Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is set to speak to the American Congress today. The speech will focus on the highlights of America’s ongoing friendship with the Jewish State and the threat that Israel faces in from its neighbors. Specifically, Netanyahu’s warnings will be centered on the ongoing diplomatic cooperation between the United States and Iran. Netanyahu and the hawks in the Republican Party see a nuclear-armed Iran as an existential threat to Israel.
Netanyahu’s speech is a very small piece of a much larger game of geopolitical chess. The Obama Administration is in the process of making a historical pivot towards Iran in the hopes of bringing Persia into the Administration’s plan for stabilizing the Middle East. In the event that the Administration is successful, Iran could very well be an excellent ally in ending the chaos that has spread across the region. In the event the Administration fails, the United States will lack any degree of diplomatic credibility in dealing with inevitable conflict. Moreover, failing at this gamble will loosen the restraints on Israel and could lead to a full-scale war between Israel and Iran (or Iranian-funded groups).
Here’s the breakdown of the situation:
For the last decade, Iran has gone from a member of the “axis of evil” to an important strategic player in the politics of the Middle East. Following the United States’ invasion and subsequent drawdown of troops in Iraq, the vacuum of strong, centralized, power in Baghdad, coupled with the political influence of powerful Iranian preachers, has given Tehran unprecedented sway in its neighbor. The Iran-Iraq war, still a memory for many in the leadership of both nations has generally tainted the opinions of national leaders of the two for decades. However, with the scaling back of United States support for Iraq, as well as the incredibly impotent parliamentary democracy left behind, the stability of the Iranian state, and its military strength, have won over critics in Baghdad.
The rise of the Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL) further strengthened the position of Iran as a power broker in the Middle East. The Sunni zealotry of the Islamic State plays well in rallying Shiites to oppose them. The Iraqi army, enfeebled by desertion and the drawdown of American forces, has regularly been turning to Iranian troops and Shiite militias to hold the tide of the Islamic State at bay. Most recently, forsaking the United States’ strategic planning, Baghdad, in coordination with the same Shiite militias, has launched a third attempt to retake Tikrit from the Islamic State. Only time will tell if this offensive will be successful, but from a sheer numbers perspective, a victory seems in the cards. Certainly a victory over the Islamic State would be helpful to Iraqi morale on the quest to retake the rest of the country, but it would also solidify the hold of the Iran over the internal security of Iraq.
What Can the United States do About the Spread of Iranian Influence?
Honestly, there is little the United States can do to combat the spread of Iranian influence in Iraq. To the contrary, in yet another “the enemy of my enemy” calculation, the United States is willing to either look the other way, or even give backchannel support to the Iranian push to rid Iraq of the Islamic State. While the ultimate consequence of Iranian power projection in Iraq is the expansion of the Iranian sphere of influence into Baghdad for decades, the reality on the ground is that Iran has the most capable army ready to deploy into Iraq.
The larger reality beyond the casual acceptance of Iranian troops in Iraq is a political calculation that Saudi Arabia will no longer be able to assert stabilizing control over the Arabian Peninsula and the Levant. This conclusion stems from, first, the decline in oil prices. Saudi power and stability is a direct consequence of oil revenues. Simplistically, the monarchy has been able to buy its stability for decades. However, despite calming words coming out of Saudi Arabia that this supply fluctuation is merely an aberration and that the market will return to previous highs, barring a supply shock, this analysis just doesn’t hold. While Saudi Arabia will not descend into anarchy or become a backwater overnight, the days of buying influence across the Middle East will begin to fade. The Saudis will be tasked with deciding between continuing to maintain stability at home or continue to project power abroad. The repressive theocracy will be forced to maintain its domestic policy. As a consequence, the stabilizing force of Saudi Arabia among Sunnis will decline.
The Administration’s Gamble
The Obama Administration is making the calculated decision to pull away from nearly a century of close United States support for Saudi Arabia in order to make overtures to Iran. While the Administration hopes to keep a foot in both camps, its understanding of what it believe the future of the Middle East will be means that Iran is the more important partner moving forward.
This logic almost sounds good: Saudi power is waning, Iran is fighting the Islamic State, and Iran will eventually be forced to change its government. What’s the problem? Israel. That’s not to say Israel, itself, is a problem, but the United States’ commitment to Israel is a constant bane of the Administration’s desire to engage with Iran. For example, Israel, not merely the hawkish Netanyahu, has made it clear that Iran with a nuclear weapon is unacceptable. While several options, including a preemptive strike by Israel, are foreseeable, the reality that Israel may engage Iran militarily is a problem for American diplomats.
Washington’s Goal in Iran
Here’s the problem: the United States is engaging with Iran to, hopefully, moderate the Iranian position and bring them into a position of a regional stabilizer. Dialogue with Iran means the United States must move away from Israeli interests. The United States moving away from Israeli interests means that Israel may engage on its own without necessarily getting the green light from Washington. The United States will have to support Israel in a war with Iran. Thus, any good will the United States has bought with Iran is squandered. Obviously, this chain of events is not a foregone conclusion, but the point of Netanyahu’s speech is to reinforce the idea that the United States has been systematically moving away from its preeminent support of the Jewish State over the past several years.
The politics of Israel are not “whatever Netanyahu wants.” Quite to the contrary, it is a distinct possibility that Netanyahu’s time as Prime Minister is rapidly approaching its end. Netanyahu’s speech to Congress is potentially more about conveying his power at home more than a message to the United States. However, in the end, popular opinion in Israel is generally opposed to, and fearful of, a nuclear-armed Iran. Though Israel is the only undeclared nuclear state with an estimated two-hundred atomic weapons and is the only state that has not unequivocally denied that it would launch a “first strike,” Israel’s small size and relative population density makes a single nuclear device catastrophically devastating.
The Consequences of the Gable
It is in the best interest of all parties that cooler heads prevail. America has no interest in joining a war against Iran (especially when Iran is fighting the Islamic State). Though Congressional hawks have long been formulating the rhetoric for a war in Persia, American popular opinion is against further intervention. The “libertarian” mindset has begun to sink in: the best way to support our troops is to keep them out of harm’s way. Especially given the technological superiority of the Israeli military and the questionable human rights record of its current government, the population of the United States may not rally behind Israel in the event it takes a first strike action. While it seems inevitable that the United States would have to support the Israeli government, the current mood in America is not immediately warm to the thought of intervening with American troops.
The Administration is engaged in a strategic pivot away from historical allies in the Middle East. Given the tectonic shifts in the region over the past five years, this strategy is a gamble that has high risk (alienating allies who feel unprotected and start wars on their own) but also high reward (a stable, democratic Iran providing stability to the Middle East outside of Russian or Chinese influence). A clear picture on the consequences of these actions will not be seen for years. However, the short term reality, as made manifest by Netanyahu’s speech to Congress, is turbulent at best.