The Larger Game in the Middle East: Iran
WASHINGTON — On a Tuesday afternoon in mid-March in the White House Situation Room, as President Obama heard the arguments of his security advisers about the pros and cons of using military force in Libya, the conversation soon veered into the impact in a far more strategically vital place: Iran.
The mullahs in Tehran, noted Thomas E. Donilon, the national security adviser, were watching Mr. Obama’s every move in the Arab world. They would interpret a failure to back up his declaration that Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi had “lost the legitimacy to lead” as a sign of weakness — and perhaps as a signal that Mr. Obama was equally unwilling to back up his vow never to allow Iran to gain the ability to build a nuclear weapon.
“It shouldn’t be overstated that this was the deciding factor, or even a principal factor” in the decision to intervene in Libya, Benjamin J. Rhodes, a senior aide who joined in the meeting, said last week. But, he added, the effect on Iran was always included in the discussion. In this case, he said, “the ability to apply this kind of force in the region this quickly — even as we deal with other military deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan — combined with the nature of this broad coalition sends a very strong message to Iran about our capabilities, militarily and diplomatically.”
That afternoon in the Situation Room vividly demonstrates a rarely stated fact about the administration’s responses to the uprisings sweeping the region: The Obama team holds no illusions about Colonel Qaddafi’s long-term importance. Libya is a sideshow. Containing Iran’s power remains their central goal in the Middle East. Every decision — from Libya to Yemen to Bahrain to Syria — is being examined under the prism of how it will affect what was, until mid-January, the dominating calculus in the Obama administration’s regional strategy: how to slow Iran’s nuclear progress, and speed the arrival of opportunities for a successful uprising there.
In fact, the Iran debate makes every such chess move in the region more complicated. At the end of this era of upheaval, which the White House considers as sweeping as the changes that transformed Europe after the Berlin Wall fell, success or failure may well be judged by the question of whether Iran realizes its ambitions to become the region’s most powerful force.
Last week, the decisions being made at the White House were about how firmly to back the protesters being shot in the streets in Syria and Yemen, or being beaten in Bahrain. For each of those, White House aides were performing a mostly silent calculation about whether the Iranians would benefit, or at least feel more breathing room.
Only two and a half months ago, things seemed very different. In January, American officials were fairly confident that they had cornered Iran: new sanctions were biting, the Russians were cutting off sophisticated weaponry that Iran wanted to ward off any Israeli or American attack, and a deviously complex computer worm, called Stuxnet, was wreaking havoc with the Iranian effort to enrich uranium.
But that changed with the arrival of the Arab Spring. Suddenly the Arab authoritarians who had spent the last two years plotting with Washington to squeeze the Iranians — “Cut off the head of the snake,” King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia was famously quoted as advising in the WikiLeaks cables — became more worried about their own streets than the Iranian centrifuges spinning out nuclear fuel at Natanz. And American and European citizens became distracted, even as oil at $108 a barrel undercut many of the sanctions that the White House had hoped would convince Iranian citizens that the nuclear program was not worth its rising cost.
So when the White House sees the region through a Persian lens, what does it look like?
THE LIBYA LESSON
Mr. Obama argued, in his speech on Monday night, that Libya presented a special case — an urgent moral responsibility to protect Libyans being hunted down by the Qaddafi forces and a moment of opportunity to make a difference with what the president called “unique” American capabilities. (Translation: a multitude of technologies, like Tomahawk missiles, reconnaissance and electronic jamming.) Those are the same capabilities that would be critical in any attack on Iranian nuclear sites. The administration’s top officials knew that a demonstration of that ability would not be lost on Iran. But it is anyone’s guess how Iran would react.
“You could argue it either way,” said one official who was involved in the Libya debate and spoke on the condition of anonymity. “Maybe it would encourage them to do what they have failed to do for years: come to the negotiating table. But you could also argue that it would play to the hard-liners, who say the only real protection against America and Israel is getting a bomb, and getting it fast.”
But at least in public, Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates told members of Congress not to expect that Iran’s nuclear program would accelerate much because of the attack on Libya — or that Iran’s security forces would crack down even more vigorously on the protest movements they have all but strangled. “My view is that, in terms of what they want to try and achieve in their nuclear program, they’re going about as fast as they can,” he said on Thursday. “And it’s hard for me to imagine that regime being much harder than it already is.”
THE ARAB ALLY CARD
The problem gets more complex when dealing with Arab allies who have little compunction about shooting protesters in the streets, even as they seek to undermine Iran. Saudi Arabia and Bahrain are the prime examples. The Saudis see Iran as the biggest threat to their own regional ambitions, and have cooperated in many American-led efforts to hem in Tehran. Yet relations between Washington and Riyadh have rarely been as strained: To King Abdullah, President Obama’s decision to abandon President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt was a sign of weakness, and a warning that he might throw the Saudi leadership under the bus if democracy demonstrations took root there.
Perhaps that explains why there was barely a peep from the White House when the Saudis rolled troops into neighboring Bahrain to help put down the Shiite-majority protests there. Much as Mr. Obama wants to see the aspirations of democracy protesters fulfilled, and urged steps toward reform in Bahrain, he has no desire to see the toppling of the government that hosts the Fifth Fleet, right across the Persian Gulf from Iran.
THE SYRIAN PUZZLE
For years the United States has tried in vain to peel Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, away from Iran and to reconcile with Israel. It fears that if his government collapses, chaos will reign, making Syria unpredictable as well as dangerous. It’s a reasonable fear. But in recent weeks the White House has concluded that it has much less to lose than the Iranians do if Mr. Assad is swept away. And, as some in Mr. Obama’s war council have noted, if protesters succeed in Syria, Iran could be next.
All the Arab turmoil has left many Israelis convinced that America and its Arab allies are too distracted to credibly threaten that they will stop the Iranian nuclear ambitions at all costs, even though Mr. Donilon has pledged that “we will not take our eye off the ball.” Inside Israel, a debate has resumed about how long the Israelis can afford to put off dealing with the problem themselves, fed by fears that Iran’s reaction to the region’s turmoil might be a race for the bomb. That could lead to the worst outcome for Mr. Obama — a war between Iran and Israel — and that consideration alone makes the case for the administration to see little room for error in handling the main act.