The U.S. must take initiative to forge Middle East accords
There is no logic in the U.S. president’s shirking of an opportunity for a positive quantum leap, just because he is afraid of its impact on the nuclear talks
President Barack Obama has an opportunity to change the course of events in the Middle East, if he shows enough determination, boldness, and vision. This way, he could enter history as a bold leader. His nuclear and bilateral accord with Iran has turned into fuel for sectarian wars, and wars for dominance. He can take the initiative today before concluding or in conjunction with the nuclear deal, to turn setbacks into breakthroughs between Saudi Arabia and Iran. In Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Lebanon, military, political, and economic conditions are ripe for a deal. The nuclear issue and the issue of the sanctions on Tehran give Washington the ability to seriously and effectively influence the orientations and future of Iran without bringing in regional conditions into the nuclear negotiations. Washington understands this, so all it needs is a decision by the U.S. president, his administration, and the U.S. military establishment in this direction.
The war on ISIS is another reason why Barack Obama should seize the opportunity. His personal legacy, which he seems to have fully invested in the Islamic Republic of Iran, is fragile and could well turn into a historical curse if he does not couple his sprint towards Tehran with wisdom and consciousness regarding the future of the torn Arab region. It is not right for the United States to see itself as the advocate of the Islamic Republic when the latter continues to violate international law and skirt binding sanctions, intervening militarily in the Arab countries. This is exactly what the Obama administration has done and brazenly so over the past two weeks. The U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry seems “desperate” to conclude a deal with Tehran no matter the cost. Both Obama and Kerry are convinced they are making history for the sake of U.S. interests.
The latest example of the U.S. policy of turning a blind eye to Iranian violations for fear for the nuclear negotiations was an official report at the Security Council which revealed -- finally -- that Iran’s violations of international resolutions banning the transfer of weapons to other countries are being overlooked in the council and beyond, to avoid any obstruction of the negotiations regarding Iran’s nuclear program.
Turning a blind eye
The United States is not the only party to turn a blind eye among the five permanent members of the Security Council, which are supposedly responsible for international peace and security. The United States, China, Russia, Britain, and France all deliberately ignored the information they have regarding Iran’s violations and circumvention of Security Council resolutions. This was all stated in a detailed report prepared by the Iran sanctions panel at the Security Council, which mentioned among other things Iran’s attempt to import spare parts for warplanes from Greece sourced from Israel.
The Iran sanctions panel confirmed in its report that Iran continues to transfer weapons unlawfully to Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen, and to Hezbollah and Hamas. However, notifications and reports on these violations from U.N. member states stopped recently in conjunction with attempts to protect and push forward the nuclear talks with Iran. Indeed, at the time when Iran violations were being papered over in the name of nuclear negotiations, Iran, according to the panel, continued to transport weapons and equipment to Syria to defend the regime of Bashar al-Assad. Iran provides military advisers and equipment to Iraq, something that was confirmed by Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. The panel said that Iran also supplies weapons to the Kurdistan Regional Government to support its war effort against ISIS.
In Yemen, the panel’s report said Iran’s smuggling of weapons to the Houthis in 2013, and attempts to smuggle in weapons on board a ship are part of a pattern that has been seen since 2009 at the earliest.
On the nuclear issue, the panel said it gathered information pertaining to Iran’s circumvention of Security Council resolutions by importing materials and equipment that have a dual use and can be used in its nuclear program and armament programs. However, the five permanent members of the Security Council turned a blind eye out of fear for the nuclear talks. Tehran was even rewarded with $10.43 billion in April as a preliminary and partial measure towards unlocking its assets frozen in foreign banks. Iran was also allowed under the international agreement to resume oil exports. These two measures reduced pressure on the Iranian economy.
The Obama administration is under pressure as it tackles two major issues in the nuclear talks: First, the issue of verifying that Iran will be ready to give full access to international inspection to ensure its nuclear activities are not militarized in any way. Second, how to re-impose sanctions on Iran if it breaches its commitments and violates the relevant international resolution. This issue is full of loopholes and its handling is subject to the state of relations among and between the five permanent members.
Clearly, the report of the sanctions panel exposes these countries and their desperate sprint towards appeasing Tehran, even as it continues to violate international resolutions. In effect, Iran’s record speaks for itself when it comes to violations. And the five permanent members’ record speaks for itself when it comes to exempting Tehran from accountability, if not also giving carte blanche for its regional ambitions.
