President Obama’s speech to the U.N. General Assembly contained his annual diplomatic overtures to the government of Iran, pointing to letters he has written to Iran’s supreme leader and to President Rouhani and disavowing “regime change.” Declaring “our” preference for the diplomatic path, President Obama enjoined Secretary of State Kerry to meet directly with Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif to begin the process of improving relations. His own attempt at diplomacy, however, was rebuffed when Iranian President Rouhani declined the American president’s offer of a meeting at the U.N., calling it “complicated.”
At the same time, the president told the General Assembly, “We are determined to prevent [Iran] from developing a nuclear weapon.” But his “determination” carries little weight following the on-again-off-again American response to Syria’s use of chemical weapons and the broad sense that Russia is the rising power in an area that had been America’s domain. With a weakened United States, the impact of its newest diplomatic overture is likely to be a scramble for nuclear weapons — with important consequences for global stability.
Iran has already announced that it will not give up its quest for nuclear capability. It has invested far too much; it has a huge supporting infrastructure and a large set of international technology feeders, as well as a strongly ingrained belief that it is entitled. President Obama doesn’t entirely disagree, saying it is “weapons,” not “capabilities” that he forbids, insofar as he can forbid anything. But as enrichment continues and Iran’s missile program continues, the space between nuclear capability and nuclear weapons capability shrinks. Iran is closing in on what Israel called “the zone of immunity,” the point at which Iran no longer needs outside assistance to pursue its nuclear goals.
The first country likely to react to Iran’s nuclear progress and America’s regional diminution is Saudi Arabia, presently locked in a proxy battle with Iran in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. Sunni and virulently opposed to Shi’ite Iran, the Saudis will do everything they can to acquire nuclear weapons. Expect them to hook up with countries that already have nuclear know-how. After all, if Pakistan could get nuclear support from corrupt European governments and predatory companies, and Iran gets similar support, why not Saudi Arabia? Thanks to “diplomacy,” the chances of American military intervention against Iran have gone to zero, and of Israeli intervention nearly to zero, leaving the Saudis on their own. While Saudi Arabia is still more likely to trust Israel than to put any faith in the United States, if it is to survive, it has to have a counterpunch.
Other American dependencies are also reading the tea leaves. Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, and Oman all fear Iranian hegemony. If the U.S. is not going to defend its vital Middle Eastern interests, and has recklessly abandoned a large and important client such as Egypt, how can smaller states and sheikdoms expect the United States to guarantee their security? Oddly enough, American pressure on Israel at the behest of the Palestinians also makes the Gulf States nervous. If the U.S. won’t protect its political, social, and religious ally, Israel, how can states with essentially only a shared interest in oil claim American attention?
Any country that wants to survive will have to figure out how to do it on its own, or expect that its days will be numbered.
Farther east, Afghanistan will fall to the Taliban, and fairly soon. The Afghan government is engaged “peace talks” while the Taliban continues to attack both government and allied installations. Without Western troops and money to prop up President Karzai in Kabul, he is on his way out, whether he like it or not. Iraq, which is fissured, may explode in a new civil war unless a new dictator emerges and the Iraqi army is strong enough to beat back its “enemies.” In Syria, Assad will likely hold a third or more of the country, and the rest will remain in chaos. He will keep his chemical arsenal.
In Asia there will be some surprises. The United States sees China — like Russia — as a superpower competitor in economic and military terms. But China, like Iran, operates not only at the level of superpower confrontation. China, like Russia, has a “near abroad.” Its regional interests are the capture of resources in the Western Pacific and the ouster of the United States from its “backyard,” as Iran hopes to oust American from the Persian Gulf. China has begun to build on a disputed shoal in Philippine-claimed waters. Manila hopes the U.S. will deter China’s sprawl in the region, but with the U.S. Navy shrinking, additional resources and a firm posture from the U.S. are unlikely. With that, democratic Taiwan may be forced by circumstances to make a final deal with the mainland and end its independent journey.
These are conventional responses to China’s conventional rise, but Japan poses a different set of issues. It will need to reconfigure itself to deal with China and take into account America’s failure to divest North Korea of its nuclear program; both China and Korea are historic adversaries of Japan. Although it is living through a disaster in its nuclear power industry, Japan has lots of plutonium and solid-fueled long-range rockets, and may not be far from being able to become a nuclear weapons power. This can happen only with a right-wing political revolution in Japan, but Japanese sources note that conversations have already taken place in the government.
A U.S. “deal” that leaves Iran capable of producing nuclear weapons will serve as a warning to the Japanese.
The Koreas, too, may see the American retreat as opening the possibility of a deal between North and South, as far-fetched as that may seem. North Korea is rapidly becoming a nuclear power, and satellite imagery shows that the Yongbyon reactor, capable of producing weapons-grade plutonium, has been restarted. China appears concerned and has announced restrictions on nuclear-related exports to North Korea. Rather than remaining a Chinese protectorate, the North Korean military could overthrow the Kim regime and look for a deal for power-sharing with the wealthy South, leading to reunification. Undersecretary of Defense Fred Ikle during the Reagan administration predicted that ultimately, North and South Korea would merge into an economically powerful, nuclear-armed, united peninsula. The decline of the United States in Asia might make South Korea more amenable.
These changes are massive, and it is unlikely that they all will happen, but with the absolute retreat of the United States, the natural inclination of smaller countries is to seek self-preservation and to maintain regional and local balances of power. Each country will weigh its weapons programs — conventional and non-conventional — and its alliances against the understanding that the American protective umbrella is folding. President Obama insisted to the U.N. General Assembly that the United States will not withdraw and not retreat.
Whether he is believed is another matter.