Two Other U.S. Nuclear Deals

Controversy has surrounded negotiations aimed at halting Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons, especially in Washington. Seemingly every turn in the talks generates a storm of criticism directed at the Obama administration, which is effectively leading an international effort to peacefully head off the advent of another nuclear arsenal. The good intentions and openness of the Obama administration on the issue in fact stand as a refreshing break from past U.S. dealings regarding nuclear weapons in the Middle East. Twice in recent decades American presidents have struck secret deals allowing the spread of nuclear weapons in the region, flouting longstanding U.S. commitments to nonproliferation.

The first deal came 1969, when the Nixon administration learned of Israel’s nuclear weapons program. Israel actually already had a nuclear device by 1967, but it was not until 1968-1969 that U.S. officials concluded definitively that an Israeli bomb was about to become a physical and political reality.  Declassified documents released by the National Security Archive show that most senior officials in the Nixon administration wanted to pressure Israel into giving up the program for the sake of Middle East stability. There was talk of withholding military aid and other measures. But all that went away after President Nixon and Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir met in September of 1969 at the White House.

No written record of the meeting between Nixon and Meir is available as yet, but their exchange seems to have cemented the understanding between the United States and Israel that remains in place today regarding Israel’s nuclear arsenal.  Documents suggest that Meir pledged to maintain nuclear restraint, meaning no testing or outright public disclosure of the program. In return President Nixon appears to have agreed to refrain from making trouble over the issue. By 1975, in keeping with this understanding, the State Department was refusing to tell Congress about the Israeli nuclear program, even though by then U.S. intelligence had virtually full knowledge of it.

The next shady nuclear deal arose when President Reagan sat in the White House and Zia ul-Haq ruled Pakistan. By the early summer of 1981 U.S. intelligence estimated that the Pakistanis were likely to have a workable nuclear weapon perhaps as soon as 1983. In July of 1982, the Reagan administration sent former CIA Deputy Director General Vernon Walters to meet secretly with Zia and confront him about the program, which threatened to complicate the ongoing CIA campaign to back rebels waging war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan.

At first Zia acknowledged the program but then backtracked and denied everything, assuring U.S. officials that Pakistan was not pursuing nuclear weapons. Further declassified documents show that in following years time and time again Reagan administration officials concluded that Zia was simply lying. But the Reagan administration found the fiction useful. If the Pakistanis suddenly started telling the truth about their program to the White House, then Congress might have found out and cut funding for the Afghan rebels, who worked closely with the Pakistani Inter Services Intelligence. This pattern of deception went on for years until Pakistan and India both revealed nuclear arsenals in 1998 with dueling test blasts.

Past U.S. failure to move forcefully against nuclear proliferation in the Middle East is all the more damning when considering the long list of nations that have been induced to abandon pursuit of such weapons. Countries ranging from Taiwan to South Africa have stepped away from nuclear armament, swayed by the kind of diplomacy the Obama administration is now employing in its dealings with Iran. If past U.S. presidents had acted in a similarly responsible way, then preventing nuclear weapons from spreading further across the world’s most violent region would be much easier today.

The Middle East America Made

The launch of Saudi Arabia’s airstrikes in Yemen marked a major turning point in modern Middle East history. The Saudi intervention, backed by multiple regional powers and seemingly certain to involve ground forces at some point, effectively represents the debut of the Middle East’s new military order, with Saudi Arabia replacing Egypt as the Arab world’s lead interventionist.

The moment was a long time in the making. In the mid 1960s, when another civil war gripped Yemen, Saudi Arabia and Egypt intervened as outside powers but on opposite sides of the conflict. Egypt supported a military government that seized power in a coup, while Saudi Arabia backed an overthrown monarch seeking to regain his throne. Egypt sent some 70,000 troops to fight in Yemen. But Saudi Arabia refused to commit any forces, limiting aid to subsidies. Saudi forces at that time were simply not strong enough to withstand fighting in Yemen, especially against Egyptian troops.

In following years Saudi Arabia, feeling sheepish and vulnerable, undertook a massive military buildup. The kingdom did not want to wind up outclassed militarily by a regional rival again. The Saudi defense budget increased over $2 billion in 1970 and rose steadily from there. Through the next decade the Saudis allocated about 40 percent of their annual revenues to defense and security expenditures. This percentage remained constant as Saudi revenue soared in those years due to high oil prices, bringing the Saudi annual defense budget to around $40 billion by the late 1970s. This pattern of spending continued into the 1980s and beyond, with most Saudi military purchases made in the United States.

