When the United States and Iran began inching toward an agreement to limit Tehran’s nuclear technology, optimists suggested that a deal could open the way for a broader rapprochement between the two countries. That no longer seems like even a remote possibility.
Instead, with the outline of a deal in place, the United States and Iran still find themselves on opposite sides of most of the conflicts that have pitched the Arab world into chaos.
Some U.S. officials even believe that last week’s nuclear deal, if it’s finalized, will lead to more conflict with Iran on other issues, not less.
“At least in the short run, the [Tehran] regime will want to demonstrate that it hasn’t lost its revolutionary spirit,” one Obama administration advisor told me. Officials say they expect Iran to keep up its efforts to gain influence in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen — and, potentially, anywhere else it sees an opening.
Not only is Iran unlikely to become a docile partner, but the United States is hustling to repair its old alliances with Shiite Iran’s bitterest enemies: conservative Sunni Muslim regimes including in Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Those governments — allies the U.S. has relied on to promote stability since the days of Richard M. Nixon and Henry Kissinger — were upset by talk of a U.S. flirtation with Iran.
When the framework for a nuclear agreement was reached, President Obama’s first telephone call to a Middle Eastern leader was to King Salman of Saudi Arabia, not Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu. The president also announced that he’s inviting the leaders of the Gulf states to Camp David this spring to discuss regional stability.
“Our partners … have very profound concerns about Iran’s policies in the region in support of terrorism, its destabilizing activities,” a U.S. official told reporters last week. “We have a commitment to the security of our partners and we’re going to be discussing with them ways that we can reaffirm that.”
It’s not just rhetoric. In an important decision that attracted little attention amid the Iran talks, Obama announced that he was sending F-16 fighter jets and M1A1 tank kits to Egypt, shipments he froze after Cairo’s military coup in 2013.
In fact, there was never much evidence of a dalliance between the United States and Iran — that was a pipe dream of a few White House aides and the exaggerated fear of Arab leaders.
Yes, the United States and Iran found themselves uncomfortably allied in one conflict: the battle against Islamic State in Iraq. But U.S. officials refused to help an Iraqi offensive against Islamic State in Tikrit until pro-Iranian militias were pulled back from the front lines. The militias withdrew only partially — and entered the town after U.S. airstrikes battered the Islamic State defenses. It wasn’t a glorious day for either side, but it wasn’t cooperation, either.
In Yemen, though, the United States is firmly on the anti-Iran side, openly aiding Saudi Arabia in its war against Houthi rebels, providing intelligence and logistical help.
And in Syria, the United States has squarely opposed Iran’s objective of shoring up Bashar Assad’s regime; Obama has been calling for Assad’s departure since 2011. The problem with U.S. policy in Syria isn’t that it has been soft on Iran; it’s that it hasn’t worked — because of indecision and hesitance, but also because of a shortage of reliable Syrian allies on the ground.
Still, to Saudi leaders and others, the failure of Obama’s policy in Syria was part of what looked like a pattern of U.S. withdrawal. After American troops left Iraq in 2011, White House officials announced that they wanted to spend less time on the Middle East in general — which, to the Saudis, meant reducing the traditional U.S. role as a counterweight to Iran. And then, after secret talks jump-started the nuclear negotiations in 2013, some U.S. officials suggested incautiously that detente with Tehran might enable the United States to establish a “strategic balance” between Iran and its enemies — an idea that was anathema to Saudi Arabia, which views the struggle for regional influence as a zero-sum game.
Over time, Obama and his aides appear to have recognized that their hopes for a new regional order were unrealistic.
That’s why the Obama administration is rebuilding those ancient alliances with authoritarian Arab regimes. Dreams of grand bargains are out. A less ambitious goal, old-fashioned stability, is in. But even that won’t be easy; those old allies are still skeptical.
“The United States has a credibility gap,” Prince Turki al Faisal, a former chief of Saudi intelligence, warned recently. “It needs actions and not just words.”
So it isn’t only revolutionary zeal in Tehran that makes continued conflict likely: The Obama administration needs to show its allies that it isn’t giving Iran a free pass.