Thursday, November 21, 2013

Obama's Iranian Policy

By Yisrael Ne'eman

Despite being buried under domestic economic and health care issues the Obama Administration is re-embarking on its 2009 diplomatic initiative aimed at bridging gaps with the Muslim World, this time through negotiations with the Iranians over their nuclear program.  Surprisingly it is said that France led by the socialist Pres. Francois Hollande is taking the hardest line.  Obama visited Turkey and Egypt at the outset of his first term, emphasizing the break with the 60 year old NATO centered American foreign policy.  The Atlantic Alliance no longer determined future US initiatives or interests.  Despite setbacks throughout the Muslim World and in particular the Middle East (most notably Egypt) there is a redoubling of efforts to continue the overtures.  Obama's world view stands at the center of policy.

Obama focuses much more on reconciliation between Islam and the Christian world than any previous president.  He is fully convinced that the democratic process in electing Islamic leaders is the best way to go.  US foreign policy views Turkey's Islamist PM Recep Tayyip Erdogan's Justice and Development party most positively.  In 2009 Obama spoke of US-Turkish relations as the corner stone for bridging gaps between the two great religions.  Increasing authoritarianism and oppression as evidenced through the curtailing of media rights and the heavy handedness used in putting down demonstrations have not elicited much of an American response.  Nor was America particularly ruffled during the Gaza flotilla episode in 2010 when Erdogan stood firmly behind the Muslim Brotherhood (IHH) organizers attempt to break Israel's Gaza "blockade" designed to halt the import of contraband.

Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood President Mohammed Morsi was freely elected in 2012 but within a few months was consolidating power and overstepping his legal mandate.  Once overthrown by the military (with much popular support) the US has continued to advocate the re-installment of the Islamist president.  The traditionally secular and quite pro-American Egyptian military is currently looking for new allies in the face of the American cut in aid.  The Russians are coming to the rescue.  When discussing political Islam, the will of the people through elections carries much greater weight than the behavior of those same regimes once they take power.  Both Erdogan and Morsi are known for their extreme anti-Israel remarks, whether made publicly or privately (and then denied) and the two have made clear the need for a re-engagement with Tehran.  The Obama administration very much takes into account this "moderate" Islamist perspective.

Europe is perceived as a collection of nation states having devolved from Christendom and although most are secular today the individual nation state basis of loyalty in Britain, France, Germany, etc. is completely different from the multi-ethnic/religious civil society identity at the root of the American experience.  With the continually expanding Muslim populations not finding their place in a fossilized and aging Europe, American multi-culturalism is borrowing a page from the Canada of Elliot Trudeau (1960s - 70s) and making it the wave of the future.  For Obama American "exceptionalism" is its "all-inclusivism" – leaving out none and thereby bringing in the Iranians from the cold when deemed possible.  The Europeans are hypocritical in attempting to remain nation states. They import Muslim laborers from the Middle East and North Africa but refuse to become multi-cultural societies and demand the immigrants adopt the national identity.  After all how could a Muslim identify as German, British or French?

From another angle democratization of the Middle East is not happening any time soon, Egypt serving as the best example.  The Muslim Brotherhood was freely elected and rightly or wrongly overthrown by the military.  Although elected, Pres. Morsi is said to have overstepped his legal bounds, bringing a popular backlash and military intervention.  Whether true of not, is of little significance.  In the eyes of the administration democracy was undermined.  In June Iran elected Hassan Rouhani, a "reformist" to the presidency. Although largely a ceremonial office the US administration was encouraged by the hope for democracy in Iran.  The US role is "curtailing" Iran's nuclear program is an opportunity to develop a relationship with Shiite Islam.

When engaging Islam, Obama is committed to bridging gaps and erasing fault lines.  Policies have not gone well in the Arab World and in echoing Thomas Friedman's recent article in the New York Times it may be time for some sort of Iranian option to offset Persian Gulf Arab pressures, most notably Saudi demands to destroy Tehran's nuclear potential.  Some 80 years ago US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt promised to keep the Saudi family in power provided Arabian oil flowed uninterrupted to American shores.  Bringing the Iranian Shiite regime into the equation as another option for future oil imports is seen in Riyadh as a threat to future stability in the kingdom, especially as the Gulf oil producing region counts a majority of Arab Shiites as opposed to the majority Sunnis.  They are certainly susceptible to Iranian influence as noted in Iraq and Bahrain.

All the Western powers claim they will not be duped by Iran but surprisingly the French appear most worried.  One suspects they represent overall European thinking that multi-cultural understandings between Europe and Islam are in short supply.  Germany's Angela Merkel does not hesitate to emphasize the point.  Israel has a European style state nationalism of the Jewish type but, when engaging the Muslim world the issues are the same.  For Obama, American liberalism and inclusiveness are the answers.  Military action against Iran is essentially out of the question, even if necessary.  It is much better to redefine world leadership through compromise.  One must step beyond the NATO alliance and special relationship with Israel.

The US can live with a nuclear Iran, but can Israel, the Arab Gulf States and the Europeans?  Here we find the confluence of many interests.  Israel fears extermination, the Iranians never having denied this objective.  The Sunni Arab Gulf countries fear Iranian military pressure and a shifting of loyalties to Tehran by their own Arab Shiite populations.  Shiite Iraq is in the Iranian sphere of influence while Bahrain and eastern Saudi Arabia may be next.  Eastern Europe and the Balkans are already within missile range from Tehran.  Any deal not understood to be a Western victory will play into the hands of European Muslim radicals, a group completely forgotten when considering concessions to the Iranians.  Hollande may be the spokesman but all the EU fears for stability in their countries.

North Korea is a nuclear power despite US negotiations to halt the drive.  South Korea and Japan live with the threat.  The US is not overly worried about a nuclear Iran, after all we all lived with a nuclear Soviet Union and except for a few threats and a missile crisis nothing happened.  Israel, the Sunni Arab World and Europe can be expected to face the same threat unless they join forces to destroy Iran's nuclear arsenal should the need arise.  It is not automatic that the US will join such an alliance in the future.

No one believes Rouhani and the ayatollahs are insane – they are simply pursuing their interests.  Fair enough, but just one problem remains – how do we define sanity and what are their ultimate objectives?  Throw in some theology are we all realize that sacrificing oneself in the name of Allah will help one achieve salvation.  Destroying the infidel and in particular the Jewish State are part of the equation.  It is all clearly spelled out but how much does the Iranian leadership believe in their own theology and who is willing to take the chance?  We simply do not know.  The Soviets were completely secular – only this world counted hence nuclear parity ensued.  Is a contained, peaceful nuclear Iran feasible?  Maybe – if Khomenist Shiism becomes something of the past.  Not likely however.
The US hopes to cut deal with as little loss damage as possible for Sunni Arabs and the American Jewish community.  Israel counts for little, is more of a sideline and will prove itself or not when negotiating with the Palestinians.  The Jewish State has no real options for a patron besides the US and can entertain itself playing "make believe" when hosting the French PM this past week.  The Hollande visit to Israel was like a dream quickly fading into oblivion while reality sets in.  There will be an agreement (and France will sign) leaving Israel to live with the consequences.

Once there is a Western agreement with Iran Israel is prevented from taking military action unless the Sunni Arab states and a European power of two will work together forming a coalition.  Such action will only be taken should there be undeniable proof that Tehran is on the threshold of a nuclear weapon.  By then it may be too late.

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