The Virtues of U.S. Engagement

Iran, America’s negotiating partner in its nuclear program, is linked to every human rights crisis raging in the Middle East today. A quick tour of the region reveals the sheer scale of the challenges facing the Obama Administration.

Yemen is one of the world’s poorest places and, now, one of its most violent. Iran is backing the Houthi rebels, a welter of predominantly Shi’ite tribes in Yemen’s northern crags and hills, that threaten to overwhelm the government forces clinging to the coastal cities. Saudi Arabia has put together a 10-nation coalition — from Egypt and Sudan to the Gulf Arab states — to try to stabilize the situation. Defeating the Houthis may well be an impossible task; Yemen’s southern government and the Saudis have tried to rout the Houthis several times in the past 40 years with inconclusive results.

Syria’s civil war, now in its fifth year, has claimed some 200,000 lives and displaced 10 million people. Iran and Russia are supplying men and materiel to prop up the dictatorship of Bashir al Assad while the Saudis and Gulf Arab states have funneled funding and volunteers to Sunni militias.

In Egypt, Iran was allied with the Muslim Brotherhood, a Sunni organization, which was driven from power by a military coup backed by Saudi Arabia. The Brotherhood retaliated with a wave of bombings and shootings while the regime used mass arrests and public appeals to calm the country.

In the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and the portion of Lebanon along Israel’s northern border, Iran is actively and openly financing radical organizations that threaten the fragile peace there.

In Bahrain, officials wonder why Iran’s state-run broadcasts refer to the independent nation as the “17th province” of Iran and strongly suspect that Iran is directing the Shi’ite uprisings on that island. In Saudi Arabia and in the Gulf States, Iranian intelligence is suspected of espionage.

Then there is the Gulf itself, where some one-third of the world’s oil supplies thread their way along a two-mile shipping channel less than a dozen miles off of Iran’s coast. Recently the Iranian navy surrounded and redirected a Maersk cargo ship to its territorial waters. The captain and crew are now captives in defiance of international law.

In short, the resolution of every issue bedeviling the Middle East lies in Tehran, an opaque autocracy known for its fiery anti-American speeches.

For some in Washington, it must be tempting to throw up their hands and say that the region should solve its own problems. Instead, America should do the opposite and re-engage across the region.

The Iran talks should be broadened beyond its nuclear program to include every crisis in the region in which Iran plays an controlling role: Yemen, Syria, Bahrain, the West Bank, Lebanon, Egypt and the free navigation of the Gulf’s strategic waters. Negotiations with Iran should be transparent to allies and consultation should be continuous.

America should work with the Arab monarchies, which have a proven record of democratic reforms: Morocco, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, among others. Each of these nations is now led by bold reformers who would be eager partners with the president.

Morocco’s King Mohammed VI modernized his nation’s economy (encouraging foreign investment, welcoming freer trade, and providing access to credit to millions of below the poverty line), championed and helped pass a new constitution that turns over all domestic decision making to a multi-party elected parliament and specifically safeguards the rights of women and religious minorities, including Jews.

Saudi Arabia’s new king was surprised his countrymen by leading reform efforts for both the economy and bold efforts to give women more rights to secure jobs in industries once closed to them, among other liberalizing efforts. He has replaced conservative government officials with younger, pro-reformers. Arabia is a deeply traditional land and rural leaders, who represent millions, have resisted to the full extent of their powers. Nonetheless, the king has persisted and, in a short time, accomplished much.

The Crown Prince of the UAE, Mohammed bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, captured the imagination of Arab scholars and reformers with a 2015 speech laying out a vision for a post-petroleum future. He has led efforts to diversify the economy, partnered with the Louvre and the Guggenheim to open museums in the Emirates, and actively campaigned against intolerance and terrorist ideology.

Each of these leaders would be ready and able partners with the U.S., but have so far received too little attention from the White House. America cannot call for a regional partnership against barbarism with being itself a partner. More than intelligence sharing and satellite images need to be shared. America should reassure its allies that it intends to safeguard their security and territorial integrity. Arab leaders have watched Russia’s slow-motion devouring of Ukraine and fear that America is prepared to allow Iran to do something similar with them. A presidential visit would build confidence as would a reliable supply of weapons and spare parts.

Finally, the president should remind the world that America and her allies in the region share certain ideals, even if they are imperfectly realized: freedom for religious and ethnic minorities, peaceful transfers of power following elections, equal rights for women, and peace.

Without a strong showing of U.S. support for its allies and values, the hard-won gains of the past decades will be lost, perhaps irretrievably. Iraq, where tens of thousands of American soldiers were killed or wounded, is drifting into Iran’s orbit. Egypt, which President Carter wooed away from the Soviet sphere and into a peaceful relationship with Israel, is now shifting back toward Russia. It has even announced that it will join Russia’s free-trade zone and increase contact between its armies. Other Arab nations could soon follow. Without America’s active engagement now, the next president will face a Middle East more hostile to America than at any time since the 1960s.

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