Obama Urged to Quickly Engage Iran, Syria

The incoming administration of President-elect Barack Obama should move quickly to engage Iran without preconditions and to promote an Israeli-Syrian peace accord, according to two veteran Middle East experts whose views are likely to have influence over Obama’s just-announced foreign policy team.

Obama should also "make a serious effort from the outset to promote progress between Israel and the Palestinians," propose its own solutions to the parties "sooner rather than later," and enlist the active support of the Arab League in its success, according to Richard Haass and Martin Indyk, senior Middle East aides under Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, respectively.

They also called for Obama to consider providing nuclear guarantees and enhanced anti-ballistic missile defense capabilities to Israel if negotiations to curb Iran’s nuclear program fail or do not achieve quick success in order to dissuade the Jewish state from attacking Tehran’s nuclear facilities on its own. Such an umbrella could also extend to Washington’s Arab allies in part to prevent a regional arms race.

At the same time, "the option of a military response – launched by either the United States or Israel – needs to remain in the background precisely because without it, Tehran might see a diplomatic initiative by a new, young U.S. president as an opportunity to play out the clock until Iran can cross the nuclear threshold," according to the two men.

Their recommendations, laid out in both an article to be published in the January-February edition of Foreign Affairs and in a new book, Restoring the Balance, released jointly by the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) and the Brookings Institution Tuesday, appear designed to provide a relatively detailed roadmap for Obama’s top policymakers, notably Secretary of State-designate Hillary Clinton; Pentagon chief Robert Gates; and his national security adviser, retired Gen. James Jones; as well as the president-elect himself.

They come at a moment of intense speculation about where Obama wants to take U.S. policy, especially in the Middle East, the region that has dominated policymakers in the administration of George W. Bush since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on New York and the Pentagon.

The professional, institutional, and even personal affiliations of both Haass and Indyk, as well as their own policy-making experience, underline the potential significance of their recommendations for the incoming team, whose ideological inclinations range from moderate Republican "realists," like Gates, to pro-Israel liberal internationalist Democrats like Clinton.

Haass has served as president of New York-based CFR, the country’s most prestigious foreign policy think tank, since he resigned as the State Department’s director of policy planning under Colin Powell shortly after the 2003 invasion of Iraq. He was a protégé of George H.W. Bush’s national security adviser, Brent Scowcroft, as were Powell, Gates, and, to a somewhat lesser extent, Jones. During the Clinton administration, Haass headed the foreign policy section of the Brookings Institution, Washington’s oldest and perhaps most venerable think tank.

Indyk, who served in several Middle East-related posts, including ambassador to Israel and assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs, under Clinton, heads the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at Brookings, whose president, Strobe Talbott, was Clinton’s deputy secretary of state and longtime personal friend of the Clinton family. Before joining the Clinton administration, Indyk was closely tied to the so-called "Israel Lobby" having worked as research director for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and as founding director of AIPAC’s spin-off, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP).

Restoring the Balance, the culmination of an 18-month project, was overseen by a bipartisan board of advisers co-chaired by Haass and Talbott that included Clinton’s former national security adviser Sandy Berger and Scowcroft among other leading foreign policy figures. It also includes chapters on specific issues by a number of Brookings and CFR scholars who have served in past administrations and may very well secure key posts in Obama’s, such as Michael O’Hanlon, Kenneth Pollack, Suzanne Maloney, Bruce Riedel, Gary Samore, Daniel Byman, and Steven Simon.

In presenting the book, both Indyk and Haass stressed that the chapters represented the views only of their authors and not of the two institutions or the project’s board of advisers. Indeed, the chapters on U.S. policy toward Iran, by Maloney and Ray Takeyh, and on the Arab-Israeli conflict, by Stephen Cook and Shibley Telhami, are noticeably less hawkish toward Iran and Hamas, respectively, than that written by Indyk and Haass themselves.

The title Restoring the Balance itself appeared to refer both to reducing the emphasis on Iraq that has dominated U.S. policy in the Middle East for the past seven years and to refocusing U.S. efforts in the region much more on diplomacy and multilateralism – what Obama himself called the "core vision" of his foreign policy when he introduced his new team Monday in Chicago.

On Iraq, Haass and Indyk warned against both a "too rapid withdrawal" that could generate renewed instability there and a "too slow withdrawal" that could leave U.S. forces tied down and "unavailable for other priority tasks, including backing [Obama’s] diplomacy vis-à-vis Iran in particular with the credible threat of force."

Indeed, they write that Obama’s "principal focus will need to be on Iran" because it could make sufficient progress in its uranium-enrichment program to have a credible nuclear weapons capability in as little as two to three years.

To prevent or delay that eventuality, the two authors argue for Washington to engage in direct and unconditional negotiations that would offer Tehran both more carrots – including reduced sanctions, security guarantees, and normalized relations – backed up by bigger sticks, including more stringent financial sanctions and a multilateral ban on Iranian gasoline imports. While there is no guarantee such an approach would succeed, "lower oil prices do create a context where prospects for diplomacy would be enhanced," Haass said Tuesday.

Ultimately, Washington could accept an enrichment program in Iran under enhanced international safeguards to ensure that it cannot develop a "breakout capability," according to the two authors, who also note that there is "no realistic prospect of toppling the Iranian regime, either through military action or through support of an internal uprising."

At the same time, Washington should pursue bilateral talks over normalization, Iran’s backing of Hamas and Hezbollah, and its role in Iraq, possibly within the context of a broader regional negotiation similar to the Six-Party talks with North Korea.

On Arab-Israeli talks, the two authors argue that the Syrian track – which the Bush administration, despite pleas from the mediator, Turkey, and the outgoing Israeli government headed by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, has refused to promote – offers the greatest chance of success both because Damascus, unlike the Palestinian Authority, "is in a position to fulfill a peace agreement, and the differences between the parties appear to be bridgeable."

"Moreover, the potential for a strategic realignment [by Syria] would benefit the effort to weaken Iran’s influence in the sensitive core of the region, reduce external support for both Hezbollah and Hamas, and improve prospects for stability in Lebanon. In other words, it would give President Obama strategic leverage on Iran at the same time as he would be offering its leaders a constructive way out of their security dilemma."

Progress on the Syrian track could also bolster the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian track, which should be continued by Obama, despite the deep divisions on both sides of the table, according to the two authors. Unlike Bush, however, Obama should propose solutions to issues at which the parties reach impasse and even "outline in some detail his views of the principles underlying a final settlement" in order to encourage progress.

He should also seek "renewed involvement" of the Arab states in the process, which would be made easier if the U.S. and its Quartet partners – the United Nations, the European Union, and Russia – can prevail on Israel to halt its settlement activity.

(Inter Press Service)

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Author: Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe writes for Inter Press Service.