Why Obama's 'cold peace' with Iran will turn hot
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There will probably be no more fruitless gesture of President Obama's lame-duck term than his fourth and likely final visit to Saudi Arabia last week. It was intended to reassure America's ancient Persian Gulf ally that despite the president's interviews, policies, personnel and speeches to the contrary, he was deeply concerned about Saudi Arabia's security. Obama is not, but he should be.


For the past five years, the Saudis have been dismayed by virtually every aspect of the president's Middle East policy, from American inaction in Syria to dumping Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to his nuclear deal with Iran. All of these decisions, in the Saudi view, have served to strengthen Iran and weaken the existing Sunni Arab order. As, of course, they were supposed to. The president has been very frank in his belief that the U.S. has been spent too much money artificially inflating that order, and maintaining it for the benefit of half-friends. And so he has begun to pull back, in favor of a new balance between the Saudis and Iran he calls a "cold peace." But it is a fantasy. That peace will get hot, and in a hurry.

The first great problem with Obama's rebalancing is that our Sunni allies will hedge against it in unpredictable ways, reducing stability in the region. Second, over the long run, that balance will inevitably collapse in favor of Iran. And then we are in totally unknown territory: No single state has dominated the Persian Gulf since the advent of oil, and we have no idea how such a great power would behave. But it will not happen overnight, and if President Obama had listened, King Salman could have offered a lesson on preventing it. Starting in Yemen.

For an America wholly consumed by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and Syria, Yemen has been something of a forgotten war. It is not entirely a proxy war, since actual no-kidding Saudi troops are bombing the Iranian-allied Houthi rebels on behalf of Yemen's former government. In that sense it is Syria in reverse, where Iranian troops are battling Saudi-backed rebels on behalf of the Syrian government.

When the Yemen war began in earnest in 2014, the Houthis looked invincible. They looked as invincible as Hezbollah in Lebanon or Syrian President Bashar Assad and Hezbollah, or the Black Hand of Iran's intelligence services throughout the region. It's not clear, in fact, if modern Iran has ever lost a war. Just as all of America's recent wars have ended in middling draws-cum-losses, Iran's have ended in draws-cum-wins. The Americans were exhausted by Iraq, and under fire left it in the hands of a friendly Shiite government. Hezbollah threw Israel out of Lebanon and remains the only undefeated Arab fighting force. Hamas overran the remnants of the Palestinian authority in Gaza and created its own fiefdom.

But the Houthis were not invincible. The Yemen war's fourth cease-fire began on April 10, and their offensive ground to a halt last year. If it holds, Yemen would be the first time Iran was defeated by indigenous forces in the Middle East since the oldest Iraq War in the 1980s. There is really no deep-seated cultural or diplomatic mystery about when the Iranians make peace. They make peace and buy into the existing order when they are stopped. This is a lesson the Obama administration never seems to learn, no matter how many fruitless meetings of the Syrian peace talks in Geneva that Secretary of State John KerryJohn KerryBiden's climate policies: Adrift in economic and scientific fantasyland The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Biden expresses optimism on bipartisanship; Cheney ousted Watch live: John Kerry testifies on climate change MORE attends.

The president had better learn it soon. Because the second great problem with the rebalancing is that a cold peace between Iran and Saudi Arabia cannot over the long run be equal. Shorn of the United States, the Sunni coalition is fantastically weak. For one thing, two of the region's three traditional Sunni heavyweights, Egypt and Turkey, have dropped out of this fight. Turkey is more concerned about its Kurds than about Shiites, and Egypt is consumed — as always — with its struggle to keep the peace domestically. Iraq was once a Saudi bodyguard, but Iraq was lost to former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and the other side. And by the scorecard, there's no reason why Saudi Arabia should be able to resist Iran, Iraq, Syria and Hezbollah all by itself. There will be no balance.

Obama's policy is a waypoint not to a sharing of the hegemony but a hegemony of one, and that in Tehran. The United States and its foreign policy establishment has never quite internalized what an Iranian-dominated Persian Gulf would look like. It would be one in which Iran can set the price of oil, by diplomacy or threats. It would be one where Palestinian rejectionism once again becomes the main theme of the Israel-Palestine conflict, and not the idea of the Oslo Accords. It would be one where Oman and Qatar are increasingly deferential to Iran, if not allies. And it would be one in which Russia has outsized say in the new order, and military influence, and American desires are hardly felt.

Against all odds, the Saudi intervention in Yemen should be a stark lesson for the president. Because his brave new order is not yet a reality, and peace sometimes requires war. He should have listened to King Salman.

Peek is a professor at Claremont McKenna College and was a former adviser to the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan.