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The Limits of Iranian Anger Over Damascus' Participation in the Reconciliation of Annapolis

12/01/2007 03:28 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The meltdown by the Iranian leadership as it criticizes the Annapolis Conference, hosted by President George W Bush to launch the establishment of a Palestinian state, has a flavor that we are unaccustomed to seeing from Tehran, which is known for its political acumen and avoiding hysteria. Perhaps this reaction might be due to Iran's conclusion that the US administration has decided to launch a military strike at the Iranian regime's infrastructure. Or it might be due to the anger at Syria, which went to Annapolis, despite Iran's protest after the "Damascus Conference" of Palestinian organizations opposed to Annapolis was cancelled. Whatever the reasons, the US administration must pay close attention to the repercussions of the Iranian position vis-a-vis Annapolis and the developments in the Syrian-Iranian relationship on the Lebanese scene in particular, and assign this issue a clear priority. Since Iran and Syria enjoy direct influence in Lebanon, any development in the Syrian-Iranian relationship, whether strengthened or weakened, will immediately be reflected in Lebanon. George W Bush knows this and had already promised to support Lebanon, its independence, sovereignty and freedom. During his preparations for the Annapolis Conference, the American president gave some the impression that the US is doing in Lebanon what the US always does, namely fail to live up to its commitments, take partial steps, abandon friends when cornered, and show readiness for any deals that serve it alone or its Israeli ally. If George W Bush was interested in weaving his historical legacy via the Annapolis Conference, he should immediately and personally assign the utmost attention to Lebanon and immediately render it a priority, under US-European leadership.

Since the Annapolis Conference declared that Lebanon was likely to see more exploitation and violence, as it functions as a laboratory, compass and arena for the playing out of regional and international relations, the President and his entire team are now being asked to move openly toward halting the deals and negotiations at the expense of Lebanon in the international bazaar. This is how Bush can prove his seriousness. The idea for the Annapolis Conference has its roots in the initiative put forward by King Abdullah II of Jordan; discussion about the event began during the World Economic Forum in Davos, after close coordination with important states and other parties, including the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and the Palestinian Authority.

During the Davos meeting in January of this year, the Jordanian monarch and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas decided to move ahead with an initiative to extract the Palestinian issue from Iranian maneuvering and Syrian sponsorship (see this writer's article of 2 February 2007), via the qualitative jump in the positions by leading and influential Arab states. In Davos, King Abdullah II called for dealing with the region's hot issues (Palestine, Lebanon and Iraq, in that order). He said that Iran was forcing itself onto the "negotiating table or no-negotiating table via Hamas"; thus, a solution of the Palestinian-Israel conflict would weaken Iran and its bargaining chips. The Arab Peace Initiative launched by Saudi Arabia and adopted by the 2002 Arab Summit was the basis of these moves and this initiative, which led to Annapolis.

When King Abdullah II went to the US Congress with a message of Arab and Islamic moderation, he had been tasked by leading moderate states in March to present the Palestinian issue to the American public, Congress and the US administration. Abdullah called it "the central issue" and his historic address was limited to this topic. In essence, he said that the US must choose to engage with the moderates and treat the Palestinian issue, before it's too late, or continue with the current situation, which will drag the region toward wars resulting from "ideologies of terror and hatred" and "changing military doctrine and weaponry," in a reference to Iran and nuclear weapons. He discussed the details of the Arab vision and the readiness by Arab states to participate in reviving the Palestinian-Israeli peace process. Abdullah explained that the wager was on the US president, who is led by his convictions, and that it was a historic opportunity for the US, while the alternative was a disaster for all (see article published on 9 March 2007). Since that time, there has been constant, hard work, up to the convening of Annapolis.

