There was a lot to reject in the comments made by President Obama on Friday to the leaders of the Jewish Federations of North America, in a webcast sponsored by JFNA. That’s putting it in the mildest possible way.
But we can gain invaluable perspective from focusing on one particular passage in the Q&A session. It illuminates everything else that’s going on, and exposes the brittle emptiness of Obama’s rhetoric – because it betrays the anachronism of his view of the Middle East and Israeli security. It’s as if Obama doesn’t realize it’s not 2009 anymore.
The topic is the security relationship of the U.S. with Israel: how strong it is, and how it can be reenergized. Here’s Michael Siegal, Chairman of Jewish Federations of North America, asking Obama the question (from the White House transcript emailed after the webcast, which the Chicago Sun-Times has here):
Mr. Siegal: … [M]any of the viewers are concerned about the disagreements [over the Iran “deal”]; that the deal may have created some distance…between the governments of the United States and Israel. And our community gets very, very unsettled and very anxious when there is daylight between our positions. And so while we have received hundreds of questions in this regard, what I’d like to ask you — and you made a comment about how do we reenergize and how do we recreate the dialogue that was occurring before this deal — so how do you see us reenergizing the relationship between Israel and the United States?
Obama responds (important section highlighted):
THE PRESIDENT: I’ll be honest with you, I think this is going to happen pretty quick, because we both have a shared interest in not just preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, but also making sure that they’re not sending weapons to Hezbollah, that they’re not destabilizing — that Iran is not destabilizing its neighbors. So not only do we have a shared history, shared values, not only are we family, but even on this particular issue of Iran, we agree more than we disagree.
And so, as I indicated earlier, we’ve been in discussions with the Israeli government for months now about the importance of us getting back on track and working together to enhance our security cooperation, to think about, what are the next generations of missile defense programs that we can set up? How do we improve our intelligence and interdiction to prevent arms from being sent to terrorist organizations? How do we counteract Iranian proxies in the region? And those are all things that we should be doing anyway — even if we weren’t having this debate on the Iranian deal.
I’ve heard some suggest that the reason I’m calling for all this enhanced cooperation is to compensate for the fact that Iran is going to be more dangerous after this deal. Nothing could be further from the truth. These are things that I’ve been suggesting we need to be doing consistently. And we will be much safer once this deal is in place and we know that Iran is not getting a nuclear weapon. But it doesn’t solve all the problems we have with Iran. And Israel knows that; we know that. So those conversations I think will move rapidly and I think they will move smoothly. …
The terms in which Obama speaks are woefully outdated. If he’s looking at the current situation in the Middle East and thinking “missile defense” and “interdicting arms to terrorists” and “countering Iranian proxies,” it’s like he hasn’t been awake for the last six years.
A transformed geostrategic reality
The Middle East is a vast war for territory today. Besides the other combatants, “Iranian proxies” occupy swaths of Iraq now – north, south, and east of Baghdad – and have drawn Saudi Arabia into a war in Yemen. That’s in addition to their hydra-headed activities in Syria, Lebanon, the Sinai Peninsula, the Golan, and Gaza. This isn’t a random grab-bag of happenings; it has strategic meaning just because of the geography, regardless of whether you accept that it’s part of a grand Iranian strategy.
The geostrategic map of the region is being transformed as you read this. Six years ago, there was no imaginable prospect of Iran being able to consolidate any uninterrupted military avenue of approach between Iran’s territory and Israel’s.
Today, there are imaginable prospects of that on not one but three axes. The most obvious, and of most concern to Israel’s immediate security, is through Syria, where Iran has long been embedded with the Assad regime, and has a useful ally in Hezbollah.
The other two axes run through central Iraq, and the maritime route from the Strait of Hormuz to the Sinai Peninsula.
On each of these axes, Iran would have to transform conditions further to gain secure and fully usable lines of communication. But it is indisputable that the gains needed to achieve that outcome are already being worked on.
In central Iraq, ISIS has done Tehran the favor of making it necessary to deploy Iran-backed troops to Anbar and fight to seize control of it. It’s been millennia since a Persian army has had a realistic shot at success that far west of Baghdad. And, to be sure, most of the fighting force seizing Anbar back from ISIS will be Iraqi Shia militias.
But the Iraqi Shia militias are Iran’s SOBs, trained and led by the Iranian paramilitary Qods Force. If Iran has unfettered access to Anbar, there is nothing unbreachable – nothing stronger than Iran, nothing better able to withstand subversion and attrition – between there and the Jordan River.
