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.