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Thu. September 21, 2023
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Competing Orientations for the Near and Middle East
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By Jack Pearce

As the Obama Administration seeks a nuclear control deal with Iran, both muffled and unrestrained outcries of alarm echo around us. Saudi Arabia, for example, can be seen as disconcerted, if not alarmed. Netanyahu-led Israel has been stridently attempting to scuttle the deal. A significant part of the Republican party seems to see this as a good platform for a domestic jihad against the current Administration of the Executive Branch.

This international and domestic drama is taking place as the reconstruction of Iraq is visibly complicated by an attempt to create an antique version of a fundamentally male dominated society with claims to legitimacy and political forms based on an antique version of the Islamic religion – the ISIL phenomenon. More on that in another post.

Some old hands in Middle East politics may view the nuclear treaty issue as raising a more basic and older question: who dominates the Persian Gulf area? Will it be Sunni and oil-rich Saudi Arabia, or Persia, which has a Shia complexion but is basically just old Persia struggling to regain economic and political strength? (Analysts of this sort may see Turkey as the resurgence of the Ottoman Empire, reverting to authoritarian roots, buttressed again by traditional Islamic interpretations.) In this limited regional calculus, any enhancement of Iran's participation in the international commercial and cultural community would be seen primarily as a detriment to Saudi Arabia and Israel.

So what is the United States doing getting involved so deeply and expensively in such a tangled and contentious set of rivalries and ambitions? Why are we alarming the Saudis, with their deep pools of oil, and virtually unhinging the current leadership of Israel, which has such extensive political support within the United States?  Notwithstanding a great many Congressional Republicans who currently seem to miss the point, the answer to this question can be as simple as the solutions are, or seem to be, complex.

The United States has aligned itself with, and toward, a global economic and social system. We seek to prosper as a central component of Earth, Inc. – tapping resources, products, and services worldwide, and providing resources, products, and services worldwide. If this is our orientation, the United States needs to be much less interested in whether any one of the historical entities in the Middle East overtops all the rest than that each and all play a peaceful and productive set of roles in a global economic and social complex.

This orientation does not imply that the United States seeks to be a self effacing and completely altruistic facilitator of everyone else's interests. We and everyone else knows that is not so. Nor on the other hand does this orientation imply that the United States has the military muscle to impose world peace, or the combination of military and economic capabilities to compel all other nations, or indeed any large and determinedly adverse nation, to international harmony.  Some in the US might think we are so endowed, and some friends of the US might hope so on occasion, but these thoughts and wishes do not make it so.

This orientation does imply that the United States has a large interest in peaceful and productive development of the large fraction of the world's petroleum resources which are located in the Persian Gulf areas, peaceful and productive access to and through the Eastern Mediterranean, Gulf, and Indian seas, and peaceful access to resources and products from, and consuming markets in, the Middle East. 

From this orientation, helping Iran get past its recent resentments of a colonial West, and become invested in peaceful international economic and social exchanges with the West (and East) advances all these objectives.  This orientation need not and does not, as some seem to fear, imply any inclination to support, to facilitate, or even to tolerate, any Iranian imposition of force any sort on Saudi Arabia, Israel, Iraq, or even Yemen. The US effort to achieve a peaceful and productive evolution of Iraq did not, for example, imply any support for the sort of military aggrandizement toward Iraq's neighbors which we recently spent, by some accounts, over a trillion dollars to stop.  

This orientation also implies that peaceful economic competition could and would develop among the participants in the Near and Middle East.  Competition, even peaceful, is not always welcome to any nation, but is not a bad thing in the global framework. While assuming the disciplines of competition in international capital, energy, and product markets, the Iraqi, Saudi and Iranian entities would simultaneously have ready access to international capital markets, as well as industrial and consumer markets.  And of course they could productively trade with and invest with each other’s societies. This combination of factors could and should turn out well for all concerned.

This all sounds rather utopian, I grant you. But it is the direction of current and past efforts of United States efforts to facilitate international capital markets (see the construction of the World Trade Organization).

Let us suppose that peace in the Middle East would produce a net advantage to Earth, Inc, considered as a productive global system rewarding its participants. That's nice, and suggests we should be involved, but why does the United States have to lead efforts along these lines?

