by Robert E. Hunter
The much-ballyhooed speech by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to a joint session of Congress today raises basic issues about the roles of the president and Congress in setting US foreign policy. The famous “invitation to struggle” between the two branches of government has been part of the national dialogue since the founding of the Republic. But the speech adds another ingredient. It highlights the direct interference in US foreign policy-making by the leader of a foreign power. The toll that interference has taken and the tolerance that Washington has shown for Netanyahu’s meddling are currently a hot topic in the nation’s capital.
The speech also figures prominently in two campaigns. The first is the case that Netanyahu made to Congress for opposing the current negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program. The second campaign is Netanyahu’s attempt to win an unprecedented fourth term as Israel’s prime minister two weeks from now. His speech before Congress is part of his effort to make Iran the issue in his electoral campaign and not his domestic failings.
Much has already been said about Netanyahu’s speech, the way it was organized, the degree of influence of the so-called Israeli lobby in US politics and foreign policy, and the prospects for US-Israeli relations after the dust settles, as it inevitably will.
Negotiating with Iran
As with virtually all endgames in critical negotiations, “it ain’t over ‘til it’s over,” and maneuvering by both sides continues. On Monday, President Barack Obama declared that Iran needs to be “willing to agree to double-digit years of keeping their program where it is right now and, in fact, rolling back elements of it that currently exist …” That may be just a public presentation of a US position already on the table as well as Obama’s effort to counter Netanyahu before today’s speech to Congress. But it did provoke Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif to call Obama’s comments “unacceptable and threatening.”
Will the Obama-Zarif exchange cause the talks to collapse? Probably not. Given that Netanyahu’s case before Congress did not introduce a factual basis for new and legitimate fears about the conclusion of a deal between Iran and the P5+1 countries on the former’s nuclear program, he won’t likely achieve his objective. The odds still favor an agreement, unless either President Obama loses his nerve or the Iranians torpedo the nuclear talks, despite the intense economic pressures to settle. The Iranians might do this out of concern that Congress can sabotage the lifting of sanctions or the next US administration cannot be relied upon to honor any agreement reached now. Moreover, the US-Israeli relationship will remain rock-solid, in terms of US support for Israel’s security.
But the sturm und drang over both the Netanyahu speech and the endgame on the Iranian negotiations is only the prelude to a further set of critical developments in the Middle East and in the roles that the United States and other outside powers play there. Indeed, the likely trajectory of some of these developments explains much of Netanyahu’s intensity and also the backing he has received from a number of regional Arab states.
To begin with, an agreement on Iran’s nuclear problem will almost instantly end its pariah status, at least with those Western and other non-Middle East countries such as Russia and China that have imposed sanctions. Regardless of how much and how quickly the United States lifts its sanctions, almost everyone else will jump into the Iranian economy with alacrity—buying, selling, and investing. The capacities of the Iranian people, unmatched elsewhere in the Middle East save possibly for Israel, will be rapidly unleashed.
At the same time, the United States, backed by almost all of its Western allies, will immediately start exploring other possibilities for coordination with Iran, tacit or explicit, on matters of deep concern to Washington. This list includes efforts to stabilize Afghanistan, now that the Western military presence is dwindling, and where the West and Iran have had compatible interests since Iran supported the overthrow of the Taliban after 9/11. There are similar if not identical interests in keeping Iraq from completely falling apart, and also in countering ISIS. And these are only for starters.
Of course, open cooperation will depend on changes in particular Iranian behavior. This includes Iran no longer using Hezbollah (major) and Hamas (minor) as ways of acting in the Levant to Israel’s disadvantage but little benefit to Iran other than to demonstrate that it has had “cards to play.” Iran will also have to reiterate that it does not support terrorism, anywhere, anytime. The U.S. requirement that’s the icing on the cake is for Iran to stop making Israel a whipping boy in its domestic and Muslim-world politics. This policy has never made sense since other than the common concerns that Muslims everywhere have about the holy places in Jerusalem, Iran has no stake in what happens between Israel and Palestine.
But the reentry of Iran into the outside world will naturally increase the anxieties of many of its neighbors, especially most of the Gulf Arab states and particularly Saudi Arabia. Competition for regional power and influence predate the 1979 Iranian Revolution, and they will continue after any nuclear agreement. But while America’s Arab partners will denominate these anxieties primarily in military terms, this is designed more to catch Washington’s attention than to reflect reality. Iran’s challenge in the region, absent a nuclear weapon, is not military, but economic, cultural, and, to an extent, religious. Its military capacity doesn’t compare with its neighbors (some of which are swamped with Western military equipment and training). In the one area where Iran might pose a tangible military threat, the free flow of (oil) commerce through the Strait of Hormuz, it has as much interest as anyone in maintaining stability.
Arabs and Israelis no doubt expect the United States to remain deeply engaged in the region. A visible military presence may be part of the ineffable quality called reassurance (and Israel will want more US weapons, which it will get). But even more important, in reality, will be evidence that the United States has a clear perspective on what is changing politically, economically, and strategically; that it has the capacity to think through the implications of these changes; and that it is putting together a set of strategies and approaches that will meet not just America’s needs but also the concerns of local powers that the United States is “here to stay” and that it “knows what it is doing.”
Alas, on neither count has the United States for many years sent convincing messages. As with its much-reduced interest in Europe—which helped promote the current crisis with Russia over Ukraine—the US has been acting too much as though the Middle East is a sideshow and the “real action” is in the Pacific and East Asia, the so-called “rebalancing.” Not so. The Middle East remains critical to the United States and its allies, no matter how much oil and gas the US pumps at home. The West, overall, will depend on the Middle East and especially the Persian Gulf for as far ahead as anyone can see.
An agreement with Iran, if achieved, will be concluded either on March 24, when the framework agreement is supposed to be unveiled, or on June 30, the supposed “hard” stop date. Between now and then, the Obama administration must get ready to do a number of things. As soon as even just a framework for an agreement is announced, it must be able to roll out a long-term strategy that identifies specific commitments, specifies new understandings with regional allies, and outlines agreements for shared regional responsibilities with the Europeans and East Asian states, notably Japan, South Korea, and Australia.
Maybe the White House has already done this necessary thinking and planning. Let’s hope so. Otherwise, the hoped-for agreement with Iran on its nuclear program will just be the start of a new round of headaches and further questioning about the capacity of the United States to think and act clearly about the future in the Middle East.