Stephen Walt and Israeli “Arab affairs” reporter for Army Radio, Jackie Hugi (English version here), yesterday wrote two parallel analyses of the real reasons for the festering tension both between Iran and the west, and Iran and its regional neighbors. In short, it’s not about nukes. It’s about power. Though they’re related, they’re not the same thing.
Here is Walt:
…The real issue isn’t whether Iran gets close to a bomb; the real issue is the long-term balance of power in the Persian Gulf and Middle East. Iran has far more power potential than any of the other states in the region: a larger population, a fairly sophisticated and well-educated middle class, some good universities, and abundant oil and gas to boost economic growth (if used wisely). If Iran ever escapes the shackles of international sanctions and puts some competent people in charge of its economy, it’s going to loom much larger in regional affairs over time. That prospect is what really lies behind the Israeli and Saudi concerns about the nuclear deal. Israel and Saudi Arabia don’t think Iran is going to get up one day and start lobbing warheads at its neighbors, and they probably don’t even believe that Iran would ever try the pointless act of nuclear blackmail. No, they’re just worried that a powerful Iran would over time exert greater influence in the region, in all the ways that major powers do. From the perspective of Tel Aviv and Riyadh, the goal is to try to keep Iran in a box for as long as possible — isolated, friendless, and artificially weakened.
But from the U.S. perspective, that’s neither a realistic nor a desirable long-term goal…America’s main strategic interest in the…Middle East is a balance of power in which no single state dominates. In such a situation, U.S. interests and leverage are best served by having good relations with as many states as possible and at least decent working relations with all of them. America’s long-term interests are best served by helping reintegrate Iran into the global community, which is likely to strengthen the hand of moderate forces there and make Iran less disruptive in other contexts (e.g., Lebanon). Managing this process will require reassuring existing allies, but this development would also force current allies to listen to Washington a bit more attentively, which wouldn’t be a bad thing.
As Walt says, even Israeli or Saudi anti-Iran hawks don’t believe their own rhetoric about Iran dropping the Big One on them. What they really fear is Iran flexing its economic, political and military muscle in the region. Tel Aviv and Riyadh are used to dominating their particular spheres of influence. Israel wants maximum leverage to dominate all the frontline states (Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Jordan, etc.), while Saudi Arabia revels in its role as the guardian of the holy places. The Iranian threat is that there could be a new sheriff in town, one that will side with Israel’s enemies like Hezbollah, Assad or Hamas; and one that will threaten Saudi hegemony over the Muslim world.
The “Jewish state” and the Muslim state want a bifurcated Middle East in which each dominates its own sphere of influence. It doesn’t want a region in which power becomes decentralized and fragmented among various states. And it certainly doesn’t want to share power with an upstart Shiite rival.
The Israeli columnist speaks in similar tones. Though much of what Hugi writes is analytically sound, even he can’t resist the typical Israeli impulse to wildly overstate Iranian power and menace:
…The rapprochement between America and Iran will bring dramatic changes to the balance of power within the entire region. It might return Iran to the role of ally of the U.S. and eclipse its relationship with other Arab states, foremost among them Saudi Arabia and Egypt. This is the nightmare of the Arabs.
If Israel fears the loss of its partner in an attack on Iran, it may be comforted by the fact that it isn’t the only one. The Arabs, chief among them Saudi Arabia, fear that within a year or two a Washington-Teheran rapprochement will formalized that will eclipse them. For them the “Iranian threat” is neither a nuclear bomb or the “point of no return.” For them, Iran is a regional power with octopus-like reach in every direction, which attempts to buy influence in every possible sphere. Ask the Bahraini king who fears a military coup that will turn his country into an Iranian colony. In the Arab world there’s even a word for this, tashayua, the spread of the “Shiia idea.”
In every place in the region in which there is bloody conflict, you’ll find the Iranian presence with money, weapons, or proxies. In Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, Yemen (!), Bahrain and Gaza…
The royal kingdom in Riyadh enjoys special status in Washington and closer relations with Iran would be perceived as a threat.
This passage illustrates the level of hysteria inside Saudi Arabia toward the Iranians, and reminds us of precisely the same alarmist statements made fifty years ago by U.S. war hawks defending the War in Vietnam:
“To the Saudis, the Iranian nuclear program and the Syria war are parts of a single conflict,” said Bernard Haykel, a professor of Near Eastern studies at Princeton. “One well-placed Saudi told me, ‘If we don’t do this in Syria, we’ll be fighting them next inside the kingdom.’ ”
Turning now to Israel’s motivations for opposing the rise of Iran: with a resolution of the nuclear issue Iran would be transformed from a bogeyman into a simple political or commercial rival. Gone would be many of the fires stoked by Iran’s support of proxies in Lebanon, Syria and Gaza. What would be left? Israel would be standing on stage like the emperor with no clothes. It would be even clearer than ever that Israel stands in the way of resolving the remaining issues of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Israel at all costs seeks to avoid a spotlight shining on its Occupation as it stands naked on stage before the world community. It needs distractions like an Iranian bomb to clothe itself and its actions in deceptive outer garments.
The reality is that, as Walt writes, it can only be healthy for Iran to play a more robust, prominent role in the region. At least in part, because it would deny predominance to any single nation or axis of nations (like Israel and the Saudis). Further, Iran represents a new governance model for the region as well: an Islamist republic that is, at least nominally, a democracy. One of the thorniest dilemmas faced in the region is how to translates the populist fervor of the Arab Spring into true democracy. Iran (though not an Arab state) may offer a suitable model, or at least one model among many.
This is what scares the bejesus out of Iran’s regional enemies. They prefer the strongmen of the Old Guard. They prefer the authoritarian leader they can trust to the will of the people, which they cannot. They prefer buying off one man than facing the legitimate aspirations of an entire people–something they cannot buy off. Though governance in Iran is by no means perfect, it offers a far more inclusive model than countries like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan or Syria.