A year ago, when the U.S. and Iran were about to sign the nuclear deal, the Middle East came bursting to life again. The speculation on how the Iran deal might change the stagnantly macabre situation in the Middle East was a breeze that blew the odor of explosions and death away for a while. Lifting sanctions on Iran — an important regional power that has been dominated by religious fanaticism for almost four decades — advanced the idea of a new geopolitical configuration that could contribute to a brand new solution for the Middle East problem.
The agreement on the nuclear issue will ease tensions between the United States and Iran. It will generate a more favorable climate for bilateral and multilateral agreements on a range of other issues in the broader Middle East. This will lead to major changes in the relations among the various Middle Eastern states, which will contribute to stability from Afghanistan to the Mediterranean. Beyond facilitating cooperation between Iran and the so-called moderate Arab monarchies, it also could well bring Iran and the Israelis closer.
As Iran becomes a major center of gravity in the region, neither the Israelis nor the Arabs will want to be the odd man out. Aside from public rhetoric, both see the handwriting on the wall, and national leaders are calculating how to deal with the evolving situation. They will adjust and, in some instances, seize the initiative with accommodations among themselves and Iran.
As a result, the area will exhibit greater stability, and US influence will increase as Washington pursues its policy objectives in a more balanced way.
In the near term, the US policy shift provides an obvious opportunity for the Arab states to work with Iran to defeat the Islamic State and to achieve a political solution to the conflicts in Syria and Yemen. …
Despite considerable unease, Saudi Arabia accepted that a deal on the nuclear issue was likely and has begun to adjust to the new reality.
A few months later, when Russia — in an apparent surprise overnight move — created two air force bases in Syria and started bombing ISIS and other insurgents, it appeared that political realism also landed on American shores. Political lobbyists, think tanks and military strategists in the U.S. started to talk about the need for multilateral action in Syria. In November of last year, after listening to a panel discuss issues that the U.S. faces in the Middle East, I wrote that:
If you ask me, Cohen and the other panelists who appeared with him at NYU are quite reasonable. They were discussing the effort that the U.S. and Russia have to make in order to resolve the mess they’ve created in the Middle East. But there is something that tells me that this might be very difficult to achieve. Even if people like Cohen prevail in America, and Washington accepts Putin as a partner (something that, in my mind, he never completely ceased to be), then the two sides will have to find a new language and a new set of rules. It will not happen overnight. And it will not be easy, even if America ditches Saudi Arabia, a country that – like Turkey, Qatar and other Gulf countries – finances ISIS. Would Iran, replacing the Saudis as an ally and therefore as a new regional policeman, be acceptable for all the partners of the new alliance? Acceptable for Israel, Turkey? Would the Russians go for it?
In March, Russia partially withdrew its bombers from Syria, while Putin hinted that he did not intend to support Assad forever, and that Moscow was ready for talks. The White House confirmed that Obama and Putin were in contact; and to this day, multilateral negotiations for achieving a peaceful solution in Syria sporadically continue in Vienna.
But the issues being discussed are not happening in Vienna. If, for instance, you care to read just a few of yesterday’s dispatches from Syria and the Middle East, your head (probably accustomed to thinking in old geopolitical terms) is bound to start spinning.
Take Politico’s report on the rapprochement of Saudi Arabia’s relationship with Israel: the extremely conservative wahhabi kingdom based in Riyadh and the Tel Aviv government in the Jewish state of Israel, “are working together against Iran, and almost certainly doing so independent of the U.S. During a recent trip to Israel with other former senior Obama administration officials, I spoke with Israeli officials who acknowledged that they are in close contact with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arab states. More than one said quiet security cooperation already is taking place and that there is room to expand this cooperation.
“Earlier this month, former Saudi intelligence chief and ambassador to the United States, Prince Turki bin Faisal, and retired Israeli Defense Forces Maj. Gen. Yaakov Amidror, a former national security adviser to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, sat on a stage together in Washington and expressed their shared distrust of Iran and the importance of cooperation to counter the threat,” Politico’s Todd Rosenblum wrote.
Then there is this weird report in the Observer, which informed its readers yesterday about Netanyahu’s blitz visit to Moscow during Passover — a very important Jewish holiday — apparently to resolve a major security crisis that involved the interception of Israeli military jets by Russian jet fighters. The near crisis should never have happened, since, “In September of 2015, in a series of top secret meetings that took place in Tel Aviv, a special mode of communication was set up between Israel and Russia to resolve such issues. The objective of the September meetings was to prevent any mishap and to make certain that Israel and Russia would not fly over one another in Syria.”
Micah Halpern concludes that, “Russia is very good at teasing out information and intelligence—maybe better than any other nation. This dangerous game that they initiated and were playing with Israel had an objective. Mr. Putin wanted to see how Israel would respond. He wanted to know how quickly Israel would be to react.
“The Russians got what they wanted. They now have a font of information they sought to obtain.”
And the United States? In his long interview for Foreign Policy, President Obama was asked whether Saudi Arabia is still a friend of the U.S.:
Obama smiled. “It’s complicated,” he said.
Obama’s patience with Saudi Arabia has always been limited. In his first foreign-policy commentary of note, that 2002 speech at the antiwar rally in Chicago, he said, “You want a fight, President Bush? Let’s fight to make sure our so-called allies in the Middle East—the Saudis and the Egyptians—stop oppressing their own people, and suppressing dissent, and tolerating corruption and inequality.” In the White House these days, one occasionally hears Obama’s National Security Council officials pointedly reminding visitors that the large majority of 9/11 hijackers were not Iranian, but Saudi—and Obama himself rails against Saudi Arabia’s state-sanctioned misogyny, arguing in private that “a country cannot function in the modern world when it is repressing half of its population.”
Some of the American public shares the president’s private opinion on Saudi Arabia, and is trying to push Obama to scale back America’s relationship with the country –– a relationship that will otherwise ruin U.S. influence in the Middle East. But the White House seems to be hesitant.
And while the Senate recently passed a bill that would allow the families of those killed in the Sept. 11 attacks to sue Saudi Arabia for its alleged support of terrorists, President Obama already announced that he will veto it. Because, as the Brooking Institution admits, “Despite all these differences, Saudi Arabia and America are not getting divorced. We still need each other. Obama and Salman still have areas of common interest and agreement. Obama has sold $95 billion in arms to the Kingdom. Obama is right to keep working the Saudi leadership despite our differences. In a Middle East in chaos, the Kingdom is a major player.”
If Saudi Arabia is leaning away from the United States because of its deal with Iran, and if the country is — for the same reason — ready to sign a pact with the “evil” Jewish state, then the White House is really out of touch with reality in running after Saudi Arabia. At the same time, Obama’s private pondering on the regime in Riyadh sounds like hypocrisy when seen next to the pile of money that his support of the kingdom guarantees for the American military. And in the end, the absence of American political engagement opens doors for the Middle East, giving the area access to forces that are even more unpredictable, and that have nothing to sell but their weapons.
Also published on Medium.