The common geostrategic interests of Israel and Turkey are greater than ever before.Follow
Brian M. Downing
Security, Middle East
Sunni Arab Gulf states have great wealth, spend immense amounts on defense, and command large numbers of troops. They have nonetheless depended on foreign powers, chiefly the United States, for their security. Paradoxically, their arms purchases seek to obligate Western powers to defend their big Arab customers, as they try to build competent militaries.
This was made clear when the startling rise of the Islamic State (IS) last year led to proclamations and bravado from Sunni Arab capitals, but little of military significance. The bulk of the forces fighting IS in Iraq are Shia soldiers and militias and Western fighter pilots.
The Sunnis are trying to change this dependency by building an international force of land, sea, and air units to deal with the Houthi rebels in Yemen. What will come of this coalition in Yemen? What does it portend for the Middle East?
The Rise of the Houthis
Yemen has been continuously rent by conflict and civil war for decades. Political unity has proven short-lived. The recent Houthi offensive is simply the most recent war between the north, which was governed by the Ottoman Turks, and the south, which was a British colony.
Sunni capitals are in considerable alarm over the rise of the Houthis. The Houthis are seen as proxies of Iran and a vanguard of Shia expansionism. This concern is widely repeated in the U.S. Congress but is not well-founded. U.S. intelligence, for example, sees Iranian influence in Yemen as recent and not especially large. The driving forces behind the Houthis come from inside Yemen.Follow
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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to Congress on Tuesday has had no effect on the ongoing negotiations over the Iranian nuclear agreement in Geneva, at least according to Iranian Foreign Minster Javad Zarif.
But that doesn’t mean the Obama administration isn’t concerned about the address’s potential consequences. And so it gave a vigorous and direct rebuttal.
On the night of the speech, Ben Rhodes, the US deputy national security adviser who once likened a nuclear deal with Iran to Obamacare in its importance as a political objective, was interviewed on the “Charlie Rose” show by the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg.
Goldberg pressed Obama’s close aide on the points that Netanyahu raised in his speech, during which the Israeli leader cited a 10- to 15-year “sunset” clause and the emerging agreement’s perceived insufficient limits on Tehran’s nuclear infrastructure as reasons to oppose the accord.
When pressed on the sunset clause, Rhodes asserted that the US president in 2025 or 2030 will have the same financial tools of coercion that are available now.
“The fact of the matter is, the same type of options that we have in place today to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon will be available to the president of the United States in 10, 15 years — whenever the conclusion of the duration of the deal is,” Rhodes said.
The trouble with that claim is that an agreement itself would require the US, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, and Germany to cease the enforcement of the sanctions against Iran.
And the current sanctions took decades to implement, and required the reluctant and often politically challenging cooperation of a number of Iran’s foreign oil purchasers — countries like India, South Korea, China, and Brazil.
The US basically gained its negotiating leverage through a process that may be impossible to reproduce when there’s already a deal in place, business ties have been restored, and the world is inclined to think of the Iranian nuclear program as a settled issue.
“In a decade, if Iran is not Japan, a democratic, nuclear-transparent country with an industrial program, the US president in 2025 will have a severe national challenge on his or her hands,” Mark Dubowitz, the executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told Business Insider.
“That president will also have only one option to stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons, a military one,” Dubowitz said. “It took Clinton, Bush, and Obama almost 20 years to build an effective sanctions regime against an illicit nuclear program and to persuade companies to terminate their business ties with Iran. Once the deal expires in a decade, Iran will have a legal program and it will be impossible to reconstitute an effective sanctions regime in time to block an Iranian industrial-size program from producing multiple nuclear bombs.”
By that point, the fragile political consensus that led to the sanctions regime will be nearly impossible to piece back together if Iran ramps up its program.
Significantly, Rhodes also demonstrated that the administration is no longer aiming to reach an agreement that would permanently solve the nuclear issue.
“The fact of the matter is, Iran is going to have less facilities, less centrifuges, longer breakout time during the duration of this agreement,” Rhodes said. “So what we would say to them is we are actually preventing Iran from getting the nuclear weapon that you’re concerned about.”
Goldberg countered by noting that this negotiating position meant the administration wasn’t “guaranteeing permanent non-nuclearization” — only delaying Iran’s ability to construct a nuclear weapon in less than year, if all protocols are followed.
Rhodes replied that the administration “will continue as a matter of policy to oppose Iran getting a nuclear weapon,” and that “we can make a judgment on the back end of the agreement about where things stand.”
So the deal being negotiated by the Obama administration assumes the US will emerge from the agreement with the same leverage over the Tehran that it enjoys. That is, if it turns out Iran views an agreement as a decade-long time-out on the way to a nuclear weapons capability, the US would have the ability to counter it after the sunset clause expires.
History suggests that might be wishful thinking. Most recently, as the experience with North Korea demonstrates, it’s easy for a country to reverse its commitments if its nuclear infrastructure is left standing.
In 2007, Pyongyang shut down its 5-megawatt reactor at Yongbyon, during the time between North Korea’s provocative low-yield nuclear test in 2006 and the breakdown of the six-party talks in 2008. In 2013, long after disarmament talks had collapsed, it simply upgraded the reactor and switched it back on again.
It’s much easier for a country to reactivate existing nuclear infrastructure than it is for its rivals to build an international consensus toward doing something about it. The deal Rhodes defended against Netanyahu’s objections may leave Iran with the option of ramping up its program once the agreement expires — and the US with few options for stopping Tehran if it ever needed to.
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