This is part of a series of editorials exploring the far-ranging impacts of the Iran nuclear deal.
While a historic and highly controversial nuclear deal awaits final approval by the U.S. Congress, a debate on its regional and international fallout is raging across the globe. The agreement is indeed a huge gamble. Will it hold? Will it ease Middle East tensions, or will it further destabilize the region?
Inevitably, this is as much a debate on US foreign policy under President Barack Obama.
The foundations of Obama’s foreign policy crystallized mainly during his first term, when he had to contend with his predecessor’s calamitous legacy. Two catastrophic wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the 2008 financial collapse (the worst economic disaster since the Great Depression), were a terrible burden on the US economy and military capabilities.
Even today, the United States is “at a point where our national aspirations are at risk of exceeding our available resources,” Gen. Martin Dempsey, the outgoing chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently said at a Senate subcommittee hearing.
It is this unprecedented crisis that has been shaping Obama’s foreign policy, including the nuclear negotiations with Iran.
Asia Pivot and a New “Cold War”
The White House chose therefore to redefine its top foreign policy priorities according to a “realist strategy” that, while not relinquishing Washington’s hegemonic role, would take into account its declining resources.
Accordingly, after the controversial “Afghan surge” of 2009, Obama tried to end US combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. At the same time, he proclaimed his intention to strengthen America’s presence in the Asia-Pacific region, where the chances of an impending strategic rivalry between Beijing and Washington were growing.
However, China – unlike Washington’s previous rival, the Soviet Union – is fully integrated into the international economic order. For this reason, according to several US strategists, the only way to contain it is through the creation of two giant regional trade agreements excluding Beijing (and Moscow) – the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).
While the hotly-debated TTIP between the United States and the European Union should become a sort of “economic NATO,” the equally controversial TPP embodies the “economic arm” of Washington’s rebalance to Asia. The latter, in turn, has also a military dimension represented by the U.S. commitment to put 60 percent of its naval forces in the Pacific by 2020.
The so-called “pivot to Asia” was officially announced by Obama in November 2011. Although it has been frequently derided by several American commentators, it is in fact alive and well.
Furthermore, the confrontational approach adopted by Washington against both Russia and China has largely contributed to the materializing of a new “Cold War” in a chaotically emerging multipolar world. The Ukraine crisis, in particular, has only strengthened the U.S. rebalance toward Asia and Europe, and away from the Middle East, in turn fostering a new closeness between Moscow and Beijing.
As Dmitri Trenin rightly observed, this crisis “was not just about Ukraine, or even Europe. It was about the global order, which promises a long competition with a yet-unforeseen result. Crucially, it is part of a pattern of changing relationships among the world’s powers, with the U.S. struggling to preserve its dominance.”
The U.S. and Iran: From Conflict to the Negotiating Table
With a significant part of the defense budget devoted to deterring Moscow and Beijing, Obama could not afford an armed conflict with Iran. Moreover, such a conflict, while possibly setting the region ablaze, would have delayed Iran’s nuclear program by only a few years, according to U.S. defense experts.
Nevertheless, the idea of a negotiated settlement of the nuclear dispute only dawned at a certain point in Obama’s Middle East strategy, being the result of a series of policy adjustments starting from a state of “undeclared war” against Iran. The nuclear talks offered both parties an opportunity to break this dangerous deadlock.
Contrary to widely held beliefs, however, Tehran’s position at the negotiating table was not weak. Although its economy was suffering heavily under sanctions, it was not on the brink of collapse. Meanwhile, Tehran had become a nuclear threshold state fully mastering the uranium enrichment process, and possessing several facilities across the country and a vast infrastructure for research and development.
Since US pressure had failed to stop Iran’s nuclear program, “legalizing” it was the only way left to contain it. This is why Washington’s negotiators focused on monitoring this program, constraining its enrichment capacity and delaying its industrial-scale development, rather than trying to dismantle it.
While Iran has always denied any intent to build nuclear weapons, many of those thinking that it might sometime do exactly that nonetheless recognize that the nuclear agreement buys needed time (probably more than a decade) to ward off such a contingency.
Iran, on the other hand, has chosen to constrain its nuclear program in the short term in order to obtain its long-term legitimation at the international level – together with Tehran’s reinsertion into the global economy. Consequently, Iranian negotiators too made several compromises with the aim of getting a deal. In the end, the final agreement reflects concessions by both sides.
Nonetheless, the nuclear talks have been a drawn-out and exhausting process. At heart, in fact, they were about Tehran’s challenge to US hegemony in the Middle East, rather than the Iranian nuclear program per se. And this is why they have aroused so much heated debate among Washington’s politicians.
Untangling the U.S. From Middle East Crises
The United States became the dominant power in the region following the collapse of the Soviet Union. US hegemony was based on two flawed principles: “dual containment” of the two revisionist powers (Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and the Islamic Republic of Iran), and cooperation with Arab authoritarian regimes in preserving the Middle East order (under the pretext that, at any rate, it was impossible to democratize them – a notion which came to be known as “Arab exceptionalism”).
Predictably, this regional order began to collapse, at first when the U.S. abandoned containment for “regime change” by toppling Saddam in 2003, and then when popular uprisings shook Arab regimes across the Middle East starting from the end of 2010.
