Nov. 27 (Bloomberg) -- President Barack Obama’s agreement with Iran is part of a high-stakes set of diplomatic initiatives that is unnerving Middle East allies concerned that his goal is to reduce U.S. commitments in the region.
The U.S. and five other world powers, in an interim deal concluded Nov. 24 in Geneva, set a six-month timetable to reach a comprehensive accord with Iran denying it a nuclear-weapons capability. That deadline roughly coincides with Secretary of State John Kerry’s goal of reaching an Israeli-Palestinian accord by May, an effort that may only be further complicated by the overtures to Iran.
At the same time, Kerry is negotiating with U.S. allies and Russia to resolve Syria’s civil war, with an often-delayed Geneva peace conference now scheduled for Jan. 22.
While the U.S. pursues the three-pronged diplomatic push, leaders in the Mideast see the burst of American diplomacy as a possible precursor to an American pullback, according to Dennis Ross, a former Mideast negotiator who is counselor at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy in Washington.
“There is a lot of concern across the board in the region about our staying power,” Ross said at a panel discussion yesterday held by the Center for New American Security, a policy research group in Washington.
The U.S. is seen as less committed to the Mideast as it has become less reliant on Persian Gulf oil and seeks an expanded role in the Asia-Pacific region, he said.
The issues in play have the potential to alter regional politics whatever the outcomes. Already, the initial Iran deal has reduced the likelihood of a U.S. military conflict with Iran for the time being, though the prospects for a comprehensive deal remain uncertain.
“There are still enormous challenges ahead,” Obama said of the first-step Iran agreement at a political event in San Francisco this week. “We haven’t solved the mistrust and the enmity and the fundamental challenges of Iran’s nuclear capacity.”
“But we’re testing diplomacy,” he said. “We’re not resorting immediately to military conflict. And we create a space where there’s a possibility of resolving problems that have lingered for decades.”
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said his willingness to make “historic compromises” in peace talks with the Palestinians is linked to a full resolution of the Iranian nuclear issue, which he describes as presenting an existential threat.
Kerry sees no linkage between an Iran accord and the peace talks, according to a State Department official who asked not to be identified discussing the closed-door negotiations.
The U.S. outreach to Iran, which began in secret two years ago, gives its leaders a potential route to end their nation’s international status as a pariah, including economic sanctions that have crippled its economy.
The prospect of a resurgent Iran troubles Saudi Arabia, according to Tom Lippman, an adjunct scholar and Saudi Arabia specialist at the Middle East Institute in Washington.
“Any agreement between Iran and the U.S. is a loss for them,” Lippman said. Saudi Arabia, a Sunni nation and a U.S. ally, is engaged in a proxy war in Syria with Iran, its Shiite rival for regional influence,
The possibility of a shift in Iranian relations adds a further element of change in a region already upended by protest movements, the ouster of longtime leaders such as former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, and a civil war in Syria that has claimed more than 100,000 lives.
At the same time, there’s “a great concern about what’s been remarked on as an absence of U.S. leadership and engagement broadly in the region,” said Barry Pavel, director of the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security at the Atlantic Council, a Washington policy group.
“This is an important perception even if reality is not necessarily matched to it,” said Pavel, a former career Defense Department official who served on the National Security Council staff under Presidents George W. Bush and Obama.
The perception has been fed by the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq and Afghanistan, Obama’s decision not to attack Syria after the regime crossed his “red line” by using chemical weapons, and energy advances such as the extraction of natural gas from shale that make the U.S. less vulnerable to Middle East oil shocks.
“Middle Eastern officials are wondering, ‘Is the U.S. going to care about our interests when we need them?’” said Pavel.
Rift With Israel
After signing the interim agreement with Iran, Kerry sought to reassure allies, and Israel in particular, that the U.S. would stand by them and ensure that a final deal, if reached, will be tough on Iran.
Even so, the U.S. outreach to Iran has created “a significant rift in the U.S.-Israeli relationship,” said Aaron David Miller, a vice president at the Wilson Center, a Washington policy group.
Netanyahu, who called the Iran deal a “historic mistake,” often cites the Islamic Republic’s repeated talk of Israel’s destruction as a reason to be more cautious in peacemaking with the Palestinians.
In an Oct. 23 message on the social media service Twitter Inc., Netanyahu said, “Our aspiration for peace is liable to be severely affected if Iran succeeds in its aspiration” to escape the sanctions.
Kerry, who has made eight visits to the region since taking office in February, has pressed Netanyahu for progress toward a two-state solution in the Palestinian peace talks.
With no public signs of progress, he is a third of the way through the nine-month period he set at the end of July for his effort to negotiate a comprehensive peace agreement that would lead to an independent Palestinian state.
The coinciding deadlines for agreements on Iran and the peace process are “going to mean tremendous angst and anxiety on the Israeli side,” said Miller, who served as a Middle East negotiator in Republican and Democratic administrations.
Arthur Hughes, a former ambassador to Yemen who is also with the Middle East Institute, said some of Netanyahu’s pronouncements may be to please his right-wing ruling coalition. He cited as well cool personal relations between Obama and Netanyahu.
“The Israelis just don’t feel the love,” Hughes said. “People like to feel reassured when someone says, ‘We’ve got your back,’ they’ve really got your back.”
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