August 5, 2015 MEMRI Daily Brief No. 51

Obama's Strategy Of Equilibrium

August 5, 2015 | By Yigal Carmon and Amb. Alberto M. Fernandez*
MEMRI Daily Brief No. 51


In an interview with Thomas Friedman of The New York Times ("Obama Makes His Case on Iran Nuclear Deal," July 14, 2015), President Obama asked that the nuclear deal with Iran be judged only by how successfully it prevents Iran from attaining a nuclear bomb, not on "whether it is changing the regime inside of Iran" or "whether we are solving every problem that can be traced back to Iran." However, in many interviews he has given over the last few years, he has revealed a strategy and a plan that far exceed the Iran deal: a strategy which aims to create an equilibrium between Sunnis and Shiites in the Muslim world.   

President Obama believes that such an equilibrium will result in a more peaceful Middle East in which tensions between regional powers are reduced to mere competition. As he told David Remnick in an interview with The New Yorker, "if we were able to get Iran to operate in a responsible fashionyou could see an equilibrium developing between Sunni, or predominantly Sunni, Gulf states and Iran in which there's competition, perhaps suspicion, but not an active or proxy warfare" ("Going the Distance," January 27, 2014).

In discussing the Iran deal, the President recalled President Nixon negotiating with China and President Reagan negotiating with the Soviet Union in order to explain the scope of his strategy for the Middle East and the Muslim world. President Obama seeks, as did Presidents Reagan and Nixon with China and the Soviet Union, to impact the region as a whole. The Iran deal, even if major, is just one of several vehicles that would help achieve this goal.

This article will analyze the strategy of creating an equilibrium between Sunnis and Shiites as a means to promote peace in the Middle East. It will examine the meaning of the strategy in political terms, how realistic it is, and what its future implications might be on the region and on the United States.

The Meaning Of The Equilibrium Strategy In Political Terms

Examining the strategy of equilibrium requires the recollection of some basic information. Within Islam's approximately 1.6 billion believers, the absolute majority - about 90% - is Sunni, while Shiites constitute only about 10%.  Even in the Middle East, Sunnis are a large majority.

What does the word "equilibrium" mean in political terms? In view of the above stated data, the word "equilibrium" in actual political terms means empowering the minority and thereby weakening the majority in order to progress toward the stated goal. However, the overwhelming discrepancy in numbers makes it impossible to reach an equilibrium between the two camps. Therefore, it would be unrealistic to believe that the majority would accept a policy that empowers its adversary and weakens its own historically superior status.

Implications For The Region

Considering the above, the implications of the equilibrium strategy for the region might not be enhancing peace as the President well intends; rather, it might intensify strife and violence in the region. The empowered minority might be persuaded to increase its expansionist activity, as can be already seen: Iran has extended its influence from Lebanon to Yemen. Iranian analyst Mohammad Sadeq al-Hosseini stated in an interview on September 24, 2014, "We in the axis of resistance are the new sultans of the Mediterranean and the Gulf. We in Tehran, Damascus, [Hizbullah's] southern suburb of Beirut, Baghdad, and Sanaa will shape the map of the region. We are the new sultans of the Red Sea as well" (MEMRITV Clip No. 4530). Similarly, in a statement dedicated to the historically indivisible connection between Iraq and Iran, advisor to President Rouhani Ali Younesi stressed that, "Since its inception, Iran has [always] had a global [dimension]; it was born an empire" (MEMRI Report No. 5991).

In view of this reality, this strategy might create, against the President's expectations, more bitterness and willingness on the part of the majority to fight for their status. This has already been realized; for example, when Saudi Arabia intervened in Yemen after facing the Houthi/Shiite revolution, which it perceived as a grave danger to its survival, and created a fighting coalition within a month to counter it. Similarly, Saudi Arabia has previously demonstrated that it regards Bahrain as an area where any Iranian attempt to stir up unrest will be answered by Saudi military intervention. According to reports, Saudi Arabia has been supporting the Sunni population in Iraq, and in Lebanon, a standstill has resulted because Saudi Arabia has shown that it will not give up - even in a place where Iranian proxy Hizbollah is the main power. Hence, the strategy of equilibrium has a greater chance of resulting in the eruption of regional war than in promoting regional peace.

Implications For The United States

Moreover, this strategy might have adverse implications for the United States and its interests in the Sunni Muslim world: those countries that feel betrayed by the strategy might, as a result, take action against the United States - hopefully only politically (such as changing international alliances) or economically. These countries might be careful about their public pronouncements and might even voice rhetorical support to U.S. policy, as the GCC states did on August 3, but the resentment is there.

Realpolitik Versus Moral Considerations

The analysis presented here is based on principles of realpolitik: in politics, one does not align with the minority against the majority. However, sometimes other considerations take precedence. Morality is such an example: the Allies could not refrain from fighting Nazi Germany because it was a majority power - ultimately, they recognized the moral obligation to combat the Third Reich. However, with regard to the Middle East, the two adversaries are on equal standing: the Islamic Republic of Iran is no different than the Wahhabi Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. President Obama and Secretary Kerry would be wrong to think that Mohammad Javad Zarif, the sophisticated partygoer in New York City, represents the real Iran. Zarif, his negotiating team, and President Rouhani himself, all live under the shadow and at the mercy of the Supreme Leader, the ayatollahs, and the IRGC.

"It is worth noting that the first Islamic State created in the Middle East in the last 50 years was not the one created in the Sunni world in 2014 and headed by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi." Rather, it was the Islamic Republic of Iran created in 1979 by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and currently ruled by his successor, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who maintains - even following the Iran deal - the mantra "Death to America," continues to sponsor terrorism worldwide, and commits horrific human rights violations.

*Yigal Carmon is President and Founder of MEMRI; Alberto M. Fernandez is Vice President of MEMRI.

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