By Shlomo Ben-Ami
In 2003, the United States – which, along with its NATO allies, had already occupied Afghanistan – toppled Saddam Hussein’s government in Iraq and overran his army. Iran’s leaders, alarmed that they were being encircled, lost no time in offering the West a grand bargain covering all contentious issues, from nuclear-weapons development – they halted their military nuclear program – to regional security, including the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and their backing of Hezbollah and Hamas.
The recent framework agreement on Iran’s nuclear program has had the opposite effect. Though the deal does slow Iran’s development of nuclear weapons, it does not restrain – or even address – the regime’s hegemonic ambitions in the region, for which it has already spent billions of dollars and suffered crippling sanctions. As a result, the framework agreement is creating strategic chaos in an already dysfunctional region. A future in which regional powers like Turkey, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia (which has worked closely with Pakistan on the nuclear front) possess threshold nuclear capabilities is becoming more likely that ever.
These are glorious days for Iran. After more than a decade of diplomatic isolation and economic sanctions, its status as a threshold nuclear state has been internationally legitimized. Moreover, it has managed to compel the US to abandon its dream of regime change, and to coexist – and even engage – with an Islamic theocracy that it finds repugnant.
The regional balance of power is already tilting in Iran’s favor. In Lebanon, Palestine, and Syria, Iranian proxies have prevailed over Saudi-backed groups. And the Iran-backed Houthis remain in control of Yemen, despite Saudi airstrikes.
Iran’s leaders can thank George W. Bush. Far from producing the outcome that they feared in 2003, Bush’s wars in the Middle East left Iran as the most influential actor in Iraq. As Saudi officials have observed, Iranian militias fighting the Islamic State in predominantly Sunni regions north and west of Baghdad hope to reinforce their country’s control over Iraq.
The perceived threat posed by the Islamic State has also caused the US to drop ousting Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, Iran’s main regional ally, from its agenda. Indeed, the US has ended up indirectly allied with Hezbollah, a key Iranian proxy, which is fighting alongside Assad’s troops against foreign jihadi forces.
Meanwhile, America’s relationship with its traditional Arab allies – the region’s conservative Sunni regimes – is faltering, owing largely to US President Barack Obama’s failure to respond effectively in the aftermath of the Arab Spring uprisings. Obama’s offers of security guarantees and “nuclear umbrellas” have not been able to restore their trust. (Such security guarantees are, after all, implicit.)
For Iran’s enemies, the message of the framework agreement is clear: protect your own vital interests, rather than waiting for the US. And that is precisely what countries like Egypt and Saudi Arabia are doing, having established a joint Arab military force to fight Iranian influence in the region, as well as discreet security links with Israel, another self-declared victim of the framework agreement.
Turkey is also engaging in strategic recalculations. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who called Iran his “second home” during a visit to Tehran last year, recently accused the Islamic Republic of “seeking to dominate the region.”
As a result, Turkey now finds itself collaborating with Saudi Arabia in backing the Al Nusra Front, the Syrian arm of Al Qaeda, which captured Idlib in the first major military setback for Assad in recent months. Still, Turkey’s recent behavior – from Erdoğan’s shocking call for an end to the Sykes-Picot system to its de facto collusion with the Islamic State’s siege of the Kurdish town of Kobani, just over the border in Syria – has discouraged the region’s major Sunni powers from pursuing closer ties.
But no regional leader is as frantic – or as dangerous – as Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. In his vulgar use of Holocaust metaphors to portray the Iranian threat, he sounds more like the principal of a Jewish ghetto about to be annihilated by an agitated mob than the prime minister of the most powerful country in the Middle East.
Netanyahu’s lack of self-awareness is perhaps best exemplified in his interactions with Obama. He expects the US to offer Israel security assistance to face the challenge that Iran poses, even as he barges clumsily into Obama’s political backyard and forges alliances with his domestic opponents.
In fact, Netanyahu has fundamentally misunderstood the Iran challenge: It is not an existential threat, but part of a broader struggle for regional mastery. Rather than engaging in an unrealistic campaign to kill the nuclear agreement, Netanyahu should have been focusing on the strategic implications of Iran’s rise. It is Iran’s geopolitical behavior, not its threshold nuclear status, that matters.
Of course, Netanyahu is intentionally exaggerating the Iranian threat to deflect attention from Israel’s real problems – especially its enduring conflict with Palestine. But he can hope to obscure the sins of occupation only temporarily. If the Palestine issue is not resolved soon, there can be no lasting alliances with “moderate” Sunni powers to counter Iran.
In order to bring some semblance of stability to the Middle East, the US must think beyond the framework nuclear agreement with Iran and develop, with all stakeholders, a collective security regime – an initiative that will require the US to regain the trust of its allies in the region. In reality, the key question has never been when Iran will develop a nuclear weapon, but how to integrate it into a stable regional system before it does.
Shlomo Ben-Ami, is a former Israeli foreign minister who was elected to the Knesset in 1996, on Labour’s list. He resigned in 2002. He is Vice President of the Toledo International Center for Peace. He is the author of “Scars of War, Wounds of Peace: The Israeli-Arab Tragedy” (Oxford, 2006). (© Project Syndicate)