There’s more than one way to open up a military avenue of approach. We’re seeing that already in Syria, where Iranian general officers on a field survey in the Golan were eliminated in January. Hezbollah, a “terror proxy,” has been used in a conventional military role to seize Syrian territory, which Iran has then come in to secure and administer.
Today, Iran has to fly high-value men and materiel into Syria, or – more perilously – try to get arms shipments through by sea. There isn’t a secure land line of communication across Iraq and into Syria. That would need to change, for Iran to be able to mount conventional military operations on this axis.
But what’s important is that that hasn’t stopped Iran from transforming the threat posed from Syrian territory, into something worse than Israel has faced in more than 40 years. From 2009, when rocket fire from Syria into Israel would have been an alarmingly unusual event, the threat has progressed through the period 2011-2015, when stray projectiles from the Syrian conflict began landing near Israeli territory; and now the threat is that rockets under the ultimate control of Iranian paramilitary commanders can be launched into Israel deliberately.
The material conditions for this level of threat – geography, client governments, terror proxies, weapons caches – have existed for a long time. But since 2011, Iran has been able to exploit and shape political and military conditions to transform the very nature of the threat. It is not a “terrorist” threat any longer. It is a military threat, posed by a nation-state with a central government and a strategic idea.
The third axis – the maritime axis – may seem in some ways to be the least developed of the three. And it’s a challenging axis, requiring a lot of specialized preparation. But Iran has actually been at work on it for some time. Tehran has had a foothold in the Red Sea, in Eritrea, since at least 2008, and with logistic access to the Eritrean port of Assab, and a constant maritime presence around the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, is better positioned than you might think to see the relationship with Sudan cooling off.
The Houthis’ war for western Yemen carries the prospect of turning Yemen’s very long coastline on the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden into a great chokepoint “veto zone” for Iran, administered through patrol aircraft, missile boats, submarines, and coastal missiles and guns. Egypt has long been the main exerciser of a veto – granted, a mostly latent one – over any portion of this waterway system. The emergence of Iranian power as a counterweight would change the dynamics of the region in ways we can’t even foresee.
Six years ago, such a prospect was all but unimaginable. Today, it’s not even improbable. Iran has a long way to go to make offensive military use of this axis. But the conditions of access and control are foreseeable today, in a way they were not six years ago.
The map of power relationships is going to change. Period.
Here is a key point about the line between probability and improbability. The United States, under Obama, isn’t going to do anything about Iran’s adventure in Yemen. The Saudis don’t have the power to forcibly eject Iran from Yemen. In the post-American-leadership era, in fact, there isn’t anyone who – singlehandedly – can either oust Iran or keep her reined in, in her activities in Yemen. There exists no great-power-centered vehicle, diplomatic or military, for performing that task.
If such a vehicle were to emerge – perhaps with Russia in the driver’s seat, as Iran’s biggest patron – that in itself would be a transformative event for the Middle East. A strategically passive United States means that for the “status quo” nations of the Middle East, countering Iran will entail inviting regional transformation on a grand scale.
The Obama administration behaves as if it has no comprehension of this changing reality. And on Friday, Obama himself spoke in just such uncomprehending terms. He reiterated a perfunctory checklist of 2009-era considerations for U.S.-Israel cooperation, using 2009-era verbiage.
Yet it’s clear what Iran has been able to do in the four-odd years since the Arab Spring. What can Iran do in the next 15 years – the duration of her JCPOA stint in what Obama is pleased to call the nuclear “penalty box”? What can she do in the next four?
An Iranian push along three separate axes of approach toward Israel – and, as Benjamin Netanyahu would remind us, toward the Eastern Mediterranean – is evident today. But Iran doesn’t need to develop conventionally linear, conventionally invincible avenues of approach to gain the access she needs to transform the threat to Israel. That has already been proven in Syria.
Rather, the U.S. needs to understand, as Netanyahu does, that the threat is already different from what it was when Obama took office: more conventionally immediate; more militarily structured on Israel’s border; and affording Israel a significantly smaller security buffer, in terms of regional stability and ways to keep Iran blocked entirely across geographic axes.
Apparently, Obama does not understand that. His considerations for Israeli security, the U.S.-Israel relationship, and the JCPOA itself are outdated and unrealistic. Unfortunately, what they amount to is a form of strategic imbecility.