Gary Sick of Columbia University writes
About six months ago, I wrote . . . speculating on what I thought was an emerging US Middle East strategy. The essence of the argument was that the United States would attempt to use the threat of Iran and a Shia political emergence to mobilize Arab support and perhaps even a degree of tacit Arab-Israeli cooperation. The strategy would also intend to shift attention away from the US catastrophe in Iraq.
A[n] . . . attentive reader . . . wrote to me some weeks ago and asked how I (or the US, for that matter) could reconcile this tripartite strategy focused on Iran as the enemy with the decision to initiate direct talks with Iran. I thought it was a very good question, and I have been thinking about it.
I was finally moved to respond by the news this weekend that the US intends to sell $20 billion in new arms to the Arab states of the Gulf over the next decade, while increasing military aid to Israel by 25% (a total of $3 billion per year) and also raising aid to Egypt by a smaller but significant amount. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates are getting ready for a major Middle East trip to present this package and to attempt to forge a working consensus focused squarely on Iran as the major threat in the region. The level of the bribes may change in the course of discussions, but this is obviously intended as an offer that they cannot refuse.
[ . . . Robin Wright of the Washington Post also wrote an article today . . . that compared this development to US strategy during the cold war -- see "U.S. vs. Iran: Cold War, Too" in Thread 15. See also "Is it a cold war?" By Aluf Benn in Haaretz, Thread 25.]
This strikes me as a marvelous example of political jiu jitsu. The United States made possible an emergent Iran by eliminating its Taliban rivals to the east and its Baathist rivals to the west and then installing a Shia government in Baghdad for the first time in history. Having inadvertently created a set of circumstances that insured an increase in Iranian strength and bargaining power, that seriously frightened US erstwhile Sunni allies in the region, and that undermined US strength and credibility, the US now proposes a new and improved regional political relationship to deal with the problem, and, incidentally, to distract attention from America's plight in Iraq while reviving America's position as the ultimate power in the region.
But there is a potentially huge flaw in this brilliant policy legerdemain. Iraq will just not go away, and the government of Nuri al-Maliki, a Shia partisan, is proving to be an intractable obstacle to sweeping the Iraqi debacle under the rug. The "surge" in US military forces may be intended to create at least the illusion of greater stability in Baghdad and thereby facilitate the start of a US withdrawal. It may also provide the basis for greater pressure on the Iraqi government to solve some of its most pressing political and economic disputes. But it seems to be a tactical maneuver that is unlikely to produce any long-term solutions.
Perhaps the same can be said about the talks with Iran. These talks serve several purposes. First, they provide periodic opportunities for the US to denounce Iran's nefarious actions and thereby reinforce the Iran-focused strategy. They also serve to placate those in the UN Security Council and elsewhere who believe that the sanctions policy should be accompanied by direct diplomacy. They are a gesture in the direction of the Baker- Hamilton commission, which called for the creation of a regional forum to deal with Iraqi dilemma, and they provide evidence to American's Sunni Arab allies that Washington is prepared to go some way to "tame" the Iranians. The talks may also serve the purposes of the hardliners around Dick Cheney who want to make them fail so they can point to the futility of talking to fanatics. But they also respond to direct requests by the Iraqi government to bring Iran into the security equation, and they provide a forum in which Iran, Iraq and the United States can all three meet around the same table.
It is unclear to me whether the US is serious about the talks, and perhaps Washington itself has not fully made up its mind. But I am more than a little surprised that Iran has shown a willingness to proceed with the talks, and even to make them a regular fixture, despite US disparaging comments and sermonizing at every possible opportunity. Iran's response has been remarkably imperturbable. Is Tehran willing to accept US bluster addressed to its domestic constituents as a necessary evil in order to obtain a desirable outcome? Do they know something I don't know?
The bottom line in any event is that neither the US nor Iran has walked away from the talks, although either of them could have done so at any point. That suggests a degree of seriousness that perhaps belies the hostile rhetoric.
