Following the coverage of analysis of foreign affairs in our leading media outlets, one occasionally gets the impression that some of the journalists and pundits are either millennials who work under the assumption that the first chapter in world history had been written during the presidency of Barack Obama, or baby boomers who have just woken up from a fifty-year-long coma. “The Shah of Iran? Ronald Reagan? The Yom Kippur War? Never heard about them!”
And I am not reflecting here on the many political obituaries that have been written about German Chancellor Angela Merkel by those experts who seem to be unware that threatening to hold new election is a familiar political tactic when the winning party in a European parliamentary election negotiates a formation of a coalition government with other parties.
What I had in mind is the ongoing fixation with, and excitement sweeping think tankers and others worldwide, over what has been celebrated as an “alliance” between Saudi Arabia and Israel that is supposedly evolving under American guidance.
And according to numerous predictions, it was only a matter of time before the Saudi King lands in Ben-Gurion Airport near Tel-Aviv. Then the Jewish state and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia would join forces as part of a new Middle Eastern NATO to contain, and perhaps even take military action against, the assertive and threatening Islamic Republic of Iran to prevent the creation of the so-called Shiite Crescent.
These reports and speculations, in addition to stories about “secret” meetings between Israelis and Saudis, range from amusing gossip about the growing friendship between Saudi Arabia's young Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and President Donald Trump’s son-in law, Jared Kushner—or if you will, the union between the House of Saud and the Trump-Kushner Dynasty—to more serious “big think” commentaries envisioning a dramatic transformation of the balance of power in the Middle East in the form of a Sunni-Shiite cold or hot war that would change the world as we know it.
In that context, we are being warned to be afraid, very afraid, as we face the specter of the United States being drawn into the conflict between Saudi Arabia and Israel. From there, being maneuvered by both Riyadh and Jerusalem, and Israel’s supporters in Washington, into using the full force of American diplomatic and military power in order to demonstrate to the ayatollahs in Tehran who is now the real boss in the Middle East and to force them to cry uncle.
It’s déjà vu all over again, we are being told. It’s like the eve of the Iraq War all over again. Game, set, and match. And here we are once again stuck in another Middle Eastern military quagmire.
The problem with these and similar analyses and forecasts is that they are confusing a search for stasis with the pursuit of change, a counterrevolution with a revolution, an attempt to return to the pre-Iraq War and pre-Arab Spring status quo in the Middle East with an imaginary project to remake the region.
Which would make sense if you have bought into the fantasies concocted by the neoconservative and liberal internationalist advisors of Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Your conclusion would then be that the mess they had helped create in the Middle East, having devastated its existing balance of power by advancing an illusionary Freedom Agenda, or by trying to ride on the historical waves of the Arab Spring, has become the new status quo that Washington needs to accept as a given.
One could have challenged the foundations of U.S. policy in the Middle East since the end of World War II and the two main rationales for American diplomatic and military intervention there: containing regional and global threats to Western interests in the region—including securing the access to the oil resources in the Persian Gulf—and protecting the security of Israel.
But this strategy has continued to guide both Democratic and Republican U.S. presidents, has enjoyed bipartisan support in Congress and wide public backing for much of the Cold War and its aftermath. It was not reassessed and changed in the aftermath of the Cold War and it still remains in place now.
This was the original reason why Washington partnered with Saudi Arabia and the other oil monarchs, as well as with Iran under the Shah: it was a response to perceived threats from the Soviet Union and from radical governments and movements in the region, like Egypt under the leadership of Arab nationalist Gamal Abdel Nasser; or Iran after its 1979 revolution; or the secular socialist Ba’ath-led dictatorships in Iraq and Syria.
The strategy went through major policy metamorphoses, including: the Eisenhower administration’s effort to form a regional security alliance aimed at Nasser and the Soviets; President Richard Nixon’s “Twin Pillar” policy under which the Shah’s Iran and Saudi Arabia helped maintain the balance of power in the Persian Gulf; the Carter Doctrine that stipulated a U.S. commitment to defend Saudi Arabia against a more assertive Soviet Union and a revolutionary Iran; and the Reagan administration’s efforts to ensure that neither the ayatollahs’ Iran or Saddam Hussein’s Iraq emerge as the dominant power in the Persian Gulf. This last strategy was pursued by both President George H. W. Bush, with his decision to use military power to force Saddam out of Kuwait, and by President Bill Clinton with his “dual containment” policy vis-à-vis Iraq and Iran.
In that context, it was always assumed that since juggling U.S. strategic interests in the Arab world and support for Israel ended-up raising the costs of American engagement in the region, advancing peace between the Jewish state and its Arab neighbors would help reduce those costs.
And indeed, the efforts by President Nixon—and his successor in office, Gerald Ford, and later by President Carter—to end the state of war between Israel and Egypt and co-opt Cairo into the American camp helped achieve those long-term U.S. strategic goals.
