Last week, as the UN General Assembly opened its 2013 session, Michael Doran, an expert on the Middle East and international politics at the Brookings Institution, spoke with us about the American flip-flop on Syria’s chemical weapons, what President Obama might be thinking about Iran, Vladimir Putin’s interest in the regional turmoil—and what all of this means for Israel.
What message did Washington send in abandoning missile strikes against Syria?
American credibility has been hit across the region and around the world. Every ally of the U.S. who’s on the front lines against a malevolent actor—the South Koreans before North Korea, the smaller states of the South China Sea before China, the Israelis before Iran—is now uncertain that if push comes to shove, the U.S. will be there for them.
In the Middle East, they’re all worried about Iran and asking themselves, “Is the U.S. going to go the distance on the nuclear issue?” There was doubt all along about this, and now this doubt has increased exponentially. So the next question is: “Who around U.S. shares our concerns?” If the U.S. isn’t going to play its traditional role, the role that it’s pledged itself to play, then everybody is going to have to find different arrangements.
What sort of arrangements?
Israel’s ambassador Michael Oren suggested the other day that there’s been renewed contact between Jerusalem and the Sunni oil- and gas-producing states in the Persian Gulf. It wouldn’t surprise me to find secret high-level contacts going on between, say, Israel and Saudi Arabia.
Can you parse President Obama’s thinking?
To me, what’s scariest about our policy is that it might not just be feckless and ad-hoc but that there might actually be a strategy behind it. Of course I don’t know this for a fact. You can make a case that our policy is based purely on what will play domestically. You can also make a case that it’s being put together on the fly and that nobody’s thinking more than five minutes ahead. But the evidence is also consistent with a strategy.
And one big point of the strategy, a very big play, is a deal with Iran. The one constant in the president’s policy from day one has been his complete unwillingness to get involved in Syria. It’s possible—and again I’m speculating—that the president wants to reassure Tehran that we’re not treating Syria as an element in a proxy regional war against them and their interests.
Even before we learned that Obama and Hassan Rouhani were exchanging letters, there was a lot of signaling between Washington and Tehran during this whole Syria crisis. There were also reports—unverified, but credible—that the U.S. was conducting negotiations with the Iranians through two separate channels, Sultan Qaboos of Oman and Under-Secretary-General Jeffrey Feltman at the UN.
The larger goal may be to create a system through which a number of responsible great-power stakeholders will work together on issues of common concern like the Iranian nuclear problem. It may be that President Obama sees our current cooperation with Russia in the Syrian crisis as a dry run for working with Vladimir Putin on a much bigger big deal: one that would have Iran make certain concessions on its nuclear program in return for a lifting of sanctions. In order to sweeten the deal, the U.S. is reassuring the Iranians at every stage that we have no interest in challenging their regional ambitions.
Rouhani announced last week that he has agreed to meet Britain’s foreign secretary, William Hague, at the UN General Assembly. Is this a prelude to direct talks between him and senior American diplomats, if not the President himself?
It wouldn’t surprise me at all. It’s the expectation of every European diplomat—with the notable exception of the French—that this problem will somehow disappear through some magical diplomatic formula.
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In addition, many people in the American foreign-policy establishment and in the foreign ministries of Europe actually believe that an Iranian nuclear weapon is no big deal. They, especially the Americans among them, won’t say so out loud—it would be politically indefensible—but it’s what they actually believe. If faced with the choice between living with an Iranian bomb and doing what it takes to make sure Iran doesn’t get a bomb, which means entertaining the possibility of war, then, for them, living with the Iranian bomb is the least bad option. Pushing Rouhani fever is their way of staving off a policy outcome they fear and oppose. It’s a way of substituting a de-facto policy of containment for Obama’s proclaimed policy of preventing an Iranian nuclear weapon, but without ever making the case explicitly.
Is there a deal you would buy?
Look, there really is a rift in the Iranian elite; there’s no doubt about that. And there are elements of the elite that might be willing to cut some kind of deal with the U.S. It’s certainly worth testing. But the attitude you adopt toward the test is vitally important; otherwise, you get roped into an endless process that doesn’t serve your interests. I see no grounds for optimism: for thinking that the deal these moderates would be willing to cut would in any way be acceptable to us. I see even fewer grounds for thinking that the guys who really hold the power in Iran—meaning, Khamenei and Qasem Soleimani—are at all interested in pursuing the moderates’ deal.
My guess about Khamenei is that he thinks the U.S. isn’t serious about wanting a deal on the nuclear question but that we’re using it as a pretext—and that we won’t rest until there’s been regime change in Iran. Which means that they have to be very careful about making concessions. I happen to agree with him. Not that we’re actually carrying out a regime-change policy; far from it. But when you take into account all of the significant issues in the region, it’s really not possible for the U.S. to come to a grand bargain.
One: because we’re the guarantors of a certain order in the Middle East, and we have allies there—the Saudis, Turks, Jordanians, and Israelis, among others—who still have influence in Washington, and the president has to take them into consideration. The interests of those allies are, on many issues, diametrically opposed to the interests of the Iranians. Any attempt on our part to come to a deal is going to break apart because of realities on the ground.
