Obama of Arabia

US troops, Gulf War. Saudi Arabia, 1991.

Nuclear weapons negotiations between the United States and Iran are looking increasingly likely to portend a seismic shift in the Middle East. That shift, though, is not the one that was hoped for in some quarters. Especially in Riyadh and Jerusalem, who fear being sidelined by an ending of hostilities between Washington and Tehran.

The Obama Administration appears determined to nevertheless move ahead, as long as Iran is willing to provide proof that it’s not building an atomic arsenal. In other words, all Iran has to do is prove what US and Israeli intelligence have known for years: that it stopped pursuing nuclear research in 2003, and that even then it was far from certain that it was actually a weapon Iran was developing. Such an agreement is by no means certain. However, the prospect for a deal is real enough to have provoked hysterical reactions from the United States’ two most important regional allies.

Benjamin Netanyahu is setting up a showdown between Barack Obama, and an unfriendly Congress which is well-disposed to block any administration initiative, and is just as hostile to a rollback of tensions with Iran as Bibi. The Israeli leader is doing this by setting standards for Iranian compliance that he knows Tehran cannot possibly accept, but which sound like reasonable demands. As I explain here, this position is very different from the one the United States is staking out in its talks with Iran. There is indeed daylight between the security policies of the United States and the far more radical and reckless ones of Netanyahu, although Netanyahu’s own position is not warmly welcomed by Israel’s military braintrust. It’s more a reflection of the Prime Minister’s own political agenda, than it is one of Israel’s security needs.

Meanwhile, the Saudis are taking steps to pull away from their American benefactors. Their unprecedented refusal of a UN Security Council seat, especially after the years of effort the Saudis put in to win it, was a message for Washington about Ryadh’s dissatisfaction with Obama’s policies. The Saudis claimed the refusal was due to the failure of the UN to resolve the Israel-Palestine conflict, and to intervene in Syria. In reality, it was due to the US government’s refusal to back efforts to oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (a cause the Saudis are dedicated to); the Obama Administration’s refusal to to help the Saudis do more to suppress popular uprisings in Bahrain; American pressure on Egypt’s military to reconvene democratic reforms; and the simmering rapprochement between the US and Iran.

The Saudi message was reaffirmed when their intelligence chief, Prince Bandar Bin Sultan al-Saud, told European diplomats that the Arab kingdom was going to shift its relationships away from the United States. One shouldn’t make more of this than is there. Prince Bandar is something of a loose cannon, and he has been known to air his own views even if they do not represent official Saudi policy. Still, many observers believe this shift is real.

This comes on the heels of what looks like the final straw between the United States and its long-time ally, Turkey. The Edrogan government was recently reported to have exposed a number of spies for Israel in Iran. Last month, the Turkish military chose a Chinese company that is under US sanction to build a new missile defense system, instead of opting for a NATO-compliant system, as would be expected, for a treaty member state. Given the chilly nature of the relationship between Washington and Ankara, these developments put a big distance between the two governments, not to mention Brussels, in spite of Ankara’s ongoing EU membership negotiations.

US missile batteries. Gulf War, 1991.
US missile batteries. Gulf War, 1991.

There is, of course, a limit to how far any government with ambitions of regional power can stray from Washington. China and Russia are presented as global rivals, but the gap in military resources is enormous. In terms of military expenditures, it’s true that the United States is first, with China and Russia being second and third, respectively. But the US spends some $682 billion on its military annually, which is just one billion dollars less than numbers two through twelve combined. Despite being the second biggest spender, and despite its recent economic prowess and large population, China spends less than 25% of what the United States does on its military budget. So the Saudis, whose own military budget is a staggering 9% of its GDP, much of which goes toward imports, do not have the option of abandoning the United States. But they are able to diversify their shopping, and they seem determined to do so, which will certainly cause major ripples in Washington.

