In the contemporary Middle East, it is almost impossible to make sense of competing claims and counterclaims or to separate cause from effect. The Palestinians and Israelis each defend their behavior by accusing the other of bad faith; the cycle of blame is without end. Advocates and opponents of another U.S. intervention in Iraq point to the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) as evidence for their case. In Syria the civil war seems to be at once the result of President Bashar al-Assad’s repression and the cause of increasing repression. To these bewildering conflicts, Americans now have to add a war in Yemen.
Public statements by policymakers are no help in understanding the various crises in the Middle East. None of them seem to believe what they say: Witness Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s quick disavowal of his campaign promise to oppose a two-state solution or Egyptian claims that a protester whose shooting death was captured on video actually died because she was too thin or the recent revelation that entire divisions of the Iraqi army — bankrolled by the United States and reported in official statistics — simply do not exist.
When words lose their meaning and policies operate without a plausible public justification, democracies face a serious problem. How should the United States direct its actions if transparency, honesty and rationality — the hallmarks of democratic governance — no longer exist? In the Middle East, no government is transparent because none could survive if its true aims and self-dealings were revealed. Honesty is consistently subordinated to short-term political effectiveness, which often requires obfuscation. From the point of view of the public good, there can be no rationality to government policy when it is directed to the private benefit of select groups of insiders.
In the absence of such public virtues, every U.S. intervention is likely to be corrupted and misrepresented. Worse, interventions will generate unpredictable consequences, for we cannot control policy in situations rife with dishonesty and irrationality and lacking transparency. Eventually, adjusting to these circumstances will make the United States complicit in the failures of regional governments. Is that not the history of U.S. interventions since 2001? Have not our policies lost their transparency, honesty and rationality?
These are the inauspicious conditions under which Secretary of State John Kerry has had to negotiate a nuclear deal with Iran. He seems to believe in transparency, honesty and rationality and to seek a deal that embodies these virtues. But it is not clear that his negotiating partner agrees that these are virtues. This week Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei expressed ambivalence about the deal and insisted that Iran’s military sites be off limits to inspectors. This does not make a deal impossible, but it certainly makes it more difficult. Nevertheless, Kerry has some reasons to expect more success here than in his previous intervention in the doomed Palestinian-Israeli negotiations. He has something compelling to offer Iran — ending the sanctions — and Iranian foreign policy has been successful enough without the bomb to make a nuclear deal palatable in Tehran.
Israel has shown that it will do its best to undermine the deal, of course. But has Jerusalem spoken honestly in stating its reason for opposition — that the deal will hasten rather than prevent the arrival of a nuclear Iran? The claim is hard to credit, since the alternative to a deal is no deal, which would leave Iran free to move toward a bomb as rapidly as it likes. Israel cannot really believe that the United States is going to attack Iranian nuclear facilities on its behalf, especially after the Israelis have done their best to scuttle U.S.-led negotiations.
So what’s really going on? I suspect Israel is less concerned with a direct threat from Iran than it is with maintaining an unspoken alliance with Saudi Arabia. Though Saudi Arabia is the United States’ closest Arab ally, it shares with Israel a strong interest in opposing a U.S.-Iran deal. The Saudis do not want more Iranian oil to drive down prices in an already oversupplied market. More important, they do not want their chief rival in the region to establish a relationship with the United States that might eventually present an alternative to the U.S.-Saudi alliance. After all, the Saudis know that in many ways the Iranian people are more natural allies of the United States than are their own Wahhabi-influenced population. The Iranians were close allies of the United States not all that long ago; their largely middle-class and educated population looks to the West, and there is a large Iranian population living in the United States.
But the Saudis cannot voice these concerns without publicizing the fact that their interests diverge from those of the United States. So the Saudis are very happy to let Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu act as spokesman for the opposition, even if his words are neither honest nor transparent. Consequently, bluster about weapons of mass destruction is once again crowding out serious conversation about the economics of oil and geopolitical alignments.
If my hypothesis about the Saudi connection is right, then the Saudi-backed intervention in Yemen has made the White House’s job much harder. Already a country of concern in U.S. global counterterrorism efforts, Yemen may rapidly become the site of a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. When countries go to war, their allies have to choose sides. The United States is already providing logistical and intelligence support to the Saudi effort. It has now agreed to end its suspension of weapon deliveries to Egypt. And this week Kerry said the U.S. knew Iran was militarily supporting the Houthi rebels and would not “stand by while the region is destabilized.” In short, the United States is being pulled in to this new conflict that already seems to be moving beyond the control of the Saudis and their allies. Again, we don’t know what the United States will do if the Saudi adventure gets into deep and serious trouble. The quagmire is reopening.
By attacking Yemen, Saudi Arabia has told the United States as loudly as possible that it does not approve of this deal with Iran. As indirect as this communication seems, I suspect that Saudi bombs are heard much more clearly by the State Department than clownish speeches by Netanyahu. The Saudis certainly got more of a positive reaction from Washington than Netanyahu. Between now and June, when the deal with Iran is to be finalized, I suspect the Saudis will continue to send this message, which will make it all the more difficult for Barack Obama’s administration to convince an already skeptical Congress.
Washington undoubtedly hopes to offer just enough support to placate its traditional allies while settling the deal with Iran. That will be a difficult balancing act to maintain, for the Saudis can always up the stakes. The United States cannot simply turn away from the Saudis, but the wisest path forward is to move as quickly as possible to a final agreement with Iran. Neither side has an interest in letting the clock run all the way to June. Once there is an agreement, we may find that no outside power actually has a very great interest in Yemen.