Israeli/American debates about Iran
May 27, 2009 | AIJAC staff
Update from AIJAC
May 27, 2009
Number 05/09 #08
This Update looks at the ongoing debate between Jerusalem and Washington about the Iranian nuclear problem – especially in the wake of the Obama-Netanyahu meeting last week.
First up, distinguished American analyst Reuel Marc Gerecht looks in more detail at the most commonly discussed “linkage” urged with regard to Iran and Israel – that Israel should speed up progress on the Palestinian track in order to facilitate pressure against Iran. Looking at the regional realities and balance of power, he says this makes little sense because there is little the Arab states, who supposedly need Israeli-Palestinian progress to join a bloc against Iran, can do of significance to pressure the Iranians. In fact, Gerecht says, such a linkage may actually help the Iranians in the conflict with the establishment Middle Eastern states and therefore make matters worse. This is an important, longer article, with many details about the realities of the Middle East political state of play. To read it all, CLICK HERE. Meanwhile, the latest book by veteran Mideast mediator Ambassador Dennis Ross reportedly rules out a Middle East peace/Iranian nuclear program link, and Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak rejects such a link. But Israeli blogger Shmuel Rosner argues that the link exists as long as the US Administration believes it does.
Next up is the single most authoritative analysis we have seen of the details of the Obama-Netanyahu meeting – from Washington Institute for Near East Policy head Robert Satloff. Satloff looks at all the public statements and what they seem to mean – as well as some that were expected yet missing and what this may mean. However, his primary focus is on what he calls the “main headline”, Iran, and here he sees the seeds of potential Israeli-American conflict for various reasons. For Satloff’s complete parsing of the Obama-Netanyahu meeting, CLICK HERE.
Finally, Israeli columnist Orly Azoulay says Israelis will be looking closely at the American response to the North Korean nuclear test earlier this week to help gauge how the US will handle Iran. She points out that if North Korea gets away with its rogue nuclear actions, Iranian leaders will regard this as proof positive that Iran – a larger, more important country – can also do so. Further, she points out that North Korea is in and of itself a worry to Israelis given its record as a major proliferator – and her own experience in Pyongyang where she shared a hotel with seven floors of Iranian nuclear scientists and engineers. For her full argument, CLICK HERE. More comment on the North Korean nuclear test comes from editorials in the Jerusalem Post, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal.
Readers may also be interested in:
- US Armed Forces chief Adm. Mike Mullen says Iran is one to three years from a nuclear bomb, and if it gets one it would be “calamitous.”
- A secret Israeli report says Venezuela and Bolivia are supplying Iran with uranium.
- A novel suggestion for helping pressure Iran comes from American analyst Raymond Tanter.
- Various academics associated with the Middle East Strategy at Harvard (MESH) online community debate the likelihood that Iran will test a nuclear weapon and potential reactions here.
- Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad categorically rejects talks about Iran’s nuclear program.
- Israeli author Avigdor Haselkorn argues that public American efforts to rule out an Israeli military strike on the Iranian program is actually making such a strike more likely. Meanwhile, American columnist David Ignatius comments on reported Israeli and American efforts to sabotage Iran’s nuclear efforts.
- Two American analysts, Gary Gambill and Tony Badran, debate the effects of a Hezbollah win in Lebanon’s election.
- Michael Totten, a frequent visitor to Lebanon, has some comments on the reports that Hezbollah, not Syria, is now the prime suspect in the killing of former Lebanese PM Rafiq Hariri in 2005.
Arabs vs. Iranians
Courtesy of the Jews.
by Reuel Marc Gerecht
Weekly Standard, 06/01/2009, Volume 014, Issue 35
Americans like to think big in foreign policy, so they yearn to settle the Israeli-Palestinian confrontation. Both Democrats and Republicans have repeatedly tried to rally the region’s denizens for a “comprehensive settlement” and thereby transform the Middle East. George W. Bush’s desire to change the region’s politics by establishing a democracy in Iraq actually seems more timid, invested with fewer questionable assumptions, than the proposition that a settlement of the 60-year-old Israeli-Palestinian imbroglio will fundamentally change America’s standing among Muslims.
