The Middle East is a complicated place, a land where allies become enemies and interest converge and diverge in a chaotic fashion. The very multiplicity of actors, particularly those able and willing to direct violence, all chafing at the bit for survival and power, their relative position in perpetual motion, strains coherent, focused and lasting analysis. Amid the disorder we seek structure, a framework that satisfies the need of a public to understand, and of a government to function in a pragmatic fashion - a paradigm.
The standoff over the Iranian nuclear program is one such well-worn paradigm. The Iranians have operated a clandestine nuclear development and nuclear weapons programs for over a decade, at times concealing this fact outright, and when such subterfuge became impossible, sheltering their nuclear ambitions under the guise of civilian power generation.
No one would much have cared - as few did when, say, Japan or Brazil flirted within sight of a nuclear weapons threshold - were Iran to be a peaceful member of the international community, and particularly, a stabilizing actor in its own neighborhood. Instead, whether owing to its Islamist ideology, regime preservation or an imperial vision for the Middle East - all three being quite compatible with one another - Iran has sought to destabilize its periphery, unnerve its neighbors and threaten the interests of distant powers.
What has particularly galvanized attention in the US and Europe are implicit and overt Iranian threats against Israel. Iranian nukes may be an irritant to a Europe that no longer has the capacity or will for power projection, and a regional concern, but not an existential one, to a distant America. The Iranians are being provocative, but Europe is far away, and America is sufficiently insulated to risk a war that disrupts oil supplies over the Iranian nuclear pimple.
However, everyone understands that a Jewish state threatened with extermination and having a capability to preempt its demise, even in a fashion that turns the world on its head, will. The main threat is to Israel, goes the paradigm, and it is Israel's catastrophic response that the world wishes to avoid, and which negotiations are designed to avert or delay. It is little wonder, then, that so many view Israel, and not the Iranian nuclear program, as the real problem. Iranian nukes many in Europe and the US are willing to live with; an Israeli attack that sets off Iranian counters that destabilize the global economic system is another matter. For those understanding of Israel's predicament, restraining Iran is a noble effort to secure the Jewish people from a second genocide in less than a century. For others, it is Israel that must be contained, for it is the Jewish state's actions which will precipitate global calamity, not those of the Iranians. So goes the paradigm.
What if the paradigm is wrong? Or, as is so characteristic of popular Middle East vignettes, incomplete. Yes, the threat to Israel may be acute, but no more so than that of Saddam's biological and chemical weapons stockpiles in the late 1980s. Yet, it was not on Israel's behalf that an international coalition ripped to pieces the Iraqi army, the fourth largest in the world. Indeed, thinking back on sixty years of war, I am hard pressed to identify a single American military action to defend the Jewish state. When we look at both great American military incursions in the region, in 1991 and 2003, there is only one nation that stands as the principal focus of American interest - Saudi Arabia.
The first Gulf War was launched, quite explicitly, to break Iraq's conventional military capability - particularly its expeditionary potential - which had swallowed Kuwait and threatened Saudi oil fields. Gulf War Two, ill-defined though it was against Saddam's WMD capabilities, constituted an American response to 9/11, a massive demonstration of power designed to extinguish any doubts about American will and capabilities and to coerce compliance in the war against violent Islamist networks. It is easy to forget how central Saudi Arabia once was to the jihadist effort as ideological nursery, financier, recruiting ground and safe haven. Indeed, there were those among the Washington establishment who, arguing outright for invasion, thought that the Saudis, and not Saddam, should bear the brunt of American tanks. Certainly, it can be said that the Saudis took their counter-terrorism efforts more seriously after the positioning of 150,000 American troops in neighboring Iraq.
As paradigms go, then, given America's age-old entanglement with the House of Saud, and the blood and material already shed by the United States to maintain this relationship, it is reasonable to suggest that if American forces were ever deployed against the Iranians, it would not be to safeguard Israel - a nation for which not a single American soldier or bullet have been expended - but to preserve the Saudi Kingdom. A less romantic paradigm, I admit, than one which places the Jewish people on the verge of catastrophe, again, but also one more credible than the notion of an Israel holding the world hostage to war with Iran.
The primacy of Saudi interests in American planning, not to the exclusion of Israeli concerns, but complementary to them, becomes crystallized once one digests George Friedman's latest piece on Stratfor - Rethinking American Options on Iran. With the Israelis as "bad cop" and the Saudis as the busy-bodied silent partners, argues Friedman, Washington is hard at work dismantling Iranian contingency planning in response to American attack - defanging Shiite proxies like Hezbollah, stabilizing the Iraqi government against Iranian meddling and developing a strategic bombing campaign to neutralize Iran's interdiction capabilities against Gulf oil shipping and reduce Iran's conventional military assets to prevent expeditionary campaigns (or the threat of such campaigns) against the Gulf states, Saudi Arabia in particular.
What emerges is an American policy sophisticated, mature, far from helpless, and largely irrelevant to the public debate over the Israel-bombing-Iran paradigm now raging in the press. One can only hope.