The beginning of talks with Iran this week in Geneva follow dramatic developments at the United Nations General Assembly last month that culminated in a phone call between President Barack Obama and President Hassan Rouhani. But the new atmosphere of at least minimal dialogue has created apprehension in Israel and some Arab states that the United States needs to alleviate. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s media blitz in the United States and the reported Saudi decision not to speak at the U.N. demonstrate the depths of this worry.
The issues in dispute are so complex and the domestic suspicions so intense that it may not be possible to achieve any agreements at all. However, some kind of Iranian-American bargain seems a possible outcome. For Iran, an American attack is a credible possibility, but perhaps more important are the international sanctions that are clearly working. Tehran cannot overcome its current economic malaise until many are lifted, and that requires a deal with the United States. As for the Obama administration, there is currently little stomach for a military attack on Iran, but there is clear preference for an accommodation that would stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons. The American global and regional position could thereby be resurrected and a dangerous confrontation could be avoided.
This rosy scenario is saddled with pitfalls, however, not least from Iran’s neighbors — Israelis and several Arab states, especially in the Gulf — who share the belief that the Iranians are trying to reduce sanctions and continue their nuclear weapons program secretly even as they pretend to moderate their policies. These states and many Americans would likely believe that the United States has been duped, even with a negotiated agreement.
If — and only if — the United States and Iran unexpectedly conclude and sign an accord in which the United States is satisfied that an Iranian nuclear weapon had been prevented, this skepticism would continue, possibly forming an obstacle to final acceptance in the United States. Washington should, therefore, take a step to further reassure these apprehensive regional states that if Iran tried to cheat, it would be deterred and stopped: Conclude NATO-like treaties with Israel and separately with those Arab states that wished to join under an American umbrella. The treaty arrangements should provide an American commitment to protect each of these states against a sudden Iranian nuclear breakthrough in violation of its agreements with the United States, the Europeans and even the U.N. Incorporation into NATO or stationing American troops in these countries as was done during the Cold War are other options. Such an arrangement should give a clear signal to Iran that it would suffer egregiously if it violated the agreement, and that a nuclear attack on any of these countries would be treated as an attack against the United States — the NATO formula.
For the Obama administration to actually reach a deal with Iran, which would necessarily include safeguards and inspections, it will undoubtedly be convinced that Iran would abide by the agreements or at least not be allowed to violate them. Therefore, providing a protective umbrella over neighboring states that are skeptical and require further assurances should not be onerous; American action should not be necessary. If the administration is not convinced that Iran is serious enough so that Washington can offer these guarantees, then an agreement with Iran should not be concluded.
Of course, the Arab states or Israel might reject a treaty with the United States, but if an American-Iranian agreement had been reached, even Israel would gain from relinquishing some flexibility. A treaty with Jerusalem would have to be negotiated carefully to address unpleasant contingencies, but the United States would also be losing flexibility inherent in its own guarantees — making the treaty more attractive. The Arab states would also be receiving more locked-in assurances from the United States than they are accustomed to gaining, but it would be worth the price for the United States. Through such a network of defense treaties, all parties would be trading some diminished flexibility of action in favor of intensified security — a good deal for all should a viable U.S.-Iranian treaty be reached.
Former Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion initially raised a possible defense treaty between Israel and the United States during the first Eisenhower term. It was much discussed in the last 18 months of the Clinton administration in anticipation of an Israeli-Palestinian deal, and would undoubtedly be raised again if such a deal were to be consummated under the current talks with Secretary of State John Kerry. But the danger to Israel from an Iranian nuclear force looms incomparably larger, and a codicil to the treaty could always be added regarding Israeli-Palestinian matters. As part of the necessary assurances, this would be the wrong time to discuss a nuclear-free zone in the region.
Whether the Obama-Rouhani phone call will turn out to be the equivalent of the Nixon era’s breakthrough with China remains to be seen. But, as in the case of China, such a dramatic turn of events requires assuring neighbors that their vital security interests will be protected. We have the means to concretize these assurances. We can and should take them.
Steven L. Spiegel is director of the Center for Middle East Development and professor of political science at UCLA.