Tag Archives: USA

Netanyahu to Congress: What does it mean?

The world is now familiar with Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech last week to the American congress. While the propriety of Netanyahu delivering a speech questioning the policies of a sitting American President has attracted headlines, far more interesting is what the speech reveals about Israel’s and Iran’s relative power in the region. While Iran has suffered greatly under recent sanctions, its influence has grown. In contrast, Israel’s sphere of influence – similar to those of other US allies in the region – has been threatened by growing non-state actors and ascendant Shia powers. All of this means that the US is not likely to act against Iran outside of diplomatic channels and should it desire to do so, Israel will be forced to act independently or in conjunction with a patchwork of anti-Iranian powers in the region, creating a temporary tapestry of anti-Iran states.

Save his controversial visit, nothing about Netanyahu’s speech falls into the realm of game changers. As many (including Obama) have acknowledged, Bibi’s speech contained little in the way of new claims or information. Netanyahu repeated his previous warnings regarding Iran’s aggressive regional intentions and nuclear capabilities, updated for technological advancements while failing to put forth a new policy that could serve to fundamentally alter the balance of power in the region. While he did work in comments specific to the ongoing deal, his rejection for the current negotiations has been and remains categorical and could be best categorized as “You gotten this much. Now ask for more!” As such, there is little in the way of new demands in Netenyahu’s speech. Rather, he continues to seek to shore up opposition to a more friendly deal between Iran and the P5+1. The Israeli president did not put forth a new position; instead, his speech is best viewed as a last-ditch effort to save a floundering anti-Iran position despite years of developments in the region. Such a position is at the crux of Bibi’s failure in attempting to persuade a change in US policy towards Iran: with the stakes raised and little in the way of options, the US has no choice but to push forward with negotiations unless it wishes to push beyond what Iran is willing to give and risk severely escalating the current situation.

Why has Israel remained so categorically opposed to a nuclear Iran? Israel, despite continuing to grow economically, has seen its power relative to its neighbors decline. Abundant oil has allowed Gulf petrostates to amass incredible amounts of wealth, wealth that has been invested in a number of fields within the state, including the military. Additionally, Turkey has continued to play a dominant role in the region despite the changing geopolitical considerations that have emerged in the 20+ years after the Cold War. While Israel was and remains a small but powerful state, the region has seen other states grow in power to a greater degree in recent years, forcing Israel to reconsider its position in the region and ensure that traditional alliances – especially ones as decisive as its alliance with the US – remain in place to preserve the status quo. This is especially important given Israel’s controversial policy choices towards Palestinians at home and unfriendly states abroad, further isolating the power and indicating that – despite economic successes – Israel is a state stuck in stasis or, worse yet, decline.

While Israel has seen its stock fall relative to other regional powers in recent years, Iran’s influence has grown. Despite the weight of sanctions, Iran has grown into a major regional player. This has been highlighted by a number of regional powers in addition to Israel, including Jordan and Saudi Arabia. While sanctions and current low oil prices have proven damaging to the Iranian economy, Iran has benefited from the fallout from the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq. This, along with Hezbollah’s hold on the Shia electorate in Lebanon and Bashar al-Assad’s deft maneuvering in Syria – cleaving international support away from the opposition by allowing ISIS to grow – has ensured that, far from losing influence, Iran has gained despite suffering under the weight of sanctions. A nuclear bomb would offer an alternative to the US nuclear umbrella in the region, allowing a power with serious ideological credentials to project itself in the region independent of a major backer. Such a development would be a true game changer – the first ever alternative to US hegemony from within the region. While the US has not acquiesced to such a reality, it can exploit its position as a global power to twist such a revelation to its liking.  Israel, though powerful for its size, cannot do so; a nuclear Iran represents a threat that it cannot overcome domestically and is forced to seek support from abroad. The US has proven reticent in this regard and Israel is worried that the status quo – a peace deal with two powerful neighbors and extremely friendly relations with the US – could change in the near future, necessitating its prolonged, artificial survival or a cataclysmic shakeup that postpones such a change for years to come.

Did Netanyahu’s speech push Israel and the US farther apart? This is a distinct possibility but requires careful consideration that looks beyond the headlines. While Obama and Netanyahu have personal differences, the two countries remain closer than an outside analyst might otherwise predict. As the Israeli president indicated, the US continues to extend aid to the Jewish state in a number of non-controversial realms that other states – similarly sized but deficient in historical camaraderie and geopolitical importance – do not receive. Such offers indicate that Israel continues to play a special role in the minds of US policymakers

Despite the continuity of the singular relationship between the US and Israel, cracks do appear. Obama and Netayahu have been at odds numerous times in recent years over a number of issues. Most of these issues have been international in nature or had international implications – the Iran negotiations, developments in Egypt, and the eternal Palestinian question. Although Obama has maintained the same policy as his predecessors on paper regarding settlements, few can deny that the relationship between the two state has become strained in recent years – indeed, such strain precipitated Bibi’s appearance.

