President Obama’s Middle East Plate Is Still Full

by Robert E. Hunter

With agreement in Vienna between the P5+ 1 countries and Iran on its nuclear program, there will be a rapid shift to dealing with the aftermath. What will now happen in Iran is an important story. This article is about what will—and should—happen now in the United States.

President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry can rightly celebrate what they have achieved. In getting from “there to here,” they have had not only to deal with Iran, its ambitions, its suspicions, its calculations of advantage, and its internal politics that are largely opaque to outsiders, but even more with the opponents of just about any deal who make up a large part of the coalition the US president has to convince that he has done the right thing.

After a few hours of well-deserved satisfaction at a “job well done,” the president and his team will have to get back to work: no rest for the weary.

Dealing with Pushback

There are at least six tasks immediately ahead.

First will be countering the inevitable pushback from the opponents of the agreement, some perhaps on the merits after they read the lengthy documents, some who made up their minds even before the terms were settled. Saudi Arabia, some other Persian Gulf Arab states, and Israel will try to derail the deal in Congress, which now has 60 days in which to express its views. Most Republicans have all along wanted the president to fail here, just as they have blocked him elsewhere. And there is much gnashing of teeth in the Republican caucus on Capitol Hill, today.

But in addition to the carefully negotiated details in the agreement that rival any US-Soviet nuclear arms control agreement during the Cold War, Obama has some trump cards. The American people don’t want another Middle East war. They don’t want young Americans put at risk in combat. And, in the final analysis on a crucial US security issue, most will support the commander-in-chief against naysayers-without-responsibility in Congress. The polls bear this out, and members of Congress will ignore these facts at their (political) peril.

To add to the winning cards he has in his hand, Obama was inadvertently aided by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his outrageous act of speaking before a joint session of Congress to ask its members to choose between the president of the United States and a foreign leader in determining what is best for the security of this country (and, with self-interest rightly understood, also the true security of America’s partners in the Middle East!). He also has one further card. The US private sector wants back into Iran, any remaining sanctions be damned, in order to compete with the flood of investment and order books that will be flourished by European countries, Russia, and China.

The attacks on the agreement will be loud, intense, divisive, heavily-financed, and well-orchestrated. But—spoiler alert—President Obama will prevail.

Dealing with Expectations

Second, the president needs to tamp down expectations that ”everything will now change” in relations with Iran. It won’t. Debates over the agreement—in the West and in Iran—must take place first, and the agreement will need to be incorporated into both sides’ politics. Although the United States and Iran have some compatible interests, at many levels and in many ways the two are still at loggerheads and in some matters are likely to continue to be so no matter how much good will the nuclear deal may now generate. Differing interests and 35 years of mutual hostility don’t just dissolve in the face of euphoria at what has been achieved and hopes for the future.

Third and related to the second point, Iran will have to “behave itself” beyond hewing to every last jot and tittle of the agreement, overseen by a modern-day Argus Panoptes, the many-eyed figure of Greek mythology. This means demonstrating beyond doubt that it is not engaged in exporting terrorism, a real deal-killer (Saudi Arabia: take note of American sensitivities about countries whose nationals export terrorism). It has to mean Iran’s backing off on its full-blown support for Hezbollah and stopping unacceptable comments about Israel. At some point, Iran and Israel will need to cut their own deal before the United States can truly accept Iran. Although this is in Teheran’s interest, it is still well in the future.

Fourth, the US will need to continue “reassuring” other countries in the region about Iran. The US was not going to withdraw from the region, even if Iran had agreed to everything that the United States and others had on their initial wish lists. Washington will now be even more tied to the region, at least for the foreseeable future, in order to show that Iran has not “suckered” the United States and to shore up other’s defenses against whatever it may have in mind. Already, some have elevated Iran to 10-foot-tall status. They claim that a flood of cash will now go into imperial ambitions, which one former senior US military officer argues is built into its DNA, from Cyrus onward!

Yes, there are challenges from Iran. But they are not military at the moment and are unlikely to be so in the future. The real challenge is that Iran is a big country, with a highly-educated and entrepreneurial people—look at all the successful Iranians in the US private sector—with cultural and religious ties to many countries of the region, and with a rapidly reforming internal debate over its future. Like it or not, Iran is becoming more modern than any of its neighbors, and this scares the daylights out of the Gulf monarchies. More women than men are in Iranian universities; in Saudi Arabia, they still can’t drive a car.

