A Peace Conference to Make War

Writing in the NYT, historian Michael Oren looks at the comparatively low-profile Annapolis Middle East Peace Conference and makes the case that the various parties — Israel, the Arab world, the Quartet, and beyond — were drawn together by the specter of a nuclear Iran:

… [I]n spite of its glaring handicaps, Annapolis must be deemed a triumph — not of peacemaking, paradoxically, but of girding the region for conflict. Though no doubt sincere in their desire to neutralize the Arab-Israeli irritant in Middle Eastern affairs, participants in the conference were above all motivated by their fear of a radical and relentlessly aggressive Iran. This fear has deepened with the success of the Iranian proxies Hezbollah and Hamas in Lebanon and Gaza, as well as the expansion of Iranian influence westward into the Iraqi vacuum.

The inability of the international community either to entice or deter the Iranians from producing nuclear weapons adds urgency to the need to unite those countries threatened by those bombs. That, and not American fiat, brought 49 states and organizations to Annapolis; that, and not the yearning for an Israeli-Arab accord, impelled a Saudi prince to sit alongside an Israeli prime minister.

Not unexpectedly, the Iranians reacted ferociously to Annapolis. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad pronounced it a “failure” and the government-controlled press promised to “bring down Islamic wrath” on its participants. But such rage merely betrays the anxiety induced by Annapolis in Tehran. For the first time a coalition of Western and modern Arab leaders has coalesced and declared its commitment to resist “extremism” in the Middle East — a well-known euphemism for Iran.

What’s more, new efforts have begun to confront Iran outside of the United Nations and woo Syria from Iran’s orbit. An international conference may not be the ideal formula for attaining Israeli-Palestinian peace, but it can provide a powerful forum for expressing solidarity in the face of war.

The sight of Arabs and Israelis not quite breaking bread together, but at least sitting to discuss policy in a large forum, is heartening, though I’m not so certain I’d agree with Oren that Annapolis was the start of a grand anti-Iranian coalition. In fact, I might even call it wishful thinking from an Israeli perspective. It goes without saying, however, that tensions created by Iran — and by the ongoing war in Iraq — would increase the likelihood of cooperation among the countries of the region.

Iran is symbolic of a myriad of security concerns. Firstly, as presumptive figurehead of Shia Islam, belligerent moves by Iran are seen, rightly or wrongly, by Sunni-majority Arab states as increasing the hostility of their Shia populations. The Saudis in particular most look at the role Iran has played in helping Shia insurgency in Iraq and worry about similar conflicts arising in the north of their country.

Secondly, because Iran is at least structurally democratic, and because Iran has always supported, if not led, Islamic parties like Hezbollah and Hamas, Iran represents a revolutionary political threat to the monarchies (Saudi Arabia, Jordan) and tribal autocracies (Syria) of the region. Paradoxically, although Iran is an avowed enemy of liberalism, it is also a supporter of democracy in the Middle East, and because Iranian democracy is married to sharia, it is much more palatable than the variety Iraqis are struggling to swallow, which comes with burdensome expectations such as rights for women, pluralism, and free speech. Thus, the dissatisfied masses of the Arab street may see Iran’s Islamic Republic as a worthy political model to emulate, especially if Iran succeeds in developing nuclear weapons.

This brings me to the final point. A nuclear-armed Iran doesn’t loom as a hegemonic threat in the region — hence the low likelihood of an anti-Iranian coalition — but it does represent a tipping point that will make real the threat of proliferation in the Middle East. If Iran’s nuclear weapons are opposed by the Arab states, it’s not because the Arabs fear the Iranians would use them against Sunnis, or even that Iran would use them against Israel, but because it would compel the Arab states to race against one another (and Iran) to develop and stockpile their own arsenals. Neither conventional arms nor the American security umbrella would be seen as enough to guarantee the sovereignty of Middle Eastern countries.

One might argue, if Israel’s nuclear arsenal didn’t provoke proliferation in the region, why would Iran’s be any different? The difference, and the Arabs know it, is that Israel’s arsenal was developed as protection against a grave existential threat, namely, the Arabs themselves. Though officially secret, Israel’s weapons are the rattlesnake’s rattle of the Middle East, warning the other nations, “Don’t Tread on Me.” The fact that Israel’s arsenal is such a special case is why few Arabs countries defend Iran’s nuclear program on grounds that “well, Israel has the bomb too.”

Iran, on the other hand, faces no credible security threat — even if having America at her doorstep has doubtless elevated the perception of threat — and instead seeks to acquire nuclear arms to prove that the Islamic Republic is a great power, perhaps even a world power. In effect, Iran’s desire to be perceived as “strong” would “conventionalize” nuclear weapons among the oil states and bring with it the expectation that every country’s military should have the bomb. And fear of that situation, and the uncertainty it will bring, is enough to make even Arabs and Israelis sit down and talk.