By Vali R. Nasr
The Obama administration’s quest for a grand strategy for the Middle East is in deep trouble, and the failure to reach a nuclear deal with Iran has only made the problem worse. For the first time since at least the 1970s, success for Western goals in the Middle East depends not on choosing an ally in the rivalry between Shiite Iran and the Sunni Arab states; it rests on damping down that schism altogether, so we can work with both sides against a dangerous threat to all — fanatical Sunni fundamentalism, in the form of the Islamic State.
The Middle East today is deeply unsettled. Extremism seems on the rise everywhere. The Islamic State, also known as ISIS, is carving out a new Sunni realm in Iraq and Syria. Arab governments tremble at that, but also at popular demands for change. And deep divisions separate America’s Arab and Muslim allies: Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt all oppose the Muslim Brotherhood, while Qatar and Turkey embrace it. Meanwhile, the Saudi-Iranian regional rivalry spawns proxy conflicts from Lebanon to Pakistan.
So turmoil itself is the problem for America, which has deep interests in dealing with all these countries. But a number of paradoxes stand in the way of any grand strategy for addressing it.
Most obviously, pivoting our full attention away from the Middle East to focus on Asia is no longer an option. The Obama administration has already begun pushing back militarily against the Islamic State, shoring up the Iraqi government and rallying allies against the extremist force. But this is more in the nature of crisis management than strategy.
A strategy would require much longer-range goals — strengthening national institutions and boundaries, damping down regional rivalries, and containing extremism, so that American intervention would no longer be needed.
A related paradox is that although America’s Arab allies are indispensable to regional stability and American policy, they are in a weaker position to guarantee that stability than at any time in recent memory. Their own people, at least in Jordan and Saudi Arabia, are increasingly sympathetic to the Islamic State, even as those governments fend off challenges from the Muslim Brotherhood on one hand, and from Iran and its Shiite clients on the other.
And there lies a third paradox: It is increasingly evident that America is finding Iran’s cooperation necessary for managing conflicts like those in Iraq and Syria.
In short, America has learned it needs Sunni partners and Shiite partners. So its aim should be to reduce rather than inflame those rivalries. That requires intense but inclusive diplomacy to array the region’s resources in fighting the Islamic State, and then in closing the door to other extremists who might succeed it.
America has long had regional Sunni allies. The imperative of a regional Shiite partner — Iran — became obvious only last summer and fall, with the Islamic State sweep across northwest Iraq. Soon, Americans and Iranians found themselves in quiet collaboration; American air power softened militant positions as Iraqi militias backed by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps freed the town of Amerli. A similar unspoken collaboration engineered the ouster of Iraq’s overly sectarian prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki, to assuage Sunni anger that had fed the Islamic State insurgency.
In his latest letter to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, President Obama suggested openly that the United States and Iran should collaborate against the Islamic State, but that a resolution of the nuclear standoff was necessary for broader strategic cooperation to develop.
But even with such cooperation, Mr. Obama would face a fourth paradox: In the end, Sunni extremism is proving to be a more intractable problem than Iran.
America’s issues with Iran, however profound, are no longer impervious to tools of diplomacy, as they became after 1979. Sunni fanaticism, by contrast, is the current revolutionary force threatening the international order.
In reaction, President Obama has taken steps that could evolve into a new grand strategy. He is trying to ally with Arabs to degrade the Islamic State. Then he wants a nuclear deal that would let Iran work more openly and closely against Sunni extremism. The clear hope is for a lasting alliance of moderate Sunni regimes with the region’s Shiite power brokers, to contain the Sunni extremism that he sees as a threat to both.
But a long-term strategy cannot end there. The problems of the Middle East are complex and long-running; trust may be the region’s scarcest commodity. The Arab leaders, for example, still think the Islamic State can be contained, but they aren’t persuaded that the same could be said of Iran if it came in from the cold.
So even if the Islamic State is squelched, the Arab world and Iran are likely to remain deeply divided over the distribution of power in the region, and prone to seeking proxies who would threaten peace.
At the same time, a gulf of distrust will stand for some time between the United States and Iran even if the two sign a viable nuclear deal. Nor will America’s relationship with the Arab world return to being as close as it once was. American disengagement from the region’s problems under the guise of a pivot to Asia has shaken trust in America’s resolve. And progress toward energy independence further erodes the assumption of the last half-century that America’s future is tethered to the Middle East.
Contributing to a more stable Middle East will require continuous engagement with both sides in the region, and that would become easier the sooner we started. Since divisions have become the worst enemy of stability in the region, bridging them should be our first priority. And the longer a nuclear deal eludes America and Iran, the more difficult it will be to arrive at the much-needed grand strategy’s principal goal — to build a Middle East that resolves its own differences without dragging us into new wars, so we can turn our full attention to goals like security in Asia, global prosperity and climate change.
More lost time will only intensify regional rivalries, aggravate the crises in Syria and Iraq, and benefit extremism. That alone argues for a nuclear deal sooner rather than later.
Decades ago, we helped a war-savaged Western Europe do the seemingly impossible: build a lasting foundation for peace. If we dare hope for something like that in the Middle East, we should start the broad thinking and planning about turning rivalry into collaboration now.
An investment in that grand strategy would be the surest way for America to free itself of the Middle East’s problems.
Vali R. Nasr, the dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, is the author of “The Dispensable Nation: American Foreign Policy in Retreat.”