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Michael Young

At any price

What Washington is missing in a deal with Iran

It’s disconcerting that the administration is disassociating what is going on in Switzerland from the reality on the ground in the Middle East. (AFP/Jim Watson)

The prolongation of nuclear talks with Iran has highlighted a flaw in the American approach to the issue. This was neatly summarized by Gerard Araud, France’s ambassador to the United States, in a tweet: “We want a deal. They [Iran] need a deal. The tactics and the result of the negotiation should reflect this asymmetry.”

 

Yet the extension of negotiations has made it appear that the United States needs a nuclear deal. After all, President Barack Obama said he would “walk away” from a bad deal, and presumably the continued inability to finalize an accord signals precisely that. And yet the Americans are still at it, because Obama and his secretary of state, John Kerry, are desperate for an agreement.

 

What is disconcerting is that the administration has put on blinders, disassociating what is going on in Switzerland from the reality on the ground in the Middle East. Iran and the Sunni-majority Arab states are facing off in Yemen. In Syria, where a war that the United States has done its best to ignore rages on, Iran has tried to change the balance in President Bashar al-Assad’s favor. Yet it suffered major defeats last week with the losses of Busra al-Sham and Idlib to rebels. All this has not affected the nuclear talks. A coalition of mainly Sunni states, including Turkey and Pakistan, is today aligned against Iran, but Obama and Kerry seem blithely indifferent to this.

 

The American attitude is that the nuclear negotiations involve highly technical issues, with many parties participating, therefore factoring in regional politics only complicates an arrangement. The White House has time and again shot down American initiatives that might mar talks. In the American way of negotiating it is important always to display goodwill, eliminating moves that might indicate animosity and show less than an absolute commitment to improving relations.  

 

The Iranians address political matters very differently. Even as they have negotiated with the Americans and the other permanent members of the United Nations Security Council they have relentlessly pursued their agenda of expansionism in the Middle East. To them the nuclear issue is part and parcel of a broader strategy of regional hegemony, and has nothing to do with warm feelings and photo ops, in the way Americans have viewed the talks.

 

While a nuclear deal would undoubtedly be good for the Middle East, a bad deal in which Washington ignores the regional impact of an accord would be a waste of time. If the Obama administration won’t participate in containment of Iran’s destabilizing ventures in the region, then what is the value of a nuclear accord? Iran’s nuclear program transcends proliferation. It is really about Iran’s political power. But Obama and Kerry are focused on proliferation risks.

 

If a deal is not reached, the Americans should take a serious look at the regional response to Iran. The main fear in Washington is that no accord will mean a nuclear arms race. Yet the only real way to avert this is to take the lead against Iran. Only if Arab countries feel the United States is seriously engaged in curtailing Iran’s regional sway will they hold off on building their own nuclear weapons.

 

That would mean devising a strategy that makes it infinitely more costly for the Islamic Republic to pursue its regional political agenda. Syria is a bottomless pit for Tehran, and Iraq is a draining one if the Iranian strategy of isolating the Sunnis is pursued. The Houthis can be isolated by land and sea, making Iran’s support ineffective. Tying Iran up in countless wars while sanctions are maintained may be the best method to push it to the edge financially so that it alters its ways.

 

Yet how realistic is such an expectation? Obama has so invested in disengagement from the Middle East that his embracing a contrary policy seems almost impossible to conceive. Therein lies the fundamental problem with the American approach to Iran. It is the Iranians who seem to hold the stronger cards by virtue of the fact that Barack Obama has systematically limited his own options.

 

But Araud is right. It is Tehran that is in a weaker position, even if the dynamics of the negotiations have repeatedly shown that it is Obama and Kerry who are the supplicants, simply because they want America out of the Middle East at any price. But a sloppy deal, negotiated by an administration that has made its antipathy for the region so obvious, will ensure precisely the contrary.