Two: The Iranians think they are a great power. They are not. They have the ability to make considerable trouble all around the region, which gives the perception of power. But when viewed from Washington’s perspective, they are more like serial blackmailers. We can come up with a deal that will stop them from making trouble today, but we can’t come up with a deal that will stop them from making trouble tomorrow. If we tried to cut a grand bargain with them, we would find, just as we found with the North Koreans, that we were being sold the same donkey over and over and over again.
What’s the Russian interest here?
Putin is playing a surprisingly sophisticated game. His offer on the chemical weapons was masterful, and done so quickly it took everybody by surprise. President Obama was in a box politically, and Putin offered him a way off the battlefield with honor.
In our relationship with the Russians there’s a deep competition, but there’s also a layer of shared interest. President Obama is accentuating the cooperative. My tendency would be to accentuate the competitive. As I see it, the big prize for Putin is not exactly to be the leader of a Russian bloc but to be the primary supporter, or enabler, of an Iranian bloc: a territorially contiguous band of control stretching from Iran all the way to the Mediterranean. As the enabler, Russia would stand to benefit immensely from such an outcome.
How do you see this unfolding?
Prime Minister Maliki of Iraq is bending more and more toward the Iranians, who are training Iraqi fighters in Iran and delivering them to Syria. When the Syria conflict ends, if ever, we’re going to be facing a new Hizballah-like structure in the form of a global Shiite militia. Putin can see that happening, and he’s playing it subtly. He cooperates with the U.S. on matters that do not diminish the power of the Iranian alliance, all the while knowing that if he just protects Assad enough, and the Iranians enough, and if he himself can stay in power, together they can assemble an anti-American bloc in the Middle East.
What does all of this mean for Israel?
Israel’s in a very, very difficult position. The deftest maneuver of President Obama’s policy in the Middle East has been to put Israel in a bear hug. He can say with complete conviction that he loves Israel and is cooperating very closely with it. And it’s true that we have unprecedented military and intelligence relations with Israel. But it’s a bear hug—an act of love that drastically constricts Israel’s freedom of action. The one issue the Israelis most care about, the Iranian nuclear program, hovers over the relationship like a big question mark. And now there’s Rouhani fever. The U.S. has delicately built up expectation that there’s a deal out there to be had. If the Israelis lift a finger against Iran, they’ll be seen as having ruined an opportunity for historic conciliation between the U.S. and Iran.
Combine this with the tremendous isolationist feeling that we’ve just seen demonstrated in Congress. The Israelis have to be saying to themselves, “If Obama couldn’t get an authorization of force on Syria, maybe he won’t be able to get one on Iran.” Many people I know would find this proposition absurd. I’m not so sure.
The role of the commander-in-chief is crucial. In order to get an authorization of force now, the President would have to make a strong, compelling national-security case against Iran in front of Congress. The personal inclinations that he revealed regarding Syria in recent weeks suggest that he would do everything in his power to avoid this. He doesn’t want to chance defeat in Congress, and he doesn’t want to go down in history as having initiated a new war in the Middle East. As an alternative, he could string out the negotiations with Rouhani for years. We can be told over and over again that we’re close, very close, very very close. All this will make it very hard for the Israelis to move.
So at this point you see very little likelihood of American military action against Iran.
I see no likelihood. Many serious analysts believe that President Obama regards preventing a nuclear Iran as a legacy issue. On this matter, I’m an extremist.
If America won’t attack, and if a grand bargain is impossible, does that mean America will acquiesce in an Iranian nuclear bomb?
My assessment of no likelihood assumes that as long as the Obama administration is in power, the Iranians will not announce or test a bomb. Instead, over the next three years, the way things are going, they will increase their capability, and get that much closer. To me, it looks as if they’re trying to get themselves into the position the Japanese are in, where they’re one turn of the key away from having a bomb. And then they can turn the key whenever it’s convenient for them.
So if you were Benjamin Netanyahu . . .
Many knowledgeable observers believe that the Israelis will take action unilaterally. I do not. This is not based on any inside information; I just think that any Israeli prime minister, when it comes time to give the “Go” order, is going to feel the unbearable weight of the decision on him. If he thinks one or two moves ahead, he’s going to realize that it’s very easy for an Israeli prime minister to get into a war on his own, but it’s much harder to get out of a war on his own, without the United States.
To go to war, especially with Iran, against the will of the American president, is a very, very dangerous thing to do. So I think he probably won’t do it. But here, too, many seasoned experts would say I’m totally wrong.
In your view, then, Israel can live with an Iranian bomb? It can’t live without American support, but it can live with an Iranian bomb?
I would just say that given my current read of American policy, Israel has no choice. Going to war without great-power support is very dangerous, and Israel has never done that in its whole history. In the 1956 Suez crisis they had great-power support, and Security Council support as well. In 1967 they consulted us beforehand, their intelligence picture was identical with ours, and Washington was profoundly predisposed against Egyptian president Nasser. So Israel enjoyed quite a number of factors in its favor—and still its leadership almost had a nervous breakdown over the decision to preempt.
Michael Doran served in the George W. Bush administration as a deputy assistant secretary of defense and a senior director at the National Security Council. He is currently the Hertog senior fellow in the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. Follow him on Twitter @Doranimated.