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President Obama can no longer rely on being mysterious

Obama will not be able to win the war he declared against ISIS as long as he relies on mystery

Raghida Dergham

Published: Updated:

President Barack Obama insists on adopting mystery as the basis of his policies, be this constructive or destructive, because he is comfortable in his gray area. Some see him as a president who is conscious of the inconsistent attitudes and desires of the American people, and thus backs non-clarity and non-commitment especially on foreign policy. Others oppose that the U.S. president hides behind ambiguity and fears decisiveness.

The resignation – or sacking – of Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has been seen in the context of him being one of the opponents of Obama’s non-decisiveness. Obama has insisted on being mysterious in key issues, namely the war on ISIS and on how to tackle Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who is good at navigating in accordance with President Obama’s ever-moving compass, can be described as a diplomat well adept at shaping any political scene exactly as the president wants it to be.

Thus Kerry shaped the extension of nuclear negotiations with Iran as an achievement, when he knows well that large gaps remain, even if they had slightly narrowed. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif did the same, not in support of the U.S. President, but of President Hassan Rowhani, who was marketed in the global arena as a savior of Iran from extremism and militancy.

Ferguson

Moderation in the Islamic Republic of Iran is on trial today, to the tune of the nuclear negotiations, while hardliners are practically benefiting from the easing of sanctions as a result of these negotiations. The next seven months will not be easy for Barack Obama, as he tries to reconcile the negotiations with a Republican-dominated Congress that is hostile to Tehran. The next seven months will act as a theater for harsh approaches of all kinds, whether from Russian President Vladimir Putin, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan or Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. It will also be a space where the repercussions and implications of the “policy of mystery” will play out.

Cities in the United States have broken into protests against a grand jury’s acquittal of a white policeman who had shot dead an African-American youth, in Ferguson, Missouri. The protests against “racism” have swept more than 170 cities and have dominated the U.S. media cycle. President Obama is now under increased scrutiny, but this issue will not necessarily become the exclusive focus of U.S. policy, both domestic and foreign. The timing of this event, which coincided with Hagel’s resignation and the end of the nuclear negotiations deadline, has put more pressure on Obama, especially as he gears up for a fierce showdown with Congress. This Republican-majority Congress will second-guess Obama on the smallest details, including foreign policy issues led by the negotiations with Iran, the war on ISIS and its operations in Iraq and Syria, and the fate of the peace process between Palestine and Israel.

The nuclear issue

On Iran, the Republican Congress plans to head off any possible American concessions on the nuclear issue. Congress also intends to pass additional laws that would step up the sanctions on Iran to punish it for its regional roles beyond its borders. The Obama administration will seek to reduce the punitive tone and measures because President Obama is still hoping his achievements and legacy would be culminated with an agreement with Iran. However, Obama also now realizes the difficulty of reaching an agreement with Iran on the nuclear issue as well as its regional ambitions, and understands that the battle between the forces of moderation and the hardliners in Tehran may not have the outcome he had imagined.

The nuclear negotiations did not collapse, much to the relief of the world, including the Gulf countries. The Gulf nations were relieved by the extension of the negotiations because the alternative was confrontation and further tensions with Iran, amid circumstances that require focusing on ISIS, which is at the Gulf’s doors.

The GCC summit, which will be held in Doha in two weeks, will reflect the climate of welcoming the extension and relief on account of it, instead of pursuing a gloating tone or supporting escalation. True, the Gulf countries benefit from Congress pushing Obama into a corner to force him not to be lenient with Iran, but they don’t want to act as his “stick” as he threatens Iran on the nuclear issue. The Gulf countries are concerned about events within Iran and their practical implications for the Iraqi, Syrian, Yemeni, and Lebanese arenas, and are open to accords if moderate forces able to make deals gain the upper hand in Iran.

Divisions in the Islamic Republic of Iran are clear. Some signs of them surfaced following the extension of nuclear negotiations, in the form of statements made by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Hassan Rowhani, the first waging a campaign against the West and the second highlighting the benefits of the negotiations.

The hardliners chanted “death to America.” In the Shoura Council, hardliner MP Hamid Rasaei, said, “It's already a year since Mr. Rohani tried his magic key to turn around America's wolfish nature. Instead of turning, the key of trust and optimism broke in the lock.” Deputy Speaker of Parliament Mohammad-Hassan Aboutorabi-Fard said Iran had learned from the nuclear negotiations that it had a strong hand to play. He declared, “Today, we can speak to the U.S. and its allies with the tone of power. A lesson can be taken from the recent nuclear talks that, for various reasons, the U.S. is not reliable.”

Obama will not be able to win the war he declared against ISIS as long as he relies on mystery

Raghida Dergham

Interestingly, Iranian Foreign Ministry adviser Mohammad Ali Sobhani accused the current Vice-President of the Iraqi Republic (and former Prime Minister) Nouri al-Maliki of following sectarian policies when he was in office, which led to the formation of an incubator for ISIS, as quoted by the Iranian website Nameh News. He said, “Were it not for Maliki’s exclusionary policies against Sunnis in the country, the group would not have found a popular incubator among the Sunnis.” According to the same website, Sobhani criticized the Assad regime, saying, “The Syrian people initially protested peacefully for legitimate demands, but the Assad regime tried to suppress the demonstrations with excessive force which led to the emergence of armed groups later,” and pointing out that if the Syrian state had taken measures at the beginning of the demonstrations to meet the legitimate demands of the protesters, the situation would not be like it is today.