Nevertheless, confronted with the likelihood of an Iranian nuclear weapon, the Obama administration is loading ever more strategic expectations onto the people of the Holy Land. “For Israel to get the kind of strong support it’s looking for vis-à-vis Iran,” warned Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, “it can’t stay on the sidelines with respect to the Palestinians and the peace efforts.” The two “go hand in hand.”
According to Clinton, Arab states want “very much to support the strongest possible posture toward Iran. . . . They believe that Israel’s willingness to reenter into discussions with the Palestinian Authority strengthens them in being able to deal with Iran.” But does this really make sense? Might it be more likely that by throwing an American spotlight again on the Israelis and the Palestinians and the latter’s internal differences, the president will unintentionally help the Iranians more than us? The president could well, through determined efforts to bring peace, scare and weaken the Arab leaders he wants to help and further isolate the Israelis, leaving them on their own when it comes to stopping the Iranian quest for a bomb. Like its predecessor, the Obama White House is slowly backing into a containment strategy against the clerical regime. Unfortunately, what worked against the Soviet Union is unlikely to work against Iran.
Unstated in Secretary Clinton’s warning is the assumption that an Arab bloc could be assembled to oppose Iran, and that this would benefit Israel and the United States. But for all practical purposes we’ve seen an Arab bloc of Sunni dictators, kings, and sheikhs opposed to the Islamic Republic since 1979. And the results have been mixed. When Saddam Hussein invaded Iran in 1980, he had the sympathy of most Arab leaders. When his war started to go badly after the Iranian victory of Khorramshahr in 1982, he had the active support of the Gulf Arab states, especially Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. Their financial aid mattered. Without their support, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s die-hard believers probably would have collapsed the Baathist state.
This is the only instance of an Arab bloc producing a clear strategic victory over Iran. There is no contemporary parallel to the Iran-Iraq war alliance that could plausibly benefit either Israel or the United States. Iraq’s Shiite majority, though far from an ally of Tehran, absolutely doesn’t want to resuscitate the Sunni Arab vision of their country as a mailed fist against the Persian horde. The Iraqi Shia view themselves as being the victims of homegrown Sunni Arab dictators who regularly used pan-Arabism and the Iranian bogeyman–both Pahlavi and clerical–as a justification for oppression of Shiites.
When officials of the Bush administration tried to depict post-Saddam, democratic Iraq as a bulwark against Iran, Shiite Iraqi officials and clerics cringed. Historically the most religiously consequential land outside of Arabia–all of the most holy cities of Shiism are within its borders–Iraq never again wants to play in any Arab cold war against the region’s Shiite powerhouse. Such a contest could only roil Iraq’s still-dicey intercommunal relations, needlessly antagonize Tehran–which has shown itself willing to intrude lethally in Iraq’s politics–and put the Iraqi Shia community perversely on the side of the much-disliked Sunni kingdoms of Jordan and Saudi Arabia, the most anti-Shiite country in the world. So with Iraq out, the Obama administration can’t suggest that an anti-Iranian Arab alliance could militarily intimidate the mullahs. Against Iran, there are only two countries that matter militarily: the United States and Israel.
But perhaps it is an Arab alliance capable of intimidating Iran economically or spiritually that Secretary Clinton has in mind, once the Israelis make concessions to the Palestinians. This also seems far-fetched. Sunni Arab states have never effectively implemented economic sanctions against Iran since (1) they really don’t have anything to sanction–trade between the Islamic Republic and Sunni Arab states is so small as to be meaningless to the oil-based Iranian economy–and (2) most Arab states are connoisseurs of an Italian economic ethic: They will trade with their worst enemies, even if they don’t do so openly. It’s a very good bet that the commercially minded friends and family of Egypt’s ruler, Hosni Mubarak, who has for two years been warning his fellow Sunni Arabs about a rising Shiite menace, would gladly cut trade deals with Iran’s commercial elite.
This leaves us with the realm of soft power and the battle of religious ideas. Since 1979, a massive struggle has been taking place between Saudi Arabia and clerical Iran. The two countries, which see themselves as vanguards of the faithful and represent different but overlapping strains of Islamic fundamentalism, loathe each other. It is impossible to overstate the effect that their missionary tug of war has had on the practice of Islam in the Middle East, Central Asia, and Europe.
