The Administration appears determined to stick to a carefully orchestrated timetable in dealing with what most believe is Iran's determination to develop a nuclear weapons capability. This, despite pressure from allies, notably France and of course, Israel, to move to implement "crippling" sanctions on Teheran as soon as possible. However, with President Obama's self-proclaimed year end deadline for progress looming and Teheran showing no signs of a willingness to change its policies and practices, the tempo of Administration action will soon have to pick up, admit US officials.
According to informed sources, the Administration has decided to try to gain another United Nations Security Council resolution before acting in concert with what are called "like- minded" countries in Europe and Asia. With most European Union members supportive [Italy is still considered a laggard but over the past few months Spain has "come on board," says one well- placed source], US officials have intensified talks with Asian economic partners such as Japan and South Korea.
However, the biggest challenge remains China because of the scope of its trade with Iran as well as its veto-wielding permanent seat on the Security Council. Russia, according to State Department officials, has become much more willing to entertain additional sanctions. This they attribute in general to the Administration's work to "reset" US-Russian relations. And when Teheran's rebuffed a plan endorsed by the US to send its low enriched uranium ["LEU"] to Russia for conversion into higher enriched uranium fuel rods that would be rendered incapable of being used for nuclear weapons, the Russians became more amenable to pressuring Iran. The approach to the Chinese remains rooted in the belief that they do not wish to be isolated. "Russia has always provided cover for China at the UN," says one State Department official. "We are trying to change that now."
US officials have also journeyed to Beijing to press their case. "We told the Chinese that their fundamental interest lies in having a stable Middle East and Iran's headlong rush toward nuclear self-sufficiency does not further that interest," says one top US official. Still, US officials are far from confident that they have China "in a good place" as they claim Russia is now. For example, this week's dispute between the US and China at the environmental conference in Copenhagen rattled some State Department Middle East experts, indicating that a wide range of issues between the two countries could impact Beijing's willingness to cooperate on Iran.
In "sticking to the script" as one Administration insider put it this week, the US is acting out of the widely held belief that its position vis-a-vis Iran has been strengthened over the past six months. Much of that change has been due to actions taken by Iranian officials. ......
Teheran is also looking nervously at the growing Saudi- Syrian rapproachment, say US analysts. The latest evidence of cooperation between the two countries was over the composition of a new government in Lebanon. Key US officials believe that the Saudis, who until recently shunned Syria for its widely assumed role behind the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister and Saudi royal family confidante Rafik Hariri, have begun courting Syria. Although many analysts remain skeptical that Syria can be pried away from its close ties to Iran, the Saudis, nonetheless are looking to break the so-called Shia "arc" of Iran and especially Iraq, say some US analysts. Put bluntly by one State Department analyst, "The Syrians are the most susceptible to bribery and in this case why not sacrifice Lebanon?"
But it isn't only Saudi Arabia which has come calling to Syria. US officials are eager to see an American ambassador back in Damascus. According to informed sources, the decision to send a new Ambassador [The previous one was recalled at the time of Hariri's assassination] has been made. Now it only a question of timing. Some in the Administration believe that the announcement
should be accompanied by a gesture from Damascus. Otherwise, in the words of one US official, "The Syrians will just pocket it as a freebie." Others argue that this, in the words of one veteran State Department official is just "left over `Bush-think'" and it is in the interest of the US to have its "Man in Damascus."
While factiousness has not been a hallmark in most of the Administration policies in the region, it is becoming clear that policy towards Israeli-Palestinian talks may be an exception. Criticism has begun to surface over the role Special Envoy George Mitchell has played in his so far unsuccessful attempts to get the Israelis and Palestinians reengaged in peace talks. One critic characterizes Mitchell's approach as inappropriately adopting "Irish software" to this intractable conflict....
But instead of creating a "positive context" as he did with the Irish, