Not so long ago the foreign policy of the United States in the Middle East rested on the two pillars of Iran and Saudi Arabia. As long as the United States behaved like the superpower it was, the course of events could be predicted and stability therefore maintained. Everyone in the region takes it for granted that the purpose of power is to use it. What’s incomprehensible is to have power but not to use it.
Confusion began when Ayatollah Khomeini humiliated the United States and went unpunished for it. Now President Obama’s deal with Iran certifies that the United States has renounced power altogether. Fired up by supposition of their superior power, crowds in the street burn effigies of the hapless American president in the belief they have reduced him to a laughing stock.
It doesn’t stop there. Iran differs from the Arab world in ethnicity and in the type of practice of Islam, but nevertheless they share the same autocratic culture. Its rulers will do whatever they think is necessary to maximize and preserve power. In June this year, for instance, the Saudis executed in public their hundredth victim. The condemnation to flogging and death of Raif Badawi simply for proposing to discuss reform is particularly horrifying. Amnesty International, the human-rights body, says that so far this year Iran has executed in public 694 victims and may exceed 1,000 by December. An average of two or three people are hanged every day. Deals of any kind with regimes like that are admissions of weakness and willingness to be humiliated.
No longer pillars held together by Pax Americana, Iran and Saudi Arabia are left to test which of them now has power to come out on top. All manner of unsuspected alliances and enmities may emerge. The outcome is unpredictable except in one respect: The nuclear weapon is the ultimate guarantee of power, and both parties will do everything necessary to obtain it. When the stakes are so high, agreements on paper, signatures, assurances, legalisms of all sorts, are worthless. Worse still, the whole concept of coming to a deal qualifying power proves only that President Obama and his associates are dangerously out of touch with reality.