27 August 2009

Middle East: US policy all over the place

A report on the front page of The Age, 27 August 2009, by its reporter in Jerusalem, Jason Koutsoukis, states:

US President Barack Obama will use the threat posed by Iran's fledgling nuclear weapons program as a means to bring Israel and the Palestinians together for a new peace summit scheduled for late next month.

In return for a US commitment to press for tough United Nations sanctions aimed at Iran's big oil and gas reserves, Israel will be expected to agree to freeze all building of Jewish settlements in the West Bank.


A senior Israeli Government official said there had been significant progress between Israel and the US on the details of a proposed settlement freeze ...

An article on an inside page by Julian Borger is in a similar vein:

The Obama Administration's approach to two of the world's most intractable and dangerous problems, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Iran's nuclear program, is to link them to find a solution to both.

The strategy aims to use its Iran policy to gain leverage on Benjamin Netanyahu's Government. Sanctions planned against Iran's energy sector if Tehran does not compromise on uranium enrichment by the end of next month are not only aimed at pre-empting Israeli military action; they are also a bargaining chip offered in part exchange for a substantial freeze on Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

If these reports are a correct representation of the thrust of American policy, then that policy can only be described as naive, weak, vacillating, silly and dangerous.

It is naive because it contemplates exchanging an irreversible action for an easily reversible one. Once Mrs Clinton’s “crippling sanctions” are in place, they will be impossible to remove – witness the silly state of US sanctions against Cuba. Once Mr Netanyahu has what he wants, he can cheerfully resume settlement expansion.

That intrinsic flaw is made all the worse because it reposes a high degree of faith in Mr Netanyahu. Mr Netanyahu has been accused of many things in his time. Trustworthiness would not be high on the list.

It is weak because the most powerful nation on earth has many ways in which it could pressure Israel, so it does not have to go cap in hand. Israel is critically dependent upon the United States for money, military technology, intelligence and diplomatic support, so there are always transactions in the pipeline that are important to Israel, and which depend upon US Government approvals and actions.

The United States would not need to cancel any of these, or refuse to let them go forward, or make any announcements. It would need only to throw a bit of sand into the machinery so that things started to get held up a bit, not flow as smoothly as the Israelis would like. Very soon a concerned Israeli Ambassador would show up in the State Department seeking explanations. That would give the relevant State Department official (perhaps the Secretary of State herself) the opportunity to say something like, “I will look into that and get back to you. And by the way, while you are here, we would like to talk to you about West Bank settlements ...” The Israelis would know what that was all about and the Americans would have their attention.

And such an approach would be eminently deniable. If need be, the Administration could always fall back on the Fred Wheeler line, “This was the action of an uninformed junior officer”.

The United States has enormous power and influence in this matter, but seems afraid to use it. That is weakness.

It is vacillating because it is only three months ago that Mrs Clinton spoke of the President’s policy on the settlements in the following terms (see West Bank Settlements: full marks to Mrs Clinton):

“He wants to see a stop to settlements – not some settlements, not outposts, not ‘natural growth’ exceptions,” Mrs Clinton said in a clear reference to arguments by Israeli leaders that existing settlements should be allowed to “thicken” to accommodate an expanding population.

“We think it is in the best interests [of the peace process] that settlement expansion cease,” she said. “That is our position. That is what we have communicated clearly. And we intend to press the point”.

The policy was clear and forthright, and there was no quid pro quo from the Americans – this was something that the Israelis had to do as a pre-condition.

Now it seems that the Americans are offering to pay a very substantial price as a “bargaining chip” for a “substantial freeze” on settlements, and, to hear the Israelis tell it, they and the Americans are making “significant progress” on the “details”. What part of an outright freeze requires “progress” to be made on the “details”? Why do the Americans have to pay a price to get the Israelis to talk about peace?

It is silly because:

- It is very unlikely that the United States will get any kind of effective sanctions (let alone “crippling sanctions”) through the Security Council. Failure to do so will let Mr Netanyahu off the hook completely – the United States has offered to secure tough multilateral sanctions in exchange for a settlement freeze (not to mention Israel refraining from military action against Iran) and has failed to deliver.

- In the process of trying to get sanctions through the Security Council the United States will seriously irritate Russia and China at a time when it has more important bilateral issues at stake with each of them.

- Even if the Security Council agreed to impose sanctions, Iran has three coastlines and land borders with so many states that effective enforcement will be impossible.

- In the unlikely event that effective sanctions were imposed, it would come at a high economic cost to all of us – the price of oil would leap, especially as Iran could retaliate by shutting traffic through the Strait of Hormuz for a time (see Choke point: the Strait of Hormuz).

- It would be throwing the hardliners in Iran a lifeline at a time when they are under so much pressure that the Supreme Leader is recanting on the earlier proposition that the reformers are the agents of a foreign conspiracy to bring down the Islamic Republic (more on this and other points above in Iran: Sanctions are in the air).

- It would assist the Iranian regime to get rid of the fuel subsidies that it would desperately like to get rid of, and in a way that the Iranian public would blame the United States (see Iran: sanctions still on the agenda).

- Iran demonstrated during the Iran-Iraq war an immense capacity to endure suffering. It is unlikely to buckle under any sort of sanctions regime that the West would be prepared to establish.

It is outright dangerous because:

- Patrolling the Iranian coastlines in order to enforce a blockade has a strong possibility of leading to a confrontation with the Iranian Navy, with serious risks of escalation beyond that.

- The United States would be forced to respond to any Iranian attempt to close the Strait of Hormuz, and that could lead to escalation of a kind that entails very serious risks of spiralling out of control.

- Efforts to isolate Iran, especially in concert with the Israelis, who constantly threaten military action, run the risk of tipping the Iranians in the direction of acquiring a military nuclear capability, rather than retaining the current ambiguity about their intentions.

The Borger article cited above correctly notes that there is a linkage between the Iranian and Palestinian issues, but the approach it reports is wrong. Embarking on a series of hostile acts towards Iran is not the key to a Palestinian settlement, and the United States should not allow its Iran policy to be driven by the agenda of the Israelis. Iran policy is hard enough without the complication of being held hostage to the wishes of third parties.

The correct approach to the linkage is to appreciate that normalisation of relations with Iran is a key to making progress on the Palestine issue (see Middle East: sequencing the talks). Internal developments in Iran make this difficult, but it nevertheless reportedly remains an issue that is high on President Obama’s agenda and one which he is overseeing personally (see Making U.S. Iran policy). He should retain that focus.

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