The past few weeks have been tough ones for the White House’s Middle East agenda, as nation after nation signals its frustration with Washington and begins hedging its strategic bets.
Last week, two key US allies in the region, Egypt and Israel, openly courted Russia as a strategic partner and potential source of defense trade. Egypt is negotiating a multibillion dollar deal to obtain advanced Russian systems while Israel is mulling the conditions under which it can expand defense exports to Moscow.
It’s unclear if discussions with Moscow are mere flirtations to irritate Washington or a genuine effort to reduce dependence on America. At the Dubai Airshow last week, US executives worried that Saudi Arabia could also tilt toward Europe.
For Washington, these are worrisome developments, even if they are only a stunt to get attention, because it plays into perceptions that Russia is an ascendant diplomatic and military power, while America is in decline.
Washington’s problems span the region:
■ It cut aid to Egypt, prompting gulf states to offer to underwrite Egypt’s prospective purchase of Russian arms — Cairo’s first since the 1979.
■ Peace talks between Israel and Palestinians are back on for the first time in three years, but mired over Israel’s settlements in the West Bank.
■ America’s failure to respond militarily in Syria compromised its credibility.
■ Efforts to negotiate a deal with Tehran without its allies at the table rankles even America’s most loyal friends in the region.
Gulf nations are increasingly united with Israel over Iran, despite administration assurances that the talks offer a historic opportunity to yield a nuclear-weapon-free Iran without military action.
These critics say the administration is naive to negotiate with a regime that has used past talks to buy time while working methodically toward its goal of acquiring nuclear weapons. They dismiss as misguided the administration’s two-step plan to trade some sanctions to stop Tehran’s weapons program so they can build confidence on the way to a more comprehensive deal.
Instead, they want even tougher sanctions to leverage Iran into full dismantlement of its nuclear program.
Despite assurances from Washington, too many US allies, including Israel, France and many Arab states, don’t trust Iran. They fear that America, tired of war, will accept a deal at any price to eliminate a threat and the costs that go with it.
The key question is whether Iran is truly willing to abandon its nuclear ambitions or is simply playing for more time. In truth, Iran badly wants to escape crushing sanctions and still clings to its right to enrich uranium “for peaceful purposes,” a deal breaker so far.
There’s nothing wrong with talking to your enemies to eliminate a potentially dangerous threat. But the stakes for Washington are particularly high, given its allies in the region are already up in arms and girding to torpedo anything the White House puts forward.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is pressing hard for a more muscular approach toward Tehran and is assiduously courting French President Francois Hollande in talks aimed at allowing Israel a proxy seat at the negotiating table. It is no coincidence that, at the first round in Geneva, France rejected easing sanctions as a means to a quick deal.
Saudi Arabia, Qatar and other nations are becoming more assertive, supporting the ouster of Egypt’s Islamist government while backing radical anti-government elements in Syria.
So as US Secretary of State John Kerry joins negotiations with Tehran, he must be sure that any deal not only denuclearizes Iran, but also wins back America’s old friends — not alienates them further.