American support for countries worried about an Iran even partially liberated from sanctions is in major part being denominated in arms sales, training, and other military evidence of our concern for the futures of our Middle East partners, however much this is not the cure for what really ails these societies. Israel will want—and get—more military support. The US might even consider new formal security arrangements in the Persian Gulf region, as though these would substitute for the inherent American interest in regional security and stability. Who knows: any formal arrangements might one day also include Iran, and an “empty chair” should be set for it at the table. That would be preferable to any security structure based on the assumption, which is not in America’s interest, of an immutable confrontation between the two sides of the Persian Gulf.

Identifying Common Interests

Fifth, the administration will need to continue, most gingerly, considering ways in which US and Iranian interests in the region are compatible and potential reinforcing. This is certainly true in regard to countering the Islamic State (ISIS or IS). In their concern about Iran, Saudi Arabia and other Sunni states have failed to recognize that they can only keep the US and Iran from jointly bearing the brunt of opposition to IS by ending their own ambivalence toward it. To do this, particularly in Saudi Arabia, the governments must stop indulging the aspirations of their own terror-supporting political-cultural-religious elites.

The US, Iran, and everyone else have a common interest in the free and protected flow of commerce in the Persian Gulf and through the Strait of Hormuz. It is past time that the countries moving ships through the Gulf concluded something akin to the 1972 US-Soviet Incidents at Sea Treaty, formalizing cooperation already taking place informally. The US and Iran also have a similar interest in reducing the chances that the Taliban will take over Afghanistan once Western troops leave. Such cooperation worked in 2001, when Iran helped overthrow the Taliban (until President Bush’s most unfortunate dubbing of Iran as a member of an Axis of Evil, which ended Iran’s cooperation and thus vastly complicated US efforts in Afghanistan since then). It could be possible, again.

Part of America’s promoting its interests with Iran and others involves working to get all regional countries to understand that the US will not support either side in the struggle between Sunnis and Shias – however little we may be able to moderate this competition. We will also not take sides in the geopolitical competitions that pit so many countries against one another, including Iran and the Gulf Arab States, Israel, Turkey, Egypt, and one day perhaps again Syria and Iraq. As such, we need to back off the formal policy, more honored in the breach than the observance, that Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad has to go – butcher though he is — as a sop to Sunni ambitions. Without a clear and practical plan for Syria’s future, which does not now exist, there is likely to be a widening sectarian war throughout the region.

In sum, the US approach to the region needs to be “America’s interests first.”

A Strategic Plan for the Region

Last and most difficult of all, the Obama administration needs to do something that has so far eluded it. It needs to work toward a comprehensive, coherent, strategic approach to the region as a whole. It’s understandable to an extent that the administration has failed to do this since it has been working hard simply to keep the US out of another war that is not in our interests to fight while dealing with Iran (difficult) and the enemies of a nuclear agreement (equally difficult if not more so).

To devise a more strategic approach to the regions, the president will need to add to his team, make some changes, and reach out both to the US expert community and to the State Department, most of whose able people have been sidelined by the unprecedented concentration of power in foreign and security policy in the White House.

Maybe it is too late in the Obama administration to do this. It should have been done years ago. Nevertheless, with the Iran agreement, the president has done three big things that will be recognized by history. He has reduced the chances of more war in the Middle East (beyond those already going on). He has offered some hope of a better future in the region, as difficult as it will be to achieve. And he has handed to his successor something precious, like Obamacare (big) and the opening to Cuba (not so big).

With Iran, he is taking the heat for something important to the United States and the American people, so that his successor will not have the problem of a possible Iranian nuclear bomb on his or her plate. The next president should say “thank you” to this president for his foresight and political courage.

Robert E. Hunter

Robert E. Hunter served as US ambassador to NATO (1993-98) and on the National Security Council staff throughout the Carter administration, first as Director of West European Affairs and then as Director of Middle East Affairs. In the last-named role, he was the White House representative at the Autonomy Talks for the West Bank and Gaza and developer of the Carter Doctrine for the Persian Gulf. He was Senior Advisor to the RAND Corporation from 1998 to 2011, and Director of the Center for Transatlantic Security Studies at the National Defense University, 2011-2012. He served on the Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board and is a member of the American Academy of Diplomacy.



  1. Mr. Hunter: would you term yourself “outrageous” if you called for attention/help while a neighbor holds a gun at your head?

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