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An Iran deal won’t stabilize the messy Middle East — but maybe Arab states can

Tamara Cofman Wittes

Much ink has already been spilled over the implications of a nuclear deal with Iran for that country’s assertive regional behavior. Arab states and Israel warn of Iranian hegemony and demand assertive American engagement to “push back.” But the one place where they are most interested in seeing stepped-up American engagement is the one place where President Obama is least likely to indulge them — Syria. And, fearful of Iran and American withdrawal, Arab states are increasingly dug in against doing the two things that, more than any other, could help gird the Middle East against greater Iranian influence — resolving the Arab world’s bitter civil wars and strengthening the resilience of Arab societies. As a result, I don’t expect that this nuclear agreement will make much difference, one way or the other, in the chaotic and increasingly violent regional picture.

In his remarks this morning, President Obama himself hastened to say that his support of the deal “doesn’t mean that this deal will resolve all of our differences with Iran. We share the concerns expressed by many of our friends in the Middle East, including Israel and the Gulf States, about Iran’s support for terrorism and its use of proxies to destabilize the region.”

Iran’s regional troublemaking is likely to worsen, regardless of a deal

Iran’s proclivity for regional meddling is longstanding, and the chaotic politics of the Arab world since 2011 has given the Islamic Republic unprecedented opportunities to insert itself into local politics in destabilizing ways. In my recent congressional testimony, and in remarks to the Herzliya Conference in Israel last month, I explained my view that Iran’s regional troublemaking is likely to grow worse in coming years, regardless of a deal over the nuclear program. I said:

In fact, whether there’s a nuclear deal or not, I predict we will see a more aggressive approach by Iran in a host of arenas around the region, where the upheaval has given them greater opportunities than before.

If there is a nuclear deal, the hardline elements within the Iranian regime, those most opposed to a deal, are also those with the greatest interest and investment in regional troublemaking. They are likely to use their ability to make noise regionally to try and compensate for the power disadvantages they see inherent in a deal — and they are likely to have a green light from the Supreme Leader to do so, because he will want to compensate them for their unhappiness with a deal.

If there’s no deal on the nuclear issue, however, then the Iranian leadership will want to scale up its regional assertions of power for a different reason: in order to solidify or even strengthen its current regional power position in advance of whatever tougher American / Israeli / Sunni Arab efforts it anticipates to contain it.

I stand by that prediction. While sanctions relief will give Iran considerably more resources, it has never lacked motivation for its assertions of power, and it continues to face ample opportunity. As my Herzliya panel partner, Meir Javandefar, revealed at the conference, Iran’s sanctions-induced economic hardship in recent years has not prevented Iran from spending billions of dollars and its own soldiers’ lives keeping Bashar al-Assad in power. So yes, Iranian meddling across the region will get worse in the wake of an Iran deal — but it was going to get worse anyway.

The real question about Iran’s regional behavior is not, therefore, whether a nuclear deal is too dangerous for the Middle East because it will give Iran more ability to make trouble. Trouble, in case you haven’t noticed, is not lacking in the Middle East, and Iran is one major source (though not, to be sure, the only one). The real question is what the United States and America’s Arab allies are prepared to do about it. Note that, in my view, America’s Arab allies have an essential role to play here, independent of the United States. Read on to see what I mean.

The regional competition with Iran remains the highest priority for Arab states

My trip to Israel and the Gulf last month made clear that the broader regional power struggle with Iran remains the single most important consideration for Arab governments — not ISIS and other extremist terrorism, not the civil wars erasing state borders, and not domestic instability. But I was struck by how unidimensional my Arab interlocutors’ thinking is today about an Iranian-Arab power struggle that’s gone on as long as most of them have been alive. As they see it now, Iran is the source of all instability in today’s Middle East: of sectarianism, civil conflict, domestic dissent. And Iran’s success rises or falls on the scope of American assertions of power in the Middle East; thus, the US withdrawal of forces from Iraq was a signal error that ceded that, one Emirati said, was like “turning the security of the Gulf over to Iran.”

It is amazing to realize the extent to which two decades of American military engagement in the Middle East have so thoroughly reshaped Arab expectations, such that they now cannot imagine living safely across the Gulf from Iran unless the region is bristling with American troops. And yet, this is their considered view. And in the absence of the American interventions they seek, they are acting on their own. As I told Congress this spring:

Our Sunni allies are already upping their efforts in countering Iran regionally, as the Yemen operation and the renewed investment in the Syrian rebels demonstrates. Iran will have both the means and the incentive to respond in kind. This is a recipe for an escalatory spiral, perhaps most particularly in Syria and Iraq.

What this means is that, no matter how much the US government asserts its primary regional interest in combating ISIS and Al Qaeda, our major regional partners will remain resolutely focused on the Iranian threat as their primary concern. And it means that, in reassuring and bolstering its partners as part of any Iranian nuclear deal, the United States cannot limit itself to the nuclear issue, or to traditional defense and deterrence.