With nearly limitless funding and the advantage of holding to globally predominant Sunni Islam, Saudi Arabia decisively won the first round. The Saudi creed, Wahhabism, has pushed the Sunni identity in Arab lands in a profoundly conservative direction since the Islamic revolution. Institutions, like Egypt’s al-Azhar seminary, that once stood as bulwarks against the crude Wahhabi faith, have largely been coopted through Saudi-financed endowments and scholarships. The contemporaneous collapse of the political legitimacy of Arab secular dictatorships–in Egypt, Gamal Abdel Nasser was popular; his successor Anwar Sadat was increasingly disliked; his successor Hosni Mubarak is despised–has further opened the field to Islamist organizations, usually funded much more generously by the Saudis than by the Iranians. The communications revolution of the 1980s and 1990s allowed Muslim fundamentalists everywhere to propagate their views more efficiently and give each other spiritual reinforcement. At just the right moment, the Soviet-Afghan war (1979-89) gave the Sunni world’s most militant and intrepid jihadists a place to coalesce and refine their thoughts and skills.
This fundamentalist renaissance wouldn’t have been so intense without Saudi cash, and it certainly fortified anti-Shiite tendencies among many Sunnis. But a funny thing has happened in the last 15 years: Revolutionary Iran’s Islamic message has become a lot less Shiite, and the Sunni world’s embrace of revolutionary martyrdom and resistance to illegitimate government has become more Shiite. With deep roots in Islamic history, martyrdom isn’t a Shiite Iranian invention, but the modern theological sharpening of this instrument done by revolutionary Iranians and their Arab offspring, the Lebanese Hezbollah, produced a holy-warrior mentality in the early 1980s that was deeply admired by Sunni militants. And as radical Islam has modernized and globalized, its traditional divisions–Shiism versus Sunnism is one of the oldest–have become less important than modern “values,” such as anti-Americanism, anti-Semitism, and anti-Zionism.
There is still usually no love lost between Sunni and Shiite militants, but they can cooperate for higher causes, and the most felicitous common ground is their hatred of the United States, the cutting edge of the culture-destroying, female-liberating West, and its Palestinian-oppressing advance guard, Israel. This explains why al Qaeda militants would accept, and the clerical regime would offer them, laissez-passers even though elements of al Qaeda are virulently anti-Shiite. This explains why the Sunni fundamentalist mother ship, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, never an enthusiastically anti-Shiite organization, has become almost pro-Iranian; and why Hamas, a Palestinian offshoot of the Brotherhood, has gladly accepted arms and money from Tehran and shows no sign of diminishing its ties to the mullahs despite increasing pressure from the Mubarak government and Saudi Arabia, which also funds Hamas, to do so. The considerable popularity among Sunni Arabs of Hezbollah’s Hassan Nasrallah and Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad stems directly from their uncompromising, loud opposition to American influence and to the existence of a Jewish state in the Middle East.
The Obama administration appears to believe that having the rulers of Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia threaten to ramp up their rhetoric against the clerical regime would hurt the Islamic Republic. Although not particularly bold against Iran publicly, the Saudis are livid in private about recent Shiite riots in their own oil-rich Eastern Province and in Bahrain, where it is assumed, not necessarily correctly, that Iran had a hand in the trouble. Saudi Arabia may well again increase its funding for anti-Iranian missionary work. It’s a decent bet that Saudi Arabia will soon put pressure on impoverished Pakistan–which may have received financial assistance from Riyadh to build its “Muslim bomb”–to give the kingdom nuclear weapons if Iran goes nuclear. Neither America nor Israel can expect any good to come from this.
