The Lessons of Suez (1956) Applied to Tehran (2015)
The Egyptian Canal
Three men gathered in a villa on the outskirts of a prominent European capital to solve an increasingly intractable problem. Domestic pressure for decisive action had been building against a regime whose recent initiative posed a direct economic and security threat to the representatives’ governments. After three days of intense deliberation, the trio signed their names to a coordinated, multi-pronged attack plan aimed at restoring an agreeable status quo and ultimately effecting a change of government. This was not a meeting of delegates from Israel, Saudi Arabia and Egypt in 2015 over the Iranian nuclear program, but rather that of Israel, Great Britain and France in 1956 over Egypt’s nationalization of the Suez Canal. As the international community ponders the consequences of the Lausanne framework agreement (depending on the Iranian or American version of the negotiations), the future of Iran’s nuclear advances and the outlook for Middle East stability, it is worth considering the lessons of 1956 and what happened when parochial interests grew incompatible with global ones — specifically, the global interests of Washington and the local interests of its ostensible allies.
When Assistant Under-Secretary of Britain’s Foreign Office Patrick Dean, French Foreign Minister Christian Pineau, and Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion signed the Sèvres Protocol on October 25, 1956, to retake the Suez Canal and dislodge the regime of Gamal Abdel Nasser, they sought to achieve tangible, local objectives. For France, Nasser’s nationalization liquidated a valuable stake in a Paris-based operating company which ran the Canal and strengthened Cairo’s hand in its ongoing support for anti-French rebels in Algeria. Paris believed that Nasser’s departure, deemed inevitable with the reconquest of the Canal, would end the military and financial lifeline to Algiers and save the honor of France’s Fourth Republic, battered by defeat in Indochina. For Britain, nationalization was a dagger to its ability to influence its rapidly diminishing imperial sphere — with India gaining independence less than a decade earlier and a currency crisis which prevented the pound sterling anchoring the international monetary system alongside the dollar.
Anthony Eden, prime minister and former foreign secretary, had just assumed power as the face of a reactionary conservative establishment which wanted to pretend that the first half of the twentieth century never happened. Eden, upon hearing news of Nasser’s takeover, allegedly went into a rage and vowed to prevent Egypt from having its hand on Britain’s “windpipe” and “great imperial lifeline.” As for Israel, its concerns were more immediate and life threatening — at a minimum, keeping the Canal and, by extension, the Straits of Tiran open to shipping and ending sustained cross-border raids by Nasser’s paramilitary fedayeen forces which terrorized the country’s southern communities. The plan agreed at Sèvres appeared airtight — Israel would launch an offensive against Egypt in Sinai and proceed rapidly toward the Canal. Britain and France, after issuing ultimatums to the combatants, would interject and retake the Canal Zone to protect it from the fighting and separate the sides as a prelude to a cessation of hostilities. The plotters hoped Britain and France would be entrenched on the Canal, Israel poised to strike at Cairo and Nasser planning his exile when the guns fell silent.
The Iranian Bomb
Similar to Egypt’s canal, today’s regional powers in the Middle East view Iran’s burgeoning nuclear program in parochial terms. The current crisis in relations and disjointed alignment behind the scenes between Israel, the Gulf Arabs and, tangentially, Turkey, did not always exist. Quite the contrary, the Sunni-Shia regional schism and concerns over deployment of the nuclear card to overthrow rival governments is a recent phenomenon. Prior to the Islamic Revolution and the collapse of pan-Arabism in the wake of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Iran anchored Middle East stability through the Pahlavi monarchy’s alliance with Israel and cooperative relationship with Saudi Arabia. In Iran, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf: Power Politics in Transition, Prince Faisal Bin Salman Bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, the current Governor of Medina, examined how (despite tensions) relations warmed between the Shah and the Saudi monarchy over an alignment of economic interests on the one hand and an ability to compromise over contentious territorial disputes on the other (e.g., Bahrain and islands claimed by Iran and several Gulf states).
Iran was a key element of Israeli Prime Minister Ben-Gurion’s strategy to forge alliances with non-Arab states on the periphery of the Middle East and North Africa. But for Iran’s agreement to substitute its oil for the wells Israel developed in the Sinai, it is possible that Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin would not have agreed to the Peninsula’s return to Egypt as part of the Camp David Peace Accords. As important was Iran’s indirect role as Israel’s eyes and ears with those Arab states, particularly Saudi Arabia, with whom it did not (and currently does not) have normalized diplomatic relations. The primary forces of chaos then were not Islamist, but Marxist and Nasserist (e.g., the PLO and its affiliates which tried to take over Jordan in 1970 and Lebanon after 1975, Nasser’s militias, and radical leftist groups).
