The interim agreement with Iran over its nuclear program may or may not represent a breakthrough in the longer and more difficult talks to continue for the next six months. In either case, the United States must address a critical requirement for success: Assuaging the deep fears in Israel and Saudi Arabia that Iran would try to violate any final agreement.
Even before it was agreed to, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel scathingly dismissed an outline of the initial accord as an “historic mistake.” The Saudis, Iran’s major regional rival, are equally unwilling to think that Iran would keep any promises it might make. So time is short for the United States to address these apprehensions before they further fray America’s relations with its closest allies in the Middle East.
One strategy might reassure America’s allies, and the United States should adopt it now: Alongside any further agreement reached with Iran about halting or rolling back its nuclear program, offer Israel and the Arab states a network of treaties or other formal commitments guaranteeing that an attack by Iran on any of those countries would be considered an attack on the United States.
That would be similar to the message President John F. Kennedy broadcast during the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, when he warned the Soviets not to allow any nuclear missile to be launched from Cuba against any country in the Western Hemisphere. President Obama should offer a similarly strong deterrent now.
To some extent, American security guarantees, especially to Israel and the Saudis, are already implicit. But new, firmer assurances, especially if codified in a treaty, would make a huge difference. They would be permanent and unmistakable, and reassure America’s allies that the United States would not waver in a crisis, no matter who was in the White House. Even more important, they would sharply reduce the chance of miscalculations by Iran; its leaders could not delude themselves into thinking that there would be no consequences if they attacked one of their neighbors — the kind of misapprehension under which North Korea invaded South Korea in 1950, after the United States left unclear its interest in defending the Korean Peninsula.
Since Israel and the Arab states have different concerns, American commitments to them could take different forms. Arab governments might want to avoid political accusations that they were tying themselves too tightly into the American orbit, and might opt for something short of a full defense treaty — perhaps a declared security guarantee and an announcement that Washington had extended its nuclear umbrella, which already covers allies like NATO members and Japan, to them. Israelis might worry that any American accord with Iran would limit their options to deal alone with conventional provocations from Iran or its proxies, like Hezbollah. But provisions could be written into that treaty assuring Israel that its hands would not be tied if Israel felt it didn’t need America’s help. With that assurance, an airtight series of American commitments to defend Israel if necessary would be hard for Israel to reject — especially if the United States also extended such commitments to Israel’s Arab neighbors.
The obvious criticism of such a network of agreements is that it would risk drawing Americans into another Middle East war. But the intent, and the likeliest outcome, would be the opposite: an insurance policy against war’s breaking out, much as NATO’s commitment to mutual defense helped deter any Soviet move against Western Europe at the height of the Cold War.
In fact, if America’s allies accepted the benefits of the guarantees, the Obama administration’s greatest challenge would most likely lie in persuading the Iranians that the treaties did not threaten their security or the integrity of the agreement under contemplation. Iran would need written assurances that the security network would become operational only if Iran itself violated the accord; that the network of treaties would be solely for defensive purposes; and that it would not apply if one protected country started hostilities on its own and without provocation. In addition to easing Iranian suspicions, that last proviso would allow the United States, Israel and the Arab states flexibility to defend their interests independently.
Of course, the Iranians might strongly object to such arrangements, and see them as limiting their influence in the region and even constituting an alliance against Iran. To allay those fears, the administration should propose a framework for frequent discussions about any alleged violations of the accord, as well as the possibilities of cooperating on other matters in which their interests might coincide (for example, on Afghanistan, Syria and prevention of terrorism). The Americans would want to create such a process in any event, if an accord with Iran were ever reached.
Even as government officials in Israel and Saudi Arabia express doubt that Iran can be trusted, it is not too early to think about steps that will have to be taken if the talks with Iran succeed. No deal could completely allay suspicions about Iran’s sincerity overnight, and that could undercut the accord’s chances of making the region feel more secure. America must begin preparing for that now, by offering its allies a more certain security net.
Steven L. Spiegel is a professor of political science and the director of the Center for Middle East Development at the University of California, Los Angeles, and a scholar at the Israel Policy Forum.