In January, I spelled out what I saw as the "moving parts" of the new US strategy -- a proposed division of labor among the various parties. Perhaps this is a good moment to review this check list:
-- Drop any further talk about democratization in the Middle East [done];
-- Use its influence in the United Nations Security Council to keep the pressure on Iran (and to a lesser extent Syria) with sanctions and coordinated international disapproval [done];
-- Provide military cover for the Arab Gulf states as they take a more confrontational position vis a vis Iran (Patriot missiles, additional naval aircraft, etc.) [now greatly enhanced by the massive proposed arms deal, which of course produces some juicy profits for the US aerospace industry but also provides a framework for getting Israeli (and US congressional) acquiescence for selling some significant new military technology to the Arabs];
-- Undertake a more vigorous diplomatic effort to find a settlement of the Arab-Israeli dispute, recognizing that even limited visible progress will provide diplomatic cover for the Arab states if they are to cooperate more closely with Israel [some considerable efforts to date, including calls for a new peace conference and other initiatives, though still far less than most observers would regard as satisfactory];
-- In Lebanon, provide covert support for efforts to support the Siniora government and to thwart Hezbollah, probably in close cooperation with Israeli intelligence [being done?];
-- Organize dissident movements in Iran, primarily among ethnic groups along the periphery or other targets of opportunity, to distract and potentially even destabilize the Tehran government [being done?];
-- keep attention focused on Iran, including raids and general harassment of its representatives [the 5 Iranians who were arrested in Irbil have now been in US custody for more than 6 months, during which time Iranian representatives have been permitted to meet them only once, near the six-month anniversary];
-- keep U.S. forces in country to prevent the situation from descending into full scale civil war or a breakup of the country [done];
-- consider engineering a more Sunni-friendly government, especially if Prime Minister Maliki is unwilling or unable to control the Shia militias [not yet];
In the Arab States (the six Gulf Cooperation Council states plus Jordan and Egypt or 6+2):
-- Provide major funding and political support to the Siniora government in Lebanon and work to undercut Hezbollah's influence and image [not clear to me];
-- Attempt to woo (or threaten) Syria away from its alliance with Iran with promises of money and support of Syrian efforts to regain the Golan Heights [if so, the effort is totally subterranean as far as I can tell];
-- Provide facilities and funding to assist the various U.S. initiatives above [not really; Saudi Arabia has brokered its own deal with Hamas against US and Israeli wishes, and it has done some direct diplomacy with Iran to try and find a more acceptable modus vivendi, which seemed to produce some positive results -- in short, the Sunni Arabs have not been particularly active in holding to their end of the bargain as I see it];
-- Attempt to bring down the price of oil, which will remove some political pressures on Washington and make life more difficult for Iran [again, no very persuasive cooperation from the Arab side].
-- Provide intelligence support to U.S. (and potentially Arab) anti-Hezbollah efforts in Lebanon [probably done];
-- Keep international attention focused on the Iranian threat as a uniquely dangerous situation that may even demand Israeli military intervention [done in spades; please note that on the very day that word was leaked of the new US arms deal, the pro-Israeli website DEBKA announced that Iran was buying a huge number of long range attack aircraft and refueling aircraft from Russia (see Thread 18), thus hyping the threat -- whether true or not -- and providing an allegedly genuine threat rationale for the massive arms deal];
-- Use long-standing Israeli contacts, especially with the Kurds in Iraq and Iran, to foment opposition to the Tehran government [being done? needless to say, nobody will make an announcement...];
-- Be prepared to make sufficient concessions on the Palestinian issue and the Golan to provide at least the perception of significant forward motion toward a comprehensive settlement [not apparent to me, but that's not my field and I may not catch the subtle shifts, if any].
I realize that I am not doing justice to many of the moving parts in this alleged strategy (and I sincerely hope that those with special expertise will amend or correct any of these comments). However, the existence of such a US strategy seems to me indisputable, and the biggest question marks about its success involve (1) Arab (read Saudi) policy idiosyncrasies and doubts that don't fit with the American plan; (2) the internecine labyrinth of Iraqi politics and security; and perhaps (3) Iranian policy that has the capacity to surprise.
On one hand, Iran is performing according to plan, with Ahmadinejad continuing with his extravagant rhetoric and the Iranian security services holding American-Iranian scholars hostage in Evin prison and concocting TV KGB-style "confessions" that would be hilarious if they were not so grim in purpose and so painful for those involved.
But Iran also seems to have made a fundamental decision to talk to the US, and that is an interesting development that deserves to be acknowledged. This suggests that there are at least some power centers in Iran that are still operating on a pragmatic basis, at the same time that the security paranoia of the intelligence and "Justice" ministries has seemingly spiraled out of control.
Finally, much of the criticism of my earlier posting consisted of doubts that the Bush administration could possibly be capable of constructing such a complex strategy. I am aware of the total incompetence of this administration over much of the past five years or so in the Middle East, and I also read the polls saying that their confidence level with the American people (not to mention the rest of the world) is at a nadir. However, I am simply describing what I see, and I think it is important to take seriously the evidence in front of us. Perhaps my analysis is wrong, but I don't believe this concatenation of actions by the Bush administration is simply random.