President Obama: Getting to ‘Yes’

Alastair Crooke

Article posted on both Asia Times and An edited version of the article was also published in the New York Times.

Whilst America has been absorbed by the Afghan election imbroglio, a less-noticed event slid into place in the Middle East. It is less dramatic than President Karzai’s near removal; but this event tilts the strategic balance: Turkey finally shrugged off its US straight-jacket; stared-past any beckoning EU membership, and has fixed its eyes toward its former Ottoman Asian and Middle Eastern neighbours.
Turkey did not do this shift merely to snub the West; but it does reflect Turkey’s discomfort and frustration with US and EU policy – as well as resonate more closely with the Islamic renaissance that has been taking place within Turkey.

This ‘release’ of Turkish policy towards a new direction – if successful – can be as significant as the destruction of Iraq and the implosion of Soviet power was, twenty years ago, in ‘releasing’ Iran to emerge as one of the pre-eminent powers in the region. In the last months, a spate of new agreements have been signed by Turkey with Iraq, Iran, Syria and Armenia which suggest not just a nascent commonality of political vision with Iraq, Iran and Syria, but more importantly, it reflects a joint economic interest – the northern tier of Middle East states are in line to become the principal suppliers of natural gas to Europe – thus displacing Russia as the dominant purveyor of gas to central Europe. In short, the energy primacy of Saudi oil may be gradually being eclipsed by the prospective Nabucco gas pipeline to central Europe.

What is mainly symbolic in the prospective passing of the baton of energy ‘kingpin’ – at least for Europe – from Saudi Arabia to the ‘northern tier’, however, is given substance, rather than symbolic form, in the simultaneous weakening of the ‘southern tier’ – Saudi Arabia and Egypt – both of which have become partially incapacitated by their respective succession crises and domestic preoccupations.

The weakening of the ‘southern tier’ comes at a sensitive time. The region sees the drift of power from erstwhile US allies, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, towards the northern tier, and, as is the way in the Middle East, is starting to readjust to the new power reality. This can be most clearly seen in Lebanon today, in the growing procession of former US allies and critics of the Syrian government, making their pilgrimage to Damascus. The message is not lost on others in the region either.

The US Administration sees these changes too. It additionally knows – as writers on the elsewhere have made clear – that any sanctions on Iran ultimately will fail. They will fail not only because Russia and China will not play ball; but precisely because the much touted ‘moderate alliance of pro-western Arab states’ is looking increasingly to be a paper tiger: The ‘moderates’ are not going seriously to confront Iran and its allies. Hopes by those, such as John Hannah, writing on, that the Saudi bombing of the Houthi rebels in Yemen would mobilise a sectarian Sunni hostility towards Shi’i Iran have not been realised. On the contrary, the Saudi’s action has been clearly seen in the region for what it is – a partisan and tribal intervention in another state’s internal conflict.

But if sanctions on Iran are widely acknowledged – at least in private within the US Administration – as destined to fail, this must be provoking some interesting self-questioning within the White House: The US is in the process now of withdrawal from Iraq; it is looking for the exit in Afghanistan; and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is getting messier. None of these events seem likely to become particularly glorious episodes for the Administration.

It is not hard to imagine Messrs Emmanuel and Axelrod asking themselves, ‘why the President should want to risk another perceived failure’ – as sanctions on Iran surely will be. ‘Why’, they may ask, ‘do sanctions; open ourselves to persistent Republican jeering at their inevitable failure; and then ultimately force us to have to ask… well what do we do next, Mr President’?

‘Worse – will we’, they may ask, ‘be going into mid-term Congressional elections with the Republicans raising that old Viet Nam taunt that the ‘US Army did not loose in Viet Nam – it was the politicians who stabbed the military in the back’; but with that same mantra now being used by our political enemies to depict Iraq and Afghanistan as failures of political nerve?’ ‘Do we want to go into the midterm elections with failing Iran sanctions hanging like an Albatross around our necks too?’

No doubt, in this notional discussion, one of the White House staffers will point out that, in the case of Iraq, sanctions were indeed pursued, in spite of the likelihood of their failure; but for one reason only: to entice the Europeans on board; to go through the diplomatic motions – so that the Euros would have no choice but to accept the consequences of their failure. But this does not apply in the case of Iran, the officials might point out: Britain and France, and to a lesser extent Germany, are, on this issue, more committed to ‘imploding’ the Iranian state – by ‘soft’ war, if not by ‘hot’ war – than is Washington – so what would be the purpose of sanctions now?