While Iraq’s Sunni community was losing the battle of Baghdad in 2006-07, President Mubarak and Jordan’s King Abdullah let loose a barrage of anti-Shiite diatribes aimed at the Iranians and the Iraqi and Lebanese Shia. Their efforts to paint a menacing Shiite arc, ready to strike at the Arab Sunni heartland like a scimitar, fell flat, especially in Egypt, where the population has certain Shiite sympathies. Both men still lobby vigorously against Iran behind closed doors, as do many of the fearful Arab Sunni potentates of the Persian Gulf states, but they are now more guarded in public. Mubarak is in the unenviable position of having the reverse-Midas touch. If he’s for something, the odds are good that a substantial portion of the Egyptian people would question whether it’s in their best interest. (Iran’s clerical overlords actually have a similar problem. This is one reason America’s image in the Islamic Republic has improved as the clerical regime has grown increasingly unpopular, and why even in the clerical stronghold of Qom young men and women mock the much-disliked ruling elite by joking about “Palestine”–a once holy cause that the young no longer find so sacred.)
Although Mubarak’s commitment to the peace process is very much in question (we can only assume that Clintonites serving in the Obama administration recall how assiduously Mubarak worked to undermine Palestinian-Israeli negotiations at the end of Bill Clinton’s presidency), what isn’t in question is how powerful the Muslim Brotherhood has become in Egypt. There are many reasons for this, but a not insignificant one is the Brotherhood’s unflagging hostility to the idea of a Jewish state in the Middle East.
To Egyptian Sunnis, Iran’s highly restricted democracy-cum-theocracy can actually appear progressive. Ali Larijani, one of the brightest, best-educated, and most lethal of Iran’s ruling elite, loves to highlight the likelihood of fundamentalists’ gaining political dominance in the Arab world if democracy spreads. No friend of representative government at home, Larijani is a big fan of it among Sunni Arabs. It’s a perverse situation for the United States: We back the corrupt autocrats, while the Iranian regime champions political reform, which probably would give significant political clout, if not outright dominance, to Muslim fundamentalists who have much more in common ideologically with Iran’s Islamists than with the United States. Among devout Sunni Arabs–easily over half the population in Egypt–Iran has the rhetorical high ground.
A loud Obama push for the peace process is much more likely to strengthen the Egyptian Brotherhood than weaken it. This is why Mubarak would probably repeat his behind-the-scenes sabotage of any meaningful negotiations that got off the ground. But it is highly unlikely that meaningful negotiations can begin, given the power of Hamas among Palestinians and the decrepitude of Fatah’s Palestinian Authority under Mahmoud Abbas.
What Mubarak needs most is American money and military hardware and some political means to put Hamas off balance in Gaza. But under no circumstances would he permit sufficient political progress among Palestinians that he could be labeled by the Muslim Brotherhood a betrayer of the faith. Nor would Mubarak ever dare favor dropping the demand for a Palestinian “right of return”–a nonnegotiable point for any Israeli government since the right of return would mean the end of the Jewish state. Although the peace-processing establishment in Washington may not admit it, Muslim fundamentalists have probably decisively won the argument about the illegitimacy of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations in the one country indispensable for any settlement: Egypt. Iran, not the United States, is playing the stronger hand here. Quite unintentionally, Obama is ready to make Iran stronger where it matters most.
Sooner or later it’s going to dawn on the administration, and others raised on the successful containment of the Soviet Union, that there is no way we can contain the Islamic Republic. Unless America’s armed forces shrink considerably, the United States can always repulse any Iranian military aggression–assuming we have the will to do so in the face of threatened nuclear retaliation. But that’s not where the Iranians are likely to probe, even once armed with the bomb.
The Islamic Republic was born as a revolutionary state that believed passionately in the power of ideas, backed up always by a good deal of nefarious activity. Ali Khamenei, Iran’s clerical overlord, no less than his predecessor, Ayatollah Khomeini, devoutly believes in a Middle East free of American influence. He too sees Israel as an insult to all that he holds holy. He is, however, no fool: He’s been a pretty patient and pragmatic revolutionary.
Khamenei and the ruling clerical elite will just keep pushing on the increasingly fundamentalist seams of the Middle East’s increasingly modern, troubled societies. In Hamas, they may well have found faithful Palestinians who will repeatedly confront the Israelis head on. United under Iran’s leadership, the Sunni and Shiite faithful will wear the Jews down, so the vision goes, in the same way that devout, uncompromising Muslims finally pushed the militarily accomplished crusaders out of the Near East. A profound love of paralleling Israel’s end with the demise of the crusader states is just one of many things that radical Sunnis and Shiites have in common.
