A question of US energy independence

oil-field

What would happen if and when America becomes energy independent in the next decade or so? Would Washington escalate its pivot to Asia and place less emphasis on relations in the Middle East? How would such an outcome affect the region? Would Israel and the Gulf States get closer in the face of a rising Iran?

These questions were put to me after my last article. I attempt to answer them here.

Energy independence
The first answer is that American energy independence would not significantly change American interests in the Middle East. America did not guarantee the security of its allies in the Middle East for the last four to six decades to secure oil for America. Rather, America did this to secure oil for the world. American security guarantees are designed to allow energy resources to flow from the Middle East and—importantly—arrive safely in far off destinations (including the ports of its economic competitors).

Were America not to use its global maritime dominance to guarantee the safety of oil leaving the Persian Gulf and arriving in Tokyo, for instance, then Japan would develop a blue water navy for this purpose. And that would make Japan’s neighbours nervous, who would further develop their own defences, and so on.

All this means that if the ‘shale oil revolution’ means America no longer has to import even a single barrel of oil from anywhere, it and the world will still look to America to guarantee the safe passage of oil from the Middle East to foreign ports.

The pivot to Asia
The pivot to Asia was announced at a time when the Middle East was relatively stable. American forces had tamed Iraq and Iran was relatively weak. Since that time, the Arab Spring erupted and produced a revolution and counter-revolution in Egypt, the toppling of governments in Tunisia and Libya, a few wobbles in the Arab monarchies and, most devastatingly, a civil war in Syria. Iraq has also gone to pieces.

These developments have not prevented a disengagement, of sorts by America from the Middle East. But I think this is more a function of what appears to be a two-pronged Obama Doctrine than a pivot to Asia. I have previously written about the Obama Doctrine.

The first prong appears to involve a slight pulling back from allies (such as Israel and the Saudis) who have long benefitted from US largesse but frequently don’t do what the US asks of them. The rationale is to panic them into realising that US support is conditional, and thereby cause a change in their behaviour to become more compliant.

The second prong is to engage with enemies—to unclench the fist, as Obama said during his first inauguration address. The idea is to make the first move. Instead of waiting for enemies (such as Iran) to become conciliatory as a result of US sanctions or military might, the US will make some amends and invite the enemy to reciprocate (ironically, this is similar to the idea that lies at the heart of my honours thesis (published in 2004), though I would argue that my honours thesis had a chance of working…)

Thus, and entirely separate to the bloody events of the Arab Spring, the US has purposefully taken its foot from Iran’s neck. However, there is little evidence that America’s extended hand has resulted in an unclenched Iranian fist. Iran continues the same regional policies that caused it to become a pariah in the first place, with the exception that it’s now a legitimate nuclear threshold state instead of an illegal nuclear threshold state.

The problem for the Obama Doctrine, is that while it might work well on paper, the results on the ground are that the US is being nasty to its friends and rewarding the bad behaviour of its enemies.

How does the American pull-back affect the region?
It would appear that the main outcome of the Obama Doctrine and the apparent American pull-back from the Middle East is a new awareness among all players that locals (or other interested parties) will have to get their hands dirty—America is no longer coming in to save the day. That’s why the Saudis have so heavily bankrolled what amounts to a military dictatorship in Egypt since the counter-revolution overthrew the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated Sisi Government. It’s why the Saudis organised a coalition to bomb the Iranian-aligned Houthi movement in Yemen. And it’s why the Saudis have so heavily backed the Sunni Islamist groups in Syria that are fighting both Islamic State and the Iranian-aligned Syrian Government. After decades of not having to take any responsibility for the region, the Arab world’s leadership is now beginning to do so. But the problem is, it is still unprepared to do so and will take some time to learn the ropes.

In the meantime, Iran is very well organised, and will also benefit from the US distancing itself. This is especially the case since, as above, Iran’s maleficent regional policies (of arming, funding and supporting proxies in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen) didn’t change during the nuclear negotiations and haven’t changed since the deal was signed. And even more so since the West will be so keen to have the nuclear deal work that it will not seriously challenge Iran on these regional policies (to be clear, I totally reject the arguments that now that America has signed the nuclear deal, it can and will go hard against Iran’s other nasty efforts).

All this means that Iran will be emboldened by the fact that the US is distancing itself from the region and its enemies in Riyadh are too unorganised to effectively balance Teheran. Expect Iran to push the envelope in the coming months to see if my theory is correct!

Would Israel and the Gulf States get closer in the face of a rising Iran?
There will likely never be a formal Saudi–Israeli rapprochement, even in the face of a rising Iran (unless, of course, a peaceful, viable Palestinian state is created and the Saudis establish full diplomatic relations with Israel. This is a possibility but, in the short- to medium-term, at least, unlikely). However, unofficial contacts have been ongoing for many years and will only be strengthened as America pulls back. Others are more optimistic than me.

Does the Iran nuclear deal advance or undermine US and Western interests?

