A lose-lose situation.
As President Obama inked a notoriously weak deal with the Islamic Republic of Iran, international commentators went berserk. Varying from those who unanimously praise a daring historical move to those who consider it the first step toward apocalypse, views on the topic are as opposed as they have been on the majority of subjects touched by Barak Obama. While there is no doubt that the deal is destructive in its own nature and marks a clear surrender of American power in the Middle East, drawing analogies with the Treaty of Munich may be far-fetched. Khamenei is no Hitler for the simple fact that, even with a nuclear bomb, he lacks the conventional forces and the vision to engage into a hegemonic war. On the other hand, Iran is a threat sui generis. The comparison to past situations is failing simply because of the extent of the terrorist network that Teheran has at its direct disposal and the ability to manipulate world politics that it implies.
The deal struck by President Obama generates an effect closer to the drole de guerre, a period in which two enemy powers who are effectively at war are staring into each other’s eyes to see who will blink first. The problem is that by the steps taken to secure this ephemeral diplomatic victory, Barak Obama has certified that the US military option is off the table, thus freezing the nuclear problem without solving it. Instead, the US will provide Iran with six additional months helping to upgrade the Islamic Republic’s human capital and prepare for the next move.
While focusing on nuclear weapons, President Obama and the entire international community appear to be consciously omitting a key detail: the Iranian nuclear program is only one of Teheran’s tools used to wage war against its regional and international enemies. In fact, the illegal enrichment of uranium is not and should not be considered the unique constituent of the Iranian problem. Since 1979, Iran has been cultivating a network of terrorist organizations loosely linked to the revolutionary establishment that can be activated to wage terrorist attacks from Buenos Aires to Bulgaria and from Israel to Saudi Arabia. Recently, Iran’s proxies have been vigorously developing ties with Western Africa and Latin America, while also fortifying their power bases in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen.
The deal President Obama sponsored and pressed for implicitly states that the United States government turns a blind eye on Iranian support of international terrorism as long as the Islamic Republic appears to be respecting a number of weakly defined norms regarding its nuclear program. This decision creates a “lose-lose” situation for the United States and its most direct partners in the Middle East.
On the one hand, President Obama has put the country in a situation in which it loses the power of decision-making and needs to react to other players’ decisions. For the second time in four months, the President has let himself be bullied into negotiations with adversary states over a deal concerning their non-use of WMDs. May it be in Syria or Iran, Barak Obama has played into the hands of regimes who fully understand the political value of their weapons and use them to gain more time to either reaffirm their regional power or further develop an arsenal and a strategy that will be eventually utilized to target American interests in the region.
As it has been previously stated, this deal is structurally flawed because it implicitly emboldens terrorist groups formed to harm the United States and its partners in the region. By opening the diplomatic door to Iran, the message is clear: as long as the regime seems to be cooperating with overly bureaucratic international institutions, it has a free hand in its international covert activities. By attempting a PR stunt, President Obama has ignored the fact that Iran is arming terrorist groups in Nigeria on a massive scale. He has also overlooked the fact that Teheran is countering US policies in Syria by openly fighting militias supported by the White House. Most importantly, President Obama has chosen to abandon its regional partners who are now left virtually alone in their fight against Iran. The United States has suspended the military option for at least six months, thus entering into a situation that has no possible positive outcomes.
On the other hand, the President’s move has also put two essential US partners in the region, Israel and Saudi Arabia, in a uniquely grave position. Both countries have viewed, although to different extent, the White House’s decision as a surrender of its regional engagements, which left their stability and security solely in their own hands. This new reality is likely to lead to two distinct outcomes.
Since President Obama took office in 2008, Israel has been increasingly voicing its fears of American inaction in regard to the Iranian nuclear threat. While the Jewish State is largely capable of dealing with Iranian regional proxies on its own, partial or full military support from the US has always been an important asset for Israeli policy makers contemplating a direct strike against Teheran’s illegal nuclear program. Due to the long history of Iranian double-gaming and conspiracies, Israel is skeptical about the efficiency of the Obama sponsored deal. In fact, as the US chose to draw down its military capabilities in the region, the gap of trust that has been widening over the past 24 months is likely to become unbridgeable. While it remains unlikely that Israel will launch a unilateral strike against Iranian targets, the United States must understand that because of President Obama’s move the country may well lose its most committed partner in the Middle East.
The problem with Saudi Arabia is structurally different. The financial factor puts US policy makers in great trouble. While there is little doubt that the partnership with the Gulf Monarchy cannot be considered as one based on shared values, the countries’ cooperation has been driven by shared interests embodied in the Saudi spending sprees in regard to American weapon systems. As the White House turned its back on the Arab Gulf, one might expect that the oil rich monarchies will ask for diplomatic and military protection from other world powers such as Russia who is increasingly seen as a deal maker in a region that is in desperate need of outside guidance.
And yet, there emerges another problem that could prove troublesome for the US national security. While Israel has the military advantage over Iran, Saudi does not. For this, it is likely to attempt to defend itself by using its best deterrent - radical Sunni terrorist organizations. In fact, when the Kingdom feels threatened, it generally expands its financing of fundamentalist groups. Financial assets are moved either through the various intelligence structures operating officially in Riyadh or informally by activating zakat funds collected through the country’s mosques and religious structures. This system is a well-known way used by Saudi Arabia to protect its national interest. Thus, Al Qaeda elements have been created and exported to Yemen to fight the Shi’a insurgency; Saudi officials have trained and armed Sunni militias in Iraq for over a decade and are now at the forefront of the list of countries deemed essential to sustain the Islamist brigades operating in Syria. Should Saudi Arabia feel truly threatened by Iran, its intelligence services are likely to expand the Al Qaeda network in order to limit Teheran’s hegemonic ambitions, which would undoubtedly backfire on the US.
As Barack Obama led the United States into a lose-lose situation in which both the country and its regional partners are mired in a negative position vis-à-vis one of their most direct adversaries, the Iranian government has emerged as the only clear winner of this first phase. It is now in partial control, which obviously does not represent a best-case scenario.
Riccardo Dugulin holds a master's degree from the Paris School of International Affairs (Sciences Po) and is specialized in International Security. He is currently working in Paris for a Medical and Security Assistance Company. He has worked for a number of leading think tanks in Washington DC, Dubai and Beirut. His official website is www.riccardodugulin.com and official Facebook site is www.facebook.com/riccardodugulin.
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