There are several scenarios the Obama administration may be entertaining as it pursues its diplomacy in the Middle East. It may believe that the new agreement with Iran will lead to “engagement” with reform-minded theocrats. The idea is that this will insidiously liberalize the regime, empower a younger generation of pro-Western reformers, and put the theocracy on “an arc of history” back into the “family of nations.” Or perhaps an Obama-inspired second green revolution will overthrow the regime, and we will see a Euro-socialist Iranian republic renounce nuclear weapons — or at least, having inherited custodianship of the existing arsenal, oversee it in the fashion of democratic Israel or France.
Alternatively, the administration may imagine that a Shiite Axis — Iran, Syria, Iraq, Hezbollah, Hamas — empowered by Putin’s Russia, will balance the region, either, strategically, convincing the Sunni monarchies to accept the new balance of power, or, morally, ensuring that formerly outlaw anti-American radical regimes find parity with the pro-American conservative and right-wing regimes in Egypt, Jordan, and the Gulf monarchies. Or, less concretely, the United States may simply wish to abdicate the Middle East and let the players there all fight it out, reentering when the players are worn out and defeated.
I. How to Negotiate a Bomb
The U.S. has now established an official blueprint on how to get nuclear weapons without being relegated to pariah status. Iran, unlike Pakistan and North Korea, is not renegading its way to nuclear weapons, but is negotiating its pathway with the approval of the West. Yet Iran’s government is just as unhinged as those of the last two nuclear newcomers, is more centrally positioned in the Middle East, and has far more financial resources, given its singular reserves of natural gas and oil. Other would-be nuclear nations will make the necessary adjustments, asking for similar sorts of American-backed supposed non-proliferation protocols, as they shadow Iran step by step into nuclear readiness. The combination of Iran’s transition to nuclear status under the aegis of the U.S., and the Obama administration’s simultaneous renunciation of America’s prior Middle East role, amounts to a one-two punch to the Sunni world, which will assume that neither conventional arsenals nor American guardianship will deter Iran. Again, the Sunni nations will eventually make the necessary nuclear adjustments in the manner that worked for Iran. A nuclear Middle East will be the bastard child of this treaty.
Conventional wisdom assures us that the Iranian nuclear facilities cannot be completely destroyed militarily. Any attempt to do so supposedly would fail to eliminate all the hidden and fortified enrichment plants and would only elicit both an Iranian conventional response and an asymmetrical terrorist response. Thus, Israel, for example, would not be so foolish as to try. Perhaps. But conventional wisdom does not always work in the Middle East in general, and in particular not for Israel, which has no margin for error, given its size and location. Instead, the impossible may in truth become the most likely. Israelis remember what the world’s assurances and civilized veneer got their ancestors the last time a head of state talked about eliminating Jews.
Israel’s leadership will not assume that even a 90 percent likelihood that Iran either won’t get nuclear weapons or won’t use them against Israel is good enough to ensure the impossibility of another Holocaust. Are Jews for the next 20 years supposed to listen to an Iranian general du jour wink and nod about nuclear weapons as he blusters about the end of the Jewish state, only to hear the next day that the supposed threat was due to a mistranslation of the Farsi or that it was an unauthorized outburst from a minor official — with the cycle of staged nuclear bombast starting again the next week and the week after that, as the world advises Israelis to watch their manners and observe proportionality?
I doubt that the descendants of those who went through the Holocaust are going to sit still permanently under an Iranian nuclear sword of Damocles and be serially teased about how frayed is the string holding it above them. Regional Götterdämmerung may seem preferable to certain eventual strangulation. And the pious assurances of John Kerry sound too much like those of an earlier generation of State Department blue-blood grandees like John McCloy and Breckinridge Long in the run-up to World War II — and are just as empty and in the end would prove just as cruel.
III. A Pitiful, Helpless Giant
The appearance of U.S. capitulation is already rippling throughout the world. President Obama has issued at least five deadlines about nuclear proliferation and then looked the other way as the Iranians have flouted them. For all the Western braggadocio about the Iran deal, most observers worldwide will glean from the agreement that a tired West caved on sanctions, was eager to trade with the Iranians and make money, is afraid to stand up to the theocracy and its supporters, and sees the deal as part of a grand recessional from past American prominence. It matters not whether this is a factual description of U.S. efforts to negotiate with Iran; it matters only that it is becoming the general global consensus. Evidence of that supposition includes the abrupt renunciation of the Oslo agreements by the Palestinians, and Putin’s brazen entry into and bombing in the Middle East and his sponsorship of a new Iranian, Iraqi, Syrian, and Hezbollah arc that will eventually threaten the Sunni oil producers.
