If the Iran Deal Makes the Middle East Safer, Why Did Obama Bribe Gulf States with Weapons to Support It?

Robert Satloff, a prominent critic of the Iran deal, has penned a series of questions aimed at President Obama that deserves to be amplified and expanded upon.  This piece will treat his questions on weapons packages for our allies.

The first question treats an apparent paradox.

1. You have argued that the Iran deal enhances Israel’s security and those of our Arab Gulf allies. At the same time, your administration has offered the Gulf states a huge security package by way of compensation and you have expressed frustration that the government of Israel has not yet entered into discussions with you to discuss ways to bolster its security. But isn’t this a paradox? If the Iran deal bolsters their security, shouldn’t their security needs be going down, not up?

The scale of these packages is quite impressive.  The President doubtless believes that they are oil on troubled waters, which will calm the regional anxieties until such time as the wisdom of the deal becomes clear.  Iran, he says, will be tamed by engagement with the world.  We will see them made peaceful by enrichment.  They will have too much to lose to violate the peace, and too many ties via increased economic activity and prosperity to risk a war.  Our Gulf State allies, in demanding these weapons as a condition of accepting the deal, are being needlessly fearful.  However, as only good outcomes are to follow, it’s of no harm to provide the weapons to give them a sense of security.

There are a couple of problems with this line of thinking.  The first is that the ties of economic activity go both ways.  They can make it more difficult to start a war at risk of breaking the ties.  They can also make it more difficult to respond to aggression, as too much is at stake on the other side as well.  The clear example here is Vladimir Putin.  He has marched through Georgia, Crimea, and the eastern Ukraine without anyone fielding a serious effort to stop him let alone roll back his conquests. Although Russia is vastly poorer than the European states, it is an exporter of power-producing natural gas.  Putin’s method of becoming the source of cheap energy and then using it to blackmail others into turning a blind eye to your military adventurism is available to the Iranian government as well.  European states will also have massive contracts out of which they expect to make billions of dollars.  The truth is that recent history suggests that a bold and aggressive power with its finger on supplies of cheap energy is in the drivers’ seat in this sort of relationship.

The second problem with this line of thinking is that Iran is also planning to purchase new arms.  The last minute inclusion in the deal of a lifting of sanctions on heavy weapons transfers and ballistic missiles means that Iran is going to modernize and grow its military capabilities.  Indeed, Iran says it believes it is free to proceed with ballistic missile activity immediately under the deal.  These initial weapons transfers by the United States are not going to be the last ones the Gulf States will want:  this is what they want before Iran begins buying new missile and rocket artillery, and upgrading its ancient air force.  It also does not consider Iran’s history of transferring its most advanced weapons systems to terrorist proxy groups, who will certainly use them.  This deal will spark a regional arms race, and if the United States won’t sell yet more weapons to the Gulf States, there are many other powers who will.  The Chinese, for example, have a robust arms sales industry and an government that is really interested in finding new customers to bolster its flailing economy.

All of this assumes that Iran keeps its word on the nuclear proliferation question.  These are problems that will develop simply because of the concession on heavy arms and ballistic missiles.  They are problems potentially worsened by the very economic ties that the President hopes will tame and restrain Iran.  The Gulf States are not being irrational or unreasonable, and in fact are certain to encounter reasons to consider that this initial set of transfers is not enough to ensure their security over the life of this deal.  If Iran should appear to be attempting nuclear proliferation as well, all of these problems become rapidly worse.