On November 20, negotiations over Iran’s nuclear weapons program recommence in Geneva. The last round two weeks ago ended with egg on the Obama administration’s face after Secretary of State John Kerry failed to clear “bracketed text” with his own side in the talks. French foreign minister Laurent Fabius is rightly credited with saving the day and stopping the White House from making a deal that would have given the Iranians virtually everything they wanted for nothing but empty promises. “The deal of the century,” Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu called it.
While administration officials spent the last week on Capitol Hill warning lawmakers that an additional round of sanctions on Iran would limit the opportunities for diplomacy and inevitably lead to war, traditional American allies were pushing back. France, Israel, and Saudi Arabia, among others, are working together to figure out how to avert a catastrophe—for them and for the United States.
So how did we reach a point where the United States is working with the Islamic Republic of Iran, while longtime U.S. allies are not only outside the circle but trying to block an American-Iranian condominium over the Middle East? A pretty good idea can be gleaned by taking the advice given by Politico in an article detailing Obama’s habit of meeting with prestigious reporters and columnists to test-drive his ideas: “If you want to know where the president stands on a foreign policy issue . . . read the latest column by David Ignatius” or Thomas Friedman, another frequent sounding-board for the president.
The Geneva negotiations are part of the administration’s larger move to integrate Tehran into what Ignatius describes as a “new regional framework” for security. If Israel and Saudi Arabia don’t like the prospect of having the region divided as their superpower patron courts a dangerous adversary, they’ll just have to suck it up. Eventually they’ll come to see the world as Obama does, and realize that it’s better for them. And in the meantime, as Friedman puts it, the Obama team isn’t “hired lawyers negotiating a deal for Israel and the Sunni Gulf Arabs.” The United States has its own interests, which are best pursued by striking a deal with Iran. The two columnists, channeling the administration, contend that integrating Iran into a larger regional architecture could put an end to the Sunni-Shiite war now threatening to engulf the Middle East.
All of this assumes, of course, that Iran sees things the way Obama does—that foreign policy is not a zero-sum game, that the parties involved understand they are joint stakeholders in a stable world. The problem with this theory is not simply that it seems implausible on the face of it—who in the Middle East does not have a zero-sum view of the world?—but that we’ve already seen it fail in Syria.
In reversing his decision to strike Bashar al-Assad, Obama showed both allies and adversaries that he did not keep his word, that he bluffed. And in signing on to the Russian initiative to rid Assad of his chemical weapons, Obama showed he was weak and susceptible to manipulation.
Many of America’s regional partners saw this as a dangerous foreshadowing of how the administration might handle Iran negotiations, but the White House and its supporters dismissed their concerns. Obama wasn’t going to abandon Israel or Saudi Arabia when the going gets tough, they argued. Besides, the zero-sum thinking of Middle Easterners is simply wrong. The world is much more complicated than that; it’s multipolar. This has been a favorite buzzword of the administration from the start. But it’s a better description of the world they want to usher in—with the United States demoted from superpower status—than the world as it actually is. Indeed, Obama’s Syria policy has shown his idea of a multipolar Middle East to be a fantasy. Every token of U.S. weakness has proved a boon for U.S. adversaries and an injury to U.S. allies.
It’s curious that a two-and-a-half-year-long conflict that has already cost 150,000 lives has virtually faded from the news. There is no more U.S. debate over Syria policy because the matter has been decided—Obama will not aid the rebels. But it is here that we see everything we need to know about the administration’s Iran policy and regional strategy. By ensuring that Assad remains in power to hand over his chemical weapons, until at least the next Syrian presidential election, Obama protected Iranian and Russian interests in Syria while undermining those of his own country and its allies, including Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, as well as Turkey, Jordan, and Israel. The administration has pushed Turkey and the Gulf states to stop supporting al Qaeda-affiliated rebel units and other extremist groups inside Syria. That would make sense—if only the White House were helping to build a more moderate alliance to take down Assad.
But Obama doesn’t really want to topple Assad because that would suggest to Tehran that all his talk of multi-polarity is in bad faith. Why would the Iranians negotiate with the administration if they already had proof that Obama doesn’t really want to integrate them into a new regional order, but just wants to defeat them on behalf of his allies under the existing order?
Unfortunately for Obama’s fantasies of multipolarity, it’s still a world of states primarily driven by interests. Because of the Syrian civil war, Jordan and Turkey have serious refugee problems. It’s not that their governments necessarily see Assad’s loss as their gain, or his triumph as their tragedy, but that the refugee crisis threatens to destabilize their ruling parties and their countries. Obama’s vision of a multipolar region is little help. An accommodation, for instance, between Syrian opposition parties and a man who slaughtered many thousands of Sunnis is unlikely to send the millions of Syrians in exile back home. Only the defeat of Assad and new moderate Sunni leadership in Damascus will end the crisis.
The White House’s handling of Israel during the Syrian conflict is even more instructive. Time and again, administration officials have leaked information about Israeli strikes on Syrian, Iranian, and Hezbollah targets to the press. If the administration is hoping to bolster its credentials as an impartial actor that doesn’t take sides, Iran may appreciate the gesture but Israel surely doesn’t. For Israel, the transfer of strategic weapons from Syria to Hezbollah constitutes a threat to national security.
Obama himself seems to run hot and cold on the logic of multi-polarity. Ideologically he may be committed to a world where superpowers don’t run things. But for the moment he still wants to force his vision on, say, Israel and Saudi Arabia. Ironically, he still wants his allies to march to his tune. White House supporters have argued that the Israelis and Saudis finally have no choice but to do what the United States wants. But that’s simply not true. In recent weeks there have been reports that both are exploring other possible partners, namely Russia and China. Neither Moscow nor Beijing has a blue-water navy, to be sure, but the U.S. order of battle in the Middle East is not the only possible configuration. Russia—which has proven in Syria that it stands by its friends, with arms, diplomacy, and political cover—might provide accommodations that assure both Jerusalem’s and Riyadh’s security needs.
Allies, after all, are not simply products of power; they are also its signature. The United States owes much of its might to the nature and number of its alliances. Obama seems not to understand that if you really believe in a multi-polar world, if you treat your allies like anyone else, if you treat them the way you do your adversaries, then they may make different choices. He seems not to see that in forging a realignment of the region, it is the United States that is most likely to be realigned, friendless, doubted, and diminished.