Three American lapses account for the current Middle East mess: 1) the failed reset with Putin, coupled with John Kerry’s invitation to Russia to enter the Syrian red-line fiasco; 2) the dropping of effective sanctions against Iran and the appearance of caving in to Iranian demands; and 3) the abrupt withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq in late 2011 and the ensuing vacuum that fueled ISIS.
The ripples of American impotence reach well beyond the Middle East, as we see with Putin’s inroads into the former subject nations of the Soviet Union, the sudden rearming of the Japanese, China’s indifference to warnings about cyber attacks and its new artificial atolls in the Pacific, and the increasing bluster of the Latin American socialist dictatorships. The world has been reviewing U.S. behavior via-à-vis Iran and has concluded that the only mystery is whether America’s enemies are now allowed to do as they please, or whether, in fact, they are no longer enemies but friends. The result is growing chaos. The medicine that will eventually be needed to treat this disease will make the post-Obama years the most dangerous era in American foreign policy since the Cuban Missile Crisis.
IV. The Collapse of Iranian Dissent
There is no evidence, either from history or from the contemporary world, that engagement with an appeasing West infects dictatorial systems, as their enslaved masses get hooked on freedom and Western consumer junk, and eventually revolt. More likely the opposite is true. It was a minority of Germans that voted Hitler into power. Many of the Junkers on the German General Staff had, by 1938, rightly sized Hitler up as a dangerous nut whose insane geostrategic gambling was going to get an utterly unprepared Germany into a global war that it could not win. They were right, but entirely discredited after Munich. A Western sellout destroyed German clandestine opposition to Hitler, who boasted of his bullying as the German people basked in his reflected glory. What sent Hitler permanently into his Führerbunker and dissipated the once-adoring crowds was not the Munich Agreement, but Stalingrad, El Alamein, and Hamburg aflame. Carterism did not bring down the Berlin Wall, the implosion of the Soviet system did — because of the post-Carter pressures of the Reagan administration’s deterrent rhetoric and military renaissance. I-Phones and thousands of Chinese students at Berkeley and Yale have not created a liberated Tiananmen Square–like China or stopped Chinese cyber warfare.
The nuclear deal with Tehran will undermine Iranian dissidents. The Iranian economy, flush with cash and new oil revenues, will uplift the Iranian people, and the theocracy will rightly take the credit, adding the relish that its policies have both led to better economic times and rubbed the Great Satan’s snout in the muck. It may be true that Iranian youth love America, but that admiration was based on our own opposition to Iran’s eroding and incompetent seventh-century theocracy — not on our later appeasement and empowerment of the mullahs. The theocracy will gain public support from its new global status, likely acquisition of nuclear capability, and rebooted economy; its opponents will lose face, and the world will be the worse off.
Some believe a nuclear Iran can be deterred like any other such power. The makeup of the region, however, may argue against that theory. The modern Middle East has given us Pan-Arabism, the Baath party, Khomeini, al-Qaeda, Hezbollah, Hamas, and ISIS. In terms of methodology, it has given the world the electronic fatwa, the modern foot-soldier version of the kamikaze suicide bomber, and the apparent right to murder novelists, cartoonists, and satirists anywhere on the planet. Airline hijackings and the use of jumbo jets as cruise missiles are also Middle East specialties. What other region can boast of a rogues’ gallery with the likes of Yasser Arafat, Osama bin Laden, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, Ayatollah Khomeini, the Assads, Saddam Hussein, and Moammar Qaddafi?
Where else in the modern world are Christians crucified, beheaded, incinerated, and drowned — as if the very elements are not enough for the sick homicidal imaginations of ISIS murderers? What Middle East country has not fought another Middle East country? Egypt, the best of the bunch, in the postwar era has gassed the Yemenis, invaded Libya, and attacked Israel. Iraq has invaded Kuwait, attacked Iran, sent missiles into Israel and Saudi Arabia, and gone to war with much of the world. Lebanon has been a battleground for every warring sect and state in the region. Gaza is a wasteland. Syria is fighting ISIS and itself, while threatening its neighbors. Only in the Middle East does removing a monster from power often lead to something worse.This litany is not meant to denigrate the Middle East, merely to suggest that it is the most violent and unpredictable region of the world, where three religions intersect amid postmodern petroleum-fed decadence and premodern elemental poverty — all not far from fat and weak Europe. The idea that logic and restraint will operate in a nuclear Middle East beyond Israel is lunacy.
In sum, the region is North Korea cubed, an Islamic shoot-’em-up Tombstone or Dodge City where punks with nuclear six-guns, not sober classical deterrence, will make the rules.