After the Khomeini Revolution, Tehran transformed into a source of Islamist export and a threat to the legitimacy of the monarchy in Riyadh. Where the Shah had refrained from foreign intervention in order to pursue regional stability, the new regime opted for confrontation — active support for Hezbollah following Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon, challenging the clerical legitimacy of Saudi control over Muslim holy sites and curtailment of relations with Egypt. Most fundamentally, Khomeini effectively sought to replace pan-Arabism with pan-Islamism as the Middle East’s guiding ideology among Muslims, with Shia-dominated Iran (a majority minority country in the Islamic world) being presented as the archetype of a genuine Islamic state (contra the fake quasi-Islamic regimes of, among others, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the UAE). This, despite occasionally discreet cooperation (e.g., Israel’s clandestine support for Iran during the Iran-Iraq War), guaranteed that the Middle East was set for a Cold War and only a balance of fear would prevent events from spiraling out of control.
This history and the current characteristics of the regimes in Tehran, Jerusalem, Ankara, Cairo and Riyadh (and the other Gulf Arab capitals) explain not only why the current tension over the Iranian bomb was predictable and inevitable, but how, like with Egypt’s nationalization of the Suez Canal, the responses from Iran’s rivals have been so parochial. Israel, Egypt, the Gulf Arabs and Turkey see Iran in regional rather than global terms: Israel views Hezbollah and Hamas like it viewed Nasser’s fedayeen; Egypt sees Iranian control of Yemen and partnership with Hamas fronts in the Sinai — coupled with its entreaties toward the deposed Muslim Brotherhood — as a threat to the military government’s legitimacy and existence; Saudi Arabia can add religious rivalry to strictly strategic worries; Turkey sees Iran as an obstacle to its independent campaign for regional influence; and the Gulf Arabs (with Qatar a tribal outlier) prefer to take Riyadh’s lead.
The unity of purpose of Tehran’s neighbors over its nuclear program would, all else being equal, be schizophrenic — as previously mentioned, Israel’s foreign policy for decades was predicated on close ties with Iran as a counterweight to the country’s Arab enemies. The Persians ended the second Jewish exile and brought the people of Israel back to Jerusalem. The idea that these saviors of Jewish tradition and peoplehood could now be harbingers of an apocalypse is a tragic and ironic twist of fate.
Another similarity between the crises of 1956 and 2015 is Washington’s response. The United States has shifted between engagement and indifference to the Middle East’s squabbles depending on the designs of its international rivals — the Soviet Union during the Cold War and Russia, China and, tangentially, the EU today — rather than the concerns of the region’s denizens. This parallels Britain’s posture toward continental Europe for centuries — personified by Castlereagh’s support for Talleyrand at the Congress of Vienna to keep post-Napoleonic France whole as a counterweight to Prussia and Austria and, earlier, King William of Orange’s central role in forging alliances against Louis XIV. Whereas in 1956 the pendulum had decidedly swung in favor of sustained involvement and, at times, micromanagement of local Middle East conflicts, the growing consensus in Washington today, and certainly that of the Obama White House, is for regional exit. This is not only because global realities have changed, but because of America’s profound structural weaknesses and steadily declining ability, contrary to the media narrative, to shape regional events over the long-term.
Winthrop W. Aldrich, U.S. Ambassador to Britain in the mid-1950s, described Washington’s reaction to the Anglo-French invasion of the Suez Canal in line with the Sèvres Protocol in an article for Foreign Affairs: “the effect on [the U.S. government] of this sudden and unexpected British and French move and of the actual opening of hostilities against Egypt ... was catastrophic. The British Government had been told over and over again at the highest levels that we wished to do everything possible to avoid the use of force, and for force to be used without any warning came as a profound shock ... Prime Minister Eden and the British Government were immediately subjected to terrific pressure. President Eisenhower and Secretary Dulles would have no further direct communication with Eden, and the Canal was at once blocked by Nasser.”
Not only did Eisenhower take the Anglo-French-Israeli action as a personal affront, but from the first day, Washington was committed to bringing about a cessation of hostilities and reigning in its allies. This had as much to do with the complicated personal relationship between the U.S. president and Egypt’s dictator as anti-Soviet geopolitics — some have speculated that Nasser opted for nationalization partly as an act of retribution to Eisenhower and U.S. Secretary of State Dulles for pulling financing for the Aswan Dam.
