Friday, July 31, 2015

Iran in a bubble - What the American debate over the nuclear deal misses

As the American Congress prepares to vote on the recent nuclear deal with Iran, the silly season has set in. Worse, next year is an election year, so there are no limits to what candidates are willing to say to enhance their chances.

The prize for most ludicrous observation goes to Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee, who told Breitbart last weekend: “It is so naive that [President Barack Obama] would trust the Iranians. By doing so, he will take the Israelis and march them to the door of the oven. This is the most idiotic thing, this Iran deal. It should be rejected by both Democrats and Republicans in Congress and by the American people.”

The comment provoked hilarity among people who felt that Huckabee’s Holocaust reference was over the top. It was, not only because the comparison was ridiculous, but because the Americans’ fear for Israel is at odds with the reality of the power balance in the Middle East. It also highlights their indifference toward how the nuclear deal might affect Arab states, which will face its consequences far more than will Israel.

But the Arabs don’t have much of a voice in Washington, so their efforts to derail the deal are unlikely to bear much fruit. Instead, they are hoping that Israel’s allies can do it for them. While it remains unclear whether a vote against the deal could override a presidential veto, polling suggests Americans are less opposed to the Iran deal than opponents are admitting.

For example, a Public Policy Polling survey indicates that 54% of those polled support the deal, while 38% oppose it. The poll also shows there are no potential negative repercussions for those in Congress approving the deal, with 62% of respondents saying that if their representatives vote in favor, they will either be more likely to vote for them or it won’t make a difference in their future voting.

J Street, the liberal Jewish group that supports a two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, asked GBA Strategies to conduct a poll on the attitude of American Jews toward the nuclear accord. According to the survey results, Jews support the deal by a wide margin of 60% to 40%.

Polling can be tricky and other polls have shown more ambiguous results. But the real problem is that the nuclear deal has now been sucked into the American bubble — its value judged entirely on the basis of how it plays out in the internal contest of American disputation, where arguments both for and against are frequently unrelated to realities on the ground.

While Israel opposes the agreement, it is likely to feel less of an impact than the Arab countries, where Iran is already exerting major political influence today. That’s not to say Israel will not have to adapt to an Iran empowered by the lifting of sanctions, but Israel is a nuclear state, with a counter-strike capability of its own located on its submarines and far more nuclear weapons than Iran can ever hope to build in the foreseeable future.

The real threat lies elsewhere. The lifting of sanctions will release funds permitting Tehran to pursue its regional agenda with much greater ease. That means there will be more money to fund the regime of Bashar al-Assad, which now appears to have formally adopted a policy of partition in Syria, as the speech of the Syrian president made clear last weekend. Syria’s war will only drag on, amid widespread apathy in America.

It means that Iran will continue to back Hezbollah operations in Lebanon, allowing it to further reinforce a parallel structure to that of the state while pursuing its battles around the region.

It means Iran will continue to reinforce Shiite militias in Iraq that have behaved independently of the government in Baghdad, blocking the emergence of a sovereign Iraqi state.

All this is off the radar in the United States. And only a few commentators have raised a related issue bringing together anxieties about Israel and what the nuclear deal means for Iran’s regional power. That is whether the administration has fundamentally shifted in its outlook on regional alliances. In other words, would improved ties with Tehran mean that the United States will accept Iran as a major partner in the region, one with which it can jointly address major crises?

Certainly there is some justification for such a worry among Washington’s tradition regional allies, including Israel and Saudi Arabia. As Tony Badran, who has covered the topic extensively, recently wrote on this site: “Obama wants to integrate Iran into a regional concert system presumably based on ‘equilibrium.’ However, this would be akin to establishing equilibrium in Europe at the height of Napoleon’s power.”

The point is well taken. If Obama, as a foreign policy ‘realist,’ is indeed interested in a new balance in the Middle East, then he must ensure that there is a balance in the first place to which he can then hold the Iranians. However, there is none, and handing Iran the financial means and political cover to challenge any new balance makes the proposition irrelevant.

Obama has failed to explain how he views the future of Iran in the Middle East, and America’s response to this, given the president’s strenuous efforts to disengage from the region. Those are the most important questions Congress must clarify.

But Congress has a problem. The tribulations of the Middle East are of little interest to its members, and even less to their voters. What happens in Aleppo, Beirut or Diyali might as well take place on the moon for all they care. But that is the discussion Americans should be having, and that Obama seeks to avoid. 

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