18 May 2009

Middle East: the Obama-Netanyahu meeting

Later today in Washington President Obama will sit down with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu for their first face to face meeting. It is a very important meeting for both of them, because its outcome will set both the agenda and the tone for what is to follow in the Middle East over the next several years. It has the potential both to make things considerably better and to make them much worse.

Most advocates and commentators accept that there is a triangular relationship to be dealt with here, the one between the United States, Israel and Iran. Each of the bilateral relationships in that triangle exerts a powerful influence on the other two, so the question is how to sequence and manage the negotiating processes to bring about the best outcome.

There are several currents of advice and advocacy swirling around the globe on this issue.

As noted in Middle East: sequencing the talks, Prime Minister Netanyahu will be wanting President Obama to give priority to the Iranian nuclear program. This would leave Mr Netanyahu and his government breathing space (a great deal of it) to carry on with settlement building and pursuit of the Eretz Israel (Greater Israel) dream of the State of Israel extending over all of the territory of Mandate Palestine. Neither Mr Netanyahu nor his Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman will have a bar of any two-state solution.

Unfortunately for Mr Netanyahu the two-state solution is definitely on the agenda as far as the Obama Administration is concerned, and Mr Netanyahu knows it. Vice-President Joseph Biden made this clear to the pro-Israel Washington lobby group American Israel Public Affairs Committee at its annual conference in Washington on 5 May. As reported in the mainstream Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz, Mr Biden told AIPAC:

Israel has to work for a two state-solution. You're not going to like my saying this, but not build more settlements, dismantle existing outposts and allow Palestinians freedom of movement ... and access to economic opportunity.

Unfortunately, but entirely understandably, Mr Biden felt obliged to go on to say:

With all the change you will hear about, there is one enduring, essential principle that will not change; and that is our commitment to the peace and security of the state of Israel.

That is not negotiable. That is not a matter of change. That is something to be reinforced and made clear. It seems almost unnecessary to state it, but I want the word to go forth in here that no one should mistake it.

The domestic politics of the question aside, the problem with unequivocal statements of this kind is that they relieve Israel of any responsibility for the impacts of its own behaviour on its national security – the guarantee stands no matter what Israel does or fails to do.

This is a genuine problem for the United States, because there are scenarios in which the alternatives to unequivocal U.S. backing for Israel are too awful to contemplate. In the 1967 Six Day War, Israel armed its two nuclear weapons. On 8 October 1973, during the Yom Kippur War, when Israel really did face an “existential threat”, Israel triggered its second nuclear alert. Thirteen bombs were assembled; the Jericho missiles at Hirbat Zachariah and the nuclear strike F-4s at Tel Nof were armed and prepared for action against Syrian and Egyptian targets.

I don’t know what effect this had on the Syrians and the Egyptians but it certainly got the attention of the United States. Secretary of State Kissinger was told about it a few hours later on 9 October. The U.S. opened an aerial resupply pipeline to the Israelis, and Israeli aircraft began picking up supplies the same day. Israeli commandos flew to Fort Benning, Georgia to train with the new American TOW anti-tank missiles and return with a C-130 Hercules aircraft full of them in time for the decisive battle against Syria on the Golan Heights. American commanders in Germany depleted their stocks of missiles, at that time only shared with the British and West Germans, and sent them forward to Israel.

In the words of Lt-Col Warner D. Farr in his 1999 paper on Israel’s nuclear weapons for the USAF Counter-Proliferation Center, which is the principal source for the above information:

Thus started the subtle, opaque use of the Israeli bomb to ensure that the United States kept its pledge to maintain Israel's conventional weapons edge over its foes.

For its part Iran displays a remarkable continuity in what it perceives to be its key national interests, from the regime of the Shah to the successor regimes:

- Protection of the territorial integrity of the state

- Survival of the regime

- Development of Iran to the point where it is, and is recognised as, an advanced industrial economy

- Recognition as a key player in the Middle East, one that must be a participant in any process designed to resolve the outstanding problems of the region.

In the early days the key threats to Iran’s territorial integrity were seen to be the Soviet Union, with which Iran had a border, and some of the Arab neighbours, notably Iraq. In the period up to the demise of the Soviet Union this created a significant alignment of interests between Iran and Israel: Soviet backing of Egypt, Syria and Iraq was seen as a threat to both. Part of the Shah’s response to this was the alliance with the United States; another part was adopting the posture of protector of the interests of the Palestinians, which was a direct appeal past the conservative Arab rulers of the region to the Arab “street”. Israel understood that this position was rhetorical rather than real and was prepared to operate in covert collaboration with Iran even after the fall of the Shah’s regime, more or less until the First Gulf War brought about the containment of Saddam Hussein’s regime.

