The left’s obeisance to anything President Obama negotiates in the way of a deal with Iran is built on one extremely shaky premise: that anything else amounts to beating the drums of war. This is an unserious assertion, not only because we have managed not to be at war with Iran all these years no deal has been in place, or because one obvious alternative to a deal or war is a reinstatement of the very economic sanctions that drove Iran to the negotiating table in the first place, but also because another alternative to a bad deal is, as Benjamin Netanyahu inconveniently made clear in his speech before Congress in March, a good deal.
But the pro-deal argument also overlooks one possibility that is more grave than all the others: that a deal would eventually make war more, rather than less, likely.
That’s one way to read the high-stakes geopolitics playing out before a U.S.-Gulf states summit this week. The Saudis took the unusual — and, in the hyper-nuanced world of diplomacy, blatant — step of allowing the White House to announce on Friday that King Salman would attend the summit, only to announce themselves over the weekend that he would not make the trip. The New York Times reports that “some Arab officials said his decision not to attend reflected a broader disappointment that Mr. Obama would not be offering much concrete security assistance at the meeting.” The alternate explanations in the story — that Saudi Arabia is waging an air campaign against Iran-backed rebels in Yemen (more on this in a moment), or that the king hasn’t traveled abroad very much — don’t hold up, as neither fact was suddenly discovered this weekend. Salman’s absence is amplified by the decisions of the leaders of Bahrain, Oman and the United Arab Emirates to skip the meeting as well.
The Washington Post reports the Gulf states are sending mixed signals about just how concrete any security assurances need to be. But what’s important here is their feeling the need to extract any kind of new assurances at all from the superpower that has more or less guaranteed their security since the days of FDR. After all, George H.W. Bush didn’t send half a million American soldiers to the Persian Gulf just to reverse Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, but also to keep Saddam’s army out of Saudi Arabia. What’s changed? More than anything else, what’s changed is the official U.S. position on Iran’s nuclear program, by way of the deal Obama seems hell-bent on striking.
While Obama and supporters of a potential deal talk it up as enhancing peace, Iran’s neighbors are girding for war. The Wall Street Journal reports arms purchases by Saudi Arabia and other Arab nations are up 50 percent in the past year, from French fighter jets to a U.S. system for defense against ballistic missiles. Those are not the actions of nations that believe peace is in the offing. Rather, they’re the actions of nations that are already in a kind of proxy war with Iran in Yemen — where Shiite rebels have overrun the capital and the U.S., which as recently as January was building ties with the rebels, has taken to warning Iran not to ship more arms to them — and believe Iran will be emboldened rather than chastened by a deal with Washington.
Given all this, the Gulf states can be forgiven for not thinking their long-time alliance with America means what it once did. And we don’t know what kind of decisions, and perhaps miscalculations, to expect from countries that feel threatened and are operating under a suddenly different set of security assumptions.
That is not to say we should offer blanket security guarantees to these countries. Not at all. Our domestic energy renaissance offers us a once-in-many-generations chance to rethink our interests in the Middle East and how those are best pursued. Certainly, nothing along the lines of a NATO-type deal should be on the table, especially when it is unclear whether we may be called upon to honor our deal with NATO in the Baltic states on Russia’s border (and perhaps in its sights).
But again, the point is that such assurances are being sought in the first place. This possible deal with Iran is making the region less settled, not more; more prone to saber-rattling and an arms race, not less. And we haven’t even discussed the calculations being made in Israel while these talks have gone on. This week’s summit snubs better set off some alarms within the Obama administration that peace may not be the most likely result of a putative peace deal with Iran.