WASHINGTON — At discussions with world leaders during conferences in Davos, Switzerland, and Munich last month, it became clear to me that the most important challenge facing the United States in the Middle East is managing Saudi Arabia’s reaction to the unexpected breakthrough in nuclear talks with Iran.
The Saudis are angry; they fear that a nuclear deal would free the United States to put the Middle East on the back burner as it switches its full attention to China and the rest of Asia. That would leave Iran, in the absence of economic sanctions, free to expand its sphere of influence.
To be sure, Secretary of State John Kerry argued forcefully, at both the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos and the Munich Security Conference, that America remains fully engaged in the Middle East. But his Arab audience is, instead, taking its cue from President Obama, who has made no secret of his desire to untangle America from the Middle East’s antagonisms.
That goal may be understandable, but a careless pivot could make the tangle only worse. America’s challenge, then, is to convincingly divide its attention between these two parts of the world. In either, instability could gravely threaten fundamental American interests.
The Middle East is reeling from the chaotic overhang of the Arab Spring. At Davos and Munich, Iranians and Arabs both worried that Syria’s civil war would spill over and tear the region apart along Shiite-Sunni lines. But that has evoked only tepid American concern, and many Arabs blame this disengagement for the survival of Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad.
That would be bad enough, in the eyes of Sunni Arab leaders, but now it has been compounded by the fear that reducing tension with Iran is America’s last item of business in the region before it turns its attention fully to Asia. The Saudis, in particular, believe it is no longer inconceivable that after Iraq and Afghanistan, a thoroughgoing pullout of forces in the Persian Gulf will become America’s mantra: the “zero option.”
Follow that thought and there is a paradox: Unless America addresses Saudi concerns, its Iran policy could prove destabilizing to the Middle East, rather than a masterstroke that eases tensions. That would be profoundly counterproductive: The risk of new crises in the oil-rich crossroads of the Persian Gulf would make it much harder for America to focus on Asia.
Saudi Arabia and Iran are already engaged in a deadly scramble for spheres of influence. Having turned the Syrian conflict into a proxy war, this competition now threatens to do the same in Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen and Bahrain.
Only in Bahrain in 2011 did the Saudis succeed in actually thwarting a largely Shiite rising. With that record, they can only fear that their Iran problem will explode if Tehran realizes a rapprochement with the West. So the Saudis are redoubling their effort to stoke Sunni sectarianism as a bulwark against Iran. In this warring by proxy, we are already seeing a dangerous resurgence of Al Qaeda-linked militias in Syria and Iraq.
Mr. Obama’s problem is that these treacherous prospects in the Middle East are coinciding with equally worrisome tensions in Asia, to which the administration is anxious to give its full attention.
North Korea’s dynastic intrigues have created greater uncertainty over an already volatile and nuclear-armed regime. More disturbing, long dormant nationalist sentiments and territorial disputes have resurfaced to threaten conflict in the South China Sea between China and its neighbors, as well as in the Sea of Japan, which touches China, the Korean Peninsula, Russia and Japan. Rising assertiveness by China and Japan is destabilizing the rest of the region, undermining its economic promise.
The original goal of turning to Asia, expressed early in President Obama’s first term, was to protect deep American economic interests. Now Asia is also demanding American diplomacy to avert a crisis that could wreak havoc on the global economy and force the United States to come to the defense of its ally, Japan.
A wisecrack often heard among China watchers is that every time China gets into trouble, the Middle East bails it out.
If Mr. Kerry’s scant reference to Asia in his speeches is any indication, the pivot skeptics may have a point. Managing Arab anxiety over the Iran nuclear deal, containing the fallout from Syria’s civil war, and simultaneously prodding Israelis and Palestinians toward thinking about peace demand intense American attention. This time around, America can afford neither to double down on the Middle East nor to abandon it.
In fact, the two areas of concern are intertwined. Asia’s boundless economic potential needs the Middle East’s bottomless energy reserves. China is Saudi Arabia’s largest oil customer, and Saudi Arabia is China’s largest oil supplier. America needs Asian prosperity, and Asian prosperity demands Middle East stability.
In Asia and the Middle East, America faces daunting crises. The key to success is underscoring our commitment to both, rather than complaining of an either-or choice. Nowhere is that imperative more critical than in our dealings with Saudi Arabia.
The United States must combine its opening with Iran and its increase in attention to Asia with deeper engagement with issues that matter to the Arab world. Arab leaders need to see that American engagement with Iran will do more than remove that country’s nuclear threat; it must also chart a path to changing Iran’s regional policy, as a condition of allowing Iran to be integrated fully into the region.
A good first step would be to bring Saudi Arabia and Iran to the same table to resolve the Syrian crisis. That would be good practice for American crisis management in Asia, too.
This article was written by Vali R. Nasr for the opinion page of the New York Times on February 5,2014.Vali R. Nasr, the dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, is the author of “The Dispensable Nation: American Foreign Policy in Retreat.”
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