More recently, the Iranians have been acutely sensitive to events in the neighbouring states of Iraq and Afghanistan. They were glad to see the back of the Taliban (Sunni extremists who actively persecuted Afghanistan’s Shia minority) – so much so that they were very helpful to the Americans in the early stages of the invasion of Afghanistan, and played a critical role in the negotiations in Berlin which led to the establishment of the Afghan Government led by Mohammad Karzai.

The Iranians were also glad to see Saddam Hussein off the stage, but remain concerned to see what the long term Iraqi successor regime will look like, and what arrangements it will have for the stationing of American troops on its soil.

Regarding regime survival not much need be said here, save to say that the internal security agencies of both the Shah and the successor regimes had some very unpleasant ways of going about their business, some of which were learned from Mossad. The main relevance to the current Middle East bargaining process is that the Iranians will presumably view American protestations about their human rights abuses through the lens of the behaviours that the Americans were prepared to countenance on the part of SAVAK, the Shah’s key security agency, which behaviours some of the Iranians will have experienced at first hand.

Development of the advanced industrial economy (on which the record has been pretty poor) must be seen both as a substantive objective – to bring about a better life for the Iranian people – and also as part of a process of restoring Iran to its former glory. There are some resonances here with Chinese attitudes to the outside world – the feeling that the motherland is heir to a tradition of civilisation that goes back thousands of years, that in the last century and more it has endured Western occupation, exploitation and humiliation, and now it is determined to restore itself to its rightful place in the world, and is not prepared to countenance further humiliation.

Iran’s nuclear energy program must be seen in that context. It was initiated on the advice of the Americans in the days of the Shah, in the days when the “Atoms for Peace” rhetoric still meant something. The rationale was that it made sense for Iran to establish a nuclear electric power program because one day the oil would run out and Iran needed to prepare for that day; also, it makes sense for Iran to export a premium product like natural gas rather than burn it to generate electricity.

Both the demands of national self-esteem and Iran’s unsatisfactory experiences in nuclear commerce with the West (see Iran: Obama, Brown and Rudd) dictate that Iran will settle for nothing short of the right to establish a full peaceful nuclear fuel cycle, as permitted under the terms of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. To have to settle for anything less would be seen as compromising the nation’s energy security and as yet another humiliation. What is negotiable is the arrangements under which enrichment takes place; for example, as noted in Iran: election watch – Mohsen Rezaei, conservative candidate Mohsen Rezaei is prepared to discuss the establishment of a consortium with U.S. and European participation to carry out uranium enrichment on Iranian soil.

The nuclear weapons issue is also negotiable. I do not think that Iran has yet decided to proceed to a weapons capability, and earlier this year U.S. Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair testified to that effect at a Congressional hearing. Some in Iran are opposed to nuclear weapons in principle, and there are hard heads who realise that proceeding to a nuclear weapons capability might lead Arab states such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia to follow suit, with a deleterious net effect on Iran’s security. In that regard, Mr Netanyahu should be careful what he wishes for; the sense of threat induced by rhetoric like his promise during the Israeli election campaign that he would not permit Iran to develop nuclear weapons, and that he would do whatever was required to prevent it, would be the most likely trigger to Iran proceeding to weaponisation.

Being recognised as a key player in the region is another matter which is non-negotiable for the Iranians. The Americans have been trying to ignore the Iranians ever since they (the Americans) embarked on the Madrid and Olso conferences on Middle East peace in the early 1990s, and the Iranians were mightily offended. They made their displeasure manifest in various acts of terror conducted by Hezbollah and others.

The outcome of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq is that Iran is quite clearly an indispensable part of the negotiation of any sort of Grand Bargain that is to bring about a permanent solution to the many problems of the Middle East. No solution which ignores the interests of the Iranians (including their interest in being part of negotiating the solution) can possibly be sustainable – the Americans are dependent upon Iranian goodwill to enable themselves to withdraw from Iraq and Afghanistan, and the Iranians have too many (deniable) ways of making their presence felt if their interests are ignored.

What all of the above means is that any approach to Iran which is designed simply to bully the Iranians into giving up their uranium enrichment program while leaving them internationally marginalised and isolated is doomed to fail, and Secretary of State Clinton’s talk of preparing the way for “crippling sanctions” only serves to strengthen the Iranian hardliners, as did George W. Bush’s “Axis of Evil” speech before it.

On the other hand, a satisfactory normalisation of U.S. - Iranian relations is quite achievable, and progress on that settlement would be greatly helpful to an overall Middle East settlement.

President Obama and Mr Netanyahu have much to talk about.

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