In such a situation, it is important to recall the effect that Hugo Chavez’s speech to the UN in 2006 had domestically. In a time of political polarization against the Iraq War, Chavez attacked a numer of unpopular policies of then sitting president George W. Bush. Far from galvanizing support against a relatively unpopular president, the speech served to rally politicians domestically, even those who disliked the Iraq War. In doing so, Chavez (and potentially Bibi) forgot an important lesson from the playground: no one can beat up my brother but me. Two parties fighting domestically will often band together when faced with an outside power that challenges the legitimacy of both of those fighting. Bibi certainly identified cleavages between Democrats and Republicans, but the blowback has been strong enough to question the wisdom of delivering the speech in the first place. While Netanyahu received a standing ovation from those in attendance, his popularity fell among the American people as a whole. Such a fall is counterproductive given the important role Israel places on its relationship with the US – the Jewish state cannot alienate the American left in order to court the right.

This would all be a moot point if Netanyahu succeeded in cementing a stronger deal that favors Israeli interests better than the expected deal does. Did he succeed? No. The current negotiations are the project of the past two sitting presidents. While Republicans have favored a deal that more strongly curbs Iran’s nuclear program, they do not have the power to undo Obama’s diplomatic efforts and face questions of alternatives if they should choose to do so. Additionally, the current controversy surrounding a letter to Iran – whose commentary was delivered by isolationist Rand Paul, no less – highlights the domestic concerns underlying  the choice of Republicans to reject anything Obama gains. Under our current partisan divide, anything that makes Obama look weak seems to make Republicans look strong by comparison. This is only more true amid an election cycle that is bereft of Republican candidates who can burnish serious foreign policy credentials. While Netenyahu did draw a crowd, he did not succeed in changing the minds of those he most needed to reach – the non-converted. Israel undoubtedly has a special place in the hearts of most Americans – conservative or liberal – but republican attendance was driven not by Zionist zeal but partisan objectives.

In the end, Benjamin Netenyahu did not get what he wanted and likely will not in the near future: a stronger US stand against Iran and assurances of mutual military action against the Middle East’s most surging power should other checks prove inadequate. The US will not risk confrontation with a rising power in order to appease a dependable but controversial ally. While this does bode poorly for Israel, it does give the Jewish state allies in the form of other non-Iranian allied state in the region, chief among them Saudi Arabia. Israel might feel forced to act, but it will not have to do so alone and will have at its side some of the most technologically-advanced armies and air forces in the Middle East. Still, these powers are constrained by their relationship with the US. They may be able to act independently in this regard, but will not be able to remain independent vis-a-vis trade deals and other important elements that make up the life blood of many states. A strike by Israel – possibly in concert with other, off the books, Arab allies – would force them to seek support from an ally other than the US, undermining the precarious position that pushed them to take action in the first place. Israel is thus stuck in a classic Catch 22 – it cannot depend on international support to fight off unfriendly regimes but cannot act as doing so would alienate the very allies upon which it depends.

In the end, a negotiated deal regarding Iran’s nuclear program benefits all, but benefits Iran more than Israel, leaving Israel to make up for these uneven gains. Iran would shirk the chains of international sanctions while being able to  export more of its oil, guaranteeing both energy independence and economic power. Iran’s trading partners in East Asia would be happy to accept increased oil flows at lower than current prices. The US would be able to deal with a new state in the region, confident – to a degree – that the existing agreement pushes off a fundamental change in the balance of power within the region for years to come. Such an agreement would also allow the US to concentrate its efforts elsewhere, allowing the much vaunted but often elusive ‘pivot to Asia’. Finally, an agreement would allow Israel and Saudi Arabia some degree of safety as they pursue their own strategic goals within the region, safe in the knowledge that while Iran is ascending, it will not do so immediately. Still, a negotiated final deal between Iran and the P5+1 would signal an ascendant Iran with the region suggesting that while Israel may rest easy in the near future, it must fundamentally reevaluate its geostrategic calculations in the future should it desire to remain a viable power for years to come.


Iran, Houthis and the US Response in Yemen

Across the Middle East, we are told of an epic story, of two diametrically opposed camps locked in a struggle that plays out on a variety of fronts. In Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Bahrain, the West and its allies in the region – most notably the Gulf monarchies – claim to be engaged in zero-sum battle with Iran. Such claims are used by Gulf monarchies to encourage further involvement in Syria’s civil war while encouraging Western powers to look the other way when it comes to human rights abuses in Bahrain. While such rhetoric is strong and finds a receptive audience in a number of policy circles, it is comforting to see that the reality is far more nuanced and presents more possibilities than such a reading would otherwise portend.

Since the 1979 revolution, the Islamic Republic has made a name for itself on a number of foreign fronts. Iran’s bellicose anti-Western and anti-Israeli rhetoric scored the new government serious points with powers identifying themselves in opposition to the West. Iran also became something of a singularity as it was the only state with a sizable Shia population that sought to make Islam a central tenet of its government. These two facts positioned Iran as a major player in the region with regards to foreign policy, uniquely situated to both challenge the West and give voice to the region’s millions of heretofore voiceless Shia inhabitants. These two goals, however, are not always in harmony with each other and thus Iran has had to carefully balance these two often competing priorities.

