure that my Islamic friends would agree. But the L-rd gave us free will. So the choice is ours. The conundrum is ours. We will be judged. Fortunately, if we follow our respective Divine Scriptures, goodwill will certainly beget goodwill for all the children of Abraham.

About the Author
Steven Horowitz has been a farmer, journalist and teacher spanning the last 45 years. He resides in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA. During the 1970's, he lived on kibbutz in Israel, where he worked as a shepherd and construction worker. In 1985, he was the winner of the Christian Science Monitor's Peace 2010 international essay contest. He was a contributing author to the book "How Peace came to the World" (MIT Press).