By Roger Cohen
May 14, 2015
When Amr Moussa, the former secretary general of the Arab League, spoke here of the Arab world’s humiliation by three non-Arab states — Iran, Israel and Turkey — and the way they had, through their “hegemony,” turned Arabs into a “laughingstock,” I asked him what exactly he meant.
His response focused on Iran. This in itself was interesting. Statements from Tehran about Iran calling the shots in several Arab capitals — including Damascus, Baghdad and Sana — had “enraged many of us,” he said, leaving Arabs humiliated that any power “would dare say that.”
As this remark suggests, Iran these days is a greater focus of Arab ire and disquiet than Israel, a country with which many Arab states have aligned but unsayable interests.
Cut to Camp David and President Obama’s attempt to reassure Persian Gulf leaders that the United States can, in Secretary of State John Kerry’s words, “do two things at the same time” — that is, conclude a nuclear deal with Shiite Iran and honor its alliances with the Sunni monarchies, whose oil is now of less strategic importance to an America in the midst of an oil boom.
The walk-and-chew-gum American argument is a tough sell because Arab honor and Arab humiliation are in play. That’s why King Salman of Saudi Arabia stayed away from Camp David. That’s why the Saudis started a bombing campaign in Yemen: to stop the Houthis, portrayed in Riyadh as pure Iranian proxies. That’s why much of what you hear these days in Dubai (where many Iranians live and trade) is talk of Obama’s betrayal of the Arabs through infatuation with Iran.
Arabs are saying: Enough! They are, in Moussa’s words at the Arab Media Forum here, in the midst of an “awakening.”
Let’s walk this bristling cat back a little, but perhaps not as far as Western colonialism in the Middle East and the century-old, now collapsing Sykes-Picot order. Let’s set aside Israel, seen by many Arabs as an extension of that colonialism. But let’s go far enough back to encompass the American invasion of Iraq a dozen years ago and the consequent overturn of Saddam Hussein’s Sunni domination in favor of the Shiite majority and, behind it, Iran. And certainly as far as the ongoing Syrian debacle, Obama’s abandoned “red line” against the Iran-backed Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons, and the Arab conclusion that fecklessness was the name of the game in Obama’s Washington.
Yes, Arabs have talked themselves into a state of high dudgeon. They are convinced that Iran’s imperial designs on the region will be reinforced by an eventual nuclear deal that would bring Tehran and Washington closer and offer the Islamic Republic a cash windfall from sanctions relief. Think of the Saudi bombs on Aden as a warning shot to Obama (whatever his support for “Operation Decisive Storm”) and Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
To all of which the right response is for Obama to hold the line on Iran and decline to hold the Saudis’ hands.
First, Iran built up its current Middle Eastern reach in the absence of a nuclear deal, not with one. It was unconstrained by any accord with major powers drawing it closer to a world of rules. It vastly expanded its nuclear program. What is more threatening to the Arab world — a nuclear-armed Iran or one whose nuclear program is ring-fenced, reduced and intensely monitored?
Second, the Arab sense of humiliation is at least as much internally generated as externally. Like any other power, Arabs control their own destiny. Millions of young Arabs rose up a few years ago to demand empowerment and opportunity. These hopes are on hold, at least outside Tunisia and booming Dubai. No bombing of Yemen, damning of Iran or ritual tirade against Israel will offset the disappointment.
Third, there is the hard-line, expansive Iran of Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, and the reformist Iran bent on renewed ties with the West of President Hassan Rouhani. For now they are roughly in balance. Each needs the other to survive. The Gulf Cooperation Council should focus more on which faction is likely to be reinforced over time by a nuclear deal.
Fourth, Iran is a major Middle Eastern power. The short-term strategic interest of Arab states may appear to be the maintenance of an unsatisfactory status quo that preserves Iran’s rogue status and leaves America’s allegiances unaltered. In fact, the real interest of Arab states must be an Iran no longer going freelance, constrained by its accords with major powers, benefiting from regional economic cooperation, and pushed by its youth toward reform.
Einstein’s definition of insanity — doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results — needs an addendum. Madness is doing the same thing over and over in the Middle East and expecting a different outcome.
Obama is a walk-and-chew-gum kind of guy. There are risks to an Iran nuclear deal but the risks without one are far greater.