Thursday, November 28, 2013

Obama’s policy on Iran will force the US to be more involved

The agreement over Iran’s nuclear programme last week alarmed many countries in the Middle East. The Obama administration views a breakthrough with Iran as a means of reducing regional tensions and avoiding a larger American commitment in the region. The consequences, however, may be precisely the opposite.

The Arab fear is that the scaling back of sanctions against Iran will free up money allowing the Islamic Republic to more easily finance its operations and allies throughout the region – including its military support for the Al Assad regime in Syria and for Hizbollah in Lebanon. Negotiations with Iran have focused on nuclear issues, but many Arab regimes would have liked to see the agenda expanded.

That is why when the Saudi foreign minister, Saud Al Faisal, met his American counterpart John Kerry earlier this month, he sought to link the nuclear talks with Iranian intervention in Syria. By the same token, Arab states would have welcomed placing Hizbollah’s fate on the negotiating table, and believe that western economic leverage over Iran allowed for extracting more concessions from Tehran.

However, the United States has thought differently. Fearing that any insistence on broadening the negotiation agenda would undermine a nuclear deal, Mr Kerry has pushed back on such a strategy. “We are well aware of Iran’s activities in the region,” he has said, “but the first step is the nuclear step, which we hope will open the door to the possibility to be able to deal with those.”

The reality, however, is that few Arab states believe that Washington will carry through on such an engagement, or can make it work. They feel that once, or if, a nuclear accord is reached – the one last week was an interim arrangement – the Obama administration will have fewer instruments to impose a change in Iranian behaviour and will again revert to disengaging from the Middle East.

It’s difficult to disagree. President Obama’s policies in the region have mainly aimed at avoiding deeper implication. The president is rarely involved personally in the affairs of the region, in contrast to his immediate predecessors.

Mr Obama has manoeuvred like a gymnast to keep the Syrian crisis at arm’s length. After the Al Assad regime used chemical weapons in August, he embarrassed Mr Kerry and other administration officials by deciding at the last minute to abort an impending US attack against Syria, an attack they were defending publicly.

Even in the ongoing Palestinian-Israeli negotiations, which Mr Obama had described as a priority when he was campaigning for the presidency in 2008, the president has been largely out of the picture, leaving Mr Kerry to move the process forward on his own.

There is a growing view that a nuclear deal with Iran would benefit so-called moderates in Iran – President Hassan Rouhani above all – who seek improved relations with the West. On the other hand, the more hard-line elements would likely be compensated by being given a stronger mandate to pursue Iran’s interests in the Arab world.

Acting on this belief and their scepticism that America will do anything to contain Iranian power, the Arab countries are likely to continue taking their own path in opposing Iran, coordinating increasingly less with the United States. But, given these states’ inherent vulnerabilities with respect to Iran, the nature of their responses may end up being deeply destabilising.

The natural tendency of the Arab countries is to support groups that are capable of fighting Iran’s proxies, that are motivated, and that have an ideology that sustains their ability to mobilise and recruit. All these point to favouring Islamists or Salafists, even if the Saudis are keen not to see Al Qaeda and its affiliates gaining in strength.

As regional support for Islamist groups has shown in Syria, the outcome can backfire. First of all, different countries have bolstered different groups, creating a fragmented Syrian opposition with contending allegiances. Second, such groups almost inevitably embark on conflicts based on religion, unleashing one of the most destructive forces in the region: sectarianism.

And third, it is difficult to rally international backing for any campaign led by Islamists and that heightens sectarian violence. This could widen the rift between western states and Arab regimes – hampering collective efforts to contain Iranian power.

These factors will not dissuade Arab leaders from favouring Islamist groups against Iran and its allies. This outcome will further exacerbate sectarian divisions around the region, playing to the advantage of extremists, even those opposed by Arab states. Such a situation almost guarantees that Arab insecurities, unless they are properly addressed, will lead to a worsening of regional instability.

Like it or hate it, the US has for over two decades been the primary political conductor in the Middle East, injecting an element of predictability into the region and preserving its balance of power. Mr Obama, by refusing to follow the lead of other administrations, has pushed regional states to pursue their interests whatever the cost, even as Washington fails to impose red lines on behaviour.

By resisting involving itself more deeply in Middle Eastern matters today, the Obama administration is only helping create a volatile environment that makes more probable its involvement tomorrow. That’s because as regional insecurity overwhelms America’s allies, it will be next to impossible for Washington to do nothing.

Foreign policy is not a menu from which one demurely chooses; it imposes sudden new situations with which decision-makers have to grapple and must turn to their advantage. Mr Obama hasn’t grasped this, and he doesn’t seem to appreciate that failing to address a range of regional disagreements with Iran may ultimately bring about the very situations the administration has been so eager to avoid.

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