So are economic sanctions the answer? It’s difficult to imagine the Europeans’ doing what would be necessary. Any serious sustained sanctions regime against the Islamic Republic must target the energy sector. The Iranians would be able to show easily the human suffering that comes with such measures. It’s extremely unlikely the Europeans–who still recoil from the real civilian damage done to Iraq by Western sanctions against Saddam, who did his best to amplify and parade his people’s pain–would have the stomach to hurt Iran.
Instead, Europeans’ commercial appetites will continue to reinforce their moral sensibilities. The Islamic Republic offers a much more complex picture of good and evil cohabiting within the same society than did Baathist Iraq. Iran’s exquisite contradictions–its age-old beauty that so easily enraptures–will make it virtually impossible for the United States to sustain sanctions that are more than seriously annoying. Obama, who fiercely criticized George Bush’s unilateralism, will not want to alienate Europeans by trying to coerce them into sanctions with bite. Measures that only annoy Tehran will be enough neither to stop the nuke nor to change the regime.
The day after the mullahs test their nuke–as they probably will, to make sure that we know they have it–we are likely to see any European resolve in favor of sanctions evaporate rapidly. The appeasement-cum-engagement reflex will kick in heavily. As in the Cold War, the United States cannot box in the enemy all by itself. We need the Europeans. And they are unlikely to be sufficiently helpful.
Which brings us back to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process: It is at best irrelevant to our efforts to tame the Islamic Republic, though it could well hurt us. A sensible, historically sensitive onlooker can only laugh contemplating what Jordan and Egypt could do against Iran. They are weak states (blessed with highly proficient internal-security services) whose leaders no longer possess much ideological or religious clout, even within their own borders. As for Saudi Arabia, the last thing in the world we ought to want to see happen is the Saudis trying to line up Sunni fundamentalists against the mullahs. It’s not 1979. Their best efforts are likely to backfire horribly. And the thought of Saudi Arabia, where al Qaeda is strong and your ordinary Wahhabi believer is frightful, possessing nukes is enough to make any Israeli–or American–believe in the apocalypse.
Truth be told, unless the Iranians do something really stupid–like sponsor another terrorist attack against the United States or our allies, and thereby force Obama to contemplate preemptive strikes against the Islamic Republic’s nuclear facilities–the Israelis are all alone. No one is coming to their rescue.
Reuel Marc Gerecht is a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD and a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
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The Obama-Netanyahu Meeting: Analysis and Assessment
By Robert Satloff
PolicyWatch #1518, May 21, 2009
This week’s White House meeting between President Barack Obama and Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu was both uneventful and momentous — and because of this, its ramifications are likely to ripple throughout U.S. and Middle East politics far into the future.
Unmet Expectations of Conflict
The party most upset by the outcome of the Oval Office tete-a-tete was surely the press corps — both U.S. and Israeli — which had seemed eager to see these two savvy, confident politicians locking horns. In fact, both Obama and Netanyahu were effusively warm toward each other in public, with the former extolling their “extraordinarily productive” 105-minute private discussion and the latter calling his host a “great” leader no fewer than four times (and this, just over 100 days into his presidency!)
Indeed, each leader dismissed with brief remarks disputes that existed largely in the imaginations of newspaper columnists and bloggers. By committing himself to “simultaneous and parallel” pursuit of Arab-Israeli peacemaking and efforts to prevent Iran’s acquisition of a nuclear weapons capability, Netanyahu resolved a thorny chicken-and-egg dispute over which comes first. And by recognizing the legitimacy of Israel’s “existential” fears regarding Iranian nuclear ambitions, Obama recognized implicitly the principle that Israel has the right to take any action necessary to prevent those fears from becoming reality. Having speedily dispensed with potential philosophical confrontations in their relationship, the two leaders were able to focus on practical matters.
What They Said and What They Did Not
The two leaders made quite a bit of news on different aspects of the Arab-Israeli peace process, including early hints of a new U.S. peace initiative and the resurrection of the 2003 Quartet Roadmap as a reference for Israeli-Palestinian accountability. There was very little public discussion, however, of how to resolve the most serious obstacle to progress in Israeli-Palestinian talks: the structural division between a Hamas-led Gaza and a Palestinian Authority (PA)-led West Bank. And there was no public discussion at all of the Syrian peace track.
