In the wake of the interim deal that the White House signed with Iran Saturday, Secretary of State John Kerry said on the Sunday talk shows that nothing has changed, not with the American position in the Middle East, or with the U.S. alliance system in the region. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is screaming his head off, but Israel has nothing to worry about says Kerry. “Israel and the United States absolutely share the same goal here. There is no daylight between us.”
In reality, the deal implicitly acknowledging Tehran’s right to enrich uranium puts the White House and its regional partners, especially Israel and Saudi Arabia, in opposing camps. In order to protect his deal with the Iranians, Obama will have to clamp down on these American allies, an action that Iran may well see as signaling carte blanche to pursuse its various regional interests, particularly in Syria. In order to protect their own interests, Jerusalem and Riyadh may have no choice but to put as much daylight as possible between themselves and the White House.
The interim deal makes official what Obama has long been pursuing—a strategic realignment integrating Iran into a multipolar Middle East, where once traditional American allies will no longer enjoy a privileged relationship with Washington. The signs pointing to Obama’s new configuration, downgrading Saudi Arabia and Israel and upgrading Iran, have long been apparent, if incredible. For instance, when Obama backed off on striking Bashar al-Assad and instead signed on to a Russian initiative to rid the Syrian despot of his chemical weapons, the president not only angered U.S. Arab allies, but turned against them and partnered instead with Assad and Putin. When Obama announced at the U.N. General Assembly in September that negotiations with Iran were an administration priority, he not only turned Iranian president Hassan Rouhani into a partner, but also sheltered Iran from any potential Israeli attack. In short, Obama switched sides.
However, it is only in the last few days with reports of secret U.S.-Iran talks conducted behind the backs of U.S. allies that we understand to what extent Obama abandoned the traditional regional order. Again, it’s useful to consider the White House’s Syria policy, not least because this has been Tehran’s key battleground for the last two and a half years. Accordingly, Obama saw Syria not in terms of how the outcome might affect traditional allies, but primarily in light of how it might affect his negotiations with Iran.
If some administration officials believed Obama seemed “impatient or disengaged” during deliberations on Syria policy, that’s only evidence that they hadn’t been clued in yet regarding the White House’s secret Iran talks. Discussions about arming the Syrian rebels or striking Assad were irrelevant because Obama’s mind had been made up long before. Similarly, it’s now clear that the so-called “walk-and-talk” in the Rose Garden where Obama ostensibly changed his mind after bouncing ideas off of White House chief of staff Denis McDonough was nothing but a clever piece of stagecraft out of The West Wing. There was never any chance Obama was going to strike Assad because he feared that targeting an Iranian ally, one in whom Tehran had invested men, weapons and money to ensure his survival, might anger his negotiating partner.