As Druze warlord Walid Jumblatt serves a sumptuous dinner to a gathering of Lebanese notables here, the talk around the table is about who will fill the power vacuum in the region if America reaches a nuclear deal with Iran – and accelerates what’s seen as a U.S. withdrawal from the Middle East.
That’s the kind of existential anxiety I encountered across the region recently, as negotiations between Iran and the “P5+1” group moved toward a climax. This is a deal that would alter the power dynamics that have shaped the Middle East since the Iranian revolution of 1979, and many regional players who favor the status quo, especially Israel and Saudi Arabia, are worried.
Despite the uproar since talks broke off last weekend, the process of negotiation seems about where it should be – at least from the U.S. standpoint. Iran has been asked to accept a freeze on its nuclear program in return for a limited release of its frozen assets. The Iranians, upset that the deal demands too many concessions without granting them a “right” to enrich uranium, have balked. Meanwhile the vise of sanctions continues to squeeze their economy.
If Iran accepts the deal, it would be a strong first step toward a final agreement. Given Iranian resistance, it’s hard to see this as the “deal of the century” for Tehran or a “fool’s game” for the West, as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius have charged, respectively.
Let’s give Netanyahu and Fabius credit for playing the “bad diplomat” role to gain maximum leverage. If Tehran can’t make these concessions, the world will see that President Hassan Rouhani either can’t or won’t deliver the deal that will lift sanctions and give Iran a voice in regional security issues, such as Syria.
If Netanyahu’s capitulation demand doesn’t work, the next step presumably would be even more crushing sanctions, or eventual Israeli military action.
Here we return to the question posed by my Lebanese friends around the dinner table – about who will fill the power vacuum in the region. My sense is that Israel and Saudi Arabia would love to scuttle an American rapprochement with an Iran they regard as a deadly adversary. But if Obama presses ahead, Netanyahu is bidding to replace the U.S. as military protector of the status quo, including the security of the Gulf Arabs.
Strategically, this de-facto Israeli alliance with the Saudis is an extraordinary opportunity for Israel. And for Fabius, there’s a chance to position the French as the West’s prime weapons supplier.
The Obama administration would counter (correctly, I think) that embracing the Saudi strategy of an ever-deepening Sunni-Shiite divide is unwise. The schism will fuel permanent sectarian war in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. The Saudis now are blocking formation of any government in Lebanon, for example, to obstruct Iran’s ally, Hezbollah. In Syria, the Saudis seem ready to fight the Sunni-Shiite battle down to the last Syrian.
Better to seek a turn in relations with Iran through diplomacy that can limit its nuclear program, Obama reasons. He’s right.
David Ignatius’ email address is email@example.com.