Forbidden Zone: What will it take for the US/Iran rapprochement to be successful moving forward? And how does this effect the Palestinians?

December 1, 2013

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What will it take for the US/Iran rapprochement to be successful moving forward? And how does this effect the Palestinians?

                                   By Jeff Conibear


With the Geneva talks having resulted in an auspicious interim agreement, the Middle East conflict zone stands at a political crossroads. In my opinion, a principled outcome to these negotiations, upholding Iran’s right to enrich uranium for non-military purposes under the NPT, depends vitally on the resolve of Presidents Hassan Rouhani and Barack Obama to listen to their own people.

No doubt the deal reached in Geneva will signal a ratcheting down of the bellicose rhetoric on both sides in the coming days and weeks, but if the current US administration was truly interested in resolving the Iranian nuclear issue it might still reasonably be expected that they’d have a pre-November 2013 record to show for it. This is not the case. In 2010, Noam Chomsky observed that

the Obama administration was once again incensed when Turkey joined with Brazil in arranging a deal with Iran to restrict its enrichment of uranium. Obama had praised the initiative in a letter to Brazil’s president Lula da Silva, apparently on the assumption that it would fail and provide a propaganda weapon against Iran. When it succeeded, the U.S. was furious, and quickly undermined it by ramming through a Security Council resolution with new sanctions against Iran that were so meaningless that China cheerfully joined at once—recognizing that at most the sanctions would impede Western interests in competing with China for Iran’s resources.

Though this was before his re-election, Obama has shown little willingness to enhance diplomatic efforts between then and now. What has happened in the meantime however is that both parties have found themselves in a predicament of unusual political weakness. Iran is a vast country of some 80 million people – many of whom are young and secular-minded. Iran boasts a vibrant and well-organized dissident community who, while generally concurring with Tehran’s insistence on its right to peaceful nuclear energy, disagree with their government forcefully on a whole raft of social, cultural and economic issues. With a serious international image problem cultivated over eight years of stunningly self-defeating rhetoric by former president Ahmadinejad, and an economy buckling under the weight of a brutal sanctions regime (recently intensified, but dating back to the Clinton administration), Iran surely seeks relief as it sets out its stall in Geneva. President Obama meanwhile, mainly through two years of vacillating and ill-conceived rhetoric, recently found he’d talked himself up a tree when his “red line” speech of August 2012 came back to haunt him a year later. The drums of war were beaten, the tinny bugle of patriotism and military mobilisation was sounded, but it turned out that Obama stopped short of imitating his predecessor in a blind rush to war, after he was bailed out by the Russians at the eleventh hour, who proffered the idea of a major material concession from Damascus to save the day. Mission accomplished. But the war in Syria grinds painfully on. Its people bleed and its infrastructure crumbles. The mighty Shia arc that stretched from Iran in the east, through Iraq and Syria to Hezbollah in the West, consolidated so ironically by the Bush administration’s blundering intervention in Iraq, seemed a very tough nut to crack in the aftermath of the 2006 Lebanon War, as Shia militias roamed Iraq’s streets and even the Gulf satrapies had to pay at least grudging tribute to Hezbollah in its big victory. Since then, I think the situation has changed significantly. Syria is destroyed, Iran faces a grim future possibly resembling 1990s Iraq under sanctions, and Hezbollah has felt compelled to partake in the fighting in Syria. With a UN tribunal out to crucify it, and memories of 2006 still fresh in the Lebanese mind, the perception and grim symbolism of Hassan Nasrallah linking hands with Bashar al-Assad to stifle a major bastion of the Arab Spring is very bad for its image and credibility.

A skeptical perspective on the recent negotiations might echo Prof. Finkelstein’s observation on “Democracy Now!” earlier this year vis-à-vis the Palestinians – that the US sees an opportunity, with Iran in a politically and economically weakened state, to ram through its terms for a settlement of this issue. However, it’s my opinion that Obama is seeking a “peace” legacy to redeem his failed presidency. This was achieved, once, by Jimmy Carter, but famously eluded Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. Unquestionably Washington is seeking to compensate for its perceived equivocation over Syria. And unquestionably we’ll soon be hearing nonstop about how it was the threat of war that disarmed Syria, and the effect of “crippling” sanctions that finally got Iran to the negotiating table. But the reality is that there’s a peace initiative underway in Israel/Palestine, a peace initiative of sorts currently being explored between the US and Iran, and a pronounced commitment to non-intervention on the Syrian front. Hopefully, pressures from within Iran might stiffen Rouhani’s resolve not to be seen as acquiescing in a sell-out deal from a position of weakness. And hopefully, the 56% of Americans who, according to a recent CNN/ORC International poll, support practical compromise vis-à-vis the Iranian nuclear question, can make their voices heard above the sabre-rattling and squawking of those who consider themselves US “allies” in the Middle East, hence pressurizing a safely re-elected Obama to, for once, do the right thing come what may. This is truly imperative, because if Iran is reabsorbed into the imperial fold in the Middle East, or (more likely) finds itself rendered significantly less formidable, with a depleted deterrence capacity and less independent influence in regional affairs, the Palestinians truly will be at the mercy of the US/Israel, and their internationally rejected terms for “peace”.

Ultimately, I believe we have the opportunity to take ownership of the current developments in the Middle East and pressurize this administration into a second major stand-down. Israeli historian Avi Shlaim once commented that a principle failing of the 2000 Camp David summit was that Ehud Barak considered negotiations to be “war by other means”. That’s what Israel and Washington are offering at the moment: a “war by other means” to force a Palestinian surrender of their rights. But if Washington can be forced to abandon the military option in Syria, and to chart the road of eliminating sanctions (as opposed to adding to them) in the case of Iran – signifying an acute rupture with the Israelis – I believe it can also be pressured into using its diplomatic clout to ensure an equitable peace for the region. The small measure of respect afforded to the Iranians must be afforded equally to the Palestinians. After all, is a perpetual Middle East “conflict zone” really in the interests of an energy-dependent, post-Arab Spring world?