The Iran nuclear deal is shaking up America’s traditional partnerships in the Middle East.
The framework agreement on Iran’s nuclear program is not yet a signed document with agreed-upon implementation measures. But already, it is seen to be accelerating a trend among some of America’s closest allies in the region to hedge their bets on the United States and look elsewhere for security partnerships – including Russia.
Such allies look at recent US leadership in the region, especially its handling of the Syria conflict, and are increasingly doubtful of US resolve to enforce an Iran deal in the face of violations. The deal has also raised concerns, in particular among the region’s Sunni Arab powers, that the US once again sees Iran as a potential Shiite balancing power and even preferred partner in the region – the way it was pre-Islamic revolution, under the shah.
“Certainly we were seeing indications of this before, but with the Iran deal we’re seeing some of our closest partners like the Israelis, the Egyptians, and the Saudis really beginning to diversify their relationships even more and to act independently of the US,” says Nikolas Gvosdev, a professor of national security affairs at the US Naval War College in Newport, R.I. “They’re concerned the deal is handing Iran a wide strategic opening in the region, and they’re looking beyond the US for how to counter it.”
At the same time, these partners are redoubling their contacts with Congress, Dr. Gvosdev says, to try to ensure that any final deal reached by the June 30 deadline places very tough restrictions on Iran and swift consequences for any backsliding. “The Israelis of course are deeply engaged with Congress on this,” he says, “but they are not alone in seeing Congress as the final bulwark against a bad final deal.”
Doubts about President Obama’s vision for the region and the durability of American security commitments under his watch have been simmering for some time. For the Saudis in particular, Mr. Obama’s handling of the Syrian conflict set off alarm bells and has fed a growing conviction that the US wants to stay out of the region’s destabilizing conflicts.
Obama’s drawing, and then blurring, a “red line” on chemical weapons use in Syria – the crossing of which did not elicit a military response – has left the Saudis doubtful of Obama’s willingness to come down hard on any Iranian transgressions of a nuclear deal.
“After seeing how the Syrians were allowed to skirt the lines on chemical weapons without too many penalties being applied, the Saudis are now concerned about Iran,” Gvosdev says. “Their concern is, if the Iranians are skirting their commitments, are not in complete violation but at the same time aren’t living up to the letter, will the Americans let it slide?”
For the Egyptians, the Obama administration’s back-and-forth on former President Hosni Mubarak, before finally abandoning him, and a 17-month suspension of big-ticket military assistance (lifted just last week) soured relations and sent the Egyptians looking for other security partners.
At the same time, the war in Yemen has burst onto the regional scene. Iran-backed Houthi rebels have advanced from the north, forcing President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi into exile in Saudi Arabia and most recently extending the fight to the strategic port city of Aden.
The Saudis continue to launch airstrikes in Yemen in support of government forces and Sunni Arab tribesmen. The US says it is offering the Saudis logistical and intelligence support for their campaign, but is limiting its involvement as it reiterates its preference for dialogue among the warring factions.
Sensing that repelling the Houthis may take ground forces, the Saudis have turned to Egypt and Pakistan – both of which say they are considering sending troops in. The request to Pakistan in particular is not a surprise, some security analysts say, given the longtime deep relations between the two Sunni Islamic countries.
What has raised eyebrows among regional analysts are the multiplying contacts between Russia and regional powers unhappy with the US. Indeed, some experts suggest that Obama’s decision to restore suspended military aid to Cairo was prompted at least in part by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s warming ties to Moscow.
On the other hand, differences over Syria and the fate of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad are likely to hinder Saudi-Russian relations from getting much closer anytime soon, some regional experts say.
The Saudis are also thought to be turning to the French – who as part of the Iran negotiations at times took a harder line with Tehran than the Americans – to double down in the drafting of an implementation agreement on verification provisions and consequences for violations.
With the Iran deal still so new, it’s hard to say how deep a wedge it may drive between the US and its traditional allies in the region. Some experts recall that a furious Saudi Arabia appeared ready to part ways with the US once already, over Syria, but then pulled back from the brink.
One coming test of regional partners’ intentions will be the Camp David summit that Obama plans to hold at some point this spring with members of the Gulf Cooperation Council, including Saudi Arabia.
The administration sees the summit as an opportunity to reassure Gulf allies on America’s enduring partnership – and on the advantages that an Iran deal holds for the region. The goal, administration supporters say, will be to convince regional partners that they are better off and more secure with Iran’s nuclear ambitions under tight controls.
Speaking last week at an Arms Control Association press conference in support of the deal, Sandy Berger, former national security adviser to President Clinton, said the deal is important because of the many conflicts destabilizing the Middle East – like the Syrian and Yemeni ones – not despite them. Each of these conflicts would be only more dangerous with an advancing and unmonitored Iranian nuclear program added to the mix, he said.
The Camp David summit may be intended to reassure doubtful allies, but Gvosdev says it could end up serving another purpose as well – if, as remains possible, the Iranians balk at specifics laid down in the coming weeks of negotiations and refuse to sign a final deal.
“In that case,” he says, “the US won’t be working to reassure allies about an opening to Iran. Instead, the issue will be what’s next on Iran’s nuclear program,” he adds, “and they’ll be bringing in the Gulf states for Plan B.”