Can America Make New Friends But Keep the Old in the Middle East?
By Mark N. Katz August 3, 2015
It is absolutely clear by now that there is no unipolar world dominated by the United States. Although some in the U.S. hoped, and many elsewhere feared, that such a state of affairs would emerge after the end of the Cold War, it did not. Large-scale U.S.-led interventions failed to pacify both Afghanistan and Iraq. Fear of the U.S. has not stopped Russia, China, and the Islamic State (ISIS or IS), among others, from undertaking increasingly adversarial actions that Washington has been seemingly powerless to stop. Washington has also had difficulty managing its many allies (though this is not an unusual state of affairs). And although the George W. Bush administration may have believed that a U.S.-led unipolar world order was at hand, the Obama administration has not shared this vision. Nor does it seem likely that the next president, whether Republican or Democrat, will be able to revive it even if it so desires. International relations are simply too complex for the U.S. to manage on its own.
That being said, however, much of international relations for countries other than the United States consists of a constant effort—often in competition with one another—to gain Washington’s favor. Three important reasons for other countries to devote time and attention to this task are: 1) although America does not run the world, what America does or does not do can have a big impact (whether positive or negative) on other countries; 2) foreign governments have numerous opportunities to influence American foreign policy, including through mobilizing their diaspora populations in America, enlisting support from American corporations doing or seeking business with them, lobbying and public relations efforts, and just making friends in the executive branch and on Capitol Hill; and 3) foreign governments have an especially strong incentive to try to influence American foreign policy when their rivals are actively attempting to do so—and they usually are.
There is no level playing field, though, for foreign governments attempting to influence American foreign policy. Some countries have large, influential diaspora populations in the U.S. they can mobilize while others do not. There are also governments that have bad relations with their diaspora populations in the U.S.—often because these diasporas fled to the U.S. after revolutionary regimes came to power in them.
Some U.S. corporations actively seek (sometimes more effectively than foreign governments) good relations between the U.S. and the countries in which they are doing business. But corporations that are doing business in countries that are rivals with one another usually do not want to favor one over another. And corporations that have had a negative experience in a particular country (due, for example, to expropriation of their property or adverse changes in investment conditions) will lobby against any improvement with it unless and until their claims have been satisfied.
The Challenge of Revolutionary Regimes
Some small countries (such as Israel) have been highly successful at influencing American foreign policy, while some large ones (such as Russia) have been quite unsuccessful at it. Governments that have been the least effective at influencing American foreign policy, though, have been revolutionary regimes that toppled governments previously allied to the U.S. Although outside observers may debate who is responsible for the deterioration in their relations, both the U.S. government and the revolutionary regimes in question have no doubt that the other side is solely responsible. Large numbers of people who have fled to the U.S. to escape from this regime as well as American corporations whose activities have been harmed by its actions can become effective and enduring opponents of improving relations. Just as importantly, the rulers of these regimes often believe that America is their enemy and thus do not want, or do not believe it is possible, to curry favor with it. Or they may even calculate that, although relations with the U.S. are bad at present, they can improve them whenever they choose.
The regional rivals of an anti-American revolutionary regime may genuinely, even legitimately, fear it. The coming to power of such a regime, though, does provide its rivals with one important advantage in their efforts to influence American foreign policy. When revolutionary regimes engage in polemics or hostilities with the U.S., the voices of its regional rivals who are actively currying favor in Washington become more effective. Thus, although Israel and Saudi Arabia genuinely feared the Islamic Republic of Iran, Tehran’s refusal to “win friends and influence people” in Washington allowed Israel and Saudi Arabia (to name just two) to more easily do so.
When the U.S. and a revolutionary regime that have long been hostile to each other attempt to improve their relationship, this can be highly unsettling for nearby states that continue to see it as a threat. They fear what this detente will mean for their standing with the U.S. Will Washington become so enamored of its new friend that it neglects its old ones? Instead of supporting its old friends against the hostile regime like before, will Washington pursue a more “even-handed” approach to differences between its old and new friends? What domestic interests will arise in the U.S. (whether diaspora, corporate, or other) seeking to maintain and expand cooperation with Washington’s new friend—even if, as they fear, it remains hostile to America’s old friends?
The Impact of the Iran-US Detente
These are exactly the sort of fears that the Israeli as well as most Gulf Arab governments have about the prospect of an Iranian-American rapprochement arising from the Iranian nuclear accord. Indeed, although they outwardly object to the accord because they claim it does not do enough to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, they also fear that they will be negatively affected by an improved Iranian-American relationship even if Tehran complies with the terms of the agreement and does not acquire nuclear weapons. And once Iranian-American relations improve, influential forces that kept relatively quiet when U.S.-Iranian relations were hostile will openly call for developing and expanding Iranian-American ties. These include American corporations wanting to do business in Iran as well as Western and other governments that also want to restore their economic ties that Washington pushed them to cut in support of sanctions efforts. (Indeed, for many foreign corporations and governments, fear that Washington would limit their ability to do business in the U.S. if they did not go along with American efforts to sanction Iran may have been a more important incentive for curtailing their business with Tehran than any concern over Iran acquiring nuclear weapons.)
If the Iranian nuclear accord goes through and Iranian-American relations do end up improving, the Israeli and Gulf Arab governments (as well as their many supporters in the U.S.) will face far more competition from newly empowered voices and interests benefiting from improved Iranian-American ties than they have in the past. Thus, many pro-Israeli and pro–Gulf Arab voices are trying desperately to derail approval of the Iranian nuclear agreement in Congress now before these pro-Iranian ones can become more influential than they now are.
In other words, Israel, the Gulf Arabs, and their supporters inside the U.S. oppose the Iranian nuclear accord not just because they distrust Tehran but also because they distrust Washington—or at least a Washington that is no longer as predictably (as well as, for them, comfortingly) anti-Iranian as it has been in the past. From the Obama administration’s viewpoint, it may seem utterly ridiculous for anyone to think that improving Iranian-American ties will result in Washington turning against, or even away from, Israel and the Gulf Arabs. That Israeli and Gulf Arab officials, as well as the supporters of their countries in the U.S., fear Washington might do this is testimony to their deep insecurity about their relations with the U.S.
If Washington is to succeed at the Obama administration’s effort to “make new friends but keep the old,” it will need to do something to ameliorate tensions between Iran on the one hand and Israel and the Gulf Arabs on the other. This may seem like an impossible task at first glance, but tense relations existed for many years between Israel and Saudi Arabia (as well as many other Arab states) between whom there is now something of a détente, if not an actual friendship. The common threat from Iran, of course, helped Washington reduce animosity between Israel and Saudi Arabia and even reportedly improve cooperation between them. The common threat of IS to Israel, the Gulf Arabs, and Iran may help Washington accomplish something similar.
It would help considerably if the governments in the region and their allies in Washington all came to understand that they share this common interest. Washington, of course, cannot force them to see this—this is not a unipolar world—but it certainly could do more to persuade them to do so. This will not happen, though, if those who do not recognize this common interest succeed in blocking the Iranian nuclear accord.