The recent announcement of an agreement in principle between the United States and Iran on the future of the Iranian nuclear program portends dramatic changes in the future of the United States’ relationship with the Middle East. From the perspective of President Obama, a deal with Iran regarding its nuclear program was required, not only to achieve his “legacy,” but as a conditional precedent to allow the United States to complete its strategic pivot away from the Middle East to the Pacific, something that has been a stated goal of the Obama administration since 2011.
The advantages of disengagement with the Middle East and re-engagement with East Asia should be too obvious to point out, but they are worth repeating. The Arab states of the Middle East are basket cases, not only in terms of their catastrophic development records, which have been extensively documented by the United Nations Arab Human Development Reports, but also by the behavior of Arab societies over the last four years of the Arab Spring. Instead of leading to democracy (with the possible exception of Tunisia), removing authoritarian regimes in the Arab region led to unprecedented political, religious and civil strife. Even a country like Egypt, which has a long history as a unified state, lacks meaningful geographical divisions with 99% of its population living along the Nile Valley, and has ethnic, linguistic and religious homogeneity, has seen thousands killed since 2011. The more heterogeneous Levant is now engaged in a genocidal war of all against all, with one-third of the Syrian population living as refugees, and over 200,000 deaths since 2011. This mass death and bloodletting has, unfortunately, confirmed the worst Orientalist stereotypes of Arabs as people who are psychologically and culturally incapable of peaceful, democratic politics and therefore require authoritarian government. The fact that the Obama administration chose to negotiate with Iran a peaceful resolution of its controversial nuclear program over the objections of its Arab allies shows the relative indifference of the United States to the fate of the Arabs, and is a confirmation of their fading relevance to international affairs. In the best case, it would take the Arabs a generation to climb out of the hole that they have placed themselves in, but no one, including the Arabs themselves, believes they will stop making their own hole deeper. Given these realities, it is difficult to disagree with the Obama administration’s conclusion that involvement in the Arab world is a losing proposition, and that the United States should just cut its losses. The Iran deal, then, sends a direct signal to the Arab world that as far as the US is concerned, they are free to destroy themselves as they wish without outside interference. The US’s support for the Saudi-sponsored anti-Houthi coalition in Yemen should be seen in this light, not as a fundamental departure or even contradiction with the growing détente with Iran.
The deal also signals to Israel that while the US is willing to ensure its hegemonic status vis-à-vis the hapless Palestinians and other Arabs, it is not going to allow it to dictate US policies throughout the region. Accordingly, Israel is free to pursue its maximalist policies without US interference, provided it is prepared to pay the price of international opprobrium and the continued risk of rocket attacks from resistance groups such as Hizbullah and Hamas. The United States will obviously not support such groups directly, but neither will it carry Israel’s water for it as it seeks to absorb the entirety of historical Palestine. As long as it chooses to pursue this policy, and refuses to negotiate a meaningful two-state solution with the Palestinians, it will have to live with the threat posed by Iranian-sponsored proxy groups.
Iran, if it plays its cards right, is now on the verge of becoming the dominant state in the Near East. Having secured its nuclear program, and more importantly, the tacit recognition of its status in the Near East by the United States, Iran may be free to negotiate a meaningful peace of the so-called Sunni-Shi’i war (but more accurately, the Iran-Saudi proxy war) that has divided the Middle East since the success of the Iranian Revolution in 1979. To take full advantage of the potential this deal offers Iran, it will have to ally itself with Turkey to bring peace to Syria by empowering reasonable elements of Syria’s diverse population. If Turkey and Iran can come to an agreement about the future of Syria, then it will not be surprising to see an end both to Sunni extremist militancy in Syria and the end of the Asad regime. Such an agreement would be in the long-term interests of both Turkey and Iran, neither of which has an interest in the conflict in Syria continuing, and both of which stand to reap most of the economic benefits of peace in the region.
We can speak then of new zones of influence that will appear in the wake of this agreement (or more precisely, a new understanding of zones of influence which as a de fact matter are already in place): Israel will continue to dominate historical Palestine and Jordan; Syria will fall under Turkey’s sphere of influence; and Iraq will be a virtual province of Iran. Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, meanwhile, will be left to deal with the deteriorating conditions in Yemen and Egypt, as well as their own internal problems. But with the continuing glut in world oil supplies, and the prospect that new technologies of oil production have forever changed the global oil economy, there is little prospect that the Arab oil states, or those Arab states whose fortunes are hitched with the Gulf economy, e.g., Egypt and Yemen, will have much clout in influencing the future course of events in the region. The only political goal in the Arab region that even seems to have an air of plausibility is to avoid complete disintegration, but even that seems to be far-fetched.