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We’ve Seen This Before

Obama’s Middle East debacle.

Nov 25, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 11 • By MICHAEL DORAN
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Obama undoubtedly places Iran in an identical frame. President Hassan Rouhani and foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif are signaling to the United States that, if it will compromise on the nuclear program, a historic reconciliation is possible. “I think everybody would love to see Iran rejoin the community of nations and be a constructive contributor to things,” Kerry said in a recent interview. For Kerry and Obama, Iran today is what China was for Nixon in 1968—not an adversary, but a potential friend.

For Israel and Saudi Arabia, however, Iran is nothing if not an enemy. The Middle East political landscape is today defined by, in addition to Israel, two warring alliance systems. Call them the horizontal and vertical axes. Iran leads the horizontal axis, which also includes Syria and Hezbollah. Despite the crippling sanctions on Iran, the horizontal axis’s power is on the rise in the region, much to the alarm of the vertical axis—Saudi Arabia, the Gulf sheikhdoms, Jordan, and Turkey. The two axes intersect violently in Syria. 

For America’s allies the conflict in Syria is a zero-sum game, the defining battle for the future of the regional order. Much to their consternation, however, Washington refuses to take a side. The Obama administration has given Iran a pass in Syria, much as Eisenhower turned a blind eye to Nasser’s regional ambitions. In a recent interview, Kerry was asked whether, in his talks with Iranian officials, he had raised concerns about their support for Hezbollah. “We’re not there yet,” he said. “We’re not in a larger discussion. We’re not having a geopolitical conversation right now.” 

But the powers of the region remain very much prisoners of the map. Iran is no exception. Like its rivals, it regards the Syria conflict as zero-sum. Israel and the vertical axis are therefore convinced that Iran’s goal is simply to neutralize America. It offers the promises of a historic reconciliation—at some distant point in the future—so that today it can pursue its regional ambitions with a free hand.

With stunning success, Nasser pursued an identical strategy. This fact leads one to wonder whether Israel today has a war option analogous to the one that it exercised in 1956. It is not at all clear that it does. But the number of American allies who are disaffected with the Obama administration grows by the day. It would be a grave mistake to assume, as the Obama administration seems to be doing, that Israel, Saudi Arabia, and others will sit down quietly and trust Washington to look after their best interests. Expect the unexpected.

Michael Doran is the Roger Hertog senior fellow in the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. He is finishing a book on Eisenhower and the Middle East.

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