Cuba gives Obama a historic chance

President Barack Obama has rescued his legacy from oblivion through the Cuban gateway

Raghida Dergham

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President Barack Obama has rescued his legacy from oblivion through the Cuban gateway, having concluded that the nuclear negotiations with Iran and the Palestinian-Israeli peace process will hit the wall of Republican resistance in and outside Congress. Obama closed the book on the old approach with Communist Cuba with his bid to restore diplomatic ties with the island nation after a half-century-long estrangement. Obama said: “These [past] 50 years have shown [that] isolation has not worked. It's time for a new approach.” The historic détente in U.S.-Cuban relations followed a green light from Barack Obama for secret talks with Cuba in Canada, in which the Vatican played a key role through Pope Francis. Secret talks are not a new approach for the U.S. president. Obama had used this approach to initiate the nuclear talks with Iran. While this did not lead to a radical shift in U.S.-Iranian relations, it definitely led to a historical breakthrough after decades-long estrangement.

The difference between Cuba and Iran here is that Obama managed to get his decision to end Cuba’s isolation passed before the majority in the Senate and Congress shifts to the Republicans, in late January 2015. By contrast, the Iranian nuclear negotiations cannot be passed before that date. The Republican Congress is intent on preventing Barack Obama from accomplishing an – incomplete – achievement that he would be able to add to his historical legacy. Incomplete because the U.S. president ultimately bowed down to the fait accompli in relation to Israel, realizing he won’t be able to achieve anything because of the organic link between Israel and the United States. Since Iran is hanging in the balance of possible achievements, Cuba gave the U.S. president the chance to link his name to a historic event in a measure that was met with both praise and criticism, but it was not transient.

Normalization of relations

Republican House Speaker John Boehner described Obama’s announcement of the start of the normalization of relations with Havana as "another in a long line of mindless concessions" to a brutal dictatorship. For his part, Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee in the Senate Democrat Robert Menendez criticized Obama’s move, saying it has “vindicated the brutal behavior of the Cuban government.”

The timing of the announcement regarding the end of Cuba’s isolation drew criticisms from opponents, as it coincided with the slump in oil prices

Raghida Dergham

The timing of the announcement regarding the end of Cuba’s isolation drew criticisms from opponents, as it coincided with the slump in oil prices that harms Cuba’s two most important backers Russia and Venezuela. Therefore, their argument is that ending the embargo on Cuba at this juncture would throw the Castro regime a lifeline without getting anything in return, instead of taking advantage of the opportunity to link lifting the economic siege to removing restrictions on freedoms in Cuba and push the Cuban government to respect human rights.

Obama’s decision was welcomed by Russia and Venezuela, which found his new approach as a lifeline for them as they are going through a major economic crisis as a result of the collapse in oil prices. The Russian Foreign Ministry was keen to link its praise for this “step in the right direction” to saying, “we don’t believe that U.S. sanctions on any country has any legal or legitimate grounds.”

Toppling his regime

The U.S. boycott of Fidel Castro’s Cuba had definitely not succeeded in toppling his regime. The policy of isolating Cuba did not yield any concrete results for the United States. Some say economic engagement could push Cuba to liberalize. Others counter by saying that if this was true, China would by now have democratized.

The approach is at once different and similar when it comes to the Iranian issue. Some say that it has become necessary for the negotiations with Iran to succeed, as this would empower moderate forces represented by President Hassan Rowhani, since the nuclear deal is linked to the end of the sanctions on Iran – which would give a dose of support for the moderates.

The other point of view is that ending the sanctions would embolden the hardliners and serve the project of the Qods Force Commander Qassem Soleimani for expansion in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen. These forces control the keys to power in Tehran today, and will be the ones to receive the revenues and spend them as they want – including on pulling the rug from under the feet of the moderates.

Those who criticize Barack Obama’s policy that is desperate to engage with Iran at any price indicate that the U.S. president had rushed a détente at a time when sanctions had started to work in Iran. They add that the time is not right at all to make concessions to Tehran, when it is in turn suffering from the results of the oil price collapse. Accordingly, this is the time to bargain and not the time to cave in.

Congress’s approval

Barack Obama wants to avoid getting Congress’s approval for any nuclear deal he concludes with Iran, believing this is the only way to rid himself of the Republican Congress’s defiance. However, this is not easy to achieve not only because the decision to lift the U.S. sanctions lies with Congress, but also because the Republican-dominated Congress intends to make the Democratic president pay a hefty price in all other issues if he continues to try to bypass Congress.

Obama may resort to a formula under which he would claim that the nuclear deal with Iran falls under the scope of work of the U.N. Security Council. To be sure, the parties negotiating with Tehran are the five permanent Security Council members – the United States, China, Russia, Britain, and France. However, the Republicans would not let something like this pass easily, because they have ways to challenge Obama including by highlighting Iran’s violations of U.N. Security Council resolutions – that Obama is currently overlooking – most prominently by being involved militarily beyond its borders through Qassem Soleimani. This is according to a report by the U.N. Security Council Sanctions Committees issued around two weeks ago. This entails a violation of a resolution issued under Chapter VII of the Charter of the United Nations, and could thwart what the Obama administration may have in mind if it chooses to bypass Congress by putting the matter exclusively in the framework of the Security Council.

The Iranians want to keep the nuclear issue outside the Security Council and in the current framework of the P5+1 (the five permanent Security Council member plus Germany). What matters to Tehran primarily is getting the sanctions lifted while maintaining the right to enrich uranium and acquire nuclear capabilities that Iran insists are for peaceful purposes. The nuclear negotiations are complex and will take a long time. Therefore, ending them with an achievement that Barack Obama can claim to have happened in his term is not easy and could even be unlikely.

Israeli-Palestinian negotiations

What is also unlikely is to achieve something in the process of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Barack Obama had started his first term by enthusiastically seeking to achieve a breakthrough – and won the second Nobel Peace Prize for it – but now he is near the end of his second term and yet has achieved nothing and instead he continues to prevaricate.

His Secretary of State John Kerry wants to move according to “careful steps” as regards the draft resolution calling for an end to the Israeli occupation within a specific timetable. His French counterpart has moved in a way that suggested France was willing to fill the void and take control of leading the negotiating process instead of the United States. The Palestinian leadership fell into a trap of its own making, vacillating between its options without picking one and implementing it in earnest.

Palestinian diplomacy at the United Nations moved with a view to build on the idea of extending the timeframe of the negotiations and linking it to a timetable to end the occupation. It decided to wager on the French-British willingness to support a new qualitative move, deciding that the time had come to end bilateral negotiations between Palestine and Israel, to be replaced by negotiations as part of an international conference resembling the Madrid Conference.

The Palestinian strategy wagered on promises and hints to find itself facing the facts of realpolitik. It diversified its options, then found itself bound by options that it had not activated, appearing as though it was using them solely to put pressure rather than an actual policy. At the top of those options is joining the Rome Statute, which would make Palestine a party to the International Criminal Court and allow it to sue the Israel’s occupation as a war crime.

The Obama administration has warned the Palestinian Authority against taking steps in this direction, and explained the consequences represented in punitive financial and political measures.

What the U.S. president did not do is bring about the necessary qualitative shift in the Israeli-Palestinian issue, mostly because he hesitated even after making public initiatives. On Cuba and Iran, Obama resorted to secret talks, scoring on one while frantically scrambling to secure an achievement on the other. Now he has Cuba in his pocket, his mind is set on Iran, while he wishes to ward off embarrassment when it comes to Palestine and Israel.

This article was first published in al-Hayat on Friday, Dec. 19, 2014 and was translated by Karim Traboulsi.


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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