These are dangerous times. Politics and polling aside, we are seeing the end game of the Obama administration's policy of withdrawal from the Middle East. Unlike Obama's domestic legacy, Obamacare, which can be absorbed and corrected over time, the administration's attempt to restructure the balance of power in the Middle East - away from our traditional allies in Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt, and toward our 35-year adversary Iran - will have generational consequences. Israel has had the loudest complaining voice in the American debate, but Saudi Arabia is at the epicenter of the looming conflict.
The problem has two dimensions:
1. The potential nuclear arms race.
- At least on April 2, 2015, it seems that John Kerry, his counterpart from Iran, and negotiators from the UK, Germany, France, Russia, and China have reached the framework of an agreement which, in exchange for eliminating economic sanctions, contains the Iranian nuclear program for at least ten years, provides extensive verification, and assures at least a year's lead time and a "snap back" of sanctions should the Iranians renege on their part. Details are to be filled in by June 30, but if the deal unfolds as it seems it will, the administration deserves credit for keeping the genie in the bottle.
- Attention should expand to include Saudi Arabia which, by virtue of its oil wealth and as the keeper of the Muslim holy sites of Mecca and Medina, is filling the leadership role of the Sunni Arab world. Among the regimes to have long benefitted from Saudi largesse is nuclear-armed fellow-Sunni state Pakistan. The quid pro quo? There is broad belief that Pakistan will provide nuclear weapons to Saudi Arabia if asked; the question is now whether the Saudi's will seek the technology to match Iran themselves.
2. The expansion of Iranian influence throughout the Middle East.
- Whatever its other merits, the removal of Saddam Hussein in 2003 eliminated the major obstacle to Iranian ascendency. With the withdrawal of American troops by President Obama, the Iraqi Shiite majority government has migrated toward a natural alliance with Iran - clumsily under Maliki; more carefully under Haider al-Abadi. For both the largest source of external military support is from Iran, not the West.
- In a fragmented neighborhood with weak central governments, modest financial and military assistance to Shia minorities has allowed Iran to dominate Syria with its Allawite regime, and Lebanon with Hezbiollah. The Iranian-supported Houthi movement in Yemen, brings the specter of an Iranian proxy to Saudi Arabia's southern border. With the removal of sanctions as part of the nuclear deal, much of the economic benefit is needed at home, but more is available for the proxies.
- ISIS actually brings clarity for the traditional Sunni regimes - Egypt, Jordan, Tunisia, the Gulf states - who are looking for Saudi Arabia to lead where the United States once did. The combination of a generational change in Riyadh, the rise of ISIS, and an emboldened Iran promise to elevate President Obama's most hated ally to a leadership role which the more cautious King Abdullah had long avoided.
The underlying question for President Obama - as we leave the Middle East to its own devices, will he, acting without the support of Congress, tilt one way or the other - as the officially-neutral Nixon administration tilted toward Pakistan in the South Asia conflict of 1971? Much to the chagrin of our long time allies, the real price of a nuclear deal with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei may well be a tilt toward Iran.
This week's video is an interview with rookie Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas who drafted a letter to the Iranian leaders signed by 47 Republican senators explaining that Congressional approval is needed for any meaningful agreement.
bill bowen - 4/3/15