No matter what equipment or systems the United States is willing to sell to its Arab partners, no matter what aid it is willing to provide, no matter what US assets the administration is prepared to base in the region — our partners are looking for a different kind of reassurance. They are looking to see the United States demonstrate its recognition of Iran’s troublesome activities around the region, and demonstrate its readiness to push back against Iran’s expansionism around the region. And the primary arena in which the Arab states wish to see that from the United States is in Syria.

Of course, American reticence in Syria is quite clear, consistent, and supported by a wide array of the American political spectrum. The Syrian arena is the one where the current US president is least likely to undertake any more assertive action to counter Iran — though he is increasingly willing to invest American power in countering ISIS there. So if they are counting on American intervention in Syria to push back Iran, the Arab partners are likely to be disappointed. 

A nuclear deal does not leave America’s regional allies helpless against Iran

And yet, America’s regional allies should not therefore conclude that the Iranian nuclear deal leaves them helpless against a looming onslaught of well-funded subversion and insurgency. Even if the benefits to Iran from sanctions relief amount to the estimated $100 billion, sanctions relief will take months even to begin, and will take far longer to fully play out. That $100 billion will not flow to Iranian coffers overnight – and that means that the United States and its Arab partners have a window of opportunity to work together now to bolster their efforts to contain Iranian efforts and strengthen Arab societies against Iranian meddling.

The measures the White House rolled out after the US-GCC Camp David summit are an important, but insufficient, dimension of this approach — ballistic missile defense measures, joint exercises, border security support and cooperation on cybersecurity will all help to demonstrate resolve, and thus to deter any escalation by Iran of its efforts at troublemaking in the Gulf. But more can be done, and not by Washington alone.

My house was robbed some years ago, one winter night when I went out and left the back door unlocked. The robbers are guilty to be sure — for their bad intentions, and for stealing my stuff. Maybe they would have broken a window to get in even if I had locked the door. But although they are thoroughly bad apples, I can’t avoid my own responsibility for making it so easy for them carry out their nefarious plans. Now I have an alarm system and new locks — that I use diligently.

Similarly, it’s difficult but necessary for Arab leaders to acknowledge that their and their colleagues’ failings helped generate the expanded opportunities Iran has found for troublemaking since 2011, and their actions now can shape Iran’s scope for troublemaking in the future. The failed governance, corruption, repression and abuses that produced the Arab uprisings, and the brutal responses of some Arab leaders to those uprisings, sparked civil conflict in Syria, Libya, and Yemen and ongoing crisis in Bahrain — fracturing societies and opening wide new windows for Iranian influence. The sectarian rhetoric Arab leaders used to rally their publics against Bashar al-Assad at the outset of the Syrian civil war likewise stoked resentments and rifts against the Shia within their own societies.

Arab governments can turn the tide of regional chaos

Iran and (more recently, as bombings in Qatif and Kuwait show) ISIS are the beneficiaries of these domestic divisions. No doubt Iran was looking for such opportunities, and was eager to exploit them. But instead of continuing to leave their doors unlocked, the Arab governments still standing in this chaotic region can do two things right now to try and turn the tide — and in the process, enhance the prospects for more active American engagement in the region down the line. 

First, they need to move urgently to push the Arab world’s civil wars toward resolution. The fractious parties in Yemen, Syria, and Libya are not easy to work with; but Arab leaders can ensure that their engagement supports diplomacy and negotiated peace, rather than exacerbating divisions among factions and prolonging the fighting. Reportedly, this was one agreed-upon agenda item at Camp David — but the follow up has been slow.

Second, Arab governments should urgently do what they can to strengthen the resilience of their own societies and their resistance to Iranian efforts at penetration, subversion and manipulation. The best way to do that is to act now to tamp down the rampant sectarianism of the past few years and to replace it with positive efforts at a more pluralistic and inclusive model of citizenship and government.

While individual clerics and Sunni movements may have their concerns and preferences regarding “deviant” forms of Islam, the state must be resolutely neutral in embracing all its citizens equally, and must not just abjure, but oppose, efforts by those movements to define any of their fellow citizens as illegitimate foreigners.

Measures to ensure tolerance and protection for religious and ethnic minorities within the Arab world will not only harden these societies against Iranian subversion — they will also marginalize extremist voices on the Sunni side who recruit for ISIS and its ilk, and they will strengthen the determination of these societies to resist the action-reaction cycle of violence that extremists of all kinds try to produce to further their own ends.

President Obama angered Arab governments by noting before the GCC summit at Camp David that their greatest security threat may not come from external aggression, but from within their own societies. Observing the nature of Iranian behavior in the Middle East, those two threats may be two sides of the same coin. And if Arab leaders fear the consequences of sanctions relief for Iranian action, they could seize the chance now to strengthen their own foundations and gird their societies against what is likely to come.

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