In two weeks’ time President Barack Obama is scheduled to host a summit at Camp David with the leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member states. The event comes at a time when the Middle East is experiencing multi-layered turmoil as has not been seen for more than a century.
The turmoil, or as some might suggest, chaos, has numerous causes including the implosion of military despotic regimes, which had long passed their sell-by-date. There is also the fact that, for the first time in at least two centuries, a strong dose of sectarianism has been injected into an already deadly cocktail of political and ideological rivalries.
However, the principal reason for the current chaos may well be the dismantling of the traditional balance of power that had assured the region a measure of strategic stability since the 1920s.
Initially, that balance was guaranteed by Great Britain and, to a lesser extent, France. From the 1950s onward the United States and the USSR assured the status quo in the context of the Cold War. With the disintegration of the USSR that task fell to the US alone with the European Union, still a work in progress, making a small contribution.
It was partly to bolster that balance of power that the GCC came into being, initially as a political alliance but with economic and defense prospects never excluded. To further strengthen the new balance of power, in 2005 Washington arranged for seven Mideast nations to forge special links with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) while launching the peace process focused on the Israel-Palestine issue. By 2008 the new balance of power in the region appeared solid enough to serve its purpose for several more decades.
However, for reasons that one can only speculate about, with a series of amazing errors of judgement President Obama decided to dismantle that balance. His premature retreat from Iraq, his wrecking of the Israel-Palestine peace process, his siding with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt without being prepared to help them when they hit a bump in the road, and his flip-flop posturing on Syria are too well known to be mentioned here.
Having, perhaps, realized the potentially disastrous consequences of his policies, Obama decided to reach out to the Khomeinist regime in Tehran in the hope of transforming it from foe to friend, promising it the status of “regional power” and even accepting its “threshold” status on the nuclear front.
The problem is that Obama’s pursuit of an alliance between his administration and the Khomeinist regime is based on pure illusion. Having operated as an anti-status quo power for more than three decades, the Khomeinist regime cannot suddenly recast itself as guarantor of a stability that it regards as deadly to its revolutionary ambitions.
To become the “regional leader” that Obama desires, the Khomeinist regime must either make the rest of the region like itself or change itself in a way that makes it fit in with the rest of the region. Like a jigsaw, a regional balance of power consists of many different parts that are more or less alike, if only because they fit into a single larger pattern. Right now in the Middle East, the Khomeinist regime does not fit into any pattern that might reflect the realities of the other twenty or so countries that form the so-called Greater Middle East.
It is unlikely that the Khomeinist regime would be able to make the rest of the region like itself. Spending money and using propaganda and terror may help it recruit certain elements in Syria, Lebanon and even Iraq and Yemen, among other places. However, it has no chance of securing enough popular support on which to build a new regional system. The ideology of “walayat al-faqih” is ultimately less attractive in marketing terms than that of “dictatorship of proletariat” was in its heyday.
Maybe Obama’s hope is that the Rafsanjani faction will win the power struggle in Tehran, get rid of Khamenei, and transform the Islamic Republic into a big piece of the puzzle that fits into a new regional balance of power.
Hope, however, is not a sufficient basis for a strategy.
In any case, those familiar with Iranian politics would know that the Rafsanjani faction represents a minority within the Khomeinist establishment and has little chance of surviving in a direct clash with the faction led by Khamenei. Worse still, an Iran gripped by economic crisis, social disaffection and a bitter power struggle within the regime, is in no position to provide for others the stability that it itself lacks.
Obama thinks that by allowing Tehran to maintain its bomb-making capacity, he will help the Rafsanjani faction of which President Rouhani is a member. In fact, the opposite may happen: once the Islamic Republic feels secure from further pressure by the US and is allies it would have every reason to resume its project to “export revolution” with even greater vigor.
We don’t yet know at what level the forthcoming Camp David summit will take place or what kind of agenda might be on the table. One thing is clear, since the summit comes weeks after the start of final talks on a nuclear deal with Iran, it is unlikely that Obama wants to know the view of his allies on the positions to adopt in the Vienna negotiations. The US leader may be looking for nothing more than a photo-op to claim that he has consulted allies before buying the carpet that Tehran is willing to sell.
The most that one could hope for is a series of moves aimed at damage limitation. Obama is too full of himself to ever accept that he might have made a mistake on any issue, let alone the situation in the Middle East. Perhaps, the only thing to do is to temporize with him, remembering that while the remaining months of his presidency are fraught with dangers, the prospect of the next US administration reversing Obama’s mistakes cannot be ruled out.