Kicking Over the Table in the Middle East

5 MINS READApr 2, 2015 | 22:10 GMT

The United States and Iran, along with other members of the Western negotiating coalition, reached an agreement whose end point will be Iran's monitored abandonment of any ambition to build nuclear weapons, coupled with the end of sanctions on Iran's economy. It is not a final agreement. That will take until at least June 30. There are also powerful forces in Iran and the United States that oppose the agreement and might undermine it. And, in the end, neither side is certain to live up the agreement. Nevertheless, there has been an agreement between the Great Satan and a charter member of the Axis of Evil, and that matters. But it matters less for what it says about Iran's nuclear program, or economic sanctions, than for how it affects the regional balance of power, a subject we wrote on in this week's Geopolitical Weekly.

Israel is the country that will be the most visible. It has been vociferous in opposing any deal with Iran. But in the end, this deal affects others less than Israel pretends. First, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's behavior does not indicate that he truly believes in an imminent Iranian nuclear threat. He has been asserting for more than a decade that the Iranians are a year or two away from a nuclear weapon. According to him, they are always a year or two away. It has become a non-falsifiable assertion. No matter what deadline passes, it does not deter Netanyahu.

But more important, if Netanyahu actually believed what he said, it is inconceivable that he would not have taken military action, with or without U.S. support, to protect Israel from an existential threat. Israel has a substantial military capability, including tactical nuclear weapons. While its forces are relatively far from Iran, there are other regional powers on the Arabian Peninsula and in the Caucasus who are hostile to Iran and frightened of Iranian nuclear weapons who could, theoretically, allow Israel to base aircraft and special forces out of their countries for an Israeli strike on Iran's facilities.

Netanyahu's statements and Netanyahu's actions — or lack of them — are utterly contradictory. If he meant what he said about the threat, and the United States was not prepared to act, the prime minister of Israel would be derelict in his responsibilities by failing to act. Netanyahu is not a man to neglect his duty. Therefore, he cannot believe what he says. Indeed, what he has wanted consistently was a U.S. attack on Iran, or at least unremitting U.S. hostility toward Iran. His fear of Iran's nuclear program had more to do with limiting a U.S.-Iranian rapprochement than protecting Israel from Iranian nuclear weapons. The latter would have produced different actions. Fear of a U.S.-Iranian rapprochement is not unreasonable, and all nations must use what tools they have to shape their environment. But in this case, the Israeli response will be of secondary importance.

Of far greater importance will be the Saudi and Turkish response. Saudi Arabia is the mortal enemy of Iran, not merely over religious issues, but geopolitically. Riyadh understands that it is rich and yet militarily constrained, while Tehran is poor but has more robust military capabilities. This is an uncomfortable position to be in. Obviously, Iran would like to dominate the Arabian Peninsula. The United States has been the guarantor of Saudi national security. The understanding with Iran, if it endures and if it evolves into a broader relationship, threatens the security of the entire Arabian Peninsula. This can also put the United States in a position where the Arabian Peninsula can no longer simply assume U.S. hostility toward Iran or U.S. support of their interests. The airstrikes on Yemen are the first indication of the region having to bear the burden of its strategic interests. There will be more such military initiatives, and the Arabian Peninsula will be wooing the United States rather than the other way around.

The same is true for another country that is far more important: Turkey. During the last few years, Ankara has played a complex game with Washington, supporting those things that were in its own interests and opposing things that were not. This makes perfect sense, but the U.S. relationship with Iran changes the basic dynamic. Last week Turkey made hostile gestures toward Iran. Turkish and Iranian interests are not identical and can easily diverge. It is important for Turkey that the United States keeps its distance from Iran. To this point, the United States wooed Turkey and both countries become reluctant partners. If the United States has a closer relationship with Iran, Turkey, like Saudi Arabia, will have to pay a much higher price for alignment with the United States and bear increasing risks if it is unwilling to pay that price.

The question of Iranian nuclear weapons is more theoretical than real. Iran will become, if not an ally, then possibly a country with which to cooperate on matters, such as what is happening in Iraq. There is a saying in chess: When you are being outplayed, kick over the table and start a new game. The understanding between Washington and Tehran is in itself both incomplete and uncertain. However, if it evolves into something solid, then we can look at this as the day the United States kicked over the table and started a new game.

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