“I’ve always said whatever comes out of these talks, we will want the same. So if Iran has the ability to enrich uranium to whatever level, it’s not just Saudi Arabia that’s going to ask for that. The whole world will be an open door to go that route without any inhibition.” (Prince Turki bin Faisal al-Saud, a former director of Saudi intelligence) 

If the Secretary of State’s timeline defies most expert opinion, and if Iran is six years from breakout one has to wonder what would motivate Obama to invest so much time and effort, to say nothing of political capital in pursuit of a deal with Iran leaving it a nuclear threshold state, months from a nuclear weapon? Even were Kerry’s rosy estimates correct still does this administration with a consistent record of “getting it wrong” has hit another home run: just the threat of a nuclear Iran was enough to unleash that which the negotiations are described as avoiding: a nuclear arms race. And Obama, recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize based on promises to free the world of the threat of nuclear proliferation will leave office godfather to its spread! 

As Prince Turki bin Faisal al-Saud was quoted above, “I’ve always said whatever comes out of these talks, we will want the same,” a warning delivered many times to both Presidents Bush and Obama. In 2003 the Saudis were preparing to confront the threat of the early-onset  Iranian nuclear weapons program. 

A regional nuclear arms race 

In 2009 King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia warned visiting US special envoy to the Middle East Dennis Ross that if Iran crossed the threshold the Saudis would immediately follow. That warning to Obama was followed by, “numerous signals of its intentions.” In 2013 Obama’s counter-proliferation adviser said, he believed the Saudis already, “have claim to acquire nuclear weapons from Pakistan." Also in 2013 Amos Yadlin, former head of Israel’s Military Intelligence concluded that "the Saudis will not wait one month. They already paid for the bomb, they will go to Pakistan and bring what they need to bring." And reaffirming the Pakistan-Saudi compact Pakistan is reported, “ready to step into the contest, promising Friday “a strong response” to any threat to “Saudi integrity.”  

Today, under the threat of America’s reportedly nearly concluded deal with Iran the following regional Sunni states are actively building, negotiating, or considering constructing nuclear reactors: “Saudi Arabia and South Korea announced a multi-billion- dollar deal that will see two power plants built in the kingdom over the next two decades. Overall, Saudi Arabia has plans to build as many as 16 reactors by 2032” (it is worth remembering that the Saudis reportedly funded Pakistan’s nuclear program and that country is already holding several devices in trust for the Saudis). The United Arab Emirates also contracted four reactors from South Korea, two of which are already under construction. Egypt, Jordan and Turkey, are ordering reactors from Russia while Qatar, Kuwait, Yemen, Tunisia, Libya, Algeria, Morocco and Sudan are presently in the planning stage. 

While a timeline to weaponization may be the “burning issue” for the West inspiring Kerry’s rosy assurances, the Middle East is a bit more reality-driven: U.S. policy driving the “negotiations,” even in the unlikelihood that Iran chooses to forgo the bomb, has already made a nuclear arms race a reality. For the Arabs the only question is when and how to confront Iran’s threat. According to recent events the first stage of a Sunni response may have begun. Operation Storm of Resolve, a coalition of Sunni forces carrying out air attacks on Iran-backed Houthi forces in Yemen, has commenced. 

America’s alliance with Iran: the Arab response 

On 29 March, “[t]he heads of Arab League member states meeting in the Egyptian city of Sharm el-Sheikh… agreed to create a joint military force.” 

U.S. General Lloyd Austin, head of CentCom and director of US ground ops in the Middle East worried in testimony before Congress that the Saudi-led Arab coalition focus on Yemen would distract Arab involvement in the latest Obama “lead-from-behind” conflict against ISIL in Syria and Iraq. I suggest that the general’s concern misses the meaning and significance of the Saudi-led coalition in formation. 

Yes, there is that civil war on Saudia’s southern border and yes the Saudis are concerned by growing Iranian influence on that border. But do the Saudis need a coalition of Sunni states to deal with tiny Yemen? One would have to be blind, or wearing ideological blinders, not to see that such a coalition has far greater implications than restoring the deposed Yemeni president; implications involving concern over America-accepted Iranian expansionism. Codenamed Operation Storm of Resolve (even the name suggests regional, not “local” import), represents Sunni Islam’s shift from accommodation to what, over a decade, has emerged as a questionable US alliance to defiance of America’s Middle East policy. The Sunni coalition describes a sharp rebuke to President Obama and his policy of appeasing Iran. 

