The preliminary nuclear deal recently struck between P5+1 – the US, Russia, France, China and Britain, with Germany as an associate — and the Islamic Republic of Iran has sent shivers down many a spine. The pact struck in Geneva reeks of an implied danger, delights enemies and infuriates friends. As far as Iranians are concerned the deal is nothing short of brilliant. They won everything they wanted at a fire-sale price – international recognition of their nuclear aspirations, easing of economic sanctions, plus glimmers of détente with the Washington, a vast improvement of their geopolitical stature and many other wonderful things.
And it was so easy! The only thing Iran needed to do in order to mollify the Great Satan’s sensibilities was swap a grim, angry and openly aggressive Ahmadinejad, with his annoying tendency to make idiotic and inflammatory statements, for a sleek, smiling and smooth Rouhani. This genius pocketed everything his master, Ayatollah Khamenei, wanted from the West, and he did so without paying anything at all in return. The contrast between Ahmadinejad and Rouhani represents a classic bad cop/good cop scenario — and it worked flawlessly.
In a nutshell, Iranians received a wink and a nod to break the Non-proliferation Treaty they signed as UN member state. They are graciously forgiven for repeatedly breaking a number of UN Security Council resolutions explicitly forbidding them to play with nuclear technology. Moreover, they are not to be put in the naughty corner for threatening genocide against Israel, another UN member. Best of all, Iranians will be allowed to retain the nuclear facilities illegally developed in contravention of repeated UN demands for their closure, and they will do so without submitting even to the hollow gesture of a slap on the wrist.
Tehran also gets access to some of its assets frozen in Western banks, plus a number of Iranian terror suspects will be released by the Americans, who parleyed in secret with Tehran for a year, never bothering to tell their allies. But the sweetest of all from the regime’s perspective is that it is now safe and inviolate. Further demonstrations and demands for democratic reform by the Iranian people can henceforth be reliably suppressed, while terrorists around the world will be free to tap Iranian expertise, weaponry and ideology.
Much sophisticated bellyaching came in the aftermath of the Iran deal. A frequent comparison paired Obama and Neville Chamberlain, who purported to believe on his return from Munich in 1938 that he was bringing “peace with honour … peace in our time”. Likewise, echoes were heard of Clement Attlee, who dismantled the British Empire in a hurry, much as Obama is rapidly diminishing the sphere of US influence (see QOL, “Beijing’s Appetite for War”).
There was much huffing and puffing about America’s betrayal of its allies – the charges being that it was giving in to terrorists, abandoning American principles and ideals, and abrogating support for freedom and global leadership responsibilities. Israelis immediately declared the deal an “historic mistake” and hinted they will no longer show Obama any love. The Saudis, too, were riled, so much so that they refused to take a seat at the UN Security Council. Distilled to its essence, the US and Europe appeased Iran’s theocrats by delivering everything desired to expedite the return of the 13th Imam, whose re-appearance is anticipated by adherents as the overture to a global jihad, or Armageddon or universal conflagration – take your pick, call it what you will, as to the best description of nuclear-armed religious zealotry.
But what if 13th Imam won’t come without a nuclear bomb at the ready, the best means to fulfil apocalyptic prophecy? Determined not to be caught unprepared and inadequately armed for the global jihad, Iranians acted in the spirit of an Arab proverb: Rely on Allah’s help all you want, but do not forget to tie up the camel. And so it has come to pass. Iranians will have nuclear weapons to help out the 13th Imam in his work.
Why did it unfold this way?
Simply put, America no longer has the resources to continue as the world’s policeman, especially when it comes to the Middle Eastern quagmire. A confrontation with Iran (or Syria) is unthinkable to post-Iraq, post-Afghanistan America, where an activist involvement in Middle Eastern affairs is in neither Obama’s political interests nor compatible with his ideological proclivities. Beyond that, even if the will was there, there is the further consideration of a US Treasury depleted by Washington’s profligate response to the recent global financial crisis and its escalating domestic welfare expenditures. The unavoidable fact is that the US has run out of cash, pure and simple, leading the present American administration to make Shakespeare its a speechwriter, “a plague o’ both your houses”. This plays to the streak of isolationism that has long run through American politics and public attitudes.