Being mainly a U.S.-led regional order, however, its unraveling meant a huge strategic loss for Washington, dramatically adding up to the 2008 financial crisis and failed US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The Middle Eastern earthquake placed Obama in front of unsolvable strategic dilemmas. Nonetheless, while being on the verge of getting sucked once again into the regional conflicts – particularly in Syria – in the end he stuck to his declared pivot to Asia.
The Obama administration has been involved in training Syrian rebel fighters and even procuring weapons for them. Apparently, it has also “green-lighted” a recent – mainly jihadist – offensive on Syrian Idlib province supported by Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia. But it has stopped short of committing massive American “boots on the ground,” both in Syria and Iraq.
Against the so-called “Islamic State” (IS), the White House has adopted a strategy of limited direct involvement, combining US airstrikes and local ground troops – mainly Kurdish and Shiite fighters, and Syrian rebels.
For Obama, the Iran deal represents yet another effort to extricate Washington from wasteful regional struggles. At the same time – maintains a recent report by the Center for a New American Security, one of the Obama administration’s favorite think tanks – Washington will use the nuclear deal to refocus on Asia and Europe, thus increasing US leverage with Russia and China.
Actually, the White House doesn’t want an outright U.S. pullout from the Middle East. Rather, it has adopted an “offshore balancing” strategy there, which means leveraging the regional competitions to American ends, without deploying large numbers of ground troops.
According to Brookings’ Jeremy Shapiro, Obama “seeks to re-establish the United States as a balancer in the region, rather than as a direct participant in its endless civil wars.” A balancer, writes Shapiro, “has no friends or enemies—it is able and willing to, say, support Iranian goals in Iraq while it supports Iranian opponents in Yemen.”
Offshore balancing is neither isolationism nor a strategy for regional peace. Rather, it is a stealthier model of intervention, involving training and equipping of other countries’ military troops, and combining special forces, drones and cyber operations.
Obama is not interested in changing the region’s established political structures. Consequently, the nuclear deal will not lead Washington and Tehran to become allies, but at best to work together when their tactical interests converge.
There are several internal and external obstacles preventing a broader U.S. engagement with Tehran. Domestically, the Israeli lobby as well as the security establishment and the defense industry – always interested in treating Iran as an enemy in order to sell weapons to U.S. Arab allies – will stand in the way. At the regional level, Iranian and American interests are still mostly incompatible, as Tehran’s rising clout clashes with Washington’s hegemonic status.
At the same time, US rebalancing imposes a price tag on those Arab countries taking Washington’s support for granted. Removing the main Iranian threat to American interests, the nuclear deal allows the White House to insist that the Gulf monarchies assume greater responsibility for their own security.
In Shapiro’s and Sokolosky’s words, the U.S. “long-term goal is not to get into bed with Iran. Rather, it is to use the relationship with Iran to get out of bed with Saudi Arabia.”
Therefore, many in Washington consider as positive signs both the Arab League’s (probably doomed) decision to form a joint Arab military force, and Riyadh’s willingness to seek its own disastrous military solution in Yemen.
More Diplomacy Needed
The Yemeni conflict, however, is just one front in a Saudi-Iranian “proxy war” raging across the entire Middle East. Riyadh’s political and military activism is spurred by the very perception of Washington’s disengagement from the region.
Though denied by the Obama administration, such disengagement is being taken for granted by regional allies that are growing increasingly suspicious of Washington’s real intentions. These countries nonetheless remain almost entirely dependent on the U.S. for their security, at least for now.
In May, Obama invited the Gulf monarchs to Camp David essentially promising them more weapons. Recently, he gave similar pledges to Israel. This policy, while failing to bridge the gap of mistrust between Washington and its allies, is stocking already high tensions between them and Iran.
The Saudi war in Yemen, a recent Saudi-Turkish-Qatari offensive against the Syrian regime, and Washington’s half-hearted fight against IS, are fueling Tehran’s anxieties. Absent a diplomatic process focusing on regional disputes, the warning that Tehran could use at least part of the financial windfall it will gain from the nuclear deal to fund its regional allies and proxy wars might turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Finally, there is another unknown further complicating the already troubled regional prospects. Obama’s Middle East policy is not only despised by American allies like Israel and Saudi Arabia, but is harshly contested at home. While his “rebalancing” doesn’t imply abdicating the US regional role, there are political circles in Washington that consider it a sign of weakness, as they strive for even more direct US involvement in the regional conflicts.
The Congress is unlikely to block the nuclear deal. Nonetheless, the United States might again get entangled in Middle East crises once Obama’s successor enters the White House.
The Middle East, however, needs diplomacy rather than more military efforts. Reinserting an energy-rich country of almost 80 million people into the world economy, the nuclear deal is potentially a game-changer for the long-term balance of power in the region. Even assuming that it holds, the agreement will exacerbate rather than ease tensions if it doesn’t usher in a wider negotiation addressing regional crises.
Should Washington use the deal to simply refocus on other dangerous standoffs in Asia and Europe, while acting as a mere balancer in the Middle East according to its own interests, peace will become even more elusive at both regional and international levels.