 

Obama and Kerry, running after an elusive legacy, refuse to see what is plain. The region is going in one direction, toward all-out confrontation with Iran, while the United States is going in the other, toward reconciliation. Reconciliation is not a bad thing, but it has a Pollyannaish quality to it when the Middle East is in the midst of a new cold war and the United States refuses to take any position.

 

Michael Young is opinion editor of The Daily Star newspaper. He tweets @BeirutCalling

It’s disconcerting that the administration is disassociating what is going on in Switzerland from the reality on the ground in the Middle East. (AFP/Jim Watson)

After all, President Barack Obama said he would 'walk away' from a bad deal, and presumably the continued inability to finalize an accord signals precisely that."

  • Hanibaal-Atheos

    I actually worry more about a unified Sunni Arab bloc with rediscovered power than about Iran projecting its power, nuclear or otherwise. Iran's power is limited by the few appendages (Hezbollah, Huthis...) it can extend here and there, while the Sunnis are by far more numerous and therefore more dangerous if their nascent power is misused, something that cannot be dismissed offhand. Not one of those, Mr. Young included, who warn us of Iran's growing power has ever answered the WHY question. What is it about Iran that makes it more dangerous than Saudi Arabia or Egypt or any of the other Sunni Arab countries? They all practice inhumane, backward corrupt forms of government. All else being equal, I have no bias toward either the Sunni or the Shiite camps, unless I am asked to think on a sectarian (if I am Sunni or Shiite) or on a tribal (if I am Arab or Persian) basis. Is this why, Mr. Young, I should fear Iran more than Saudi Arabia?

    April 3, 2015

  • LevantLogic

    While I agree with u about Obama's brilliance and the tribal mentality in governing in S.A. and other "Sunni" nations, I don't think the so-called Sunni power is a problem.To ur question why is Iran more dangerous, here's why. I live in Lebanon. Iran helped create Hezbollah, a powerful, DESTABILIZING force in a country of a weak government. They claim they want to liberate Palestine from our borders, a red herring, of course, and a ploy to gain acceptance from the unsuspecting Lebanese.One of their leaders recently announced that the Lebanese society is now considered a "resisting society not a tourism society." Well, I don't want that!, and neither do the majority of Christians, Sunnis, and many Shiites in Lebanon. Hezbollah has decided for the rest of us that we're going to be in a state of war until they see fit.Moreover, their incursion in Syria has caused great harm to the Lebanese economy and our quality of life. Juxtapose that with S.A. behavior in Lebanon and you'll see STABILIZING actions: S.A. sends us tourists who spend a lot of money; they employ tens of thousands of Lebanese workers, who in turn send remittances to help stabilize our economy; S.A. could have armed the Sunni Future Movement to the teeth if they wanted to, but instead they gave FOUR BILLION to the legitimate Lebanese army to fight terrorism; S.A., for decades, has provided financial support to countless civilian projects in Lebanon (such as schools, hospitals, other civilian infrastructure, Syrian refugees, and much more).And what did Iran give?More advanced arms to Hezbollah.No Lebanese go and work in Iran. No Iranian tourists spend their money here.The only Iranians that come here are military personnel. Iranians have talked about but never financed civilian projects in non-Shiite areas.I have a natural aversion to conspiracy theories, but judging from the Iranian and Hezbollah's behavior, it's clear that Iran is up to something, the least of which is to liberate Palestine.