Since his election Obama has single-mindedly pursued an accommodation with Iran that provided the Islamic Republic time needed to become a nuclear threshold state. Iran’s motives for accommodating the U.S. president’s “negotiations” are at least above board. But what motivates the Americans? Over the years I’ve discussed both Bush and Obama as sharing a single policy objective: to remove America from the nettlesome Middle East. That “balance of Power” between Iran and the Arabs recently described by the administration would provide at least a fig-leaf for withdrawal. 

A close aide to Rouhani, the Iranian president, sought asylum in Switzerland this week. For an Iranian “take” on Iran’s American counterparts, Amir Hossein Motaghi described the “US negotiating team mainly there to speak on Iran’s behalf with other members of the 5+1 countries and convince them of a deal.” 

It is in context of this American policy that the coalition of Sunni states, Operation Storm of Resolve, is understood. 

On March 26 Saudi Arabia surprised the world by massing 150,000 ground forces and 100 aircraft on the Yemeni border. Simultaneously Egypt “seized control of the strategic Bab El-Mandeb Straits to foil Tehran’s plans to grab this important energy shipping gateway between the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden and the Suez Canal.” Up to five Egyptian troop carriers are in the Straights off the coast of Yemen. 

Among the countries participating in the emerging coalition are Saudi Arabia and the neighboring Gulf coast states Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain and the Gulf Emirates. The surrounding states of Egypt, Sudan and Jordan are engaged in fighting. Support for the coalition comes from as far away as Morocco on the western edge of North Africa and nuclear-armed Pakistan on Iran’s northern border. And even “go it alone” Turkey has joined. Only Iran and its regional proxies Iraq and Hezbollah came out in opposition. 

Meanwhile Obama, caught between his outreach to Iran and America’s continuing “alliance” with Saudis the White House reported having provided air targets intelligence to the Saudis, a balance for bombing targets in Tikrit in support for the IRGC halted in its offensive against Sadam Hussein’s birth city. Admitting air support brought into public the covert US-Iran alliance which finally motivated Arab military unity. 

I admit to being a long-time critic not just of Obama, but of America’s appeasement of Iran, its overall policy in the Middle East over many years. It took more than a single weak president surrounded by carefully chosen naïve ideologue advisers to achieve the chaos that today describes the region. According to Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, the former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, 

“At the end of the day, we have just this incredible policy confusion — never mind what our strategy is to execute that policy. We have to stop what we’re doing and take a hard look at everything going on the Middle East because it’s not going in the right direction." 

America’s two-administration outreach to Iran has created a justified mistrust among its previous regional Arab allies. Obama described his “lead from behind” supporting Bush’s post Iraq invasion “no boots on the ground” policy as intended to force locals to take control of their own defense. And the policy is beginning to bear fruit: but not, I suspect, as anticipated. Bush’s military team Gates/Mullen provided cover for the president to not carry through on threats against Iran’s early nuclear weapons program. His defense secretary and Joint Chiefs commander repeated as mantra their concern regarding unspecified “unintended consequences” the result from even threatening military action. Today it emerges that their prediction was accurate. By avoiding the problem America is facing “unintended consequences,” has lost credibility in the eyes of both Arabs and Iranians. America is today self-marginalized in the Middle East, no longer has control of events as they unfold.  

In the 1980’s Iran fought a ten year war with Iraq, a relatively weak Sunni dictatorship. The outcome was, at best, a standoff. Iran today faces what may be emerging as a united Arab military force supported by two non-Arab Sunni states bordering Iran: Turkey to the west and, more ominously, Pakistan to the north. Pakistan is today Islam’s only nuclear power.  

Obama’s encouragement of Iran has contributed to Iran “surrounding” the Arabian Peninsula states. Overconfident thanks to defeating Obama at the negotiating table, the mullahs are now over-extended in Arabia and confronting the choice between withdrawing across the Arabian Gulf or a prolonged war, Iran against the Arabs which, without nuclear weapons, it can have no illusions of winning. 

Should Iran choose to not back down the resulting war will at least have the saving grace of being conventional, the goal being to end Iran’s nuclear threat before it goes operational. Such a war will likely be long, bitter and expensive in lives and treasure. At least it will be non-nuclear. As for the many nuclear reactors today blossoming across the region inspired by the threat of an eventual Iranian bomb, hopefully the only purpose those reactors will serve will be to provide electricity.  

Was the emerging regional war necessary? Not if the United States had the will and wisdom to fill its role as “the world’s only superpower.” Just the threat of force in 2003 might well have been enough to force Iran to back down. And if that failed even the limited use of force would have achieved that which an all-out war will require today. 
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