A regional initiative. The new innovation the Obama administration seems ready to inject into Arab-Israeli peacemaking is the transformation of the Saudi-inspired Arab Peace Initiative (API) into an operational plan that could incentivize progress on the bilateral track through action on the regional front. From the outset, the API was more an abstract statement of intent (summarized as “all Arab states would make peace with Israel once Israel resolved all issues with Palestinians, Syrians, and Lebanese”) than an active plan to help the core parties make progress in those negotiations. As current and former Washington Institute fellows David Makovsky and Dennis Ross have argued for years, the terseness of the API underscored the need for an “Arab Roadmap” to parallel the bilateral Roadmap. Reports that Obama’s Middle East envoy George Mitchell has asked Arab states to consider small confidence-building measures that would proceed in tandem with steps by Israel, such as granting overflight rights to Israeli civilian aircraft, are examples of what the administration evidently has in mind to start this process.
The relevance of a “23-state solution” approach, as it was termed recently by British foreign secretary David Miliband, to promoting the “two-state solution” will depend on whether the Arab contribution to peacemaking is connected to political realities. In the early Oslo era, Israelis were smitten with the idea of economic conferences in Casablanca and water desalination projects with Oman. Today, in the jaded era of suicide bombers, Qassam rockets, and the Hamas coup in Gaza, Israelis are far more concerned with basic security matters than with peripheral political achievements. If Arab states can contribute on that front — by taking unprecedented action to cripple Hamas, strengthening the Palestinian Authority, and working with Israel to prevent smuggling of weapons, money, and technology to anti-peace elements — then a regional initiative has a real chance of bolstering peace prospects. The same is true of Arab states providing a diplomatic umbrella for Palestinians to make historic compromises on key issues of refugees and Jerusalem. However, a warmed-over repeat of the Madrid-era regional track of negotiations or the injection of small-bore, reversible normalization steps is unlikely to produce any more progress on the core diplomacy than did the first effort a decade-and-a-half ago.
Return to the Roadmap. A second key element of the Obama-Netanyahu exchange was, effectively, the resurrection of the Roadmap as a point of reference for progress in Israeli-Palestinian relations. Here, the president referred specifically to the phase-one requirements to which each side committed itself: for the Palestinians, action on security, counterterrorism, and incitement; for the Israelis, action on settlement activity. Most observers read a looming crisis with a Likud-led Israeli government into the president’s statement that “settlements must stop.” In fact, chances of this are less likely than they seem. Unless Netanyahu opts for a Har-Homa-type poke in the eye to Obama, U.S.-Israeli differences over settlement activity revolve around Israeli government support for “natural growth” in existing built-up areas within settlements. Discussions on this can be arcane but contentious; still, the two sides have figured out ways to manage such disagreements in the past and can readily do so again if they want to. Israel is likely to avoid a clash on this topic, precisely because it welcomes a return to the Roadmap, as signaled in the very first statements made by new Israeli foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman when he came to office two months ago. That is because the Roadmap offers a sequence of performance-based peacemaking steps more amenable to Israel’s governing coalition.
Will the Roadmap be the touchstone of U.S. efforts on Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking? The president was ambiguous, and the prime minister, by affirming his Annapolis-style willingness to immediately restart political talks with the Palestinians, was as well. Interestingly, President Obama referred to both the Roadmap and Annapolis in the same sentence — despite the fact that they reflect different concepts in peacemaking. The former, one should recall, sets out a very specific timetable of action, in which any diplomatic engagement comes after the two parties fulfill preliminary requirements; by contrast, Annapolis was premised on a major Israeli concession — Israel’s willingness to proceed directly to negotiations on the permanent-status arrangement without progress by the two parties on phase-one obligations. (Annapolis did include the idea that implementation of any agreement would await fulfillment of Roadmap obligations.) Still, no matter how much the language is parsed, the Roadmap and Annapolis represent differing models of diplomacy — and before long this contrast is likely to make itself felt.
