Back in the Bush days we had “the Greater Middle East” — born on the way to a G8 summit in 2004. To some, the term was a source of humor in a part of the world with little to laugh about. To others, the nomenclature could not counter the perception of American control over the region either directly or through its ally, Israel.
Now, in less than 100 days of its existence, the Obama Administration has uncovered a very different Middle East: a more multi-polar region where power is balanced between several actors. This mirrors the global realignment that the new administration is dealing with as a result of the military and economic excesses of its predecessors.
The move toward a multi-polar Middle East is incidental to special envoy George Mitchell’s mandate as he shuttles through the region. But it is important for Barack Obama’s smarter nuclear strategy, which situates the engagement with Iran within a declared United States goal of a world without nuclear weapons.
Two strands of this strategy are worth mentioning here. The first is the tacit recognition — in Obama’s Prague speech — that the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty has been breached by the very nations that have the power to uphold it.
The P5 — the UN Security Council’s five permanent, veto-wielding members — were supposed to eliminate their nuclear arsenals after the NPT was signed in 1970. They have not, and have left the other 183 NPT signatory nations the choice of living under the P5’s nuclear shadow or trying to acquire their own nuclear weapons.
A goal of US and Russian reduction of nuclear warheads is the second key strand of Obama’s strategy. But if this is to make sense then countries that have not signed the NPT must be brought into the fold. In the Middle East, this means India, Israel, and Pakistan. India and Pakistan are each believed to have some 35 nuclear devices. Israel’s nuclear stockpile is said to contain anywhere from 100 to 400 nuclear devices.
With two of the P5 committed to reducing the nuclear weapons they are asking Iran to forswear, the United States decision to engage directly in the P5+1 (Germany) talks with Iran becomes much more meaningful. Obama’s strategy appears to be also sending a quiet message to China, Britain, and France: One day, they too must bite the nuclear bullet.
Obama has not gone soft on Iran. The media has focused on Iran’s rebuff of his Persian New Year greeting. Less reported is the fact that his message came just a few days after America re-imposed sanctions against Iran, something that was not lost on that country’s leadership.
By contrast, the Iranian leadership has welcomed the less flowery but more significant US reengagement in the P5+1 talks.
In the Obama era’s multi-polar Middle East, Iran is being treated as a regional power with valid security concerns. Close observers of the US-Iranian courtship believe that the two are seeking a strategic rather than a tactical relationship.
Work on this strategic relationship is reportedly being managed through the National Security Council rather than the State Department. This further sidelines the hawkish Dennis Ross, whose appointment as Hillary Clinton’s advisor caused alarm in Middle East circles. Despite reports to the contrary, Ross does not — yet — exercise significant influence over the Iran relationship. Any advice he gives is said to go to the NSC.
Beyond Iran, Obama’s trip to Turkey also contributes to the multi-polar Middle East. He saluted Turkey not just as a solid ally but also as a country that is better managing diversity at home and abroad — as a model for the rest of the region.
As Syria slowly steps in from the cold, America’s traditional allies like Egypt and Israel face increasing irrelevance in this new Middle East. But the biggest threat to multi-polarity comes from Israel, which has aggressively guarded its capacity for uncontested deterrence, particularly its unilateral access to nuclear power.
Like its predecessors, the Netanyahu government has said it will prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power. Israel’s threats don’t ring hollow: It destroyed Iraq’s French-built Osirak reactor in 1981, and a suspected Syrian facility in 2007.
So far the United States has kept a firm hand on the leash, but Israel is clearly raring to go. Several of Iran’s 27 nuclear sites are in major cities — Tehran, Isfahan — which would greatly add to the horror of any Israeli attack, and the magnitude of Iran’s response.
Obama’s biggest challenge will be to bring Israel into a multi-polar Middle East. So far he is moving very cautiously, and rightly so, to defuse this ticking bomb. But he is moving.
NADIA HIJAB is a senior fellow at the Institute for Palestine Studies.