The Annapolis Conference was not - as some Israelis arrogantly argued - made in the US and Israel in order to see Arab states as important as Saudi Arabia gather around a table with Israeli leaders. The Annapolis Conference is truly an Arab-made affair, springing from an Arab initiative, and the result of coordination and a firm Arab determination to see Palestine exit its marginalization and isolation. The majority of participating Arab states went to the conference to say that they are partners in the efforts to create a Palestinian state and build its institutions. These states were not "forced" to take part, carrying out the wishes of the White House, as some Arabs and Israelis would have it. They took part because Annapolis was the first result of the initiative to make a qualitative jump; they worked hard on this initiative despite the various obstacles, including the Israeli stick placed in the spokes of Arab enthusiasm.

There has also been the opposition by members of the administration (such as Elliot Abrams) and American think tanks to the idea of seeing the US president pay personal attention to the Palestinian issue, out of fear of seeing the necessary pressure put on Israel, and so that the impression doesn't grow deeper that Bush is dedicating his personal attention until the end of his term to setting down the firm bases for establishing a Palestinian state, or perhaps creating it before he leaves the White House. In fact, these parties are hurting both the US and Israel, encouraging extremism in the Arab and Islamic arenas and reducing the ranks of moderates (deliberately in some cases). Some in Israel and some members of its support institutions offer total backing with no accountability and speak the language of deals and playing on the dangerous Palestinian-Syrian-Lebanese tracks.

Bush had already been subjected to a patient and well-organized campaign on this front. He came down the ladder after climbing it in his first presidential address about the Arab-Israeli conflict. Bush did this because of the skill of US Jewish organizations and leading figures from these organizations inside his administration. Today, after he listened personally to Arab leaders, perhaps he intends to avoid the mistake of climbing down again. This is exactly what frightens the extremist US and Israeli right: George Bush taking the decision to get involved. He is known for his stubbornness, when he decides that he must do something. Merely announcing the beginning of official Palestinian-Israeli negotiations from the White House, in the presence of the US president, is a sign of Bush's determination to do his utmost to remain personally involved in monitoring and controlling the negotiations. Today, Israel is not the only one that has the US president's ear. Today, George Bush has begun to listen with another ear to the Arab position. Today, there is no American-Israeli movement unilaterally vis-à-vis the Palestinians, as in the past. The coming phase will not be a normal one. Everyone is watching, and the microscope is expanding; the elements of a serious process to establish a Palestinian state have been set down. US and world public opinion are no longer able to automatically defend Israel under any conditions. He has begun checking the areas of conflict between the national interest and Israeli interests. What the Annapolis Conference has produced for the Palestinians, as a leading participant said, was the "feeling of hope."

The Palestinian delegation was headed by PA President Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayad, demonstrating the self-confidence and skill in negotiations and eliminating the "mentality of the defeated," as one person put it. They were surrounded by Arab partners to be a partner of the US president in the search for peace. The partnership is no longer limited to the US and Israel; the mask of "searching for a Palestinian partner" has fallen; the Israeli leadership had used this ploy at every available opportunity.

Today, the envoy of the International Quartet, former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair, has begun to see for himself the conditions on the ground and learn about the Israeli positions. We know that he expressed his astonishment and surprise, during closed sessions, at the exaggerated use by Israel of the pretext of "security." He now has the responsibility of demonstrating his personal seriousness and the seriousness of the UK, the author of the Balfour Declaration, which established a Jewish state in Palestine 90 years ago, in making peace in Palestine. The Arabs that now expect immediate results from the negotiations are the same ones who were disappointed by the non-failure of the Annapolis Conference, since the Palestinians did not offer any historic "compromises" talked about by the camp (supported by its godfather Iran) that accuses others of treason. This group is embarrassed because the Annapolis Conference did not give it the tools to wage such a campaign. The Palestinian delegation didn't compromise on anything, and the Israeli delegation didn't get what it hoped to get.

