Erratic U.S. Diplomacy Dancing to the Tune Set by Russia and Iran

The new era of American-Arab relations requires scrutiny and caution from both sides, regardless of their current lukewarm - and in some cases, even shaken - state. The question many Gulf Arabs have in mind is this: why has the Obama administration taken a decision that resembles abandoning decades-long allies of the United States, while rushing to embrace the Islamic Republic of Iran and to acknowledge Iran's regional role beyond its borders, in the heart of the Arab homeland? Many in the United States find it difficult to understand the Arabs' opposition to a regional role by Iran beyond its borders - a role guaranteed in the past by former US President George W. Bush in Iraq, and today by current President Barack Obama in Syria. The Americans are forgetting that the Iranian Revolution of 1979 brought religious rule and imposed religion on the state in a theocracy that has led to the rise of Muslim fundamentalism in the entire Middle East. The goal of Iran's mullahs was - and still is - to export the Iranian Revolution and religious rule to neighboring countries. What is happening in Iraq merely represents one aspect of this process. The Americans do not view the rise of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his party, the Justice and Development Party (AKP), to power as also a kind of - Sunni - theocracy, one that has adopted the Muslim Brotherhood's plans for the Middle East as a whole. The Americans do not pause to consider the most important milestone in the events unfolding in Egypt since the Revolution against Hosni Mubarak's regime - namely, the fact that the Egyptian people have turned against theocracy and rejected religious rule, insisting on the separation of religion and state. The Americans do not pause to consider the significance of Iran's victory and of Iran winning Syria. Most of them in fact purposely avoid mentioning the role played by Tehran's ally Hezbollah in the fighting alongside the Syrian regime inside Syria. What does the United States, as a people or as a government, want in the Middle East? What does it make of the traditional considerations of its allies and what does it have in mind now?

The simplest and clearest answer is really that simple and clear: the majority of Americans and the US administration do not want to go to war. No matter the cost of their decision to avoid confrontation, they are willing to pay it as long as it spares them war and confrontation. Even if the cost is America's most important principles, the majority is willing to abandon its principles if its other option is confrontation.

Another issue is quite simply the discovery of America's tremendous capabilities in the fields of oil and natural gas. Indeed, within less than a decade, this country will become the world's largest exporter of oil and natural gas. This of course will affect the strategies designed by decision-makers in terms of decades and not mere years. This means that America will not be drafting its policies on the basis of the two traditional pillars that are oil and Israel, as the value of both for the United States is waning.

This aspect may explain the policy of the Obama administration towards the United States' traditional oil-producing allies. Indeed, the US President is behaving as if he had reached the conclusion that he did not need to appease the major oil-producing countries anymore - and in particular the Arab countries among them.

President Obama has turned to giving Iran priority, because it represents in his opinion the front line of the confrontation - a confrontation he does not want to engage in. Tehran has gained priority in Obama's strategy for two reasons: the first is connected to the long-term oil strategy, where it too no longer plays a central role; and the second is that Obama and the American people do not want confrontation, regardless of the cost in terms of leaving the impression that America, its standing, and its values are in decline.

Some of the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) have read between the lines of the American strategy and have, in light of their analysis, made the decision to reassess their calculations. Qatar has changed its entire ruling structure in order to change the policy on Syria, which had been adopted by the former government - and in particular by former Prime Minister Hamad bin Jassim. The former Emir took the decision to abdicate the thrown to his son, in a move to turn against the policy of interference, notably in Syria. Qatar reached the conclusion that the coming phase would be a phase of American-Iranian accord, and thus decided to gradually withdraw from the policy of disagreement with Iran on the issue of Syria. Oman has welcomed the American-Iranian détente. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) has taken note of America's revitalizing of the role played by Iran. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was upset by the way in which the Americans handled the shift from the decision to direct a military strike to a bargain between the United States and Russia, and between the United States and Iran, as it was upset by the significance of such bargains.

Indeed, the Obama administration, through Secretary of State John Kerry, has behaved in a manner resembling that of implicating friends and allies, before engaging in the well-known American tradition of quickly abandoning its friends and allies. When Kerry had met with Arab foreign ministers in Paris on the eve of the "certain" strike, he had allowed himself to declare the commitment of countries like Saudi Arabia to take part in the military strike. Yet when the bargain was struck between him and Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, he forgot that he should have headed to Riyadh. Instead, he headed to Israel, to reassure its Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. Such behavior in relations with friends is difficult to digest, especially with the few countries that publicly stood with the US President, when he informed the world that he had resolved not to stand idly by and watch while chemical weapons were being used.

Obama's backing down was quickly followed by accords, which had preceded his public escalation and threat of a military strike and were enshrined in New York during the session of the General Assembly in two historical events: the subjugation of Syria through a Security Council resolution stating that its chemical weapons should be destroyed and that inspectors should go to Syria to verify their destruction... and the highest level of exchange between the presidents of the United States and Iran since the Revolution of 1979, in the form of a phone call between President Obama and Iranian President Hassan Rohani, replacing the handshake which Rohani had avoided out of fear of the Revolutionary Guard, who still effectively rule in Tehran.

