Michael Young/On Iran, Arabs deeply mistrust Obama

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On Iran, Arabs deeply mistrust Obama
Michael Young/The Daily Star/Mar. 05, 2015

What was striking in Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech before the U.S. House of Representatives Tuesday was how the Israeli prime minister exploited the Obama administration’s ambiguities on the broader implications of a nuclear deal with Iran.

While Netanyahu’s proposals for how to strengthen the nuclear accord are not likely to be implemented, two issues he raised cannot be readily ignored by President Barack Obama: How a deal might enhance Iran’s regional influence; and whether regional wariness with a deal could spur nuclear proliferation.

Iran’s regional role is an issue that the U.S. has strenuously, and foolishly, sought to separate from the nuclear discussions. This has alarmed the Gulf states – and now Israel – who fear that a lifting of sanctions on Iran and a rapprochement with the U.S. would facilitate Iranian expansionism. The Arab states understand that the implications of a nuclear accord are mainly political. Having signed a long-awaited arrangement with Tehran, the U.S. is unlikely to turn around and enter into new conflicts to prevent it from widening its reach in the Arab world.

Indeed, there are signs that the Obama administration would do precisely the contrary. Obama, in a letter last October to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, effectively recognized Iran’s role in Syria by reassuring him that coalition airstrikes against ISIS would not target Bashar Assad’s forces. Moreover, by affirming the parallel interests of the U.S. and Iran in combating ISIS, Obama defined a basis for regional cooperation with Tehran.

It is understandable that Netanyahu’s warning fell on deaf ears at the White House. The relationship between Obama and the Israeli prime minister has been poor, and Netanyahu’s refusal to advance in negotiations with the Palestinians suggests to the Americans that relations with his government are a one-way street. For Netanyahu to then personally lobby in Washington against a major Obama initiative was the last straw. No wonder House Democrats were so withering in their criticism of him.

But whatever Netanyahu’s duplicity, the questions he raised are the same ones that many Arab states have, and to which Obama has offered no answers. Iranian influence in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, the Palestinian territories and now Yemen, is very real, and Tehran has spent years building it up, patiently and deliberately.

Obama has explained his Iran policy poorly, and there is a growing sense that this has been intentional. Why? Because Obama’s true ambition is to reduce America’s role in the Middle East, and, to quote analyst Tony Badran, leave in its place “a new security structure, of which Iran is a principal pillar.” Because such a scheme is bound to anger U.S. allies in the region, Obama has concealed his true intentions.

From the start the administration made it a primary goal to reorient American attentions away from the Middle East, toward Asia. When the so-called “Arab Spring” began, Obama ignored its potential benefits and sought to pursue American disengagement. At every stage the administration worked to reduce the American footprint, and where that was not possible, as in Libya and Iraq, to define limited goals and share the burden with others.

In absolute terms this approach is defensible. But as Badran suggests the outcome may well be an enhanced role for Iran, and this is something Arab states, not to mention Israel, will have great trouble accepting. If Obama imagines that the best way to advance his project is to keep mum about the outcome, he will see many more reactions like Netanyahu’s before long.

The Israeli prime minister is correct about one thing: If the Arabs feel threatened by an Iran that, ultimately, has the means of going nuclear, they will respond in kind by trying to develop their own nuclear capability. This would generate considerable instability and defeat the purpose of a nuclear agreement now.

In many passages Netanyahu’s speech was over the top. His credibility has been damaged by revelations that Israeli intelligence did not share his assessment of Iran’s nuclear program. There are few leaders as shameless, as annoying, as fraudulent. But that should not detract from the validity of some of his points. While many in the region might accept Obama’s choice to avert war with Iran by agreeing a nuclear deal, they see nothing reassuring in America’s vision of the aftermath.

The reality is that Obama is deeply distrusted in the Arab world. He is not a man who communicates much with Arab leaders or societies. His aversion to the region’s problems is palpable. Nor is Obama a president who immerses himself in the Middle East’s details. The extent of this was best illustrated by the fact that he never considered appointing an envoy to coordinate with regional allies over America’s position in the nuclear talks.

Obama may get his deal with Iran, but he has prepared the terrain so carelessly that the consequences may be quite damaging. Iran is a rising power in a region where Arab states are disintegrating. Agreeing with Iran, if that happens, will be the easy part. Much tougher will be leaving in place a stable regional order. And given Obama’s performance until now, no one is wagering much that the U.S. will succeed in that.

Michael Young is opinion editor of THE DAILY STAR. He tweets @BeirutCalling.