Daniel R. DePetris: The Political Docket

Obama’s Middle East Plan: Look at the Big Picture

Posted in Middle East and North Africa by Dan on July 1, 2009

There is no question that the Middle East is transforming in bold and unpredictable ways.  As Laura Rozen cites throughout her blog, recent political events throughout the region may gradually give the Obama administration a certain amount of leverage when the times comes for an American-Iranian nuclear negotiation.  Who would dispute this conclusion, especially when the Iranian democratic movement appears to be challenging the taken-for-granted principles of Tehran’s clerical establishment?  The powerful theocratic elite that once kept reformist dissent to reasonable levels are now shaking in their boots, behind their Shia Islamic values.  In fact, the ongoing protests and demonstrations throughout Iran’s major cities has all but forced Tehran’s mullahs to unleash a wave of violence aimed at diminishing the influence of moderates; a decision that contradicts the very doctrine that Iran’s leaders are supposed to uphold and represent.

When taking into consideration other noteworthy developments that may indeed strengthen Washington’s position- such as the defeat of Hezbollah in Lebanon’s parliamentary elections, the U.S. drawdown from Iraq’s major cities, and the sending of the first U.S. ambassador to Syria since 2005- Rozen’s statements seem all the more compelling.  How could Ayatollah Ali Khamenei continue his defying rhetoric against the international community- most publicly by bolstering the Islamic Republic’s nuclear capabilities- with these realities?  With the security situation seemingly aiding pro-western forces, it appears that the days of an emboldened Iranian regional power ruled by rejectionist politicians is coming to an emphatic end.

Yet, while such sentiment is desirable within the media, academia, and policymaking circles, every so-called “American victory” does not necessarily translate into an Iranian defeat.

First off, President Obama’s desire to mend differences between Washington and Bashar al-Assad’s regime will not magically produce an American-led re-alignment within the broader Middle East.  Contrary to what many pro-Obama sympathizers claim, a Syrian willingness to sit down (without preconditions) with the United States and Israel should not be seen as a willingness to establish a lasting peace between the west and the Arab community.  I hate to be a pessimist when it comes to an Arab-Israeli peace plan, but history has proven that Damascus is (and may always be) a persistent spoiler when a potential deal is in the works.  One only needs to look back at the year 2000, when the deceased Hafiz al-Assad rejected the reasonable offers of former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak.  If an agreement failed between these two countries earlier in the decade, what analyst in their right mind would truly believe that the year 2009 holds the potential for a dramatic diplomatic breakthrough?  Considering the fact that the Israeli Government seems opposed to sacrificing its Zionist vision for a “Greater Israel,” President Obama’s “visionary” strategy for the Middle East is all but doomed in the current circumstances.

Even if Jerusalem did agree to halt the construction of Jewish settlements in Palestinian lands, the irrational demands that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu views as crucial to any Israel-Syria normalization compromises the process.  As one may already know, these demands include a complete Syrian withdrawal of support from Hezbollah, Hamas, and Iran: three allies that Assad needs if he wishes to expand Syrian influence in his immediate periphery.  As long as the interests of Hezbollah and Hamas coincide with the interests of Syria, President Assad will not terminate this longstanding relationship.

Now on to the issues concerning Hezbollah.  Sure, there is no doubt that the defeat of the Hezbollah-led coalition in Lebanon’s recent elections is a victory for Arab moderates and for westerns at large.  One can only imagine what a Lebanese Government might look like if the U.S.-designated terrorist group took control of Beirut (an expansion of the Iranian-Syrian- Hezbollah-Hamas alliance comes to mind).  However, with that being said, Hezbollah’s leadership remains extraordinarily influential throughout the small Arab country.  Particularly in the south, where Hezbollah has always held sway over the population, locals routinely cite the Shiite militant group as the only legitimate political grouping serving the diverse interests of the people.  In Southern Lebanon, the pro-western regime in Beirut is consistently viewed with disdain and outright hostility…particularly for the regime’s ineffectiveness at delivering much-needed humanitarian relief.