From the American point of view, turning a blind eye to all of Iran's violations, including the violation of the Security Council resolution, issued under Chapter VII, banning it from exporting weapons and fighters and providing military supplies beyond its borders, is a necessary evil, because the greater purpose is to open channels of dialogue with Tehran.

Tehran has obtained what it wanted before providing anything in return, apart from the personality of its new president - a religious man and not a revolutionary, as his predecessor Ahmadinejad had been - who is skilled at flowery talk and the discourse of moderation, and who understands how to charm the Americans, who cannot wait to fall in love with him.

This does not negate an important reality at the nuclear level, namely the start of negotiations between the five permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany on the one hand, and Iran on the other, at a fast pace aimed at reaching an agreement within one year. It also does not negate the benefits of direct communication between the United States and Iran to resolve the nuclear crisis, and to discuss Iran's regional role, after Barack Obama fulfilled one of the main demands of the regime in Tehran, pledging from the rostrum at the United Nations that the United States would never seek to back a coup against it.

Syria lies at the heart of the balance of the regional role Tehran insists on holding and seeks for Washington to guarantee - or else intends to seize it and hold it no matter what. Here too, there would be no harm in American-Iranian talks taking place over Tehran's regional role, had such talks been regional, rather than bilateral, as they now seem to be. Indeed, such bilateral talks - even if they remain indirect - carry in their folds humiliation for the Arabs and make light of their interests. And that is the worst investment the United States could make, now and in the future, because its repercussions will be grave.

If, on the other hand, American engagement in Syria and Iran, as well as in the Israeli-Palestinian issue, represents a serious strategy, Washington should reassure the Arab parties concerned, and the latter should regain their positions cohesively, instead of holding grudges, getting angry, and refraining from engagement.

The Obama administration, through John Kerry, seems resolved to engage on all three tracks: Iran, Syria and the Israeli-Palestinian issue. There are indications that the timeframe for all three tracks is in the vicinity of one year. If American diplomacy, in partnership with Russian diplomacy, were to achieve a breakthrough in all three issues, then the Obama administration would be able to boast of historical achievements. Yet doubts still surround those three tracks, especially as the prevailing impression is that the leaders in political cunning and the art of negotiation are rather Russia and Iran - as well as Israel in the Palestinian issue - and that American diplomacy is erratic, dancing to the tune set by the Russian-Iranian maestro.

Regardless of doubts and impressions, the Obama administration is today engaged in Syria, while it had been previously loth to doing so, and the issue of Syria has today returned to the Security Council, after Russian and Chinese diplomacy had prevented it through their dual veto from reaching the Council three times and for more than two years.

The United States, Russia, Iran, and the regime in Damascus have agreed to destroy the chemical weapons arsenal, which Damascus, Tehran, and Hezbollah had previously claimed to represent defensive capabilities and "resistance" in the face of Israel and its nuclear arsenal. This agreement to destroy the chemical arsenal comes at the cost of the regime and its President, Bashar al-Assad, remaining in power until the destruction of the arsenal is completed - which would coincide with the Syrian presidential elections scheduled for 2014.

The dismantlement of the regime could come through the process of political transition and a transitional body "with full powers," which was sanctioned by the Geneva I agreement, and which the Geneva II conference should be based upon and be determined to implement. Geneva II is scheduled to be held in mid-November, but it will in turn be a prolonged process that may well last until the presidential elections.

The wager of the axis of Russia, Iran, China, Hezbollah, and Damascus is on the scattering and dispersal of the Syrian opposition, and on its inability to head to Geneva in a capable delegation with the kind of strategic vision, negotiation skills, and tactical shrewdness that will be brought by the delegation which Syrian President Bashar al-Assad will be charging with the task of negotiating under Russian-Iranian sponsorship.

The President of the Syrian opposition's National Coalition, Ahmad Jarba, has spoken of an "Arab cover" and of a "Gulf cover," but no one understands what such cover means. He sat in New York and held bilateral meetings, but failed to realize that addressing global public opinion via the media would have been equally important. The delegation sent by the Coalition was nearly a schizophrenic one. Indeed, the Free Syrian Army (FSA) is of one mind and the National Coalition is of another, and between the two of them there are the armies of extremism, who only see in Syria an arena for the ideology of destruction characteristic of al-Qaeda, al-Nusra Front, and similar groups.

If there is indeed a vision and a strategy for an Arab or Gulf cover for the Syrian opposition, then it certainly starts with serious thinking and necessary preparations for the Geneva II conference. And this has not yet seriously begun.

There remains the fact that the United Nations and the Arab League, through their joint representative Lakhdar Brahimi and his team, could play an important role in compensating for the fact that major parties in the region have been excluded from talks between the Americans, Iranians, and Russians. They could also seriously invest in helping the Syrian opposition rally its rank and file to be prepared for the Geneva II conference. Otherwise, the two organizations will bear witness to the rehabilitation of a regime they had previously publicly stated to be deserving of punishment, not reward.


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