We do not know the outcome to this hypothetical debate. We do not yet know that negotiations with Iran will fail; although it seems that the debate within the Administration seems to be hardening against the idea of Iran retaining any enrichment capacity. If this does become the Administration position, then failure of negotiations is assured. Iran will not abjure its right to a nuclear fuel cycle for power generation – even at the risk of war. This is the essence of the dilemma: if sanctions seem likely to lead to nothing more than Republican sniping and taunts of weakness, how does the President display ‘toughness’ on Iran – against the backdrop of withdrawal from Iraq, Afghanistan and abstention on the Israeli – Palestinian political process?

It is clear that Israel must be reading the region in the same fashion. Israelis are acutely sensitive to US politics, and the Israeli press already expresses understanding for the acute dilemma that will face the US President, if sanctions do not succeed in persuading Iran to abandon all enrichment (the Israeli objective). How might Israel see the way to help President Obama resolve this dilemma – given the improbability that Israel will be given any ‘green light’ to attack Iran directly, with all the consequences that such military action might entail for US interests in the region?

An article by the veteran and well-connected Israeli columnist Alex Fishman, in the Hebrew language newspaper, Yediot Ahronoth, last week perhaps offers some insights into how Israelis may be speculating about such issues when he warns about ‘the approaching December winds’. These winds, Fishman tells us, will bring more and new revelations – not about Iran’s nuclear ambitions – but about Syria’s nuclear projects: The departure of Mohammad al- Baradei from the chair at the IAEA, he states, will open the door to new IAEA demands to inspect two suspected nuclear sites in Syria.
Fishman notes that, following the surfacing last week in Germany of stories that Israeli Special Forces had been on the ground covertly in Syria, no one should be surprised were more evidence of, and photographs of, the nuclear reactor, destroyed by Israeli air attack in September 2007, to come to dominate the headlines in the western press this December.

The ‘star’ turn in this prospective PR campaign is to be evidence proving a direct Iranian nuclear connection and finance for Syria’s alleged nuclear project.

Fishman suggests that it suits ‘Israel’s internal as well as foreign PR efforts’ for the time being to play along with talk of peace between Israel and Syria; but that both the December campaign against Syria’s alleged Iranian nuclear co-operation in the western press, and the playing along with the Syrian peace track ‘are directly linked to negotiations’ that the US is conducting with Iran. Fishman concludes that these could end in confrontation with Iran – ‘and also lead to a military strike’, in which case, ‘whomsoever is in the Iranian camp will also get a pounding’ – a reference to Syria.

Does this piece truly reflect Israeli thinking? We do not know; but Fishman certainly is well connected. Does the Israeli security establishment really conceive that the road to military action against Iran passes through Damascus? For those who recall the tacit support given by Europe and the US to Israel’s 2007 surprise military attack on Syria, Fishman’s scenario is not as unlikely as it may seem. That earlier episode could easily have escalated to a wider war. More likely is that this is but one of a number of ‘game-changing’ scenarios that Israel is considering, but which ultimately all have Iran as the ‘end-game’.

In the past, Israel’s political parties of the Right had a reputation for conceiving unconventional military actions which sought to transform and invert the political paradigm of that time. Such actions did not always wait on, or seek, a US ‘green light’. There was not direct collusion with the US. Israeli leaders looked more to the direction of the political wind in Washington. It was viewed by Israelis historically as finding a creative way to help a US President ‘get to yes’ – to borrow Obama’s own phraseology – by creating the public support and momentum to let a US President feel pulled forward by sentiment from a need to ‘hold Israel back’.

Is a new scandal of Iranian nuclear malfeasance and proliferation into Syria to serve as the pretext? Will a repeat of the 2007 airstrikes on Syria lead to a wider conflict? Does the Israeli leadership think to ease Obama out of his Iran dilemma, by using the supposed ‘provocation’ of a ‘Syrian–Iranian nuclear partnership’ for a widening conflict? Perhaps we should we should beware these December ‘winds’?

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