Again, the answer is pretty simple. The United States has, whether by design or by just taking one step after another, become both prosperous upon and dependent upon global resources and markets. We want to tap the copper, rare earths, hydrocarbons, technologies, and consumer appetites of as many of the Earth's billions as we technically and economically can. Our currency is the dominant instrument of international exchange. Our investing institutions scan the globe for profitable undertakings. Our supply chains girdle the earth like economic tendons. We are currently the dominant player in international affairs, and reap a large share of the benefits of international commerce.

We are of course, always looking for a profit, sooner or later, directly or indirectly. This is not a bad thing, but rather, if we understand how to achieve this objective, a good thing.  If we are to be successful for ourselves in a world too large and diverse for us to brutalize at will, or unilaterally to bully economically, we are compelled both to achieve and to share trading gains, and, more generally, gains from a variety of combinatorial economic relationships. We can't just extort an entire global system. So if we are to profit, others must also be able to profit. Mutual benefit, not just money itself, makes the world go 'round.

So, this article suggests the United States has good reason to try to get Iran into the world trading system in a peaceful way, and to forfend nuclear proliferation in the Middle East.  Success in this endeavor would repay well the time and political capital spent on it.

However, in global affairs, assurances of success are hard to come by. We may not be able to make a nuclear technologies control deal with Iran. If not, this failure probably can and probably will be attributed to ethnic politics in the United States, ignorant and parochial elected representatives in the US, parochial and unreasonable demands from Iran, the obvious parochialism of Iran's Supreme leader and the insular Iranian 'elites' (and even insular Iranian common folk), frantic and overstated cries from Israel, and so on. Failure will have a thousand fathers, prominently including those who would think they have won something worth having in the long run.   

More broadly, we may and probably will have a great deal of difficulty with Chinese efforts to make more difficult entry into their domestic markets and poach technologies from us.  We may and probably will have difficulty in confronting Russia's attempt to reconstitute an empire by force and deception. These are large and clever polities seeking, to use an old phrase, their own fair (or unfair) advantage.  It’s a rough game out there.

The vision of enlisting parochial polities in a productive global system rests in part on an assumption or belief that the enlisted polities will, on the whole and over time, gain on thereby, and will therefore not forever be dedicated, implacable enemies of regional rivals, bent only on the destruction of such rivals at all costs to the rivals and themselves. (Here lies much of the difference between Obama's approach to Iran and that of Netanyahu.)

The economic calculus tips heavily in favor of this assumption, or belief. Otherwise, there would be no point in trying to continue the evolution of a global ecumene.

Thus if the United States has a deep and fundamental interest in a peaceful and productive Middle East as a productive part of a global economic system, the US would not seek merely to rearrange the deck chairs on an unstable and chaotic set of warring vessels. We would not be there to leverage Sunni over Shia, or the Saudi Royals over a rebuilding Iraq, or Iran over everyone else. We would seek not just a balance of power among inimical interests, but a peacefully competitive concord of economic and cultural entities, engaged in intertwined global economic endeavors.

There has been and very well may be some form of balancing of powers involved in the Middle East. We would not wish to see a monopoly of force and resources gained by violent and exploitative means. (Read, Iraq under Saddam, Iran vs. Israel, or ISIL vs. everyone.) There is too much turmoil and chaos in such attempted dominations, too great a wastage of human lives and aspirations, as well as of resources. 

This vision of subsuming local rivalries in a larger economic and political structure rests upon the expectation and hope that the global human enterprise can expand its energy supplies and manage its scarcities incrementally and successfully, so that the coming century does not see a breakdown in the possibilities for mutual economic and social advantage over time. That is a fundamental part of the challenge before every political and economic entity in this 21st Century AD. Trying to control nuclear war risks and reintegrate an ancient and potentially more productive civilization like Iran contributes to meeting that challenge. The United States, and its citizens, are entitled to ask our current friends to see their own advantage in the larger framework we feel compelled to seek.  

Jack Pearce has served as Assistant Chief of United States Justice Department’s Antitrust Division's ‘Public Counsel and Legislative’ Section, Assistant General Counsel of Agency for International Development with responsibilities in Near East, South Asia sector, National Insititute of Public Affairs fellowship at Cornell, Deputy General Counsel, White House Office of Consumer Affairs, law practice relating to pro-competitive regulatory reform, and innovator of virtual office system for attorneys and others.

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