Perception of US strength
as ally suffers again
in Middle East
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has staked his presidency on the success of the Geneva negotiations.
TWO SEEMINGLY UNRELATED developments this week received disparate treatment in U.S. media, but they are so closely related as to be inseparable.
The deal with Iran over its nuclear ambitions overshadowed, for most part, the Monday announcement that a new attempt would be made to convene peace talks on Syria.
The two threads were woven together in an excellent analysis on the front page of The New York Times on Tuesday, but one essential element was missing.
How is President Obama’s choice of diplomacy over confrontation being perceived by the major players in the region?
Perception is reality. It is not hard to discern.
AFTER A 10-DAY fact-finding trip to the Middle East during the Syria crisis in September, the outcome of that for American prestige was quite clear, as we wrote Sept. 17 in U.S. influence in Middle East Wanes.
After it brokered a diplomatic solution, Russia clearly was perceived as the region’s ascendant power.
Despite the latest diplomatic engagement, however, it remains beyond doubt that Iran and Saudi Arabia still are engaged in a proxy war on the battlefield in Syria. It is also well known that the Saudis (and Israel) vehemently opposed the nuclear deal and the diplomacy that diverted a U.S. missile strike on Syria.
The story in The New York Times on President Obama’s pivot to diplomacy. Click image to enlarge.
Reporting in The New York Times on Tuesday in the story Obama Signals a Shift From Military Might to Diplomacy Mark Landler wrote:
“The weekend ended with the first tangible sign of a nuclear deal with Iran, after more than three decades of hostility. Then on Monday came the announcement that a conference will convene in January to try to broker an end to the civil war in Syria.
“But the two nearly simultaneous developments were vivid statements that diplomacy, the venerable but often-unsatisfying art of compromise, has once again become the centerpiece of American foreign policy.”
Indeed, this is a logical conclusion, but does it reflect strength or weakness?
“But it also reflects a broader scaling-back of the use of American muscle, not least in the Middle East, as well as a willingness to deal with foreign governments as they are rather than to push for new leaders that better embody American values. “Regime change,” in Iran or even Syria, is out; cutting deals with former adversaries is in.”
This is a welcome departure from the cowboy “diplomacy” of the Bush/Cheney years, but one has to go beyond the headlines to see how it is being perceived in the capitals that matter – Tehran and Riyadh.
According to Iran’s Tasnim news agency, the headline summarized how the deal was seen in Tehran: World Powers Admit to Iran’s N. Rights, Right for Enrichment: President Rouhani
The Iranian news agency Tasnim carried the story in which President Rouhani declared victory. Click image to enlarge.
“Iranian President Hassan Rouhani felicitated Supreme Leader of the Islamic Revolution Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamenei on the absolute achievements of the first step agreement reached between Iran and the six world powers (known as P5+1),” Tasnim reported on Monday.
“In a letter addressed to the Leader, President Rouhani said the revolutionary offspring of Iran have managed to take the first step in a way that made the big world powers admit to the nation’s nuclear rights as well as its right for enrichment.”
This is not exactly the same way the agreement has been reported in western media.
“According to a report by the official website of the Iranian president, Rouhani added that the nuclear deal would also pave the way for future big steps towards guaranteeing Iran’s technological and economic advances.”
If Iran sees this as a victory, the unsaid but obvious implication is that for the counterparty – the U.S. and its allies – it was a defeat.
This probably comes as a surprise to many because it certainly was not among the stated goals of the diplomats gathered in Geneva or President Obama in his reaction on Monday. But it is no surprise to the Israelis, as reflected in the Jerusalem Post article Iran deal is riskier than meets the eye in which Yaakov Lappin writes:
The risks of the Iran nuclear deal are detailed in this story in the Jerusalem Post. Click image to enlarge.
“[U]pon closer inspection, the deal, though better than the first draft floated this month, takes high and unnecessary risks, and rests on shaky foundations that might just end up collapsing, bringing international sanctions down with them.
“If the next round of diplomacy hits an impasse, it is far from certain that the international community or the US will rush to recognize the failure, or respond by adding more sanctions against Iran.”
Lappin warns that Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei will spend the six-month negotiation window trying to unravel the shaky coalition that emerged after protracted talks in Geneva, and preparing his country in case no final solution can be reached.
“A lack of firm international resolve in responding to failed talks would spell the beginning of the end of the sanctions regime, and leave Iran with its nuclear program intact,” Lappin writes.
“In Jerusalem, there is one fundamental formula that trumps all others when it comes to Iran. If faced with two choices, either accepting an Iran with the bomb, or bombing Iran, Israel will always choose the latter.”
The calculation is not ambiguous.
“A nuclear Iran, together with Iran’s trans-national terrorism and proxy networks, and the regional arms race that will surely follow, will be many times more dangerous to Israel’s well-being than an attack on Iranian nuclear sites.”
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was widely quoted as calling the deal a “historic mistake,” and the Jewish state feels itself more isolated and adrift even than it did after the attack on Syria was abandoned.
Perception, once again, is reality.
The Iranians are strutting around the world stage crowing over their “victory” while the Saudis and Israelis are rattling their sabers more loudly than ever.
The battle in Syria is intensifying and spilling over into neighboring territories. And on Tuesday one of the main rebel groups reportedly said it has not yet decided whether to attend the January peace conference.
It is a bit too early to declare victory for diplomacy. But it is definitely not too early to know that American prestige is on the line in a way it has not been since the end of World War II.
President Obama has pivoted away from belligerence and that is admirable. But the cost to America’s ability to influence events in the turbulent Middle East is still unfolding.
With the response in Jerusalem and Riyadh, it has seemingly suffered another decline. One can only hope it remains sufficient to discourage a military end run around diplomacy by those who have the capability and willingness to do so.
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