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The Iran Deal: American Influence Retreats

U.S. President Barack Obama makes a statement announcing an interim agreement on Iranian nuclear power that was reached in negotiations between Iran and six world powers, from the State Dining Room at the White House on Nov. 23, 2013 in Washington, D.C. A major sticking point in the negotiations has been Iran’s insistence on it’s right to enrich uranium. Photographer: T.J. Kirkpatrick/Bloomberg

For the last six or seven decades, the United States has not really had to answer to anyone. It now seems possible, for the first time, that this may no longer be the case.

It is always difficult to assess a diplomatic accord in its immediate aftermath, especially with so many contradictory reports as to its content and repercussions, but it certainly seems that the deal concluded with Iran on Sunday is not a particularly good one. Naturally, being an Israeli, this is profoundly worrisome, although not, I think, the apocalyptic disaster many are describing. Nonetheless, there seems to be some fairly obvious flaws in the deal that are possibly larger in their repercussions than the details of the accord itself.

First, it does seem as if the US and the international community in general could have gotten a much better deal than they did. The very fact that the Iranians were willing to negotiate indicates the degree to which they are desperate to escape the current sanctions regime and anxious to reintegrate themselves somehow into the international community and the global economy.

If this is indeed the case, then one imagines that, had they pushed harder, Iran may well have been willing to not only suspend its nuclear program but dismantle it completely. Or, at the very least, dismantle enough of it to prevent the possibility of a sudden, North Korea-style nuclear “breakout.” As many have pointed out, there is a strong likelihood that Iran will now be able to retain enough of its nuclear infrastructure to “race” to a bomb should it wish to. And it very well may wish to; if not now, than in the future.

Second, from the specifically Israeli perspective, the deal greatly complicates our relationship to the current US administration. I do not necessarily see the deal as a “betrayal” of Israel per se, but rather as an indication of the Obama administrations continuing unreliability. President Obama has made his claim that he “has Israel’s back” into a cliché, and it can be said that he did have Israel’s back during the push for tougher sanctions on Iran. Yet the current situation represents an obvious counterfactual. Obama clearly did not have Israel’s back on this issue, given that Prime Minister Netanyahu was pushing for a complete end to Iran’s nuclear program, which is the only scenario that will completely remove a very serious threat to Israel’s security and the security of the region.

It is difficult to think of any ally that would not be profoundly disconcerted by such a schizophrenic policy. I am convinced that Obama sincerely believes that he has Israel’s best interests at heart. But it is now hardly unreasonable for Israel to ask itself what this support actually means if the president is also capable of convincing himself that something that is clearly not in Israel’s best interest is in Israel’s interest. And this does appear to be the case with this administration, as evidenced by Secretary of State Kerry’s frankly bizarre statement today that Israel is now safer than it was before the Iran deal; something that strikes me as self-evidently untrue. At best, Israel’s situation vis-à-vis Iran has not changed. At worst, it has become much more dangerous.

This relates to what may be the strangest outcome of the Iran deal: Its biggest loser may not be Israel or other allies, but the United States itself. I am, of course, worried about Israel’s security, but not overly so, given my belief that Israel does possess the military capability to stop the Iranian nuclear program and a prime minister willing to pay the political price if necessary. While this could lead to a serious rift with the US, Israel will not be without friends should it undertake such action. Indeed, it is by no means impossible that an unspoken and generally covert alliance will take shape between Israel and Arab countries like Saudi Arabia, forming an unprecedented resistance bloc that will undertake independent military action against the wishes of the international community.

For the US, however, the deal may prove to be a serious disaster. Even a hegemon needs allies; indeed, it can hardly function without them. And America’s regional allies are, at the moment, generally opposed to US policy on this issue. Again, this is not so much because Obama acts in bad faith. In fact, if he did act in bad faith he would likely be far more predictable. What is particularly worrisome is the self-contradictory nature of Obama’s policies. He apparently believes, for example, that an agreement with Iran will make the region safer and more stable. Had he reached an agreement that completely ended Iran’s nuclear program, there would be a case to be made for this. Instead, the agreement that has been reach clearly, for the moment, makes the region less safe and more unstable. Indeed, it may well prove to be the moment that the region began its slide toward inevitable war. An administration that acts in such unpredictable and contradictory cannot help but disconcert its allies and force them to look elsewhere for allies that are potentially more reliable, whether they are regional players like Israel or global powers like Russia.

Now, it may well be that Obama ultimately wishes to withdraw—at least partially—from America’s role as a hegemonic power. This is a legitimate foreign policy decision to a certain extent. It is costly and often thankless to play the king, and it does seem that the American people themselves have, for the moment, grown somewhat tired of it. However, it obviously pays dividends; in particular, a very broad freedom of action. For the last six or seven decades, the United States has not really had to answer to anyone. It now seems possible, for the first time, that this may no longer be the case. Put simply, the Middle East’s regional powers are likely to become much more powerful as a result of diminished American influence.  And while Israel is certainly not in a position to dictate terms to the US, other players, especially the great oil powers in the Persian Gulf, may soon be able to do so. It is interesting to speculate on what the American reaction will be to suddenly having to justify itself to those who were recently its willing friends. It is possible that it will be relatively indifferent, given the current rise of essentially isolationist sentiment in the US. But it is quite possible that the opposite will be the case.

Benjamin Kerstein is an Israeli-American writer, editor, and novelist.

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