Israel, obviously, has no option but to maintain its relationship with the United States. No other country can or would want to give Israel anything approaching the sort of support the US does. But after the debacle of Syria, where Israel and Saudi Arabia failed to have any significant impact on a US Congress which was being told by its constituents across the political spectrum that they did not want US involvement in the Syrian civil war, any attempt to torpedo a US-Iran deal is very risky. Obama and Kerry are not going to be satisfied with anything less than full Iranian transparency on the nuclear issue. But if they get it, it will still be well short of Netanyahu’s standards. Such an agreement would be warmly welcomed in the US. Bibi will have a hard time keeping the US on a war footing with Iran in the face of such an agreement. And if his friends in AIPAC, the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations and Christians United for Israel again fail to move Congress, it will mean a reset of politics in Washington. The Israeli Premier may not want to roll those dice.

Turkey, for its part, is happy moving away from the US-Israel-Saudi umbrella and staking out a more independent ground. But for the Turks, their ambitions to reopen more business ties with Iran and move toward a stronger regional position clashes with the Saudis. In Egypt, for example, the Turks continue to back the ousted Muslim Brotherhood while the Saudis want to bolster regional support for the al-Sisi military government. In Syria, both Turkey and Saudi Arabia agree on the wish to see Assad replaced, but are backing rival militias among the rebels in hopes of seeing a new regime there that will extend each of their own regional power.

It’s a very tangled web, and this is precisely why the Obama Administration had hoped to, as they put it, “pivot to Asia.” That has proven impossible. However, the move toward resolving the nuclear issue with Iran may realign the US’ position in the Middle East almost as radically. The question is how much of this is intentional on Washington’s part.

If there is intent on the part of President Obama, he could use an Iran deal to realign the US relationship with both Israel and Saudi Arabia, such that US policy was based more on US interests and less on those of its allies than is the case now. That would come at a political cost, as Israel would surely fight back in Congress with all it could muster, and an economic one, as the Saudis could decide to take some of the hundreds of billions of dollars that are currently held in US treasury bonds elsewhere. The advantages of maintaining those relationships (as all parties would have to do,) but allowing the US more political freedom to develop ties with other regional actors that are more beneficial could well be a net gain. It would certainly mean a lot less difficulty with other countries who see the US as defending not only the Israeli occupation of Palestine, but the Saudi regime which is not only as repressive as any in the region, but is actively trying to export that oppression throughout the Middle East.

Is President Obama acting out of a realization that the power of the United States to influence events in the region, while certainly still considerable, has been irreversibly diminished? Chas Freeman, former US Ambassador to Saudi Arabia says that “(F)or all our unmatched military power, Americans no longer command the ability to shape trends in the Middle East,…regional actors are redoubling their efforts to recruit outside powers to support them. This could produce some startling geopolitical realignments.” Indeed, it could, and Israel could find itself having to make some of its own.

If Washington cuts a deal with Iran, it will only get ratified if Israel either decides not to oppose it, or is defeated in its lobbying against it. Either of these outcomes would seriously diminish AIPAC’s mythological omnipotence on Capitol Hill. It would also mean the United States could move to a regional policy that is not centered on Israel and the Saudis alone, and it could be a boon for the US oil industry, as well. The United States would still be the key international player, but it would be sharing the stage more with others. It could have close ties with regional rivals, without having to mediate their disputes all the time. In many ways, the diminished influence can open up new options for the American government, if it has the wherewithal to pursue them.

The Saudis fear this because it would mean they would face more pressure to deal with the suppression of Shi’a in the region, and the suppression of rights more broadly in their own country, as well as throughout the Middle East. Their form of government is not likely to thrive in such a scenario. Iran, for all of it’s political drawbacks, is far more Western in its style of politics than Saudi Arabia, theocratic controls not withstanding.

The Israelis fear it just as much because a deal with Iran, and a US move toward less particularistic relations in the region would dramatically increase the pressure on Jerusalem to reach a workable and mutually satisfactory deal with the Palestinians. US cover would be reduced, and Israel’s need for regional allies that can maintain ties with it in the clear light of day would grow sharply. And the United States, for its part, could move toward clear policies that distinguish in a concrete way between support for Israeli security (which would still be a popular priority) and support for its occupation and discriminatory policies (which would not).

All of this can come from a deal with Iran. Is it any wonder that the Saudi and Israeli leaderships are in a panic? At a time of diminishing respectability, throughout the world, an Iranian agreement would restore some of Washington’s tarnished luster. One would imagine that an NSA scandal plagued Obama Administration is aware of that.


Illustrations courtesy of The National Guard. Published under a Creative Commons license.

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