Cheney lobbies Arab support against Tehran
Guest Column: Dr. Gary Sick of Columbia, the preeminent U.S. scholar and analyst on Iran (and former NSC staffer and author of “The October Surprise”), earlier today mailed out an astute analysis of the meaning of the Annapolis summit for the Bush Administration’s Iran policy, and I’m deeply honored that he agreed to it being republished here. I had earlier noted that Annapolis is essentially a photo opportunity symbolizing a process yet to occur. Gary takes it further, however, noting that the deeper purpose behind such symbolism may lie less in what it says about U.S. policy towards the Palestinians, than in what its authors hope will be its ability to create political cover for Arab regimes to cooperate with the U.S. and Israel against Iran. At the same time, he points out, a countervailing tendency may be at work on the ground in Iraq, where the U.S. military and diplomatic representatives appear to be actively dialing down tensions with Iran, further diminishing prospects for a military confrontation between Washington and Tehran. Gary argues that while some factors now point towards the possibility of a U.S. opening to Iran in the final year of the Bush Administration, this remains a “policy that dare not speak its name,” meaning that any such shift will definitely not be declared even if it is underway.
A Policy That Dare Not Speak its Name
By Gary Sick
There are several things going on at once in U.S. Middle East strategy. Perhaps these are unrelated or coincidental, but it is more interesting — and potentially more illuminating — to look at them as separate moving parts of a larger scheme.
The United States has a very large problem in the Middle East. It is called Iran. Since the Bush administration removed at least temporarily Iran’s most dangerous enemy to the east (the Taliban in Afghanistan), wiped out its most dangerous enemy in the west (Saddam Hussein in Iraq), and installed a sympathetic Shia government in Baghdad, Iran has almost inevitably emerged as a much more powerful player. With no local powers to serve as a balance, Iran is rapidly assuming a position as one of the two major poles of political power in the region. The other, and its natural rival, is Israel.
Having inadvertently created this problem, the United States is now trying to solve it, or at least to exploit the opportunity, by building a counter-coalition comprised of the Sunni Arab states (specifically Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the smaller Gulf states) plus Israel. The United States hopes to persuade the main line Arab states to cooperate, even if tacitly, with Israel to confront Iran. This requires the United States to do two things for its erstwhile Arab allies:
1. Provide security cover against Iran, which comes primarily from the presence of U.S. military forces in the region, especially the aircraft carrier task forces that operate in and out of the Persian Gulf. But it also includes beefing up domestic Arab military capabilities (and satisfying the appetites of their own military establishments) by sales of sophisticated military equipment. The United States has announced a plan to offer more than $50 billion dollars in aid and arms sales to the Arab states over the coming decade, while providing $20 billion in arms aid to Israel.
2. It must also show convincing progress on an Arab-Israel peace settlement. Evidence of progress on that front provides the necessary political cover to permit the Arab states to cooperate quietly with Israel on the Iranian front.
The massive new arms sale package together with a new U.S. initiative on the Arab-Israel front offers an enticing package for Arabs and Israelis alike, and all have embraced it with varying degrees of enthusiasm. In some respects, it is an offer they cannot refuse — and only the United States has the military and diplomatic capital to make it. The offer is reinforced by unrelenting U.S. efforts to press for a new round of sanctions against Iran by the UN Security Council over its nuclear program, but also to expand U.S. unilateral sanctions and promote new voluntary sanctions by European states if the Security Council proves too recalcitrant.
A New Twist?
Although one can agree or disagree with the strategy and its prospects for success, all of these steps at least appear to be consistent. But there is another effort underway that seems to contradict this grand scheme.
Over the past several weeks, there has been a quiet process of apparent concessions and small gestures of approval between the United States and Iran in Iraq. General Petraeus told the Wall Street Journal that Iran “made promises at the highest levels of the Iranian government to the highest levels of the Iraqi government. These were unequivocal pledges to stop the funding, training, arming and directing of militia extremists in Iraq. It will be hugely significant to see if that’s the case.” Only a few weeks earlier, U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates had noted that the discovery and use of improvised explosive devices (IED) of suspected Iranian origin in Iraq had declined, along with the general decline of violence associated with the U.S. military surge and new counter-insurgency tactics.
In between these two announcements, the U.S. military released nine Iranians who had been arrested and held for many months. Even more unusual was the fact that the release of these men, now officially labeled of “no continued intelligence value,” had been reviewed only a few months earlier and rejected. Stranger still, they were identified as members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps and its special intelligence division, the Qods Brigade, which had just been officially designated a terrorist organization by the U.S. government. Shortly thereafter, the Iraqi government announced that a fourth round of direct talks between the United States and Iran would take place in the near future.
So, what is going on here? Obviously it is still very early to draw any hard conclusions. A U.S. military spokesman recently linked Iran to a bombing in Baghdad by a splinter sect of the Mahdi Army, so perhaps this episode of good will was only a tiny deviation in an otherwise consistent policy of hostility. Or perhaps this was a goodwill gesture not to the Iranians but to the Iraqis who had been insisting that the Americans release their Iranian hostages and proceed with the Iraqi-sponsored talks. Or perhaps this was merely an odd concatenation of events, purely a coincidence.
Realism and the Precipice of the Presidency
I withhold judgment for now, but I think this series of unexpected events that got very little media attention was important in several ways. First, it tends to put the lie to all the heated speculation that the United States is about to bomb Iran. I never thought the likelihood of that was very high, due to the political and military constraints on the administration in Washington, but this seems to underline quite a different approach.
Second, it lays a more constructive background for the next round of U.S.-Iranian talks in Baghdad, which should convene in the near future. The three meetings to date have been largely devoted to shouting at each other across the table. These recent events suggest that a more realistic and practical bargaining process might be underway.
Finally, I note that U.S. foreign policy is increasingly in the hands of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who is showing herself to be a consummate realist, particularly as the neo-conservative ideologues increasingly find themselves without government employ and quarantined from the policy process, and as the Office of the Vice President watches its policy influence evaporating almost by the day. I am particularly intrigued by the fact that administration policy toward North Korea and the Palestinian issue have effectively reversed in the past year (regardless of pro-forma administration claims that the policies remain steady and unchanging).
Is there room in these last months of a lame duck presidency to craft a modest opening to Iran, while maintaining a stout anti-Iranian coalition? Well, if we are to heed the cries of alarm emanating from the neo-conservatives as they watch their grandiose plans to add a third front to the War on Terror crumple into the dustbin of history, perhaps there really is something going on here.
Nevertheless, since this is a policy that dare not speak its name, even if these titillating signals are true, no turning point will be announced in blaring trumpets, and the message about Iran will be cloaked in vitriol and bile to prevent creating undue alarm among American conservatives and among the Arabs who are only now signing on to a long-term strategy to counter the “Iranian threat” but who also deeply fear the possibility of a sudden deal between the United States and Iran. (They can’t forget the shah and Iran-contra.)
The two individuals most likely to view these developments with quiet satisfaction are James Baker and Lee Hamilton, whose original policy prescriptions in the Iraq Study Group all seem to be coming true as George W. Bush approaches the precipice of his presidency.