In his own inimitable way, Obama is nothing but consistent. His actions are within the parameters of his Cairo speech, given at the beginning of his presidency, where he declared a personal loathing for confronting aggressive, expansionist Islam. He also has applied in practice the harsh but realistic foreign policy paradigm that has been attributed to many – George Washington, Lord Palmerston, Churchill and Charles De Gaulle among them – which proclaims a state has no perpetual friends, only perpetual interests. Surprisingly, this move has astonished many observers and players in the area of foreign affairs. What is so surprising about the pursuit of a cash-strapped superpower’s perceived self- interest?
In their gradual progression, Obama’s foreign policies are, seemingly, so contrary to the USA and its traditional allies’ interests that the question of an evil design was bound to be asked. Consider:
- The open favouring of Shiite branch of Islam at the expense of the allied Sunnis
- support of the Muslim Brotherhood with its West-averse ideology
- rapprochement with Iran, despite the regime’s open hatred of the US and its sponsorship of worldwide terror – and this without even the hint of an Iranian apology for the act of war against the US in 1979, when the US embassy was seized and hostages taken
- giving the go-ahead for Iran to enrich uranium, presaging an existential threat to Israel and Saudi Arabia
- failure to punish the Syrian regime’s barbarity
All of the above represent examples from the swag of policies that have brought US standing in the Muslim world to its lowest ebb. The message to allies and friends, like the biblical writing on the wall, is plain and clearly legible: The free ride is over, guys!
What had seemed the never-to-end reliance of allies on the USA as an ultimate provider and guarantor of their national security has come to an end. The import of this foreign policy shift and the corresponding change to the world’s geopolitical structure beggars belief. It changes the way Australia and others must assess our defence needs, how these needs are to be prioritised, and how we formulate and implement our approach to foreign affairs. How do we now define our friends and foes? How do we allocate budgetary necessities in this new international landscape? Which defence technologies do we need? The list of questions is very nearly endless.
The US decision to expose long-time allies Israel and Saudi Arabia to the messianic ministrations of nuclear-armed Iranians points to the simple conclusion: the US is acting in what it perceives to be its national interests without regard to the obligations it formerly undertook in regard to regional allies. This time it is Middle East, but there are no guarantees we will not see more of the same in the Arafura Sea, Indonesian Archipelago, Malacca Strait or South China Sea. For a medium-sized power like Australia this is not a pleasant prospect.
What do we do?
At the beginning of this essay I mentioned that America’s welfare expenditure is one of the chief reasons for such a seismic policy shift. When forced to choose between guns and butter, the US opted for food stamps. The staggering 47% of Americans now reliant of some form of welfare testifies to that choice. No wonder the US has run out of money.
Australia has a similar problem, until now ameliorated by the American generosity which has shouldered much of our defence costs and burden. Our defence budget has long been a joke; now it is entirely inadequate under the changed conditions of America’s withdrawal from the centre-stage of world affairs. As a liberal democracy we spend the bulk of our budget on services – public health, education, overseas aid, unemployment benefits, disability support and age pensions and many other programs. If what I say in this essay is true and Americans have neither the desire nor cash to continue paying for everyone else’s security needs, we will have to find the budgetary resources to defend our borders and interests. We will need to co-ordinate efforts with our allies, to be sure. But above all we must become self-reliant in our national defence. The era of an American defence umbrella is over.
The ultimate lesson of the P5+1 capitulation is that the “the heavy lifting”, to quote John Howard, can no longer be left to Washington and its Pentagon. The Middle East is a long way from our shores, but that the US message to Tehran strikes home with a bone-jarring jolt.
Dr Michael Galak and his family came to Australia as refugees from the Soviet Union in 1978