Another hard year ahead for U.S. efforts in Middle East
If Congress doesn’t add sanctions, a deal with Iran could alter power balance in region.
OWL’S HEAD, Maine — As US President Barack Obama made abundantly clear in his end-of-year press conference — his body language even more eloquently than his actual language — it's a good year to see the end of.
It was a year that most inhabitants of the Middle East are surely glad to see end, though 2014 isn't likely to turn out any better for most of them.
That perennial problem, Israeli-Palestinian, is no closer to resolution despite the efforts of Secretary of State John Kerry. The bad news, from Kerry's perspective, is the way he pushed himself into the issue. As to exactly why he thought he could succeed when everyone else has failed is more a psychological question than a strategic one.
With all that's going on in the Arab World — not just the Syrian civil war, but the increasing radicalization of Sunni Arabs and the concomitant deepening split between them and their Shiite cousins — the Israelis are, not surprisingly, worried about what the future will bring just beyond their borders. And the Arab focus, also not surprisingly, has turned inward.
The Palestinians these days are pretty much on their own. The American Studies Association, a group of 5,000 scholars, wants to help: it just voted for a boycott of academic institutions in Israel. The Washington Post attacked the vote as "narrow-minded," citing, somewhat irrelevantly, human rights infractions by Russia and China.
The Post referred to Israel's "lively and durable democracy," adding that the more helpful approach would be for the Association to "engage deeply with Israelis and Palestinians, perhaps with scholarly conferences and exchanges."
Israel's apartheid-like settlement policies, accelerated under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, will increasingly draw condemnation from abroad. And despite the Post's preference for conferences and exchanges, international reaction will eventually have an impact on the Israeli government.
But when that time comes, dismantling the settlements and drawing borders for a viable Palestinian state may be a political impossibility for any Israeli government, however well intentioned.
The good news for Kerry, and everyone else — except the world's newest odd-couple, Saudi Arabia and Israel — is the interim Iran nuclear deal he helped create, one not even on the radar when he took the job. He benefitted from what is conceivably the most positive development in the Middle East in years when Iran's Supreme Leader let the pragmatic Hassan Rouhani run for president.
With the Geneva talks on Syria scheduled to begin Jan. 22, coordinating the outcome with Russian President Vladimir Putin — a leader who's had a considerably better year than his American counterpart — will be Kerry's top priority for most of January.
A few weeks back, I suggested in an op-ed piece for GlobalPost that the least bad deal for Syria these days, in terms of American interests, was an arrangement that kept President Bashar al-Assad and his Alawites in power for an interim period while a more broad-based coalition emerged under joint US-Russian auspices.
In a recent New York Times piece, Ryan Crocker, the most knowledgeable US diplomat on the entire Middle East, proposed a similar option: "It is time to consider a future for Syria without Bashar al-Assad's ouster," he wrote, asking rhetorically if the US "really wants the alternative — a major country in the heart of the Arab world in the hands of Al Qaeda?"
For some reason, the White House so far is rebuffing UN envoy Lakhdar Ibrahim's belief that Iran attend the Geneva talks, though they are clearly a major player in the Syrian civil war and, of course, are as opposed to a Syrian future governed by Al Qaeda as we are.
Quite apart from the reality of Iranian involvement in Syria, including them in the talks, if handled adroitly, might give the moderate Iranian president a useful boost in his on-going struggle against the Revolutionary Guard and other hard-liners.
Clearly acknowledging to Rouhani Iran's strategic interest in Syria — and thus rewarding his relative moderation and perhaps co-opting him a little — is more sensible than purposely cutting Iran out and encouraging it to play spoiler.
The Saudis don't like the Iranians. If a nuclear deal is signed, Iran would eventually eclipse what's left of Saudi influence in Washington. The Israelis like Iran even less, and, religion aside, for much the same reasons. Once a nuclear deal is reached Iran, would become an accepted and formidable player in the region, and unlike Iran under the Shah, it would lend a new and effective voice against both Israel's occupation policies as well as its nuclear monopoly.
What's hardly surprising now, as real progress in US-Iranian relations seems possible, is how AIPAC, the most powerful Israel lobby, has wound into high gear to stop it, even if war is the likely alternative.
And what's even less surprising — but more depressing — is how successful AIPAC has been. It has managed to get 26 senators, split evenly between Republicans and Democrats to introduce a bill that would threaten Iran with severe new stanctions in the event no deal resulted from the nuclear negotiations.
The deal the bill demands, total disarmament of Iran's nuclear program, follows precisely the Israeli government line. Forcing Iran, or any other country for that matter, to negotiate with a gun to its head is to scuttle negotiations before the opening statements have been exchanged.
Worse, the Senate bill states that in the event Israel were to launch an attack against Iran, the US Congress should "authorize the use of military force" to support Israel. The 26 senators are proposing that we obligate ourselves to finish a war someone else starts.
Encouragingly, the new “pro peace” and pro-Israel lobby, J Street, has made clear its opposition to the Senate bill.
Obama, showing more backbone than usual, has also made clear he will veto such a bill should it be approved by Congress: "If we're serious about negotiations, we've got to create an atmosphere in which Iran is willing to move in ways that are uncomfortable for them and contrary to their ideology and rhetoric and their instincts and suspicions of us. And we don't help get them to a position where we can actually resolve this by engaging in this kind of action."
One hopes that Obama won't have to veto this bill; one hopes that Congress will never pass it. One hopes that a lobby that supports the interests of a foreign country is not so powerful that it can get Congress to undermine the US national interest.
This article originally appeared on GlobalPost.