The removal of Saddam Hussein in 2003 ostensibly was reason for Saudi Arabia to reduce its military expenditures and change its general defense posture. The kingdom’s main enemy was out of the picture, and the United States evinced, at that time, a willingness to deepen its military involvement in the region. In effect America could be counted on to do any fighting Saudi Arabia needed done in the region, at least in those days. But Saudi Arabia saw a longer game and embarked on yet another military spending spree. In the past ten years the Saudi defense budget has tripled.

Saudi Arabia has hardly been alone in undertaking huge military investments. Four of the top five fastest growing defense markets in 2013 were in the Middle East. Military exports to the states of the Gulf Cooperation Council, the coalition Saudi Arabia now leads in the Yemen intervention, have risen 71 percent in just the last four years. The United States accounts for about 47 percent of the total arms supply to the region according to data compiled by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, making America essentially the enabler of military action by Arab powers.

The motivation for all this military spending by nations in the Arab world is clear. Middle East countries have been expecting turmoil flowing from an ascendant Iran’s increasing ambitions in the region. Iran is certainly on the rise regionally at the moment, and its neighbors are right to brace for conflict. But the staggering amount of arms the United States has poured into the Middle East only worsens matters. Military buildups have heightened tensions and increased the chances of clashes like the one now unfolding in Yemen. No war machine goes long unused. Moreover, the sophisticated nature of much of the U.S. weaponry streaming into the Middle East will make conflicts all the more deadly for the people of the region.

The Politics of the Battle for Tikrit

The fate of Tikrit remains uncertain as Iraqi forces press their assault against fighters from ISIS holed up in the city, but some larger political ramifications for the battle are becoming clear even now. Regardless of how the fighting goes the United States and Iran will have found themselves on the same side of a major confrontation in the region for the first time in decades, a ground reality that challenges Washington’s longstanding political alignments in the region.

Since the Iranian Revolution the United States has essentially made Israel and Saudi Arabia its chief partners in the Middle East. Washington’s relationship with both has always been deeply conflicted, despite efforts on all sides to maintain outward appearances of unity. The current frostiness between President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and quiet but unending complaints from Washington about Saudi support of Islamic radicalism are just two of the more conspicuous signs of troubles. Meanwhile, the stalled Arab-Israeli peace process and the dramatic rise of U.S. oil production only add to the doubts over the usefulness of America’s special relationship with both countries.

America’s relationship with Iran, however, has been undergoing a slow albeit fitful transformation. Since at least the 1990s certain quarters of Tehran and Washington have steadily looked for ways out of the enmity that has defined relations since 1979. Politics in both countries have often thwarted such efforts. But the politics of war in the Middle East has now presented another opportunity for America and Iran to cooperate in the region.

Iranian military commander Qassem Soleimani, the head of the Revolutionary Guards Quds Force, is openly on the frontlines in Tikrit, orchestrating the actions of Shi’ite militias supporting Iraqi security forces. His presence in part signifies Tehran’s answering of a call Washington aired months ago, when ISIS first seized territory. Almost immediately the Obama administration appealed for a regional coalition to take action. In step with years of U.S. policy toward the Middle East, the White House and the Pentagon imagined an Arab coalition led by Saudi Arabia and Jordan and hopefully including Egypt and other Persian Gulf players such as the United Arab Emirates. And indeed such a collation has taken shape, but it has been unable to muster any meaningful force against ISIS. Jordanian and Egyptian airstrikes, for all their ferocity, have hardly dented the group. And there is virtually no talk of a coalition ground force to confront ISIS among Arab nations, something all observers now acknowledge is undoubtedly needed.

Iraq’s inability to reclaim and hold territory it lost to ISIS, despite the staggering amount of military assistance the country has received from the United States, has reveled a new political truth for the whole region. Iraq needs help from a regional power to survive. The Obama administration hoped that help would come from Saudi Arabia and its other allies in the Persian Gulf. Instead it is coming from Iran, which has put together a coalition of its own in a bid to shore up Iraq. Soleimani effectively stands at the head of a force that includes Iraqi troops, Iranian supported Iraqi militias, Sunni tribesman from Anbar Province and even fighters from Hezbollah.

At one point during the U.S. occupation of Iraq American commanders said militia fighters backed by Iran were responsible for more deaths of American soldiers than al-Qaeda. Now U.S. commanders are watching an Iranian general lead a charge of militiamen against an Iraqi city with tacit approval and, perhaps, some hope that for the first time in months ISIS might feel real fear. Leaders in Jerusalem and Riyadh who have a stake in preserving the old alliance system have reason for concern if not fear given all this. If Iranian action can change the strategic calculation in Iraq, then America essentially has a new partner in the Middle East. That will undoubtedly further weaken alliances already showing clear signs of strain.