If the debate inside Iran is along the lines of these statements and those in the Shoura Council, what could happen in the coming months is a serious review of the Iranian approach that will no doubt impact Iran’s regional policies, and not just the Iranian interior.

Poker-game approach

Russia is outdoing and outbidding Iran on Syria in terms of clinging to Bashar al-Assad being in power. That is if we go by what Moscow told Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem, who was received by the Russian president for the first time, and who made sure to publicly stress the Syrian insistence on having his president remain in power to fight terror. If Moscow is honest about its other insinuations that it is ready for accords with international and regional forces on the basis of a formula that bolsters the war on ISIS and similar radical Islamist groups requiring concessions from Moscow, then Russia understands completely that the language of current accords stress the continuation of support for the regime in Damascus, but not necessarily the head of the regime. So which approach has Vladimir Putin really chosen? Perhaps Putin, too, found deliberate ambiguity a policy that suits him and his “poker-game” approach to his adventures from Syria to Ukraine. But what is clear is the emergence of the importance of the link between the war on ISIS and Assad’s position in that war and in international policies.

The Turkish president does not infuse his statements with diplomacy, and does not care whether what he says is liked by the U.S. president or Vice President Joe Biden, who made an unsuccessful visit to Ankara. Erdogan denounced what he called the U.S. ‘impertinence’ on the Syrian crisis, and said in the course of commenting on U.S. demands from Turkey in the context of the fight against ISIS that he rejected them, saying “we are against impertinence, recklessness and endless demands.” Erdogan, in reference to the Americans, said, “They looked on as the tyrant (President Bashar) al-Assad massacred 300,000 people. They remained silent in the face of Assad's barbarism and now they are now staging a 'conscience show' through Kobane,” where Erdogan refuses to intervene militarily alongside the Kurdish forces.

Most probably, the crisis in Syria will intensify and become more complicated and bloody in the coming period, being an arena for the tug of war between regional and international forces, and also because it is the crucible where the mystery policy pursued by Presidents Obama and Putin is tested, in contrast to the stark clarity expressed by President Erdogan.

The fate of Syria

The divisions in Iran will certainly be reflected on the fate of Syria, sooner or later, given the depth of the direct and indirect Iranian involvement in Syria. Economic sanctions restrain the hands of hardliners, who benefited from the temporary lifting of some sanctions, but will now suffer seriously. These extremist forces have gambled – believing themselves to be shrewd and cunning – on moderate forces in nuclear negotiations, because their success would lead to lifting the sanctions. The hardliners insisted on opposing the gradual lifting of sanctions, because they are the biggest beneficiaries of the direct lifting of sanctions, as this would put money immediately in their hands. In turn this would allow them to press ahead with their policies in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Lebanon, while they can also use this to bully the moderate forces.

For this reason, the moderate faction may seem like it is the bigger loser in the resulting non-success of the nuclear negotiations. But in reality, it is the hardliners that have lost the most, because the fact that the sanctions have not been lifted contributed to thwarting their regional projects and headed off their plans to turn against the moderates after sanctions are lifted on the Islamic Republic.

This situation may lead to more conciliatory policies on the part of Tehran, so as not to get involved further in Syria, Yemen, Iraq, or Lebanon, especially as ISIS has entered the fray, and defeating it inevitably requires the participation of Sunni forces. Oil prices also play a role in making Iranian policies more conciliatory, out of necessity, because expansion is expensive, financially and materially, and because the Iranian interior is suffering economically.

Perhaps Lebanon can benefit from such conciliation, with an accord that would help it emerge out of the presidential vacuum in the next few months, probably more sooner than later. Iraq is undergoing an experiment in conciliation and accord, improving its relations with the Gulf without Iranian opposition. Yemen is a spot too large to be controlled by any of the actors, and therefore, Iranian hardliners will not be able to control Yemen even if this appears possible temporarily. As for Syria, it is an arena open to all possibilities.

President Barack Obama may be forced to move away from his policy of non-clarity, because he will not be able to win the war he declared against ISIS as long as he relies on mystery. This is what his outgoing Defense Secretary told him, and this is what any sane person would insist upon before agreeing to lead the U.S. Department of Defense at this stage of President Obama’s tenure.


This article was first published in al-Hayat on Friday, Nov. 28, 2014, and was translated by Karim Traboulsi.

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Raghida Dergham is Columnist and Senior Diplomatic Correspondent for the London-based Al Hayat, the leading independent Arabic daily, since 1989. She writes a regular weekly strategic column on International Political Affairs. Dergham is also a Political Analyst for NBC, MSNBC and the Arab satellite LBC. She is a Contributing Editor for LA Times Syndicate Global Viewpoint and has contributed to: The New York Times, The Washington Post, The International Herald Tribune and Newsweek Magazine. She serves on the Board of the International Women's Media Foundation, and has served on the Advisory Council of Princeton University's Institute for Transregional Studies of the contemporary Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia. She was also a member of the Women's Foreign Policy Group. She addressed U.N. General Assembly on the World Press Freedom Day when President of The United Nations Correspondents Association for 1997 and was appointed to the Task Force on the Reorientation of Public Information by U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan. She moderated a roundtable of 8 Presidents and Prime Ministers for UNCTAD at Bangkok in 1991. Dergham served as Chairman of the Dag Hammarskjold Fund Board in 2005. She tweets @RaghidaDergham.

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