    April 5, 2015

  • Hanibaal-Atheos

    With due respect, your answer reeks of a mercantile Lebanese mindset to go where the money, not principle, is. I invoke the inhumane forms of government that both Iran and SA practice, and your reply essentially is, "it doesn't really matter. Money is what matters". In other words, if Iran tomorrow starts sending tourists and pours money in the Lebanese economy, you'd be happy with Hezbollah. Please don't ignore history: Don't forget that the Lebanese Sunnis with Saudi, Kuwaiti et al backing were for long decades ardent supporters of Syria, Assad, his occupation of Lebanon, the PLO and its destruction of Lebanon....long before there was any Hezbollah or Iran around, roughly between 1965 and the late 1980s. In fact, the Sunnis too want to liberate Palestine from Lebanon. To this date, Siniora claims that Lebanon will be the last Arab country to make peace with Israel, while all his Sunni brothers have made peace with the enemy. Their volte-face against Assad is only due to his assassination of Hariri, no more. I just don't trust their metamorphosis into nationalists because it is not couched in a substantive change vis-a-vis the Lebanese entity. It is merely an extension of the umbilical cord they have with Saudi Arabia, just as the Shiites have their umbilical cord with Iran. You just choose the Sunnis because they bring more money to Lebanon. What quality of life are you talking about? Consumerism, materialism, mercantilism, rape of the environment, corruption...? Lebanon's glory days went downhill in the late 1960s when the Sunnis embarked on sapping the foundations of the State just to nibble a few powers from the president and give them to the Prime Minister. Sorry, my friend, but I just don't buy any of your dollarized love for the Sunnis.

    April 6, 2015

  • LevantLogic

    With all due respect, you've proved that you can't read, whether between the lines or my glaring words. The essence of what I was saying is not putting emphasis on the money; rather I was highlighting the DESTABILIZING behavior (capitalized in my earlier post) of Iran/Hizbullah and contrasting it with the STABILIZING behavior (also capitalized in my earlier post) of the Saudis. I would like to take my child to school without the cloud of wars hanging over his school. Your notion that I would be happy with Iran and Hizbullah if they sent tourists to Lebanon is simplistic and, in fact, ridiculous. Hezbullah is not about tourism but waging proxy wars for Iran at the price of our standard of living, no matter how inglorious you may think it is. I don't know on what planet you live, but stability costs money, while wars and poverty leads to instability. I would take the less aggressive umbilical cord over the expansionist, terroristic one any day. And for you to blame the Sunnis for Lebanon's loss of glory shows your grasp of history is nothing but sour grapes

    April 8, 2015

  • Hanibaal-Atheos

    You also highlighted FOUR BILLION.... which proves my point of your following the money, not principle. Please do not obfuscate: Prior to 1980, there was no Hezbollah. Yet, Lebanon was already DESTABILIZED since the mid-1960s. By whom, Levant-Illogic? By none else that your Lebanese Sunnis, Palestinian Sunnis, and Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Kuwait, Libya and other Sunnis who pumped many more billions than SA's too-little-too-late 4 billions for no other purpose than to sack the Lebanese State. It seems to me, your blindness to history is beyond sour grapes. It is treason that is trying to camouflage its crimes by dumping blame elsewhere. Please answer my point: There was no Hezbollah prior to 1980 in Lebanon. Why was Lebanon already destabilized? By whose agency? Who wanted to liberate Palestine over Lebanon's cadaver? If you don't have the integrity to recognize this fact, then you should not be parading around your platitudes about Saudi money....

    April 11, 2015

  • LevantLogic

    The brilliance of President Obama is that he has finally taught other countries not to depend on America but instead to gear up and fight their own fight. Those countries, that have become so accustomed to "American initiatives" every time there's a crisis (freeing Kuwait from Saddam's claws, for example), must now do it themselves. Saudi Arabia fighting in Yemen, or Arab countries fighting ISIL, or Obama's refusal to get involved in the Syrian quagmire are examples of the shift in American attitude in the Middle East. *** Obama even made the Europeans sit in the uncomfortable, unfamiliar front seat, fighting and dislodging a brutal dictator who had threatened to wipe out his own people. Obama's "leading from behind" in Benghazi was not because he was timid or weak. It was a deliberate, smart strategy. *** Contrary to what Mr. Young argued, Obama has "time and again shot down American initiatives" not because it might mar talks with the Iranians, but as a new, fresh policy in the Middle East that would no longer cost American lives and trillions of dollars, while at the same time achieving the desired goals. Talks with Iran or not, he would have done the same thing. *** Now that a framework of a good nuclear accord has been reached between the US and Iran, the brilliance of Obama may be seen long after he's out of the White House. And come June, if the agreement is signed, Obama will have finally earned his Nobel Peace Prize that he himself says was prematurely given