In this regard, the difference between Obama’s use of the “two-state solution” formula and Netanyahu’s reference to living “side by side” in “security and peace” with Palestinians who will not have “a handful of powers that could endanger the state of Israel” is more rhetorical than substantive. What is more significant is their potential divergence over the Roadmap and Annapolis models of peacemaking.
A strategy for the PA-Hamas split. At least in terms of their public exchange, the elephant in the room vis-a-vis the Israeli-Palestinian peace process was the absence of any common strategy for dealing with the division between Hamas-controlled Gaza and the PA-led West Bank. Despite the flurry of activity on regional peacemaking, the structural impediment to peace is the persistence of Hamas rule in Gaza and the threat that Hamas poses to PA governance in the West Bank. Without a solution to this problem, diplomatic progress between Israel and the PA has no chance; after all, the odds are nil that Israel will contemplate territorial withdrawal in the West Bank without ironclad certainty that the Gaza episode will not be repeated. There are hopeful signs on the ground, especially the progress of Lt. Gen. Keith Dayton’s train-and-equip mission for Palestinian security forces, but so far this has only produced 1,500 troops spread out throughout the West Bank. The president’s comments about the importance of permitting humanitarian goods into Gaza notwithstanding, no clear sign emerged that he and his Israeli counterpart reached agreement on a strategy for dealing with the PA-Hamas rift: Do they support or oppose a Palestinian unity government, as advocated by some Arab states? Do they support a Palestinian election in early 2010 as a way to bolster PA president Mahmoud Abbas or oppose it because of the risk that Hamas may win again? Do they support or oppose building up forces loyal to Abbas for an eventual effort to retake Gaza from Hamas? Reaching early agreement on these questions is critical.
Ignoring Syria. Nothing rattles the Syrian leaders more than evidence of their irrelevance, and they received a salutary dose of that when the word “Syria” was not mentioned in the leaders’ public comments. The Bashar al-Asad regime was already smarting over George Mitchell’s failure to visit Damascus to this point. Whether by design or happenstance, the two leaders’ lack of public referral to the Syrian track suggests at least two things about Obama: he does not appear to view progress on this track as even approaching the emotive importance of progress on the Palestinian track for improving U.S. relations with Muslim states and peoples, nor does he appear to view progress on the Syria track as the key to a “strategic realignment” that would weaken Iran and make it more ready to compromise. None of this is to suggest that the president will not be eager to pursue diplomatic opportunities if they arise — indeed, Netanyahu announced on his arrival back in Israel that he is willing to open talks with Syria “without preconditions” — but Obama certainly gave no hint on Monday that he believes Syria holds the key to progress on the critical issues of peace and war in the region.
The Main Headline: Iran
While all these important themes emerged from the leaders’ meeting, the main headline concerned Iran — namely, the president’s statement that he rejected an “artificial” deadline for U.S.-Iranian negotiations but that the United States would be in a position to judge whether talks were proceeding in “good faith” by the end of 2009. What makes this date — six months after Iran’s presidential election — less artificial than any other is not clear; if reputable news outlets like the Wall Street Journal are to be believed, this date is two to three months later than the deadline for reassessing talks with Iran that senior officials had briefed to journalists just a couple of weeks ago. It is also not clear whether the United States — and, more importantly, its current and potential partners in Europe, Russia, China, India, and the Persian Gulf — will be ready at year’s end to implement the “crippling” sanctions on Iran that Secretary of State Clinton foreshadowed in her Senate testimony last month or whether the international community must first await the judgment about Iran’s good faith, with any imposition of sanctions coming later. In either case, it is clear that the Obama administration has wagered that a strategy of “carrots first, sticks later” will achieve better results than a strategy of “bigger carrots, bigger sticks.” Perhaps the administration, having concluded that its partners had no stomach for stiffening sanctions now, simply decided to make the best of a bad situation. Regardless, both Tehran and Jerusalem are likely to interpret the president’s announcement in a similar light — that for at least the next six months, Iran’s centrifuges will almost surely continue to spin and Iran will incur no significant additional cost for this action. Decisions on what to do about this situation will be made in 2010.
