President Obama is overseeing a radical rupture with past American policy in the Middle East. Now that it has been confirmed that Washington has been secretly negotiating with the Iranians for a year, deliberately cutting out its allies, it has become apparent that the White House is determined to extract the US from the region and upend the American order that has been in place for decades. In the process, the Obama administration is building up Iran at the expense of historical partners.
Throughout the Cold War, the US saw itself as the leader of an alliance in the region in opposition to the revolutionary states in the Soviet orbit. US policy was geared not toward coexistence with Soviet influence and its revolutionary satellites, but rather toward rolling them back. As former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger once explained, the “priority was to get the Soviets out of the Middle East.”
The 1979 Islamic revolution added another revisionist actor intent on undermining the pro-American order. Iran presented itself as the leader of an alternative system, and developed an alliance network of its own, the so-called “resistance axis.” With training, funding, and arms from Tehran, this axis actively worked to subvert America’s Arab allies and waged war on Israel. The US still continued to see itself, and was likewise regarded, as the leader of the alliance of status quo states in confrontation with the revisionist resistance axis.
Until now, that is. Under Obama, this paradigm has seemingly ended. Obama is apparently unconcerned with the careful maintenance of allies. For instance, consider the fact the White House kept its allies in the dark about its secret talks with the Iranians, and even maneuvered to box in various allies, like Israel, Saudi Arabia, and France, and to limit their maneuverability. Then there’s Syria. Instead of leading the pro-US bloc to roll back the Iranian axis, Obama doggedly shot down his allies’ concerns and dismissed their entreaties for US-led action.
But, as is now evident, this was not merely a matter of poor alliance maintenance. We now understand that Obama’s decisions in Syria over the last two and a half years were all geared toward the deal with Iran. Obama was pursuing a specific vision – a new regional configuration. The sales pitch is that the new framework puts in place a balanced structure of stakeholders, including Iran, thereby stabilizing the region. This in turn would enable Obama to achieve his principal objective of extracting the US from the Middle East.
However, this lofty picture, which is being marketed by the White House’s sympathizers in the media, will bear no resemblance to how things will unfold in reality – how they’re already playing out. That’s because Obama is pursuing a course that radically runs counter to historical US policy. Whereas in the past the US led and consolidated a bloc of allied status quo states against revisionist actors, Obama is now forcing the lead revisionist state down the throat of US allies.
The notion that this framework will create equilibrium is fanciful, as is the prospect that the US will maintain equal distance from Iran and its old partners. In fact, as already evident from its Syria policy and the handling of allies during and in the months leading up to the Geneva deal, the US is likely to elevate Iran’s interests over those of its now-downgraded traditional allies.
There are various reasons for this. Having built up expectations for a historical détente, the Obama administration is now effectively hostage to the deal with Tehran. Already, in order to keep the Iranians at the table, Obama has made steep concessions not only on the nuclear file, but also in the regional balance of power, most evidently in Syria. As it proceeds with its bid to include Iran as a stakeholder in the regional security framework, the Obama administration will likely continue to elevate Tehran’s profile. This has already begun in Syria, where the US has engaged the Iranians over relief efforts in the war-torn country.
Undergirding Obama’s approach is the belief that Iran could, in the words of Secretary of State John Kerry, “rejoin the community of nations and be a constructive contributor.” Having rejected confrontation as an option, the Obama administration, by default, is looking to entice Iran, as columnist David Ignatius put it, arguably echoing the White House, to “temper its revolutionary dreams.” After all, as the US president has explained, this is not a “zero-sum endeavor.”
Needless to say, Iran’s vision for the region bears no resemblance to Obama’s. It does not see itself as a partner of the US, but as an alternative. It understands the struggle for primacy in the region precisely in zero-sum terms – again, as evident in its all-in war in Syria. And so, Tehran will opportunistically play along with the White House, taking advantage of its newfound legitimacy bestowed by the US in order to undermine its regional adversaries – Washington’s old allies.
Since no one shares Obama’s proposition that this struggle is not a zero-sum endeavor, it is unlikely that Israel or Saudi Arabia will simply sit by and watch the US advance Iran’s influence, thereby increasing the threat to their security. Accordingly, these actors will resist the new American structure, which is precisely why, much as he has done over the last three years, Obama will fall on the side of Iran, pressuring and boxing in Saudi Arabia and Israel to protect his détente with Tehran. Consider how the White House’s focus is now on muzzling the Saudis and Israelis to make sure nothing gets in the way of finalizing the agreement with the Iranians. Mideast scholar Michael Doran best described where this policy will inevitably lead: “We’ve lost all sense of common purpose with anyone except Iran.”
Obama needs this partnership with the Iranians to achieve his principal objective in the region: extrication. From the first days of his presidency, Obama’s vision of the American relationship with the Middle East has been predicated on reducing what he saw as an “over-weighted” US profile there. On their way out of the Gulf in the late 1960s, the British sought to leave behind an equilibrium based on balancing twin pillars, Saudi Arabia and Iran. However, back then, before the Islamic Revolution toppled the Shah, both states were status quo powers allied with Western interests. Today, Obama is partnering with an unreconstructed revisionist actor gunning to take America’s place as the regional hegemon. This is nothing short of a radical rupture with historical US policy.
Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He tweets @AcrossTheBay.