How to restore US credibility in the Middle East

Explaining the Iran nuclear deal
Explaining the Iran nuclear deal

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    Explaining the Iran nuclear deal

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Explaining the Iran nuclear deal 01:20

Historian Michael Oren, Israel's deputy minister for diplomacy, was Israel's ambassador to the United States from 2009 to 2013. The views expressed in this commentary are his own.

(CNN)As Israel's ambassador to Washington and, later, as a member of its government, I held many conversations with Arab diplomats, ministers, journalists and businessmen from Egypt, Jordan and the Gulf States. All candidly offered their views on the Middle East and, without exception, all believed that America was secretly allied with Iran.

These leaders had a long list of evidence. Fighting Iran's enemies such as Saddam Hussein, ISIS and the Taliban, while refusing to stop Iranian conquests in Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and Iraq, was presented as proof of Washington's collusion with Tehran.
Further confirmation was seen in America's failure to support the June 2009 Green Revolution in Iran, to meaningfully punish the ayatollahs for supporting terror (beyond sanctions) and to prevent them from developing intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of reaching the West. From leading mass chants of "Death to America" to killing many hundreds of US soldiers, Iranian aggression -- so my Arab interlocutors held -- would never elicit a strong American response.
    Michael Oren
    Yet no evidence was more damning than the Iranian nuclear deal. Instead of presenting Iran's regime with the choice between retaining the nuclear infrastructure unnecessary for a civilian energy program and survival, international negotiators, led by the United States, guaranteed both. By lifting sanctions and reopening Iran to international business, the deal enabled the regime to overcome financial crises and more brutally suppress its domestic opponents.
    And rather than dismantling Iran's nuclear infrastructure, the deal preserved it intact and even permitted research and development of far more advanced centrifuges. Under the deal's "sunset clauses," the restrictions on enrichment will expire in eight to 10 years, at which time Iran will be able to produce enough uranium for dozens of nuclear weapons in a very short time.
    Hearing this same viewpoint from so many influential Arabs, I couldn't help but find it compelling. There was certainly a strong case for accusing the Obama administration of pivoting toward Iran. Still, as an Israeli familiar with American policymaking, I did not believe that the United States had pursued a grand strategy of abandoning the Sunni world in favor of the Islamic Republic. Rather, I believed that American leaders made decisions in the Middle East that, even if inadvertently, benefited Iran. Yet as an Israeli, I cannot afford to ignore widespread perceptions in the Arab world. And neither should Americans.
    There is much discussion over the international impact of nullifying or amending the Iranian nuclear deal. Advocates of the deal warn that canceling it will cost America credibility abroad and alienate important allies. But it is the deal itself that has created a credibility deficit for the United States in the Middle East, weakening America's ability to overcome threats and mediate peace. Destabilizing actors, first among them Iran, have exploited the perceived decline in America's regional prestige. Now, after 50 years of US dominance in the Middle East -- the so-called Pax Americana -- Russia has returned as a regional power.
    Fortunately, the process of restoring America's stature in the Middle East has begun. President Donald Trump's recent decision to decertify the nuclear deal and submit it for congressional revision was broadly hailed in both the Arab states and Israel. So, too, was the 120-day deadline he set for Europe to amend the deal.
    Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the United Nations, similarly gained credit for focusing UN attention on the serial violations of the Security Council bans of Iran's ballistic missile tests and its bankrolling of terror. The support that the White House gave to many thousands of Iranians who recently demonstrated against the ayatollahs' repressive regime was also greeted throughout our region as a sign of revived moral clarity.
    But more remains to be done. The international community, led by the United States, could mount a campaign to roll back Iranian conquests and combat Iranian-backed terror such as the reported 2011 plan -- thankfully thwarted -- to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the United States and blow up a popular restaurant in Washington. The production and testing of ICBMs by Iran must also instantly and completely stop.
    Most crucially, efforts must be made either to cancel the nuclear deal or link it to Iranian behavior. A regime complicit in the massacre of a half-million Syrians cannot, for example, possess the means to make nuclear bombs. The dangers of the "sunset clause" must be addressed by assuring that the deal's restrictions will never expire as long as Iran is ruled by a terror-sponsoring regime. Meanwhile, international inspectors must have access to all of Iran's nuclear-related facilities, including the military sites currently exempted by the deal.
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    Standing firmly with its Arab and Israeli allies against Iran will contribute immensely to restoring America's credibility in the Middle East. It will have a material and positive effect on nonproliferation efforts elsewhere in the world. Reinstating the Pax Americana will help Arabs and Israelis meet in an atmosphere of renewed confidence in the United States and its paramount role in our region.