The P5+1 and Iran

Tom Switzer in the Weekend Australian paraphrased Lord Palmerston’s “We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow…” Switzer was writing that the recent Iran deal is a good thing, and might change the Middle East for the better.

While I disagree with parts of Switzer’s analysis, the Palmerston quote made me put aside my instinctive reactions about the nuclear deal and analyse it in light of Western and, principally, US interests.

I have previously written that American strategic interests in the Middle East are few and simple: security for Israel; unrestricted flow of energy sources for the global economy; stability and security for those countries that seek to help the US pursue its interests; and a weakening of those parties that oppose US interests. Second-tier interests include the establishment of a Palestinian state and the spread of human rights in the region. These second tier interests cannot contradict the first. This is why, to date, there is no Palestinian state and human rights are only protected in one Middle Eastern country, Israel.

The wider West, which is far less loyal to Israel than the US, has only one principal interest: the continued flow of energy sources. Secondary interests, such as regional stability, help further the primary interest. There are also subordinate interests, such as human rights and the development of democratic mechanisms.

As a result of the Iran nuclear deal (or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, JCPOA,) UN sanctions against Iran will be dropped. Countries, such as Australia, that have autonomous (that is, additional) sanctions against Iran will likely also quickly drop these. This will allow Iran’s massive oil and fuel deposits to be better developed and exported. On the surface, interest achieved!

But there are ramifications. Iran is engaged in a region-wide hegemonic struggle against the Sunni-dominated status quo, led by Saudi Arabia. This ‘Status Quo Bloc’ (which I have previously written about) consists of Arab countries with pro-Western dictatorial leaders who have long looked to the US for their security. That is to say, Iran is opposed to the US and is the enemy of the US’s client states in the region.

Iran has proxies or clients in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen and has come to hold considerable influence—if not veto power—over those countries’ strategic decision-making. It was once, and is once again becoming a significant sponsor of Hamas. Iran has used Shi’ite militias to undermine Western interests in Iraq since the 2003 US-led invasion, and is now reportedly aiding the Taliban to do the same in Afghanistan.

The massive injection of cash Iran will receive as a result of the JCPOA will significantly help it pursue its regional agenda. It will use this money to consolidate its hold on Baghdad and could use it to foment trouble in the Shi’ite-populated, oil-rich parts of Saudi Arabia. That is, Iran will use the benefits of the JCPOA to harm US interests.

This is all conjecture, of course (based on Iranian statements and Iranian precedent). Perhaps an Iranian-dominated Iraq will become stable, better run and able to export much more oil than the current mess (which is, in large part, the result of the West being blind to Iranian undermining efforts.)

The issue of trust
When considering interests, another factor to take into account is trust. There is now less trust of America in the region than there was 10 or 20 years ago.

In recent decades, Israel and Saudi Arabia have come to view the US as their principal defender (and the US has made clear it is a partner in this understanding). However, from the moment negotiations with Iran were mooted, both Israel (very publicly) and the Saudis (behind the scenes) have strongly communicated that a nuclear Iran would be a danger to them and the region, and that any accommodation with Iran would both embolden Iran and pave the way nuclear weapons capability.

These increasingly strident warnings were ignored by the Obama Administration, because, in regards to the nuclear negotiations, the priority for the West and especially the US was for a deal to be signed. Far-reaching concessions were made to achieve that priority. (The priority for Iran was to maintain its nuclear infrastructure. It stuck to its guns and achieved its priority, at the cost of stalling its nuclear development by a few years at the most. It was a win-win deal because both sides achieved their priorities!)

In ignoring the warnings of its allies, the US will guide its allies (and not just in the Middle East) to the understanding that the US cannot be trusted. The US earned incredible trust around the world because it has been the guarantor of global stability since the end of the Second World War. It is this stability (particularly that which has allowed the extraction of oil and its transport across oceans) that has allowed the phenomenal growth in the global economy from which we have all benefitted.

However, like good reputations, trust is hard to obtain and relatively easy to lose. I’m sure Lord Palmerston would agree that having allies and enemies believe what you say is a permanent interest, but under Obama’s watch, this interest has been significantly eroded. To be clear, this decreasing trust did not spring from the July 2015 signing of the JCPOA. IT is a result of American mistakes in the Middle East that began with the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 (under Bush) but were significantly compounded by the Obama Administration since that time (such as when the US abandoned Egyptian President Mubarak and walked back from ‘red lines’ threats in regards to Syrian use of chemical weapons). This is especially the case in its relations with Iran.

There are three separate but linked ramifications of the US word no longer being worth what it once was in the Middle East. First, countries like Saudi Arabia do not believe that the US will prevent Iran from becoming nuclear, and so are already looking to become nuclear themselves. Second, US allies are no longer absolutely convinced the US will protect them if their enemies attempt to undermine them, and so will be tempted to seek other friends. This lets Russia back into the Middle East, and potentially provides an open door to China, as well. Third, if US security guarantees are no longer thought rock-solid, parties might be more willing to pursues their interests violently. All three of these ramifications lead to a more dangerous region.