    April 3, 2015

  • Hanibaal-Atheos

    Absolutely true. Thank you. Unfortunately, in the Macho world of Middle Eastern politics, including the minds of intellectuals and journalists like Mr. Young, smartness does not count because it is perceived as weakness. On the other hand, "ballsiness" as often expressed by the "real men" of Lebanese politics, is highly priced even if reckless, wanton, and irrational. I fully concur with you: Lebanese and Arabs are at a loss at understanding Obama. His brilliance far outpaces them, as they are accustomed to the grand Schwarzeneggerian theater of one cowboy George W Bush who, unlike Obama, would have burst on the Syrian scene with his guns, saved the day in less than three seconds of generous high quality American firepower, sending Assad to his grave in the blink of an eye, then declaring to the cameras "Mission Accomplished". Sadly for us, they want us to believe and as Mr. Young keeps reminding us, Obama's expertise in constitutional law is, well, too "academic" for the natives.

    April 3, 2015

  • Beiruti

    If there is no treaty and sanctions continue on the Iranian Economy, it will put the Islamic regime in Iran into jeopardy, sure, and it will fight to survive which will leave ISIS free to dominate everywhere else, including Lebanon. And who will take over the already developed Iranian Nuclear facilities?? Non-state actors? Taliban? Al Qaida? Who? So, Mr. Young, given the alternatives, not the perfect world, but the real world alternatives, isn't it the wiser course to give these talks every chance to succeed rather than the alternative of more chaos, more killing and more backward moving of a region that is already going full speed backwards to the 7th Century?!

    April 2, 2015

  • Beiruti

    With regard to the region, sure, it is to Iran's political benefit to have a nuclear program, but it is do their political detriment to actually get one. Nothing would mobilize the Sunnis, Israelis and Americans against it more than if it got a weapon. By not getting a weapon, but getting a treaty whereby it foreswears the weapons that it has declared it does not want, Iran gets a role in a balanced regional stability with the KSA. This is the US strategy to leave the KSA and Iran as the twin fulcrums upon which the region is balanced so that the US will not have to any longer play that role. The greatest strategic blunder of the US in the Middle East in the past 60 years has been to take the advice of Benjamin Netanyahu and eliminated Saddam Hussein from the equation. Saddam was the last balancing factor. He kept Iran contained, kept the wahabis contained and provided a break in the "arc of resistance" that Iran has sought to construct going back to the Islamic Revolution in Iran. When the US removed Saddam we removed the balance and thereby tipped the balance of power toward Iran which gave rise to the Sunni Backlash in Syria and Iraq known as ISIS. We removed the cork from the bottle and now the genie is out and how do we get it back in, Mr. Young?? More neocon solutions where the US tries, yet again to remake the Middle East into the American Midwest?? It is a fools errand that you want to put the US on.

    April 2, 2015

  • Beiruti

    What is "Pollyannish" is Mr. Young and the assumptions that he is willing to make in his critique of the US and its negotiating position. He has obviously never negotiated anything more complicated that a Beirut traffic jam. It is the case in all negotiations, particularly with Middle Easterners that you attempt to leave the time to bargain open long enough to extract as much as possible and to push the limit to find where the hard limit of your negotiating partner is. This obviously what Iran is doing. The P5+1 positions and hard lines are clear, the question is can the Iranians get there or not. The P5+1 is apparently willing to let the Rouhani government work more with their counterparts to Mr. Young/Boener/Netanyhu et al to get them to come to the lines drawn by the Western powers. If the Iranians have given their final offer and it does not meet the requirements of the P5+1 and their respective hard liners, then there will be no deal. Now who needs this deal more? Iran or the US? Who is suffering under sanctions, the US or Iran? Whose government is in jeopardy of internal revolt over the sanction regime that has been imposed, the US or Iran? You know the answer, Mr. Young, just as surely as you know which state needs the treaty - Iran, and which would want a treaty - the US.

    April 2, 2015