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.
Virtually every move Obama made regarding Syria was calculated to keep the Iranians at the table, while he fended off domestic opponents on Capitol Hill and circled traditional allies. The White House engineered an almost two-year long information campaign exaggerating the al Qaeda element in Syrian rebel units to push back against U.S. domestic critics like Sen. John McCain demanding more robust assistance in helping to topple Assad. In the same vein, the White House moved against Gulf Arab allies, like Kuwait, to close down private donors and charities from assisting Salafist groups fighting Assad. Turkey was also told to get in line behind the administration. After several leaks suggesting that Ankara’s intelligence chief Hakan Fidan was reckless and untrustworthy, the Turks showed their willingness to comply with the White House’s pro-Iran policy by firing on Salafist units to whom they’d previously turned a blind eye. What we see now is that the White House’s problem with Salafist fighters in Syria was less with their ideological character than the fact they were instruments—and among the most effective—employed by a Sunni consortium determined to crush an Iranian ally. To show his bona fides to Tehran, Obama not only refrained from assisting rebel units, he prevented others from doing so as well.
After all, the administration collaborated with an Islamist organization every bit as vicious, and much more dangerous than al Qaeda, when the CIA shared information with Hezbollah, Iran’s long arm in Lebanon, to warn of an impending al Qaeda operation against Hezbollah targets. If the White House never tipped off Hezbollah or the Iranians prior to Israeli strikes on convoys carrying strategic weapons from Syria to Hezbollah, they nonetheless repeatedly leaked to the press after the fact that Israel was responsible. Jerusalem was frantic, fearing that broadcasting their military operations might compel Assad or Hezbollah to seek retaliation. But the administration had other priorities than to keep their traditional ally out of war—to indicate to the Iranians that, if necessary, Obama was able and willing to deter the Israelis.
It should hardly come as any surprise that, among other “diplomatic possibilities” the interim deal has made available, the White House is now talking about working with Iran to bring the Syrian war to an end. At this stage, because Obama cannot afford even the appearance of a fallout with his negotiating partner, cooperation with Iran over Syria can mean nothing but U.S. backing for the Baathist regime. Now that Iran has a free hand in Syria—and at least $8 billion in sanctions relief to prosecute its war—the administration will likely move to shut down the opposition’s support networks, especially Saudi Arabia. Presumably the White House has convinced itself that wrapping up the Syrian civil war is part of the stability dividend due from the interim deal with Iran. Everyone in the Middle East is now safer—even those in Jerusalem and Riyadh complaining most loudly—and borders are once again stable.
But traditional U.S. allies cannot afford to entertain the same fantasies. For the refugee crisis will not be resolved, and millions of Sunnis will not return from exile in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey to make their homes under a man who slaughtered their kin. The Saudis and the other Gulf Cooperation Council states will still have cause to fear an expansive Islamic Republic subverting the regional order at their expense. And Iran and Syria will continue to transfer strategic weapons to Hezbollah because the Party of God is still a major part of Iran’s deterrence against an Israeli attack on its nuclear weapons facilities.
The problem for American allies is less strategic than a function of imagination. All of the signs are there and have been there since at least the beginning of the Syrian civil war. The White House abandoned its traditional regional allies because it seeks a strategic realignment in the Middle East. Nonetheless, Israel and Saudi Arabia have plenty of resources—financial and military—to manage the Iranian challenge. Before that, however, they’ll have to come to terms with what they previously thought unimaginable, for while they slept the region has shifted under their feet. Now they must awaken to the new reality. To go against Iran doesn’t mean going without the United States; it means going against it. It may be that the much more dangerous choice is to not put as much daylight as possible between themselves and the White House.