The Dangers of Lost U.S. Credibility in the Middle East

La recherche d’un modus vivendi avec l’Iran sous la présidence d’Hassan Rohani devrait aller de pair avec l’amélioration des relations de Washington avec ses alliés traditionnels dans la région, écrit Bobby Woods, dans un commentaire pour The Diplomat.

As Iran’s newly elected president, Hassan Rouhani, undertakes a major charm offensive that seeks to woo U.S. President Barack Obama, many Americans are left to wonder whether Iranian promises of greater cooperation are valid or simply a stall and ruse. Obama has repeatedly said that the U.S. will “do what we must” to stop Iran from getting nuclear weapons, but the U.S. has yet to take the types of action that give credence to such a statement.

Given Iran’s unwillingness to stop uranium enrichment, it may be time for the U.S. to be realistic about the current policy and the likelihood that Iran has progressed to the point where a Shia nuclear bomb is effectively an “opaque or virtual” reality. Perhaps the U.S. should start preparing a more coherent and realistic security framework that can effectively deal with and contain a nuclear armed Iran.

Deterring Iran from using nuclear weapons is only part of the strategic task. The tougher challenge is developing a U.S. strategy that effectively assures Arab partner nations, like Saudi Arabia, of American security commitments in order to limit nuclear proliferation in the Middle East. Much work is left to be done on this problem. U.S. policy decisions to support “pro-democracy protest groups” in the Middle East are yielding a more unstable region as friendly Arab nations and Israel try to define the “true meaning” of U.S. policy in the region.

The recent perceived “warming” of relations between the U.S. and Iran has caused significant uneasiness with Arab partner nations and the even more precarious Israel. U.S. actions dating back a decade or more, which led to the support of a Shia (vs. Sunni) dominated government in Iraq even after Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Cooperation Council partner nations expressed deep concern about such a state of affairs. This was the first of several actions by Washington that has led to a rift between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia. America’s unwillingness to support President Hosni Mubarak in Egypt after years of bilateral cooperation also weakened relations between the U.S. and its Arab partners.

In supporting the Arab Spring, which led to the election of the Muslim Brotherhood, U.S. policy played a role in causing instability and concern by other friendly governments of the region. Friends in the region are now asking if the U.S. can be trusted and if the U.S. will be there if and when they need help.

They are very concerned that the U.S. cannot be depended upon to ensure stability and peace. American strategic decisions are not creating the desired goal of stability in the region and have weakened U.S. credibility with Arab partners. Absent a high degree of credibility, any attempt to provide extended nuclear deterrence to Arab partners is unlikely to succeed over the long term, particularly if the U.S. continues to dismantle its much smaller nuclear arsenal.

To prevent a further deterioration of American influence in the region, effectively deter a near-nuclear Iran, and assure Arab partners of American commitment, the United States should undertake six efforts.

First, it is time to develop a more coherent, holistic and realistic strategy for the Middle East that ensures stability and enhances the balance of power between friendly Arab nations and a still unfriendly and aggressive Iran. Working collaboratively with Arab partners will help to improve American credibility.

Second, Congress and the president should maintain sanctions against Iran while also establishing clear milestones that must be met before sanctions are eased. This would also require giving Arab partners’ concerns consideration regarding any potential removal or easing of international sanctions.

Third, undertake a more affective effort to understand the concerns of Arab partners. There is a real possibility of alienating friendly governments. Many partner nations have supported U.S. policy objectives in the Middle East for decades and deserve to have their concerns heard.

Fourth, develop and enhance regional security arrangements that include strategic exercises and joint cooperation between Arab partner nations, intelligence activities, and strategic demonstration exercises that are necessary to not only deter a near-nuclear Iran, but to ensure partner Arab nations.

Fifth, if counter-proliferation in the Middle East is truly an American imperative, the U.S. should immediately engage the Saudis and other friendly Arab nations for the purpose of determining their strategic red lines. Preventing the spread of nuclear weapons in the Middle East is possible, but will require deft diplomacy and security agreements.

Sixth, the U.S. should understand that the Saudis are likely already looking to other nations to help them ensure their own security in the event Iran declares itself a nuclear armed state. The U.S. has an option to either extend the nuclear umbrella to these partners or allow them to develop, borrow or purchase their own nuclear capabilities. It is extremely unlikely that they will simply do nothing to address their own very real concerns.

While such efforts are no silver bullet that will ensure Middle East peace and stability, they are certainly a step in the right direction. Doing less may require more of the United States down the road.