In any event, Washington moved decisively, threatening to block loans to Britain and cut off economic and military assistance to Israel. (The French forces were under British command and, as went London, so went Paris.) Through adept maneuvering, Eisenhower circumvented possible French and British vetoes of a UN-brokered ceasefire and got the Soviets on board to send peacekeepers to Sinai. Eden, paralyzed, ordered a unilateral halt on November 7th with Anglo-French forces a day away from seizing the length of the Canal Zone. In exchange for a complete allied pullout, Nasser’s only real price was to allow the UN in and open the Canal to Israeli shipping. In short, Washington put its global interests (i.e., limiting Soviet influence and maintaining the Middle East status quo) ahead of its allies’ parochial interests and “saved” Nasser’s regime from certain defeat.
As far as Eisenhower and Dulles were concerned, Britain and France acted as petulant, post-imperial has-beens in a world with bigger problems and new centers of power. Israel’s concerns were treated with something between indifference and contempt (i.e., Washington was not about to allow a fledgling upstart to set conditions in motion which would place the Arab world in Moscow’s orbit). For Eisenhower, keeping Nasser happy and, by extension, the Soviets out of Egypt was far more important than standing by America’s allies.
Washington’s approach to the Iranian crisis mirrors its conduct during the Suez crisis — ignoring the parochial interests of (and reigning in) regional allies and opting for rapprochement in order to attain more global objectives. Whereas in 1956 the primary aim was to limit Soviet influence, what the U.S. establishment really wants in 2015 is regional exit. The end of the Cold War, the rise of China and structural problems which plague the American economy have conspired to sap Washington’s ability to independently control events in the Middle East. Moreover, the necessity for America to be so engaged in the region’s problems has declined — more resembling the mood after World War I and keeping the Peace of Versailles than after World War II and the Peace of Potsdam. The howls of the commentariat and image-obsessed politicians notwithstanding, the United States has few reasons to be as responsible for Middle East affairs over the long-term as it was before 1989 — energy independence is becoming a reality, demographic indicators for Iran and the Gulf Arab states may paint a picture of countries having their final hurrahs and more powers are willing and able to relieve America’s heretofore seldom-challenged position.
Regardless of the circumstances of Washington’s disengagement, there appears to be clear consensus that such disengagement is impossible without some sort of lasting rapprochement with Iran. In search of the exit door, the U.S. has ignored the narrow concerns of its Gulf Arab and Israeli allies and given tacit assurances through acquiescence of Iran’s nuclear program that Tehran is safe from desires for regime change or actions, which would fundamentally alter its ability to impact regional events.
Washington, perhaps realizing that India, China, Russia and others view an Iranian bomb as inevitable, wants this to occur on its terms and on a timeline which gives the U.S. more options to wash its hands of what is emerging in the Middle East. In this context, it makes little sense to examine every provision or the different versions of the Lausanne understandings, Washington’s lackluster response to the Saudi-Iranian proxy war in Yemen or tensions with Israel over unilateral military action (these tensions also existed during the Bush Administration).
The U.S. is not leading negotiations with Iran with an aim to curb its nuclear program, but to influence Iran’s behavior such that the U.S. could ideally help shape a balance of regional power and withdraw. Just as triangular diplomacy allowed Nixon and Kissinger to disengage the U.S. from a South Vietnam both considered irrelevant and reorient the Cold War on more favorable terms, so a deal with Iran lets Washington focus on more fundamental issues impacting American security. Although the terms of that deal are subject to debate (in the opinion of this author, the current framework does not achieve any of Washington’s actual aims and leaves it more entangled), a view toward having one is where America finds itself as of this writing.
Far from U.S. negotiations with Iran and acquiescence toward its nuclear program (and regional expansionism) being a radical departure from the norm, it is consistent with past American practice stretching over decades. The uncanny similarities to the 1956 Suez Crisis illustrate that, then as now, Washington places global interests ahead of parochial ones — particularly those of its regional allies — in managing the Middle East. When the U.S. wanted more influence to prevent Soviet intervention, it almost single-handedly slapped three of its allies down and saved a bombastic, secular dictator in Cairo. There is little to suggest that, today, with America’s real economy hanging by a thread, its ability to act alone diminished and no concrete threat (ala the Soviet Union) to keep out, America will not do the same to reach a lasting understanding with equally bombastic, Islamic dictators in Tehran.
Originally published at shopkeeperstrategists.blogspot.com on April 13, 2015.