Barack Obama’s three way collision course in the Middle East

With Barrack Obama’s last year as US president, the end of an era has come: a new age has dawned for the Middle East policy of the United States. For decades, there were three key objectives to be considered when dealing with the Arab nations: securing longstanding allies, protecting the economic interests of the domestic market and fighting for freedom and democracy in ‘failed states’.

Three nations represent these three struggles strikingly well: Israel, Saudi Arabia and Iran. And as US policymakers are experiencing a tectonic shift in orientation, the US-induced love triangle is in for some interesting times.

 

Economic Security

 

For decades, Saudi Arabian oil fuelled the machinery of the US industry. With 18 million barrels a day, the domestic oil usage trumped that of all other countries. China – the next biggest consumer – averaged at about 7 million. Despite the motion towards sustainable sources of energy, the hunger for petroleum has not slumped– but the United States have found a far more satisfying source. Offshore drilling and ‘fracking’ reinvigorated the North American petroleum production and relieved the nation from its dependence on Saudi oil.

At this conspicuously convenient time, another new variable enters the equation. The Islamic Republic of Iran is open to the world of commerce again. The lifting of international sanctions has already attracted plenty of possible trade partners: China and India view the emerging power as an alternative supplier of energy and a possible trade-transit region. Pakistan was one of the first nations to enter talks with Teheran: a friendship with Iran will allow a whole new degree of independence from Afghanistan and India. With all this talk of flourishing trade, it is not surprising that western businesses have flocked into the Shia-ruled republic by the dozens. And Iran is not too modest about its newfound freedom. The government recently placed an offer for 13 Boeing passenger jets and is looking to strike a deal for 80 more. With the lifting of the sanctions, the United States opened up another channel for energy imports. Above and beyond, the diplomatic solution to the Iranian situation is seen by the Democratic Party as one of the huge successes of the Obama administration. It is one of the (very rare) occasions in which ‘nation building’ might have actually worked out.

 

Israel – the historical ally

 

But while a new possible ally emerges, an old one is getting very nervous. Israel has been a supporter of the US leadership since its inception after World War Two. In turn, Israel has been able to count on US support for decades. But the government of both Barrack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu have been seeing that unconditional support slip away.

Led by the Prime Minister himself, Israeli officials have been vocal critics of Obama’s last foreign policy revolution. Most notably, the ex-Mossad agent brought forward a rhetoric masterpiece in the United Nations General Assembly, tearing through threats from the Iranian leadership (which had asserted that there would be no Israel 20 years from now) before giving the distinguished delegates 45 full seconds to reflect on their actions in the most intense rhetoric pause of UN history.

Under previous US presidents, the affirmative response from Washington wouldn’t have been far away. As a one of the main supporters and perpetrators of the deal however, the current US administration stayed silent.

Israel has been understandably critical of Teheran for a while now. Hezbollah – a group that is commonly agreed to be subsidized and armed by Iran – is considered major threat to national security in the Jewish state. Shin Bet considers the group a terrorist organisation. Consequentially, the Israeli air force has been targeting heavy arms supplies destined for Hezbollah. It should come as no surprise, that when Iran put up a ground to air defence artillery well within range of the previously mentioned supply routes, Netanyahu and co. steamed with anger (and likely a measure of worry).

All this is everyday politics between Israel and Iran, who have been fighting proxy wars in Syria for the last four years. But amongst the usual business, a US ambassador spooked the longest standing ally of the United States in the Middle East: Daniel Shapiro had some historically unusual ‘criticism’ for the Israeli government. There were a double standard in the Justice System regarding Jewish Israelis and Palestinians. Israel should strive towards a fairer standard for its rule of law. The local government responded furiously, decrying Shapiro and accusing him of slander and antisemitism. The rest of the international community saw the comments as what they were: a message from DC – while the mutual alliance and friendship of the two countries would not be endangered, even Israel was not above criticism. This becomes quite apparent when reading the whole comment. Shapiros ‘attack’ was very politely phrased, measured in its criticism and over all optimistic for the future. The pledge to ‘stay friends’ was reaffirmed just this week. On Tuesday, John Kerry said: “the fight is over” between the Israeli government and the Obama leadership. Comically continuing with the relationship terminology, Kerry added the following: “we can move on”. Leaving these light spirited moments aside, the United States reassured their historic love with some tangible incentive to calm. Kerry put military subsidies on the table – 5 billion dollars’ worth of defence spending should sooth the Israeli government. Yet again, the message is clear: Obama found new love for American interests in Iran, but, in the words of John Kerry, “wants to stay friends still”.

 

Riyadh is very worried about Teheran

 

Isn’t it adorable? With all this mutual talk of peace and love, the aftermath of Iran’s economic rebirth almost looks like a cakewalk. Almost – Teheran still insists on calling the United States of America an “Empire of Evil”. But it is unlikely that the sharpened rhetoric has any meaning on the international stage. More likely, the Shia theocracy is attempting to retain a certain anti-American sentiment in the general population. Iran is not interested in a late ‘Arab spring’ revolution. Quenching pro-western ideologies is one way of suppressing a democratic uprising. Compared to the disasters in Iraq and Afghanistan however, the Iranian solutions seems like an overall success for the USA.

But Saudi Arabia, third party to the US-induced love triangle, vehemently opposes Iranian influence in the Arab world. I covered the Saudi policy on Tehran in detail last week, but the general gist is this: The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has established itself as a leader in the Arab world. Until the ‘Iran Nuclear Deal’, it was the undisputed economic force amongst the Arab countries. Yemen, Iraq, Sudan and the Emirates rely on Saudi energy. Energy trade makes up between 80 and 90% of the countries’ exports. King Salman felt threatened by the emerging economic and political power of Iran and acted quickly to bring out the “true colours” of his rivals in Teheran – executing the Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr. The choice was a deliberate provocation. The Saudi leadership wanted to divide the Middle East along the fragile Sunni-Shia line. Politically, this is an expedient move – the Saudi-favoured Sunni interpretation of Islam is far more populous, and hence far better represented in national leadership on the international stage. In a further Sunni-Shia fallout, Saudi Arabia could count on support from the majority of the Arab nations. Furthermore, Riyadh attempted to incite Iran to violate the terms of the agreement while it still could. That may have meant the secure safekeeping of the cosy sanctions. Teheran intelligently displayed patience and resolve, and the sanctions were lifted. While the Saudi leadership is still critical of its longstanding rival, the tone has been tuned a little bit.

In the unlikely case of a war, Saudi Arabia would need the full support of all its western allies. The experienced, well-drilled Iranian army would find little to no resistance with the mostly decorative generals in Riyadhs military. Saudi Arabia may have the superior technology – but that advantage is fading rapidly with the removal of trade boycotts. Consequentially, it would be very unwise for King Salman to incite an all-out war at this point.

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