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Hichem Karoui: The standoff of ME peace
December 10, 2011
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Exclusive to The Gulf Today

In a lecture at the Brookings on Friday, Dec.2, US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta suggested that all of Israel’s problems in the region can be traced back to its own behaviour. Panetta seemed confident about the US ability to stop Iran before it acquires nuclear weapons. He said: “I want to be clear that Israel can count on three enduring pillars in US policy in the region, all of which contribute directly to the safety and prosperity of the Israeli people. First, our unshakable commitment to Israel’s security. Second, our broader commitment to regional stability. And third, our determination to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.”

Although such a discourse is plainly “classic” in its reassuring tone vis-a-vis the Israeli ally, it was ill received in Israel, for it opposed the Netanyahu understanding of the Iranian issue. Emphasising diplomacy and soft power conjugated with “unprecedented sanctions,” Panetta cited “Israeli estimates” to argue against an Israeli strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities because “it would set back (the programme) by one to two years at best.” He urged Israel to take risks and get to “the damn negotiating table” with the Palestinians, and “mend fences with countries like Turkey, Egypt and Jordan, which share an interest in regional stability” — in view of Israel’s “growing isolation in a volatile region.”

The “Israeli estimates” Panetta cited referred to the most outspoken opponents of the Netanyahu-Barak government, namely the former Mossad chief Meir Dagan, the ex-chief of staff Gaby Ashkenazi, former military intelligence chief Amos Yadlin, as well as Kadima leader Tzipi Livni.

Although some reports point to a deaf struggle currently opposing the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Minister of Defence Ehud Barak on the one side, to their military and intelligence establishment over exploiting the present conditions of turmoil in the Middle East to strike Iranian nuclear installations, it seems obvious that the war drums are getting increasingly noisy every day. However, on the US side, the restraint is almost at odds with the Israeli official defiance. It is also clear that the Israeli government does not much appreciate the US stance.

On Thursday, Dec.8, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal reported that from Sunday, Dec.4, when Tehran announced the stealth drone’s capture, the Obama administration weighed sending special commando forces into Iran from bases in Afghanistan to bring the downed aircraft back to Afghanistan or blow it up to destroy the almost intact secret systems — either by a sneak operation or by an air strike. Apparently, Obama decided not to send any force because he feared that if he did, the operation as minimal as it might be would have unscrutinised and unintended consequences.

Yet, soft power does not mean weak policy. A CRS report to the Congress issued in November 2011 identified Iran “as a major threat to US national security interests.” According to the report, this perception is generated by “uncertainty about Iran’s intentions for its nuclear programme (heightened by a Nov.8, 2011, International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report) as well as by Iran’s support for groups the United States considers terrorist organisations and its materiel assistance to anti-US militant groups in Iraq and Afghanistan. US officials also accuse Iran of helping Syria’s leadership try to defeat a growing popular opposition movement, and of taking advantage of Shiite majority unrest against the government of Bahrain. In October 2011, US officials accused Iran in October 2011 of plotting to assassinate the Saudi Ambassador to the United States.”

Since taking office in 2009, the administration has patiently pursued a two-track policy which seeks to persuade Iran to give up its nuclear weapons ambitions. First, there seemed to be some overture, which has never been pursued to its fulfilment. In June 2010, Washington weighed in to secure a harsh UN Security Council resolution and multilateral initiatives to impose new sanctions on Iran.

However, Iran did not yield to pressure. The two-track policy (a carrot and a stick) has also been used by the Bush administration without more success. Thus, the United States is now facing the rough reality of a more than ever challenging Iran. As two US scholars put it: “The United States needs to face facts and simply make the awful choice between waging war on Iran to destroy its nuclear programme (and perhaps overthrow the regime) or else simply accept a nuclear Iran and learn to live with it.”

As painful as it may sound to the Americans, such a choice is almost irreconcilable with the long and mid-term needs of the USA in the Middle East, for whatever the option they take (ie. war or acceptance of Iran’s nuclear ambitions), the embarrassment is granted. After all, for so many years the USA has been a “conservative” power in world policies, playing the role of the biggest partisan of the status quo.

Today, while the American efforts in favour of democratic change cannot be downplayed, the US interests remain concentrated and dependent to a large extent on traditional power interests. These interests include the security of energy, the preservation of the partnership with key regional allies, and the support to a “positive and relevant” stability in a region with an important experience of instability since the Second World War. Moreover, the Arab-Israeli peace process has become increasingly an integral part of the US strategic interests in the region, at least as a consequence of the US military involvement and the US desire to reformat the Arab-Islamic representation of the US and its role.

So, it seems that while the USA is putting Iran under huge pressure, forcing it to yield to inspection or face sanctions, the struggle that opposed them since the beginning of the talk about the Iranian nuclear programme is backfiring and leading to compelling the USA to no less a painful choice of yielding to Iran’s nuclear ambitions or waging war.

The author is an expert in US-Middle East relations at the
Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies (Doha Institute)

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