In fact, one can rightly argue that a victory for Lebanon’s moderates is a victory for Hezbollah militants:  if those in power continue to manage a lackluster economy and fail to represent the average Lebanese citizen, the recruitment power of Hezbollah may increase dramatically in the coming months.  In addition, Lebanon’s election results demonstrate to the world how volatile and divided its political environment is.  Notice that the U.S.-backed coalition won with a slight margin against Hezbollah’s candidates.  Perhaps if the tally was lopsided for Lebanese moderates, Rozen’s optimism may be accurate.

As far as I am concerned, President Obama has done nothing concrete for Middle East in his first 5 months in the White House.  Besides attempting to convince Muslims throughout the world that the United States is a tolerant nation that will respect the interests of Arabs (an effort that is lackluster in the eyes of Middle Eastern leaders at best), his plans for the region have proven futile.  Even Mr. Obama’s recurring pressure on Israel has not resulted in any significant changes in Prime Minister Netanyahu’s settlement policies.  What successes does the Obama administration have to show to the world?  With respect to the comments of Kenneth Katzman, has the “chessboard” really moved in the direction of the United States?  Sadly, I think not.

-Daniel R. DePetris

-Information from The Israel Project contributed to this blog

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3 Responses

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  1. Laura Rozen said, on July 1, 2009 at 1:18 am

    The Iran chessboard, as seen by Team Obama
    Fri, 06/26/2009 – 7:10pm

    As the Obama White House has recalibrated and toughened its daily talking points on Iran in response to the violence of the post-elections dispute, the impression has emerged in some quarters that Washington is flustered by recent events, and indeed, that a wrench has been thrown in President Obama’s hopes for engaging Tehran.

    But recent administration assessments and conversations with outside government Iran watchers and nonproliferation experts offer a different view — one in which Obama’s hand may actually have been strengthened and Iran’s weakened by some overlooked recent events. Among the factors they cite: the outcome of recent elections in Lebanon, in which a pro-Western coalition won a majority over a coalition that includes the Iranian-backed Shiite militant group Hezbollah, the eagerness of Iran’s leading regional ally Syria to engage with Washington, Arab states’ generally positive response to the Obama administration’s strong push to negotiate Middle East peace and the creation of a Palestinian state. Beyond the Middle East, Obama’s aggressive non-proliferation initiatives and “reset” with Moscow could also end up increasing pressure on Iran, they said.

    “From 2003 to 2009, Iran was on a roll,” one senior administration official said Friday. “Expanding its sphere of influence, benefiting from a changed balance of power in the region, and generally optimistic about its world. Many said it was not possible to engage because Iran was so strong and thus disincented to do so.”

    “I do not think any credible analyst would say now that Iran feels that way anymore,” the official continued. “And I do not think any credible analyst would suggest the changes we have put on the table – from [Middle East peace envoy George] Mitchell to [Obama’s Iranian New Year’s] Nowruz [greeting] to Iraq to Cairo — did not have an impact in the region generally or in Iran particularly. ”

    “The chessboard is moving demonstrably in the U.S. direction.” That is the takeaway, said Congressional Research Service Middle East analyst Kenneth Katzman, from recent assessments by administration officials. “What I heard them saying is, ‘Let’s take advantage of that now, while we have the chessboard, and try to get a nuclear deal and get that resolved, rather than the whole ball of wax.'”

    Added Katzman, of the perceived trend: “The strategic picture in the Middle East has moved to the U.S. advantage. The Lebanon elections, reengagement with Syria, stability in Iraq, have added up to a shifting chessboard against Iran.”

    But he added, while there is some optimism that regional and global trends are working to the United States’ advantage on Iran, there is also diminished expectation that near-term engagement is likely to occur. At the earliest, it’s not expected — if at all — until the fall.

    Obama reiterated in an appearance with German Prime Minister Angela Merkel Friday that the U.S. goal remains to prevent Iran from having a nuclear weapons capability, not just a nuclear weapon. “Working with Germany, our other European partners, as well as Russia and China, we’re working to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapons capacity and unleashing a nuclear arms race in the Middle East,” he said.

    Recent U.S. assessments judge it would take a full year for Tehran to produce enough weapons grade highly enriched uranium for a nuclear weapon at its facility at Natanz, and that should it choose to do so, it would require technological retrofitting that the international community would be able to detect and have time to respond. They also take seriously the prospect of the regional chaos that could unspool if Israel chooses to strike Iran against Obama’s wishes which might draw the United States in.

