The great powers and Iran have now agreed upon a temporary nuclear deal, pending a more permanent agreement in six months, which offers relief to Iran on crushing U.S.-European economic sanctions in exchange for which Iran has made modest concessions which may slightly slow their inevitable development of nuclear weapons. While the substance of the deal itself is being attacked by critics, it has other secondary problems: it sends the wrong messages to American adversaries and allies alike, it undermines the teetering alliance structure which has kept relative stability in the Middle East for 60 years, it alters the balance of regional power in the Middle East, and may unintentionally further accelerate the American departure from active leadership in the region. Diplomacy is not just about negotiating agreements, but on anticipating their consequences before they are made. If the White House thought through these consequences before they entered into this agreement with Iran, we have no evidence of it.
Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States are shocked, according to the Washington Post’s David Ignatius, that their one time ally, the United States, would negotiate an agreement Iran with minimal consultation and apparently ignoring their vital national interests. They understandably see Iranian adventurism as an existential threat to their internal security and survival. The Israeli government of Benjamin Netanyahu cannot be described as in shock over the deal as the 50 year alliance between Israel and the United States has been has been unraveling for the five years of the Obama Presidency, but the agreement does confirm Israeli fears that they can no longer depend on the United States to protect Israeli’s vital interests. In the past Israel has shown restraint in dealing with Iran and other threats, because they believed the United States had their back. One of the messages the deal sends to Israel, no matter who is leading the government, is that they are on their own. While Jordan and Turkey have expressed tepid support for the agreement after arm twisting by the United States, their leaders have repeatedly warned of rising Iranian adventurism and subversion.
The Iranian nuclear deal has sent a second shock wave through the Middle East, the realignment of Saudi and Gulf State interests with those of their one time bitter enemy, Israel, the first of what will be one of many unintended outcomes of the negotiations. We need not speculate on this realignment, as it is unfolding openly in front of us. Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, an influential member of the Saudi Royal family without government portfolio, told the Wall Street Journal’s Matthew Kaminski that, “for the first time, Saudi Arabian interests and Israe[‘s] are almost parallel. It’s incredible.” The notion of an alignment of interests, let alone a de facto alliance, between Israel and Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States would have seemed preposterous a year ago, could now be possible because of the nuclear deal. While on the face of it this might seem good for Israel, this is by no means clear. Saudi Arabia may push Israel to take military action against Iran, rather than urging restraint as the United States has been doing, given that nothing in the agreement places any constraints on Iranian attempts to destabilize internally the Gulf States, Saudi Arabia or Israel.
The Obama White House appears to believe that ending Iran’s international isolation will marginalize more extreme factions within the ruling elite in Tehran, and strengthen supposed “moderates.” The very opposite is the more likely outcome of the deal, as no improvement in the Iranian economy is likely, as sanctions relief will take much longer for the U.S. to implement than the Iranians realize, if the sanctions are relaxed at all. Neither political party in the U.S. Congress is likely to cooperate with the White House efforts to loosen the Iranian sanctions regime which are notoriously difficult to dismantle even when there is widespread agreement in Washington to do so. In any case, American experience in making deals with other brutal, hardline, so-called rogue regimes is not a happy one.
Over past decade the United States promised the hardline Islamist government in Sudan, on at least three occasions – in 2003, 2006 and 2010 – that sanctions would be phased out if they were cooperative on negotiating ends to various internal conflicts. The U.S. never relaxed the sanctions regime on Sudan. In each case there were legitimate reasons for the U.S. reluctance to carry out its side of the bargain. Hardline factions drove Khartoum to commit more atrocities in Darfur, to destabilize the South after independence and to initiate murderous bombing campaigns in other unstable regions of the North to crush any opposition to its rule. No American government, no matter who led it, could initiate a dismantling Sudan sanctions under these circumstances. So the hardliners trumped the moderates as the sanctions remained in place.
Hardliners in Tehran will do very much what hardliners did in Khartoum: They will undermine the nuclear deal (which they oppose with or without the relaxation of sanctions) with a similar outcome to what happened in Sudan. Iran’s subversive activities around the world may well grow more aggressive rather than less. In dictatorships, hardliners nearly always trump moderates, precisely because they are hard-line – they are more ruthless, more suspicious of the outside world, more violent, and more brutal than so-called moderates.
One major difference between American diplomacy in Sudan versus Iran, is that the United States did not alienate any of its long-time allies by making deals with Khartoum. American diplomacy to end multiple civil wars in Sudan posed no downside risk; the nuclear deal with Iran is another matter entirely. The United States is at risk of collapsing our 50 year alliance structure in the Middle East for a nuclear deal with Iran which is unlikely to yield any salutary results for American interests in the region, as we have no evidence that Iranian intentions have changed. Their interest in a nuclear deal is a function of the crushing economic sanctions, not a change of the fundamental nature of the Iranian state.
Meanwhile, the emerging Saudi-Israeli de facto strategic alliance in the Middle East will not just sit and do nothing in the face of the deal; they will make their own plans and implement their own strategies to protect themselves in the absence of a reliable, powerful America guarding their interests. As they feel more insecure they will take greater risks to counter Iranian adventurism and threats, particularly after the Iran detonates its first nuclear device which now seems inevitable. Before the present deal the threat of U.S. military action against Iran was always on the table, but given the deal that option has now been effectively neutralized. Given declining American influence and the unraveling of its alliance system in the region, it will be unable to guide or even influence, the direction of events. The U.S. may find itself without reliable allies in the next crisis in the region.
The Obama administration has naively negotiated an agreement with a rogue regime without considering the unintended consequences of its diplomacy hoping the regime will change its bad behavior. Hope is not a policy.