American strategy in the Middle East also encouraged two the pro-Western Muslim and non-Arab states, Turkey and Iran, the latter being also a non-Sunni power, to work together with Israel in containing the threats of Nasser’s Egypt and its Soviet ally. It was not surprising, therefore, that America’s partners, the Saudis and the Israelis, have also maintained for a long time some level of cooperation on security and intelligence matters.
A member of the Arab League, Saudi Arabia has supported the Palestinian cause and called for Israeli withdrawal from Arab territories occupied by Israel in 1967, and has led the economic boycott of the Jewish state for many years, although it has not taken active part in the Arab wars with the country. If anything, the Israelis and the Saudis, who both regarded Nasser’s Egypt and secular Arab nationalists as a threat to their interests, worked together behind the scenes to raise the costs of Egypt’s intervention in the civil war in Yemen in the 1960s, in which the anti-monarchist revolutionaries were backed by Cairo and Moscow.
Israel’s military victory in the Six-Day War forced Nasser to eventually withdraw most of the Egyptian troops from Yemen. But at the same time, Israel’s victory also accelerated the radicalization of Arab and Palestinian nationalism, providing Moscow with more opportunities to meddle in the region. This resulted with pressure being applied on the Saudis to support the ensuing Arab diplomatic and military campaigns against Israel led by Egypt.
The revolution in Iran and the Soviet invasion in Afghanistan did create incentives for behind-the-scenes intelligence cooperation between the Israelis and the Saudis. Yet that has never evolved into a solid partnership for a very basic reason: a failure to reach an Israeli-Palestinian settlement. This has precluded and still precludes the establishment of a long-term strategic alliance between Israel and the Arabs in the Middle East.
Things changed after 9/11. After the towers fell, there were ensuing concerns in Washington that U.S. support for the autocrats in the region, as well as for Israel, was igniting anti-American sentiments—including potent forms of terrorism. American policymakers decided that removing the Arab autocrats from power through the use of military force or by accommodating anti-government insurgents, as well as by accelerating the Arab-Israeli peace process, would make it more manageable to pursue its strategy in the region.
Needless to say, that that did not work out as expected. If anything, American policy ended up transforming Iraq from a military power that helped counterbalance Iran in the Persian Gulf into an ally of Iran, all while strengthening Tehran’s satellites in the region.
In a way, U.S. policymakers are now finding themselves back at square one: still committed to defending Saudi Arabia—and the access to the energy resources in the region—and Israel, with both countries warning that a more assertive Iran would be a threat to their interests. Joined by Egypt and other Arab-Sunni governments, the two governments are putting pressure on Washington to help reestablish the old status quo in the region: not only by abandoning the quest for political reform in the Middle East, but also by challenging what they regard as Tehran’s drive for regional preeminence.
While President Obama insisted that the nuclear deal with Iran was nothing more than an attempt to freeze that’s country’s nuclear military program, there are those in Washington and elsewhere who are proposing that the nuclear deal should be seen as part of a long-term U.S. diplomatic opening to Tehran. They contend that accommodating Iran would serve American interests better than by maintaining the current strategic partnerships with Saudi Arabia and Israel.
But it is not clear whether this contrarian approach, based on the notion of a diplomatic détente with the Islamic Republic of Iran, is viable. Why would the Iranians accept a so-called “grand bargain” with the United States that would include, for example, cutting their military ties with Lebanon’s Hezbollah, recognizing Israel and giving-up any effort to acquire nuclear military power—which would be just some of U.S. demands during negotiations—when the Iranians sense that they are now on the regional driving seat while the Americans seem to be playing defense and lack the will to challenge them on the battlefield?
And while there has been a lot of criticism directed at Saudi Arabia and its rising star, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, for supposedly inflaming Sunni-Shiite tensions in the Middle East, most indications are that they Iranians are not about to abandon their plans to become the Shiite powerhouse in the region.
In short, there are no signs that Iran has ceased to be a revisionist regional player just when the United States is returning to play its traditional role of a status quo power in the Middle East.
In that context, the United States should avoid being drawn into a war between Sunnis and Shiites in the region while taking steps to maintain a military equilibrium between Saudi Arabia and Iran. This is the same approach the United States adopted during the war between Iraq and Iran in the 1980s. And unlike the failed attempts by President George W. Bush to carry out regime change and nation building in Iraq, much of the evolving strategy of President Donald Trump vis-à-vis Iran resembles the one that then Secretary of State Colin Powell advocated for: containing Saddam’s Iraq through diplomatic and military means.
As part of returning to its more conventional role in the Middle East, Washington should continue trying to advance peace between Israel and the Palestinians along the lines of the so-called “Saudi Initiative” of 2002 in the form a proposal to end the Arab-Israeli conflict and to normalize relations between the Arabs and Israel. In exchange, there would be an Israeli withdrawal from the Arab territories occupied in 1967 and a “just settlement” of the Palestinian problem.
A renewed American effort in that direction, as opposed to an imaginary Saudi-Israeli “alliance,” sounds like more of a realistic option, and could help advance the long-term interests of the United States and its regional allies. And, in the process, and tip the balance of power in the Middle East in their direction.