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Monday, December 28, 2009     GET REAL

Obama's appeasement policy opens the way for Iran’s strategic ascent in Mideast

By Yossef Bodansky, Senior Editor, Global Information System, ISSA

Despite the lingering demonstrations and disorder in Tehran, Iran's ruling mullahs are confident anew in their country's ability to surge to a hegemonic position in the Middle East without a major war. The main reason for the mullahs’ confidence is their interpretation of the appeasement policies of the U.S. Barack Obama Administration.   

Most significant is the undeclared — yet widely projected — profound change in U.S. policy regarding Iran's nuclear program. Tehran and all other regional governments are convinced that the U.S. now strives to “contain” a nuclear Iran rather than continue the declared objective to prevent the nuclearization of Iran.

The most important manifestation of the change in U.S. policy is Obama's decision in mid-December 2009 to drag out the negotiations and thus give Tehran another year to resolve the nuclear issue. The U.S. rhetoric that patience is running out and tough sanctions are imminent are, in the words of senior U.S. officials, “no more than a smokescreen” for the White House decision to extend the ultimatum to Iran by a whole year.

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Washington is cognizant that by then “Tehran will have attained a nuclear weapon and the means of delivery”. Moreover, the U.S. is signaling the effective removal of the military threat. This change of policy was articulated by Adm. Mike Mullen on Dec. 21. Asked about the possible use of military force against Iran, Mullen stated: “My belief remains that political means are the best tools to attain regional security and that military force will have limited results. However, should the President call for military options, we must have them ready.”

Adamant on attaining a breakthrough with Tehran, President Obama is considering the dispatch of Sen. John Kerry as a special emissary. Although Kerry was first identified by the White House as its preferred point man on negotiations over new Iran sanctions, on Dec. 15, Kerry suddenly announced that the Senate Foreign Relations Committee “needs time to consider the [Iran sanctions] bill”. With that, the Senate debate and vote on new sanctions was effectively postponed until Spring 2010. Meanwhile, U.S. diplomats asked numerous intermediaries to notify Tehran that “Kerry is offering to travel to Tehran to try to broker a last-ditch agreement with the Iranian regime regarding its nuclear program”.

The diplomats noted Kerry's success in achieving a breakthrough with Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai in Kabul and with official Islamabad. Officially, the Obama White House insists that such a visit would be Kerry's own initiative. At the same time, a senior White House official emphasized that this is “the kind of travel a chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee would — and should — undertake.” Unlike the undeclared negotiations run by Ambassadors Hill and Ross, Kerry's intervention would be high-profile and would herald Obama's new approach to both friends and foes.

In recent weeks, numerous emissaries — Chinese, Pakistani, Turkish and European — approached Tehran at Washington's behest asking — actually pleading — for Tehran's assistance in resolving the Afghan quagmire and expediting the U.S. military withdrawal. Washington recognizes that Tehran has established very strong economic and political ties with Afghanistan. Although the foundations of these relations are with the non-Pushtun minorities — the Hazaras, the Uzbeks, and the Tajiks — as well as with the traditionally Persia-gravitating Herat area, Iran has close relations with President Karzai's government. Any long-term political posture in Kabul can no longer ignore Iran's interests and influence, for the first time since the U.S.-aided removal of the Shah of Iran from power in 1979.

At the same time, Iranian Pasdaran intelligence and the Pasdaran’s Quds Force have developed close relations with numerous elements of the Afghan Taliban, providing them with military training, weapons, and funds. These relations reflect the complexity of Iran's interests in Afghanistan. On the one hand, Tehran dreads a return to chaos and a massive refugee influx on its eastern border. On the other hand, and not without reason, Tehran also holds U.S. responsible for the separatist terrorist groups — most notably the Jundullah — which have recently escalated their attacks in Iran.

Consequently, while working to bolster Karzai's Kabul, Tehran also established a comprehensive covert infrastructure and a web of clandestine relationships that would enable the marked escalation of violence in Afghanistan at Tehran's behest. This network is optimized for debilitating attacks on, and causing heavy casualties to, U.S. and NATO forces rather than seizing control over Kabul or any other center in Afghanistan. This project was under the personal responsibility of the Brig.-Gen. Qassem Suleimani, the commander of the Quds Force, who even visited Kabul and Herat several times. Suleimasni's direct role and overt involvement not only clearly reflect the importance of the Afghan network to the mullahs, but are also aimed to convey this message to the U.S. and NATO. Indeed, the Obama White House is cognizant that any Iran sponsored escalation in Afghanistan would make it impossible for the U.S. to withdraw on schedule. Therefore, the Obama Administration is going out of its way to appease Tehran in Afghanistan and elsewhere.

