Saudi Arabia and its Sunni allies in the Gulf tremble at the prospect of a final nuclear deal with Iran. They fear it will let Iran stir even more trouble than it already is stirring in Yemen, Iraq and Syria. But is that fear misplaced?
Yes. President Obama, who has invited these Arab leaders to meet at Camp David this spring, would do well to use the opportunity to assure them of that.
He should stress that a final nuclear deal is much likelier to make the Arab world more secure for a decade or more, by preventing Iran from getting near a “breakout” — the ability to produce enough bomb-grade material to become a nuclear power. And that would give the whole region time to address the real cause of its instability: the lack of effective pluralist government in fragile states throughout the Levant, the Arabian Peninsula and North Africa.
Fixing that gap requires time to resolve internal political divisions left over from the 20th century. And time to pursue that goal is one likely outcome of the formula reached in Lausanne, Switzerland, last month, particularly if it also promotes Iran’s reintegration with the global economy. That alone has potential to temper Iran’s foreign policy in the region.
So far, the Arab countries have operated on a logic precisely opposite. They assume that Iranian interference is the principal cause of their instability, and that Iran is incorrigibly aggressive. Therefore, Iran must be confronted at every turn and rolled back now. Holding open any path toward any nuclear capacity, even far in the future, is too dangerous.
For example, Saudi Arabia and its allies blame Iranian machinations for the crisis in Yemen, even though Yemen has suffered ethnic violence for decades. And their worst fear is of the day when the possibility of making a bomb would make Iran invulnerable. So they are using the Yemen conflict to push back against any expansion of Iranian influence.
The flaw in that strategy is that it is probably counterproductive. It adds Yemen to a growing list, headed by Syria and Libya, of countries where the Arabs are already committed to difficult proxy wars. Leaving aside the question of how many conflicts can be sustained at one time, the strategy only deepens the region’s sectarian, tribal and ethnic divides. And that further increases Iran’s appetite for nuclear-based clout.
With that in mind, getting Iran to slow its progress toward nuclear capability for 10 to 15 years is a far better way to deny it strategic advantages down the road.
Let’s face it: The Middle East’s center has imploded. Its crisis is deeply rooted in local instabilities and will continue for some time. Failed states from Libya to Yemen to Syria have set the stage for raging civil wars, extremist insurgencies and sectarian conflicts, all bound to regional rivalries. So long as the pattern is escalating violence rather than political negotiation to establish functional governments, Shiite forces vying for power in the conflicted states will seek Iran’s patronage. And even if Sunni Arab states then support their own friends, Iran will have exploited the collapse of the Arab order to expand its own reach.
Saudi leaders’ faith in a military approach to Iran is also linked to their lack of faith that Iran will keep any nuclear deal. But if the Lausanne framework does not produce a final agreement, the United States and its allies will have little choice but to intensify economic sanctions on Iran. And that would sharpen the threat to the Arab states by stiffening Iran’s resolve to hasten its nuclear development and resist monitoring. In other words, the Arab strategy would shorten the time Iran needed for breakout — not just to a bomb, but to an arsenal.
Contrary to some fears, nuclear war would not be the most likely outcome of an Iranian breakout, even if it pushed Saudi Arabia or Egypt to pursue bomb capacity themselves. Israeli and Arab rulers understand that the Middle East is more likely to settle into a “nuclear peace” like the Cold War — rivalry pursued through asymmetric warfare by or against proxy armies. In that game, Iran already has the advantage of experience and a long reach.
Indeed, Iran spends far less on its military than Israel, Turkey or the Persian Gulf Arab monarchies, and a vast technological gap separates its conventional weapons from those of its rivals. But Iran makes up for that with a network of irregular fighters and armed militias trained, financed and managed by its Revolutionary Guards. That is what lets Iran menace Israel on its borders, keep the Assad regime afloat in Syria, help Iraq fight the Islamic State and sustain rebellion in Yemen. And Iran would, indeed, be even freer to do so if it had a nuclear bomb.
The logical conclusion, then, is to use whatever time can be mustered now to shore up the economic vitality and political unity of the Arab countries while Iran is seeking readmission to the global economy. In that way, the Middle East countries could reduce drastically Iran’s opportunities to meddle in their internal politics. This is not just theory. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union, despite its huge conventional military, was held at bay in Western Europe not only by American nuclear weapons, but also by the strength of Western Europe’s economy and political systems.
The deal that the United States and its partners have outlined with Iran would not eliminate Iran’s nuclear program. But it would allow the rest of the Middle East an opportunity to fortify itself with a new political order. And that goal is what the Arab states, allied with America, must devote themselves to, once a near-term breakout by Iran has been taken off the table in a final nuclear deal.
Vali R. Nasr, the dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, is the author of The Dispensable Nation: American Foreign Policy in Retreat.