According to those familiar with the details of the negotiations, the Palestinians need some time before the PA can create a new climate on the ground, to prove itself more and more on the Palestinian scene, and to rob Israel of the pretext of "security" whenever something is asked of it. It's a big challenge. Israel has spared no effort to limit the PA's efforts to the security arena, which is what it is demanding. Supporters of Israel constantly try to destroy the PA, its status and capacities. The Palestinian government's response has been to strengthen itself on the ground and boost its international achievements, working to find a way out of isolation and marginalization. It's aware that the conditions aren't ripe for a settlement that requires compromises. As one leading figure put it, "the Palestinians don't have anything to give up." Thus, a settlement isn't suitable in the next few months, "and there's not enough time to get what we want." Therefore, logic dictates strengthening the PA's rule by perseverance while securing Arab and international protection from sabotage.

This sabotage speaks with a Persian tongue these days, while the gateway might not necessarily be Iran alone. There has been a sorting-out in the Iranian relationship with Syria, Palestinian organizations like Hamas, which is led by Ramadan Shallah, and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, led by Ahmad Jibril. This shift comes after Iran's "anger" at Syria because it attended the Annapolis Conference, while leaders of Palestinian organizations in Damascus did not accept an official Iranian invitation to meet with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Tehran, to coincide with the Annapolis Conference, and announce a counter-declaration, with the attendance of 10 Palestinian organizations. According to what sources told al-Hayat's correspondent in Damascus, the positions by the Palestinian organizations, came despite "considerable pressure exerted on and temptations offered to the leaders of the organizations," before the Iranian Embassy in Damascus was informed of the invitees' desire to "postpone" the visit to another time.
According to published information, Iranian Foreign Minister Manoucher Mottaki made the offer to host the meeting after Damascus decided to postpone an anti-Annapolis Conference meeting two days earlier; this conference would have convened to reject and condemn the Annapolis gathering.

The Iranian president wasn't the only "hero" to demolish the PA and its Arab and US partnership; competing with him was Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The advisor of Khamenei, Hussein Shariatmadari, said he considered the eight Palestinian organizations with headquarters in Damascus, along with Hamas and Islamic Jihad, make up "the true representatives of the Palestinian people," totally marginalizing the PA and the independence of Palestinian decision-making. The Iranian relationship with these groups passes through the relationship between Iran and Syria, with the possible exception for Hamas and Islamic Jihad, as a true, radical rupture in the Syrian-Iranian relationship has taken place. This isn't clear as yet, however.

The Israelis say, and according to Israeli President Shimon Peres, that there are "many messages and contacts" between Israel and Syria, and that Khaled Meshaal's efforts in Damascus are an obstacle to a re-opening of negotiations between the two countries. Peres welcomed Syria's participation in the Annapolis Conference and said he believed the reason for the significant Arab participation to be the threat posed by Iran in the region. Iran, in its turn, considered Arab participation at Annapolis to be directed against it and thus permitted a demonstration in front of the Jordanian Embassy in Tehran against Annapolis and those who took part in it. Perhaps what sparked Iran's anger against Jordan was the background of Annapolis combined with the visit by King Abdullah II to Damascus, a visit that helped convince Syria to attend.

Monitoring developments in the Syrian-Iranian relationship in the coming days and weeks is necessary and important in order to anticipate what will happen to Iran, Lebanon, Palestine and Iraq. If it's true that Israel has succeeded in "splitting" Syria from Iran, with US-Israeli guarantees to the regime in Damascus, as part of preparations for a US strike against Iran's infrastructure, the question is immediately posed: what will Lebanon's Hizbullah do, faced with this development between its Iranian ally and Syrian partner? Does an understanding such as this mean that all of the players have decided to offer Lebanon as a sacrifice for a regional-international deal? Or is the formula simply: either a military strike against both Syria and Iran, or separate Damascus from Tehran with guarantees of regime survival?

Until now, these scenarios and the resulting questions deserve to be raised. Those involved in the Arab diplomatic process with Syria deny that Lebanon has been sacrificed; they affirm that there is an adherence to its independence and the international court for the Hariri assassination. This is encouraging. What the current phase now requires, and immediately, is an overt stance by the US president vis-a-vis Lebanon and a return to the active American role there, giving it priority right away.