Annapolis and Iran

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.

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21 Responses to Annapolis and Iran

  1. dass says:

    Ok I tend to be a cynic when it comes to US foreign policy, so this is what I have to say…

    1) I think I will agree with one of Mr. Sick’s point that is another new round of dog and pony show put on by the presidency of George Bush. Remember that when we were about to attack Iraq in 2003, we did the same thing…we put on this charade where Abbas met with Sharon, where Sharon told everyone how much he desired peace with Palestinians, only if they would let him. Bush told Sharon not to bulldoze any more Palestinian homes while he would invade Iraq…once the Arab streets got quiet after the invasion, then Sharon could continue on with whatever anti-Palestinian pet project he had in mind

    Right now Bush is a lame duck and the only supporters he has are the neocons (remember he couldnt afford to lose their support, so he pardoned Libby).

    The supporters of Israel are not so stupid as to believe that US wants to make peace overtures with Iran. Even if they did feel that it is coming to this, I doubt they would allow it and would attempt to sabotage any deal, eother by threatening Congress with electoral defeat or by other means.

    Elliot Abrams still works for Condi Rice and the last time I checked, that felon still was very much anti palestinian. I doubt he would let Condi be a “consummate realist” as far as this peace process goes.

  2. dass says:

    just to further support my point…here is one BBC article

    “The United States is worried that an upsurge in conflict in the West Bank and Gaza could make it more difficult to win allies in the Arab world for a war on Iraq.

    And with the US midterm elections just weeks away, President Bush wants to keep the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on hold. ”

    I will post more as I find them. stay tuned…

  3. FredJ says:

    The Annapolis meeting doesn’t seem to have much meaning of it’s own so people create meaning with their imagination. This doesn’t guarantee that they are wrong, however. It merely makes it unlikely.

    If Bush and Rice want to impress the Arabs with the peace between Israel and the Palestinians, he has a problem; Hamas. They are very much in the way and there isn’t going to be much change until they no longer part of the equation. And Hamas seems to be gaining power, not losing it.

    And how is this photo-op followed by still more talks going to move the Arabs to help Bush in time for him to use this new support?

    And how is Arab support supposed to help with Iran anyway? Will they provide troops or provide overflight rights? Or will they enforce sanctions and boycotts? Brotherly persuasion to their Persian brothers? What?

    Neither Mr. Sick nor Ms. Rice seem to be making a great deal of sense.

    I think the meeting won’t bring peace and the photo-op won’t even produce good photos — unless they all strip to the waist and wrestle in the snow.

    On the other hand, if Israel launches decisively destructive moves against Hamas in the next few months, perhaps the theory of Mr. Sick will be vindicated. It’s really the only way to “Strengthen Abbas” enough.

  4. dass says:

    I just finished watching C-span with Shmuel Rosner on, where he gives his thoughts on the Annapolis meeting..I am not quite sure what to make of the guy..I wanna say I like him because he is from Haaretz ( a supposedly liberal newspaper) and that he is very practical, but his answers always strike me as defending Ariel and other right wing sentiments, even though I think he knows they are not right…..

    anyways enough with my late night to bed

  5. Tony says:

    Dass, frankly, I always wonder why Haaretz gives such prominence to Rosner, because he’s so at odds with the paper’s orientation — he’s a rightwing Zionist, as far as I can tell…

  6. Bernard Chazelle says:

    Gary Sick’s analysis is, indeed, very intriguing.

    The effort underway to decouple Syria and Iran by allowing the Syrians in Annapolis to say “Golan” and Condi to ignore it is also interesting (though sure to fail).

    As I write at greater length on the blog “A Tiny Revolution,”
    I am not sure the Israelis see a need to rush.
    I’ll just quote a short excerpt if it’s OK:

    “… for the majority of Israelis (at least those not on the receiving end of Qassams in Sderot), the conflict is no more than an irritant. The Palestinians have finally been contained in their jail and the Israelis have found in Abbas a suitable quisling to keep the inmates from rattling their cages too loudly.

    Palestinian terrorism is at an all-time low. The Israelis are in no rush. Plus, their political leaders are weak and in no position to make the hard choices needed to implement Taba. If anything, Iran is now a higher strategic priority for Israel. Israel might release 450 Palestinian prisoners (out of 10,000) but, before you pop the champagne, remember that in October alone it arrested 600 of them. Olmert might promise to remove the illegal outposts: yes, the same outposts that he’s promised to remove for years.”


    “What too many observers in the US fail to appreciate is how close to extinction the two-state solution has advanced. We are nearing the point of no return, after which only a binational state will remain viable. The growth in the settlements (nearly half a million strong, counting Jerusalem – a 100% increase since Oslo) makes a return to ’67 increasingly unfeasible.”

    Re. Rosner, I disagree with almost everything he writes, but I admire Haaretz for being so open-minded. From Gideon Levy to Shmuel Rosner, that’s a range you’ll never see in a mainstream US newspaper.

