A Mideast game of thrones
As President Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran is compared to Richard Nixon’s opening to China, Bibi Netanyahu must know how Chiang Kai-shek felt as he watched his old friend Nixon toasting Mao in Peking. Both moves, seen as betrayals by old U.S. allies, were born of a cold assessment in Washington of a need to shift policy to reflect new threats and new opportunities.
Several events contributed to the U.S. move toward Tehran.
First was the victory in June 2013 of President Hassan Rouhani, who rode to power on the votes of the Green Revolution that had sought to oust Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2009. Rouhani then won the Ayatollah’s authorization to negotiate a curtailing of Iran’s nuclear program in return for a U.S.-U.N. lifting of sanctions. The Americans could not spurn such an offer.
Came then the ISIS seizure of Raqqa in Syria, and Mosul and Anbar in Iraq. Viciously anti-Shiite as well as anti-American, ISIS made the U.S. and Iran de facto allies in preventing the fall of Baghdad.
But as U.S. and Iranian interests converged, those of the U.S. and its old allies Saudi Arabia, Israel and Turkey were diverging.
Turkey, as it sees Bashar Assad’s alliance with Iran as the greater threat and fears anti-ISIS Kurds in Syria will carve out a second Kurdistan, has been abetting ISIS.
Saudi Arabia sees Shiite Iran as a geostrategic rival in the Gulf, allied with Hezbollah in Lebanon, Assad in Damascus, the Shiite regime in Iraq and the Houthis in Yemen. It also sees Iran as a subversive threat in Bahrain and the heavily Shiite oil fields of Saudi Arabia.
Indeed, Riyadh, with the Sunni challenge of ISIS rising and the Shiite challenge of Iran growing and its border states already on fire, faces an existential threat. So, too, do the Gulf Arabs.
Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown in the Middle East today.
The Israelis, too, see Iran as their great enemy. For Bibi, any U.S.-Iran rapprochement is a diplomatic disaster.
But the United States and Iran have overlapping interests. Neither wants war with the other. Both would like to see ISIS annihilated. Both thus have a vested interest in preventing a collapse of the Shiite regime in Baghdad and Assad’s regime in Syria.
Thus, Syria is probably where the next collision between the United States and its old allies will come. For Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Israel all want the Assad regime brought down to break up Iran’s Shiite Crescent and inflict a strategic defeat on Tehran. But the United States believes the fall of Assad means the rise of ISIS and al-Qaida, a massacre of Christians and the coming to power of a Sunni terrorist state implacably hostile to us.
Look for the Saudis and Israelis to begin beating the drums for the United States to bring down Assad. The case will be made that this is the way for America to rejoin its old allies. Once Assad is gone, we can all go after ISIS. What is wrong with this scenario?
A U.S. no-fly zone to stop Assad’s barrel bombs would entail attacks on Syrian airfields and anti-aircraft missiles. We will have been sucked into a war to achieve the strategic goals of allies that are in conflict with the national interests of the United States. And our interests come first.
Pat Buchanan is the author of “The Greatest Comeback: How Richard Nixon Rose From Defeat to Create the New Majority.”