As US-Iran rapprochement inches toward at least partial consummation in Geneva, I wish to offer a few observations. The Iran nuclear weapons threat has always been a “McGuffin,” an excuse for various powers to advance an anti-Iran agenda. Chief among the usual suspects is, of course, Israel under PM Netanyahu. If the Israeli government is able to spin Iran as a nuclear (almost) capable existential threat to Israel, then Israel can make an absolute claim on US sympathy, support, and protection. If Iran returns to good relations with the United States, the US will arguably become less willing to bear the sizable political, diplomatic, and economic cost of deferring to Israel’s priorities—on the Palestinian question, on regional security, and its obstinate refusal to acknowledge its nuclear arsenal and integrate it into the international arms control regime.
The other regional power most interested in thumping the Iran-threat drum is Saudi Arabia. However, I would argue that the high-profile anti-Iran stance of the Kingdom (probably symbolized but not necessarily created by the notorious Prince Bandar) has little to do with the threat of “Iran hegemonism” (a canard frequently retailed in the big-name press) and a lot to do with Saudi Arabia’s decision to go pro-active against the popular democratic agitation expressed by the Arab Spring uprisings by supporting conservative Sunni theology and governance, not just in Shi’ite inflected countries like Bahrain, Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria, but also in nations like Libya (where Saudi Arabia and its creature, the Gulf Co-Operation Council were the primary motive force in demanding intervention against Gaddafi) and Egypt.
It’s easy for Saudi Arabia to piggyback on the anti-Iran campaign promoted by the US and Israel and cite Iranian subversion as a pretext for the campaign of conservative Sunni rollback; if Iran is removed from the league table of existential enemies subverting the Sunni heartland, Saudi Arabia is left in the exposed position of protecting Wahhabi obscurantism against liberal democracy. That’s not a happy place to be.
Western observers have been rather surprised by France’s unapologetic sabotage of the Iran nuclear negotiations in Geneva at Israel’s behest. I saw some left-of-center complaining that France’s motivation was the greedy desire to muscle in on the lucrative Saudi arms business. Perhaps, but I think the strategic nature of French involvement should be emphasized. Recall that France’s traditional sphere of influence in the Middle East has been the Levant—that chunk of coastline that includes southern Turkey, Syria, and Lebanon. France claims a paternal interest in the bloody, fascistic and pro-Israeli antics of the Lebanese Maronite community, a Catholic grouping whose origins date back to the Crusades and is perhaps the most conspicuous legacy of the French enthusiasm for meddling in the Middle East.
Before Syria blew up, France was at the center of an initiative to install Bashar al-Assad in the affections of the West. Also, recall that the Libyan adventure was a creature of French enthusiasm; that France was also easily the most eager advocate of a US military strike on Syria after somebody crossed President Obama’s gas warfare red line.
With the United States displaying a desire to tilt toward Iran, if only a little bit, the Middle East jigsaw puzzle has been shaken up and France has the best potential of any Western power to shape and profit from the new alignment. We can justifiably bitch about France carrying Israel’s water, but if the US pivots toward Asia, as it has promised, there is a strong case for redefining the Arab Middle East as a Mediterranean construct, with France playing the role of keystone (and Iran scolder-in-chief). If Iran wants a European ally, well, Germany is probably there for the asking.
For the edification, I offer two pieces from the archives below the fold. First, a piece on the longstanding Saudi eagerness to push dissent into the sectarian pigeonhole, not only in Bahrain but in the entire Persian Gulf region. Hopefully, this provides a corrective to the rather ludicrous assertions of Iranian subversion, typified by allegations that the minority Assad regime is suicidally promoting sectarianism in Syria. The truth is, the Sunni affiliation of the Syrian majority is considered to be a dragon to be awakened in the service of conservative Saudi rollback against non-sectarian democracy, both in the kingdom and in the region.
Second, a discussion of the perennial question of whether Israel can pose a credible unilateral threat to Iran’s nuclear program with a military strike. When I originally wrote the post, it was considered unlikely that Saudi Arabia would provide refueling facilities to Israeli fighter bombers, and plausible that the US occupying forces in Iraq might provide the service.
How things have changed. Under the current circumstances, I would say that Saudi Arabia’s enthusiasm for fighting to the last American has simply been transferred to Israel. I think that neither Israel nor Saudi Arabia have the stomach to bomb Iran and, perhaps, start a regional war without strong US backing of the sort that the Obama administration appears loathe to provide; hope I’m right. In any case, the real game is in Syria and western Iraq, regions that if not for that exasperating problem of al Qaeda blowback, would be viewed with unalloyed joy as fertile fields for conservative Sunni rollback and continued bloodshed, no matter what happens with Iran.