Concurrently, the U.S. is encouraging Turkey to expand its strategic relations with Iran and Syria. President Obama personally stressed this point to Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan during his early December 2009 visit to the White House. The White House also assured Ankara that the U.S. has no objection to relying on Iran as a primary source of natural gas for the Nabucco pipeline. With Turkmenistan committing to supplying the EU via Russia and the PRC, and with Azerbaijani supplies in doubt because of the Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict, Iran is indeed the sole viable source in the near term and thus will make or break Nabucco.

Little wonder that on Dec. 21, 2009, Erdogan arrived in Damascus with 10 Government ministers in order to sign a series of new accords heralding a new era of Syrian-Turkish close relations. In his discussions with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Prime Minister Erdogan did not conceal his belief that these new Turkish-Syrian agreements also furthered Turkey's relations with Iran.

Moreover, Prime Minister Erdogan agreed to include explicit agreement on the need “to find a solution to the historical property issues”– namely, Syria's claim on Turkey's Alexandreta/Iskanderun region — in the Dec. 24, 2009, “Joint Statement of the First Meeting of the High Level Strategic Cooperation Council between Syria and Turkey”. This was the first time that Ankara had agreed to acknowledge the existence of the Syrian territorial claim and as such must be considered a major concession to both Damascus and Tehran.

These developments have already led the Arab world to reach out to Tehran and promise support in case of a U.S. or Israeli attack. The consensus among Arab leaders is that it is in not in the interest of the Arab world to develop a crisis or military tension with Iran, and that a war against Iran due to its nuclear program would harm the vital interests of the Arab World. On the contrary, the consensus among Arab leaders appears to be that it is imperative to establish peaceful and friendly relations with Iran which preserve both Arab and Iranian interests. Arab leaders now mute their long-standing complaints about Iranian meddling in Arab affairs and Iran's quest for expanding its power and hegemony throughout the Arab world.

Tehran has been most successful with the core argument that facing the common Israeli enemy should make the Arab world overlook its problems with Iran. Arab leaders acquiesced to Tehran's assertion that the mere questioning of Iran's policies amounts to serving the interests of Israel and the U.S. and would thus be treacherous to the sacred common cause of Iran and the Arab world.

Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak and Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah have personally spearheaded this profound change of policy in the Arab world along these lines. Tehran has quickly reciprocated to the Arab feelers. On Dec. 20, Iranian envoy Ali Larijani arrived in Cairo with a special message from Iran's top leaders. He was treated as a head-of-state. Upon arrival, Larijani had a private meeting with President Mubarak which lasted more than two hours. In the meeting, Larijani presented Tehran's wide-ranging proposal to improve relations with the pro-Western Arab governments.

Larijani promised “a new Iranian approach to resolving outstanding issues”. He urged President Mubarak that Tehran and Cairo should focus on future cooperation on key issues. “It is most important for Iran and Egypt to set aside their differences and to focus on bridging the gap between political factions in Palestine,” Larijani said. Regarding the lingering fears of Iran's nuclear drive, Larijani assured President Mubarak that the Arab World had nothing to fear and offered numerous modalities to prove this point, including “Iranian-Arab nuclear cooperation”. He also repeated Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad's offer to open an Iranian embassy in Cairo, the first since relations were broken off in1979 after Sadat offered the Shah refuge in 1979.

President Mubarak was very impressed with the proposals outlined by Larijani. The next day, he left for a two day visit to Riyadh for lengthy consultations with King Abdullah. Officially, the two leaders discussed “different Arab, Islamic and international issues”. In reality, the talks focused on Mubarak's impressions from his talks with Larijani and their implications for the Arab world's complex relations with Iran. According to Saudi senior officials, “Iran's nuclear issue” topped the agenda in Riyadh. The other sensitive issue was the Saudi failures against the Iran-supported Houthi revolt in Yemen which is rapidly spreading into Saudi Arabia's volatile Assir province. Egyptian senior officials traveling with President Mubarak raised the Yemen issue with a most reluctant King Abdullah in lieu of “Egypt's worries over the security of Saudi Arabia in light of the Houthi attacks on the Saudi borders”.

It was President Mubarak's opinion that an all-Arab rapprochement with Iran is imperative for convincing Iran to cut its sponsorship of the Houthi revolt. At the same time, President Mubarak refused King Abdullah's request for Egyptian special forces to fight the Houthis.

