For anyone just waking from a 12-year coma, the United States has not been doing well in the Middle East. This might make you wonder why, after sowing chaos in Iraq and Libya and waging an intractable war in Afghanistan, our government is now supporting Saudi air attacks in Yemen and our Congress is hedging on whether to approve a U.S.-Iran nuclear deal.
A great deal of ink has been spilled on the details of the latter. Soon we will all be able to rattle off the number of centrifuges Iran has and discuss knowledgeably uranium enrichment capacities. Meanwhile, the sturm und drang over the agreement continues in Congress. Even as it avoids declaring war on the Islamic State with which we are already at war, Congress is keen to weigh in on the U.S.-Iran deal and some members appears ready to torpedo it. Yet is there any viable alternative to the deal? Are those arguing for a tougher agreement being realistic? Is a military strike or a war against Iran preferable? The answers are no, no and no.
Israeli hostility to the nuclear agreement is driving much of the Congressional opposition. Convinced that Iran is doing what Israel itself did—develop a nuclear weapon in secret—Israel is opposing the agreement and urging supporters in Congress that they should too. But the agreement is good for both Israel and the United States. It walks back many of the advances Iran has made in its nuclear program in recent years and secures Iranian consent to the most intrusive inspections of nuclear facilities in history. “It’s remarkable how much Iran has conceded,” notes David Cortright of the University of Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies.
If a deal is scotched, Iran may decide to pursue weaponization of its nuclear program, but Congressional disapproval would almost certainly put an end to international support for the economic sanctions against Iran and their effectiveness. A few in Congress are lobbying for a military strike on Iran’s nuclear sites, but this would set back Iran’s nuclear program only a few years and could incur consequences that would make the Iraq debacle look minor in comparison. One Mideast expert, Juan Cole of the University of Michigan, estimates the direct cost of a war against Iran as $5.1 trillion, with 15,000 U.S. soldiers killed and 360,000 U.S. soldiers wounded. Iranian deaths he calculates would be between 300,000 and 1 million, with 12 million displaced.
Does an Iranian-U.S. nuclear agreement portend a greater rapprochement between the two countries? Not only some foes in Congress but Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies are worried it might. Alarmed by Iran’s bid for leadership of the Muslim world following its revolution, for years the Saudis have funded Sunni extremism, which has come back to bite them and the United States, first in the form of Al Qaeda and now in the form of the Islamic State. The hostility between Saudi Arabia and Iran has aggravated the civil war in Syria, turning it into a proxy war between them, and now threatens to do the same in Yemen. The International Committee of the Red Cross is calling Yemen a “humanitarian catastrophe,” with hundreds of civilian casualties in the first weeks of the Saudi-led bombing campaign and Yemen’s human rights minister saying damage to infrastructure has put Yemen back 100 years.
The Saudis are blaming Iran for supplying Houthi rebels in Yemen, but some say Iran’s role is exaggerated, that air strikes alone are unlikely to stop the rebels and that their chief effect will be to shift Yemen from a failing state into a failed one. U.S. support for the Saudi attacks may be a way of maintaining leverage over the Saudis, but a war in which the United States is on the same side as its enemy Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is an obvious paradox, and so far there is little sign that any leverage is being applied. The bombing is inflaming hostilities in Yemen and widening a war that should be settled by the people of Yemen, not by outside powers.
Old enmities die hard. Saudi Arabia and Iran, like Iran and the United States, need to settle their differences through diplomacy rather than through war. A resolution of the region’s conflicts, especially the civil war in Syria, will require all parties to the conflict to be involved. How many deaths will it take before the countries at war in the region pursue peace instead?