Iran’s anti-Western credentials are embodied in its foreign policy, especially its support for a number of organizations deemed terrorist groups in the West. The Islamic Republic has loudly championed the Palestinian cause for years and has made supporting the more militant elements of the PLO an important element of its strategy. This has raised the credibility of Iran in the eyes of many in the region, where support for the Palestinian cause cuts across ethnic and religious affiliations. Iran’s support for the Shia militia and political movement Hezbollah has also allowed the Islamic Republic to score major points due to the group’s tough stance against Israel. In doing so, Iran has been able to support a variety of causes that have allowed Iran to play up its anti-Western credentials to its Arab neighbors.

However, the Islamic Republic has not shied away from sectarian politics on all fronts. Iran has also remained a major backer of Bashar al-Assad. While the reasons for such support could be innumerable, it is clear to many in the region that Assad and the Iranian state share a key demographic feature- Shia Islam. While such facts do not go unnoticed in the Middle East, it does help the Assad is viewed as one of the most vocal opponents of Israel and heads a capable army that sits right on the Jewish state’s doorstep. While Iran is certainly not afraid of helping fellow Shia, it cannot rely solely on support from Shia to pursue its policies; they make up a distinct minority in the region and are not always looked on favorably by conservative Sunni. As such, the Islamic Republic does not rely on Shia alone for support and minimizes such appearances when it extends its influence beyond states with substantial Shia populations – Iraq, Bahrain, Syria, and Lebanon.

As the war in Syria drags on into a bloody stalemate with little reason to expect a change in the balance of power any time soon (Obama has made such a position abundantly clear), the next front in the fight over Iranian influence is Yemen. Like Syria, Yemen presents a bit of a conundrum: In Syria, a Shia dictatorship is fighting a fractured Sunni opposition, with substantial infighting and elements of extremism within the opposition. In Yemen, a country racked with regional turmoil and a powerful secessionist movement, Shia rebels demanded concessions from a government locked in a battle with one of al-Qaeda’s deadliest branches.

In each situation, Western countries face a number of choices that seem to either empower Iran or hand over substantial power and weapons to extremist groups that would likely turn their guns on the West if victory were ever achieved. Such worries are not ill-founded but can lead to paralyzing fear and ultimately a failure to act, which would represent a true failure of policy on the part of Western nations.

Yemen has been a reliable partner in the US’s efforts to eliminate al-Qaeda fighters (and suspected fighters) via a campaign of drone strikes and given the antagonism rooted in ideology between the Houthis and al-Qaeda, such a relationship is not likely to change. The US has reportedly been in contact with the Houthi rebels and appears to have made the decision that cooperation with the Houthis serves US interests at this time. While assessing the efficacy of the US’s drone strike program is itself a complex discussion worthy of its own book, such a decision shows that the US has at least been able to prioritize threats in Iran and act on such calculations. Although Iran may have scored a victory when the Houthis overtook Sanaa, such gains are not concrete given Yemen’s tenuous political and security climate. Similarly, the US is not bound to its existing policy should the balance of threats change. However, al-Qaeda has executed a number of stunningly successful attacks and threatened or attempted even more. As al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is one of the group’s deadliest branches, they represent a clear and present threat in a way that an Iranian proxy militia does not.

An overlapping of interests between Iran and the West does not mean that the latter has caved to Iranian interests, nor does it signal a significant change in relations between the two parties. The threats posed by rampant terrorist groups in Syria and Yemen pose obvious dangers in the immediate future that the US and other Western powers cannot ignore; reducing their capabilities – even if such a group is fighting an Iranian ally – should remain a priority for every western official that seeks to save lives that could be lost in terrorist attacks. As the threat from terrorism decreases, outside powers can refocus their efforts on diminishing Iran’s influence; to do so beforehand would embolden terrorists in an effort to check the rise of an unfriendly power. Iran has proven willing to work with the West in the past – Afghanistan being a notable example – with little change in the overall relationship between the two countries.

Additionally, while Iran has certainly backed the Houthis thus far, a victory for a proxy does not necessarily translate into long term strategic victory. The US learned this lesson the hard way by intervening in the Afghan Wars of the 1980s. While the ideological and sectarian ties between Iran and its various regional proxies undoubtedly create more resilient bonds, they are not set in stone and a careful reading of the individual groups’ concerns could reveal points of concern that could be exploited by a careful power. And should the Houthis struggle for control become more drawn out than previously expected, Iran will be forced to ask whether it can continue to carry the costs of funding two regional proxies as the price of oil continues to slide. Such a decision could again lead to an opening that could cleave the Houthis away from Iranian influence bring them to the negotiating table.

Politics is the art of the possible and the US has been presented with two options – preventing the spread of growing terrorist groups and placing limits on a rising anti-Western power. Of these, the former is not only possible, but commands our attention, while the latter can only come at the expense of the first. The possibility of being ‘co-belligerents; with Iran has proven possible over and over again. Such actions, however, do not mean trust. The US cannot and will not trust a power that so actively campaigns against it – to do so would be so naïve as to border on insanity. However, the US cannot afford to let the fear of an Iranian victory choke off the possibility of action on a life or death issue.