    And indeed, not everyone is feeling optimistic. “My understanding is the president has had a much larger vision,” said one Washington Iran analyst on condition of anonymity. “He wanted a strategic dialogue with the Iranians, he gave them a pathway into the western camp that benefits the west, the people of Iran, and the larger picture: peace and stability in the Middle East.”

    “It’s very tough for the president to engage in a serious manner within the next three-to six months because of how the Iranian government has been conducting itself,” said the National Iranian American Council’s Trita Parsi. “It’s politically far more difficult for him to pull this off,” than before the Iranian government crackdown on opposition supporters. “I’m not saying it’s impossible.”

    “Some people are more optimistic, some are less,” said Georgetown Middle East expert Daniel Byman. “To me, we can hope to have more leverage, but we could have less. My impression is, we were going to try [engagement]. If it didn’t work, we’d move on. We would not be naïve that it would work.”

    Byman did think Iran would be feeling uncomfortable about some regional trends, including renewed Washington engagement with Syria, as well as the U.S. drawdown in Iraq. “The Syria thing is real in terms of pressure on Iran. Iran has only one strategic ally in the Middle East: Syria. The U.S. drawdown from Iraq is real. It reduces the vulnerability of America.”

    “The Obama administration’s approach to nonproliferation matters has quite changed the tone of discussion about Iran’s claims that the U.S. was being hypocritical,” said the Washington Institute for Near East Policy’s Patrick Clawson. Meantime, Iraq’s “Maliki government is working out quite nicely, the Syrians are eager to engage, Hezbollah is not throwing its weight around in Lebanon, and the situation in Pakistan has gotten to look more stable.”

    Given such trends, would Iran be tempted to try to make a deal? Not necessarily, said Clawson. Recent events, he said, show that Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is becoming “more of a risk taker and a gambler.”

    But Parsi offered an alternative theory. That a possible motive for the alleged vote fix was to preserve a united hard-line regime that could engage with the United States, without the internal rifts that plagued Iran the last time it had a reformist president split from the harder-line clerical establishment.

  2. Zathras said, on July 1, 2009 at 1:20 am

    Iran
    on Fri, 06/26/2009 – 11:50pm

    I don’t think the views presented, respectively, in the first and second paragraphs of this post are incompatible at all. I hope Obama and his team don’t delude themselves that the things breaking our way in the region are things they have caused to happen, or in particular that the reaction to the Iran election and its aftermath was handled well in Washington.

    Incidentally, this is not the first time I’ve seen in print the fantasy that Iran’s ruling clerics, its security services and their president planned to fix the election in order to pave the way for a “Nixon goes to China” engagement with the United States. I understand the audience for fantasy, but that’s what this is. There is no evidence whatever from any Iranian source that anyone in the regime is contemplating any such thing.

  3. Seth Edenbaum said, on July 1, 2009 at 1:21 am

    misconceptions
    Sun, 06/28/2009 – 1:28pm

    “There may also be a misconception about exactly how much the United States spends on these programs. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton seemed to echo that misunderstanding when she told reporters last Thursday that in contrast to U.S. aid for economic opportunity in Egypt, the U.S. government had spent “many billions of dollars over the last years promoting NGOs, promoting democracy, good governance, rule of law.” In fact, from 2004 to 2009, the United States has spent less than $250 million on such programs. Next to the 7.8 billion Americans pumped into the Egyptian military during that period, that seems a small price to pay to maintain some measure of credibility with America’s friends in the country — who quite justifiably argue that they, too, have a right to elect dynamic new leaders like President Obama.”

    Here’s the nub of it. Iran opposes the US military presence in the region, and vigorously supports resistance to Israeli expansionism. On these two points, the Iranian regime is closer than any other to the true sentiments of Middle Easterners.

    And this, fundamentally, is why Iran is imagined to be such a problem in the West: because it’s a Venezuela or a Cuba of a country. Iran is troublesome not because it’s any more obscurantist or dictatorial than its neighbours, but because it is less submissive.


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