The emerging consensus in the Arab world is that “coexistence with Iran looks like a safer bet” than an alliance with the U.S. Under such conditions, the regional strategic balance is profoundly changing. The U.S. influence is diminishing and Israel is increasingly isolated. Consequently, Jerusalem's anxieties are rising. In contrast, the popularity of both Iran and Syria is growing. Damascus is not only no longer isolated, but it is considered as the best venue for passing messages to Tehran. Hence, Saudi Arabia's close ally — Lebanon's Prime Minister Hariri — was dispatched to Damascus in order to inform Assad of Riyadh's growing interest in improving relations with both Damascus and Tehran. Assad encouraged Hariri to take the message directly to Tehran and handed Hariri an invitation from Ahmadinejad to visit Tehran soon.

Both Iran and the Arab world are most encouraged by the latest developments in Israel. They watch with satisfaction as Jerusalem is folding under U.S. pressure regarding negotiations with the Palestinians. Moreover, Khaled Mashal and other HAMAS leaders who now deal with Israel over Shalit have reported to Tehran about the Israeli defeatist mood. All this gives Tehran the confidence that it is highly unlikely that Israel would initiate any military action absent a U.S. preapproval, and Tehran knows that the U.S. would not approve any Israeli strike, neither against Iran nor against its clients in Syria, Lebanon, and the Gaza Strip. Not without reason, President Ahmadinejad is convinced that Obama would not permit Netanyahu to disrupt his grand plans for a U.S. rapprochement with Iran and disengagement from both Iraq and Afghanistan irrespective of the cost to Israel.

More important, President Ahmadinejad is convinced that although Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu must be cognizant of President Obama's approach and its horrendous cost for Israel's vital interests, Netanyahu would not do anything proactively.

Larijani returned from Cairo convinced that the door was open for closer cooperation between Iran and the Arab world. Meeting with Iran's top leaders, he argued that Iran and Egypt did not differ in strategies regarding the U.S. and Israel, and that the Arab world's mistrust of, and hatred toward, both the U.S. and Israel were palpable. “There may be differing views in tactics between Iran and Egypt but the strategies of the two countries are not different,” Larijani assured.

Tehran need not worry about the ramifications of the U.S.-inspired rhetoric coming from Arab capitals because it is hollow and made under duress. He also attributed the tension over Iran's nuclear aspirations to “misunderstandings” spread by the United States. Larijani was confident that it would be possible for Iran to overcome these “misunderstandings” through political means. He pointed to Mubarak's concurrent trip to Riyadh and the Persian Gulf states as a proof of his — Larijani's — position that convincing Cairo of Iran's policies would lead to changes in the position of the entire Arab world.

On Dec. 22, a very confident President Ahmadinejad addressed a closed meeting with regional leaders and senior officials in the Iranian city of Shiraz. He declared that the U.S. was “bound to fail in the Middle East”. Ahmadinejad reiterated that “the U.S. will definitely fail in the Middle East, as the regional nations will not allow it to dominate the region”. He singled out Iran as the key to reversing the U.S. influence and domination. “The problem is that the U.S. seeks to dominate the Middle East but the Iranian nation is an obstacle [to it],” he explained. Fully aware of the importance of Iran, the U.S. was, he said, bringing up “pretexts” such as Iran's nuclear program and human rights in order to undermine Iran's standing with its neighbors.

“The nuclear game is repetitious, old-fashioned and boring. Say publicly that you are seeking dominance over the Middle East but Iran does not allow [you to do so],” Ahmadinejad said. He reiterated that “the world should know that the Iranian nation and the regional countries will make it impossible for the U.S. to dominate the Middle East”.

Ahmadinejad then raised the issue of Iran's nuclear weapons. He stated that the world should “know that if we wanted to build bombs, we [would have] had enough courage to announce that we were making bombs”. He stated that there was nothing the U.S. and Israel could do to prevent Iran from pursuing its nuclear program as it saw fit. “We are a great and brave nation. We told you that we will launch the [nuclear] fuel cycle and we did it. We told you that we will industrialize the fuel production and we did it ... we told you that we will launch a new generation of centrifuges and we did,” Ahmadinejad concluded.

With the U.S. projecting weakness and confusion — desperate to gain Iranian cooperation in furthering issues of crucial importance for Obama, namely, expedited safe withdrawal from both Afghanistan and Iraq — Ahmadinejad.s Tehran is only emboldened to raise the price in the best traditions of the Iranian bazaar. Both Washington and Tehran know that time is on the side of the mullahs which means that the Obama White House will end up paying exuberant strategic price for Iran.s “cooperation”; a price which America's allies and friends in the region will end up paying for a long time to come.

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