A return to the Middle Eastern great game (Part Two)

Editor’s Note: In part two of this two-part essay, Martin Indyk offers his preferred solution to help stem the chaos that currently threatens the Middle East. Yesterday, in part one, he outlined the choices for the United States in the region.

Yesterday, I argued that the United States no longer has the luxury of approaching the rising Middle East chaos with a piecemeal approach. A choice needs to be made between two strategies, neither of which is particularly attractive and both of which have serious downsides. But if the United States does not want to pay the price of imposing order itself on this deeply troubled region, then it has to choose its regional partners and work with them either to rebuild the old order or construct a new one. That choice is between a “joint condominium” with Iran and a “back to the future” alliance with America’s traditional partners, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Israel.  

The joint condominium would only be possible if an agreement were struck to place meaningful curbs on Iran’s nuclear program. Without an agreement, it is impossible to imagine cooperation with Iran on regional issues; with an agreement, collaboration on issues of common interest becomes possible, much as Obama is reported to have suggested in his November 2014 letter to Iran’s Supreme Leader and much as some conservative commentators mistakenly believe is already taking place. 

An understanding with Iran that encouraged it to use its influence to bolster order and stability rather than take advantage of the spreading chaos could have considerable advantages. Iran’s tacit cooperation with the United States to remove Nouri al-Maliki from power in Baghdad proved critical to the viability of America’s strategy against ISIS in Iraq.  If Iran were similarly to join with the United States in seeking the removal of Bashar al-Assad in favor of a political reconciliation between all of Syria’s communities, it could enable the United States to pursue a more effective campaign against ISIS in Syria. And if it were to constrain Hezbollah and cut its support for Palestinian rejectionists, and press the Houthis in Yemen to withdraw from Sanaa, and back the power sharing process, order in the Middle East would be greatly improved.   

However, it is fanciful to imagine that the United States could convince Iran to shift from the region’s most threatening revisionist power and become instead a partner in establishing a new order in the Middle East. It would require the Supreme Leader to overcome his extreme paranoia about the intentions of the United States and curb the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and the Ministry of Intelligence and Security—the regime’s mechanisms for pursuing its regional hegemonic ambitions. Any attempt at such a condominium would earn the United States the wrath of its traditional allies, Saudi Arabia and Israel, and their supporters in the Gulf Arab states and the U.S. Congress, respectively. Feeling betrayed, they would likely go their own way, acting without regard for U.S. interests.  

If this strategy should therefore be ruled out because of its lack of feasibility and the high costs associated with it, how viable is the alternative? Returning to a strategy of reliance on our traditional allies would at least provide a more dependable foundation. Faced with rising chaos, Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and the other Arab monarchies have developed a common sense of threat from Iran, Hezbollah, Assad, Hamas, and ISIS. In response, they have found a strong common interest in countering these principle sources of instability in the region. Together they wield important capabilities: Israel has the most powerful army and air force; Egypt is the largest and most influential Arab state; Saudi Arabia’s king has Islamic legitimacy as well as the wealth and influence that comes from being the largest oil exporter in the world.  

However, at the moment, the United States is at loggerheads with each of them: arguing with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu over settlement activity in the West Bank and the terms of the nuclear deal with Iran; criticizing the Sisi regime in Egypt over shooting its citizens in the street and incarcerating tens of thousands of them; and differing with the Saudis over what to do with Assad in Syria, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and Tehran’s hegemonic advances in the Sunni Arab world. There are sound reasons for all of these differences, but they would need to be subordinated to the larger purpose of restoring order and taken up again once confidence and a semblance of order have been restored.

To pursue a renewed “pillars strategy,” the United States would need to rebuild the confidence of its traditional allies in America’s broader purposes while finding a way to reduce or manage the friction. In the event of a nuclear deal with Iran, the United States would need to balance this by providing a nuclear deterrent umbrella to Israel and Saudi Arabia. It would need to downplay differences with Egypt over the way the regime treats its citizens and find a way to work with Israel to resolve the Palestinian problem. It would need to distance the United States from the Muslim Brotherhood while taking a more robust stance against Assad in Syria. 

What could the United States expect in return? First, it should expect more robust cooperation against the sources of disorder. Already, Jordan and Egypt have stepped up their use of force against ISIS in Iraq, Syria and Libya. With greater confidence in America’s steadfastness, perhaps the Sunni states would be willing to commit ground forces with American advisers, which might help provide an important missing element in the anti-ISIS campaign. 

With a greater sense of common purpose, the United States could begin to construct a regional security framework that would, for the first time, include Israel. The foundations already exist in America’s bilateral security arrangements with each of the traditional allies, in the increasingly robust security cooperation between Israel, Egypt and Jordan, and in the more covert security relationships between Israel and the Gulf Arabs. The viability of such a framework would depend in part on a credible initiative by Israel to resolve the Palestinian problem. But approaching this intractable problem in a regional framework, utilizing the Arab Peace Initiative, could boost its prospects.  

Rolling back Iran’s influence in Arab capitals and on Israel’s borders is a longer-term challenge. But the effort would be advantaged by building a more coherent and credible alliance to balance it. And an agreement that prevented Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons might eventually open the door to a détente with Iran in which cooperation in some areas of tactical common interest (such as confronting ISIS and promoting a political transition in Damascus) would need to be combined with competition and containment where interests continue to diverge. 

In these ways, the United States could rebuild an American-led order in the Middle East in partnership with traditional allies. They would have to step up and do their part but they could do so with greater confidence that the United States would be there to work with them rather than against them.