However logical in terms of what the diplomatic traffic will bear with our allies, this timetable increases the chances of a collision between the United States and Israel in 2010 — a collision that has the potential to be even more damaging to U.S.-Israeli relations than the face-off over Suez a half-century ago. Assuming the carrots-first strategy does not bear fruit by year’s end, the collision would be borne of an Israeli assessment that the time available to compel, through sanctions, a real change in Iranian nuclear activity is running out and that the time for more direct preventive action is at hand. Even defining when it would be “too late” for more coercive diplomacy to work will be a point of disagreement — on Monday, President Obama referred narrowly to preventing Iran from “obtaining a nuclear weapon,” whereas Prime Minister Netanyahu said that “the worst danger we face is that Iran would develop nuclear military capabilities.” The difference between actually having a weapon (Obama’s red line) and achieving the capability to develop one (Netanyahu’s red line) is stark.
A collision on Iran policy is neither certain nor foreordained; the two sides have ample time to work out a common strategy and division of labor to address this problem. Perhaps the administration’s strategy will reap dividends this year; if not, perhaps the administration will invest as much energy and power in compelling Iran to change course in 2010 as it is in enticing them to do so in 2009. But given the enormous equities at stake and the fundamental differences in perception between a small state that sees its national existence in peril and a global superpower that sees this issue as one among several urgent problems to address, great care must be taken in both Washington and Jerusalem to prevent this divergence from metastasizing into the worst crisis in the six decades of U.S.-Israeli relations.
Robert Satloff is executive director of The Washington Institute, author of The Battle of Ideas in the War on Terror (2004) and host of Dakhil Washington (“Inside Washington”), a public affairs talk show on al-Hurra satellite television.
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The North Korean lesson
All eyes on Obama as world awaits for response to North Korean nuke test
The harsh sounds of the nuclear test undertaken by North Korea resonated loudly through the corridors of power in Washington.
White House officials know that the actions undertaken by North Korea in recent months will require Barack Obama to come up with a creative and different solution. The sanctions imposed by the West on the Communist country were found to be wholly ineffective.
The White House is also quite aware of the fact that when a small and isolated country like North Korea gives the American superpower the finger, this has implications in Tehran as well. Should the US fail to stop Pyongyang, Tehran’s appetite will grow, and then it would be impossible to stop the snowball effect: Should Iran fail to halt its nuclear program, Israel would act, and if Israel acts, the Middle East will be on fire.
White House officials also know that in Jerusalem as well all eyes are on the US and its response: Should it fail to stop North Korea, Israel would lose the little trust it has in America’s ability to stop Iran through diplomatic means.
Officials in Tehran have been monitoring events in North Korea with great interest, and now they are impatiently waiting to see the punishment. Representatives of the Ayatollahs indeed condemned the use of nuclear weapons, yet officials in Washington understood well that in the absence of an appropriate response to the North Korean test, Tehran would interpret it as the West’s inability to enforce rules of play even on a small state whose existence is mostly characterized by misery.
Policymakers in Washington realize that it would be even harder to get Iran to engage in dialogue over its nuclear program: If North Korea disregards the West, why should Iran do it when it’s a much bigger country?
The US expressed concern on Monday: North Korea recklessly challenges the international community, Obama declared in a special statement. North Korea’s nuclear program poses a “grave threat to the peace and security of the world and I strongly condemn their reckless action,” he said, vowing to redouble efforts to prevent Pyongyang from acquring nuclear weapons.
Israel too has a serious cause for concern: North Korea is indeed geographically distant from Israel, yet its cooperation with Iran and Syria constitutes an immediate threat. North Korea denied that it was involved in the activity at the bombed Syrian nuclear site, yet photographs clearly showed that scientists from Pyongyang worked alongside Syrian scientists in the compound.
In the past, when I visited Pyongyang, I stayed in the only hotel in town, which only hosts foreigners. The journalists stayed on one floor, while all other seven floors were occupied by Iranian engineers and scientists.
At this time, the president will have to decide on America’s policy vis-à-vis North Korea. He knows that Tehran will be monitoring him closely while attempting to take advantage of any response that can be interpreted as weakness. He knows that Israel too will seek to understand how Obama intends to stop Iran using diplomatic means, when he could not even restrain Pyongyang.