Expect continuity in US Middle East policy, until the reckoning with Iran

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Before President Obama's trip to Israel, the West Bank and Jordan, new Secretary of State John Kerry paired the Middle East with Europe on his own nine-country inaugural foray abroad. Kerry's full itinerary included Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, signaling that these countries are important partners for US foreign policy on a par with Britain, Germany, France and Italy, particularly in shaping events in a fluid Middle East and North Africa. The transatlantic relationship is becoming more focused on economics, both in terms of concerns (the still unsolved euro crisis) and potential (a transatlantic free trade agreement on the table). In the Middle East, security concerns loom largest. However, American interests in both regions ultimately boil down to stability.

Syria was at the top of Kerry’s agenda as the revolution – and civil war – in that country enters its third year. Seen from a Western perspective, the catastrophe there is both humanitarian and political, with rising risks of weaponry falling into the hands of anti-Western jihadists, as well as becoming a hub for regional instability. So far, Washington has proceeded with extreme caution in order to limit US involvement. As Obama told the American people in his second inaugural address in January, “a decade of war is now ending.” The US has carefully extricated itself from Iraq, is in the process of doing so in Afghanistan, and kept its footprint as light as possible in helping Libyan rebels topple Muammar Gheddafi.

If the United States is ever so slowly increasing its involvement on Syria, it will still rely on working with partners like Turkey and the Sunni monarchies of the Gulf Cooperation Council to assist the insurgency on the margins. A congressional hearing in February revealed that Obama decided last autumn against a plan to arm the rebels. The plan was jointly developed by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and CIA Director David Petraeus with the support of Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta. Evidently, it will take a true game-changing moment to alter Obama’s calculations of the risks, costs and American interests involved in Syria. After Kerry met with allies and Syrian Opposition Council representatives in Rome and announced $60 million of non-lethal aid including medicine and food, the first question asked in the press conferences was “is this the best you can do?"

The administration has slightly more leverage in North Africa. Kerry only visited the country of greatest concern to the US, Egypt. There, Mohamed Morsi from the Muslim Brotherhood won imperfect but free elections and took office as president on June 30th last year. His first major power grab on August 12th, which ended the military’s long-discredited official “guardianship” of the revolution, could be tentatively welcomed by democrats, civilian control of the military being one of the keys to democracy. His second, the November 22nd decrees removing judicial checks on his power as president, was indefensible, and led to widespread riots. However, in terms of international public relations the move was timed exquisitely, a day after Morsi had received effusive praise from Washington for helping to broker a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas to end their latest war. The White House and State Department have noted their concerns about developments in Egypt, but they have not sharply chastised Morsi or loudly condemned the rushed approval of a flawed constitution. As of now, the Muslim Brotherhood is in control and Washington does not want to alienate a difficult but crucial partner. A senior State Department official told the traveling press corps on the way to Cairo that the basic message of the country visit was that “it's very important to the new Egypt for there to be a firm economic foundation on which the new Egypt can operate,” a point which is very true, but essentially apolitical.

In many countries across the Middle East and North Africa, liberals - outnumbered and outmaneuvered by more conservative forces - have demanded stronger engagement by the United States, but the administration is sticking to its restraint. Barack Obama is no isolationist, but he has few illusions about the limits of American power, and in his cost-benefit analysis, a substantially greater role in shaping the Middle East transitions is not worth the cost (when the US has limited financial resources and the administration has limited political capital and time), and risk (when a pushier position in Egypt or Bahrain could lose America allies and military intervention in Syria risks a wider war, likely involving chemical weapons).

Notable for its exclusion from Kerry’s trip was Israel, but of course Obama was about to make his first visit there. Kerry would love to try to solve the Israel-Palestine problem; Tzipi Livni is back in the Israeli government with the peace process portfolio and would also like to make a deal; and Mahmoud Abbas needs the peace process to remain relevant. But the conditions are even more difficult than usual: the region is in upheaval, Hamas sees little incentive to cut a deal anytime soon, and Obama does not trust Benjamin Netanyahu’s commitment to the two-state solution.

The most dangerous issue is ultimately Iran and the prospect of a substantial armed conflict if the US and/or Israel conduct a military strike to attempt to prevent the development of an Iranian nuclear bomb. If such a conflict escalates, it could envelop the region and deal a large blow to the world economy. Obama’s position is that he will not let Iran get the bomb. Hussein Ibish, Senior Fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine, recently argued that Obama has assembled a national security team, of Kerry, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and CIA Director John Brennan, “perfectly positioned to present itself to Iran as offering the best possible deal. Failing that, it is also the ideal group to convince the American public that – should negotiations fail and the administration decide to take some form of military action – these are precisely the policymakers who can be relied upon to have done so only as a last resort and because there are no other options.” But although the US has patiently negotiated multilateral sanctions which have crippled the Iranian economy, Ayatollah Khamenei shows no sign of being willing to cut a deal. Meanwhile Iran will select a new president this spring, and political intrigue runs high in Tehran. It may have been pushed back several years by cyber warfare and other tactics, but a reckoning is coming between the US and Iran, and it is that reckoning – not anything to do with Syria or Egypt – which is the most likely game-changer in US policy in the region.