In the midst of the recent U.S.-Israeli tumult, a curious conventional wisdom is starting to evolve. A Washington that cajoles Israel on its settlements and resumes the peace process in earnest may finally garner Arab support for dealing with Iran's nuclear menace. Although pressuring Israel to restrain its settlements may be a sensible means of gaining constructive Arab participation in the peace talks, it is unlikely to affect the region's passive approach to Iran. Indeed, should Tehran perceive fissures and divisions in U.S.-Israeli alliance, it is likely to further harden its nuclear stance.
The notion that the incumbent Arab regimes are reluctant to collaborate with the United States on Iran because of the prevailing impasse in the peace process is a misreading of regional realities. The Arab states, particularly the Persian Gulf sheikdoms, have an odd policy toward Iran. In private, as any visiting American dignitary can attest, they decry Iran's ambitions, fear its accelerating nuclear program and even hint at the advisability of using military force against its atomic installations. Yet they are loath to be part of an aggressive strategy, which they would see as unduly antagonizing the Islamic Republic. The Arab states will gladly purchase U.S. arms and enhance their defenses, but they would be reluctant to participate in coercing Iran. Arab leaders would prefer that someone else take care of the Iran problem without their active complicity. Absent such a solution, they are likely to coexist with the Iranian bomb. No degree of peacemaking between Israelis and Palestinians is likely to alter that calculus.
Meanwhile, the guardians of Iran's theocracy understand their neighborhood better than the succession of U.S. emissaries who journey to the Gulf in hope of Arab solidarity. Iran's leaders appreciate the limits of Arab belligerence and realize that a strong regime of economic sanctions and diplomatic confrontation will not emanate from the sheikdoms. U.S. allies will assess their own capabilities and vulnerabilities, shape alliances and pursue their interests understanding that they are susceptible to Iranian influence predicated on religious ties and political subversion. A policy of hedging their bets is more in line with the traditions of the emirates, with their penchant for caution and circumspection.
If Iran dismisses threats from the Gulf states, it similarly discounts the possibility of U.S. military retaliation. Since becoming Iran's president in 2005, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his hard-line supporters have assured their compatriots that U.S. preoccupations with Iraq and Afghanistan provide Iran with a deterrent policy. No American administration, they insist, is likely to jeopardize the fragile stability of its war-torn charges by forcefully taking on Iran's nuclear portfolio. It is entirely possible that Iranians are once more misjudging America's predilections. The history of the Middle East, after all, is riddled with rulers who misapprehended Washington's intentions. However misguided they may be, Iran's leaders comfort themselves with thoughts that their nuclear provocations will not trigger American retribution.
Israel, then, looms large in Iran's strategic calculations. Unlike the Arab states, Israel approaches Iran with resolution. And unlike the United States, Israel is not entangled in conflicts that Iranian mischief can aggravate. Hamas and Hezbollah are not only unreliable proxies but ones that Israeli armor can handle. Fulminations aside, Iranian leaders take Israeli threats seriously and are at pains to assert their retaliatory options. It is here that the shape and tone of the U.S.-Israeli alliance matters most. Should the clerical oligarchs sense divisions in that alliance, they can assure themselves that a beleaguered Israel cannot possibly strike Iran while at odds with its superpower patron. Such perceptions cheapen Israeli deterrence and diminish the potency of the West's remaining sticks.
All this is not to suggest that Washington cannot criticize Israeli policies, even publicly and forcefully. The ebbs and flows of the emerging peace process will cause disagreements and even tensions between the two allies. But as they plot their strategies for resuming dialogue between Israel and its neighbors, U.S. policymakers would be wise to vociferously insist that the dynamics of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations will not affect Washington's cooperation with Israel on Iran. A concerted effort to decouple the peace process from Iran's nuclear imbroglio is the best means of declawing the Islamic Republic.
The writer is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
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