  7. Gary says:

    As a long time observer of and visitor to the Middle East, I have essentially reached the same tentative conclusions as Mr. Sick.

    As I see it, the bottom line is that the US is running out of steam and realizing that even with its overwhelming military power, it cannot control the region to its benefit. It must make deals with the native peoples. I also believe that it is becoming increasingly clear to the non-neo-cons in Washington that Israel is an ever increasing geopolitical liability that produces no dividends for the U.S. Indeed, throughout its history Israel’s interventions in the region have only been in response to crises it has brought on.
    Those who see it as a strategic asset are in effect praising the arsonist for temporarily putting out the fire.

    We must not forget that those Arab rulers who Bush is counting on sit on shaky thrones. While they fear Hezb Allah and Hamas, the Arab street holds them in high esteem, especially the former. Furthermore, I believe Washington has already told Israel that even though it was never likely, it must not attack Iran as the consequences would be a disaster.

    In short, we are rapidly approaching the day when Washington is going to have to choose between Israel and the Arab/Iranian world. The outcome is obvious. Sooner or later, all great nations (especially during times like the US is now experiencing geopolitically and economically) act in their own best interests and the best interests of the US will not be served by continuing its “passionate attachment” to or “special relationship” with Israel.

    While it may yet be preceded by a “two state” solution (i.e., Annapolis is the last chance), inevitably there will be one state for both peoples between the River Jordan and the Med. Like all nineteenth century racist colonialist ideologies, zionism will be relegated to the dustbin of history.

  8. Gary says:

    No need to comment on the importance and significance of this recent news item and its further confirmation of Mr. Sick’s thesis.

    WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President George W. Bush met Iraqi Shi’ite leader Abdul Aziz al-Hakim at the White House on Tuesday and discussed the importance of starting formal negotiations about a long-term relationship between the two countries, the White House said.

    Bush met Hakim, leader of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, in the Oval Office after returning from the Annapolis conference on Middle East peace.

    Hakim’s party has close ties with Iran, which the United States accuses of funding, training and arming Shi’ite militias blamed for sectarian bloodshed in Iraq.

    Iran denies the charges and blames the violence in Iraq on the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.

    White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said the leaders discussed the improving security situation in Iraq and the importance of the agreement reached by Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to start formal talks next year about the long-term relationship between Iraq and the United States.

    They also talked about “the tribal awakening” — the coming together and meeting of Sunni and Shi’ite groups from areas that have seen some of the worst sectarian violence in the past, Perino said.

    And they discussed “the importance of the need for support from Iraq’s neighbors as Iraq moves forward,” she said.

  9. Jorge says:

    Annapolis is an attempt to squeeze Hamas INTO the process. But it’s not going to work. Without Hamas, the process cannot go forward. And without Hamas, Iran doesn’t bite, either.

    On the positive front, Iraq is now on the way towards a peaceful resolution. Mark it now: peace by June ’08.

  10. Arnold Evans says:

    It looks like the Israel/Palestine dispute is one where both sides feel time is on their side.

    While Palestinian attacks on civilians are at an all time low and Israel feels it can wait things out, Iran is becoming more powerful and the Saudis less beholden to the United States and the Palestinians feel like they’ll be in a better position in later on as well.

    When Olmert says Israel would lose a South-Africa-style struggle if it does not get a two state solution, that alone would make it impossible for enough Palestinians to accept the denial of their right to return to pass a two state solution on their end. I’m sure many Palestinians have reached this conclusion on their own.

    “If the day comes when the two-state solution collapses, and we face a South African-style struggle for equal voting rights (also for the Palestinians in the territories), then, as soon as that happens, the State of Israel is finished”

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  12. Don Bacon says:

    Let’s see, the US is lining up an arab/Israeli coalition to confront Iran, in order to make a deal with Iran. That makes no sense. So perhaps the purpose of the coalition is to neutralize Israel, could that be?

  13. Marc says:

    I think the situation is made clearer by keeping in mind the motives of G. W. Bush. This man is more concerned with his legacy than the strategic interest of the United States. Iraq stands one of the greatest threats to that legacy. He’ll do what he has to do to prove that he was right about Iraq including making a deal with Iran. And, if he has to assuage the fears of Israel, SA, and Jordan over a strengthened Iran with military largess to quell discontent over Iran, than so be it. Meanwhile such a deal also helps the Republican nominee. Although that help is incidental to the process. This is about saving Bush’s legacy.

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  16. frank muller says:

    I admire the time and effort you put into your blog. I wish I had the same drive 🙂

  17. Brent M says:

    In my 50 years on this planet – I cannot remember a time where this conflict was not front and center of the news. What an enormous tragedy it is to think that some kind of lasting agreement could not have been formed in that time. The emotional, physical and mental damage incurred by the populations on both sides is truly immeasurable. Unthinkable really!

    Brent M
    Auckland, New Zealand
    Green Lipped Mussel Guide

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    In my 50 years on this planet – I cannot remember a time where this conflict was not front and center of the news.

  20. Nice of this Tony Karon.

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