Such attitudes by the major powers encourage those who want to take revenge against their positions, such as those who see ISIS and its ilk as the best available response to the major powers’ endorsement of Iran and its nuclear and regional ambitions. It is high time to become alert to this, because it has very dangerous repercussions. This policy has implications, not only for the Middle East, but also the countries in question and on their home soil.
Tehran’s encroachment on the Arab countries -- from Iraq to Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen -- must be stopped, and so should be its attempts for sabotage in Gulf countries. What is required is to stop blessing the Iranian policies which fuel sectarian strife between Sunnis and Shiites, and which will lead to more volunteers joining ISIS as they see it to be a response to the internationally backed Iranian violations.
What is required, second, is to let Tehran known seriously not only that the time for sanctioning its actions is over but also that the current stage requires it to do everything it can to allow the United States and the four other permanent UNSC members to reassure and pressure at once the Gulf countries concerned by Iran’s actions, particularly Saudi Arabia.
In Yemen, there is an opportunity available. Saudi Arabia and other countries in the Arab coalition do not aspire to occupy Yemen or to be drawn into a quagmire there. They want to stop Iran encroaching on Yemen through their Houthi proxies, who have received weapons from Tehran illicitly in violation of Security Council resolutions issued under Chapter VII of the U.N. Charter.
Instead of talking in ambiguous language to avoid political confrontation with Tehran and protect the nuclear talks, it would be better for the senior members of the Obama administration to demand Iran to take specific and immediate measures in Yemen. President Obama must intervene politically and in earnest to let Tehran know that Yemen could today be the starting point towards positive Saudi-Iranian accords that would take the Middle East into a new phase, including in the cooperation against ISIS and its ilk.
This requires Iran to force the Houthis -- and it is able to do so -- to withdraw from Aden immediately and set a timetable for a withdrawal from Sanaa. It also requires Saudi Arabia not to cling on irreversibly to Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, and allow Prime Minister Khaled Bahah to reach accords with the Houthis and even former President Ali Abdullah Saleh.
The other leg of the understandings could be in Syria, where the United States seem ready to support the parties it had rushed to designate as terrorist groups in the Security Council, namely Al-Nusra Front. Perhaps the United States is ready to stop exempting Bashar al-Assad from accountability. The aim should be to prevent ISIS from spreading into all parts of Syria.
Iran’s interest in reaching understandings with the United States, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Qatar is clear through the weakness and retreat of the regime in Damascus and Hezbollah, which are fighting alongside it. In turn, Russia benefits from distancing itself from Assad, who has grown extremely weak against ISIS and can no longer protect Russian interests against radical Islamists in Russia’s home soil and near abroad. Hence, Russia could be convinced to become part of a deal.
There is no logic in the U.S. president’s shirking of an opportunity for a positive quantum leap, just because he is afraid of its impact on the nuclear talksRaghida Dergham
The deal could include relabelling Al-Nusra Front to cleanse it from its terrorist designation, while backing it militarily and allowing it to fight both the regime and ISIS. There is talk of defections in the Syrian army that could lead to more joining the rebranded entity. This way, Assad and what he represents could collapse, with an alternative regime being put forward though it is not clear whether another Assad -- Maher Assad, Bashar’s brother -- would have role in it, or whether it will be a regime dominated by the rebranded entity.
Barack Obama is able to take the initiative and broker Saudi-Iranian accords in Syria, which would serve both U.S. and Russian interests. All he has to do is how courage and determination.
Lebanon is another place where Obama could put to use if he so wishes. There is a humanitarian issue there involving the Syrian refugees. The political issue there is presidential elections, holding of which has become crucial. There is also the security issue represented by the possibility of ISIS entering Lebanon to chase down Hezbollah, which had entered Syria to fight alongside the regime in Damascus. All these issues must push President Obama to work on brokering the necessary accords for both Saudi Arabia and Iran.
Then there is Iraq, where 3,500 U.S. troops are present. In Iraq, Iranian-backed Shiite militias are clashing with Sunni leaders, with whom reconciliation is necessary to get them to become supporters and allies against ISIS. Here too, the U.S. president must be frank with Iran over the need for it to cease its inciting and provocative policies in Iraq, and to be frank with Saudi Arabia to get it to engage positively with Sunni leaders and the Iraqi government.
There is no logic in the U.S. president’s shirking of an opportunity for a positive quantum leap, just because he is afraid of its impact on the nuclear talks. The United States is a superpower that must continue to be in a position of influencing, leading, and being bold. The ball now is in Barack Obama’s court.
This article was first published in al-Hayat on June 12, 2015.
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.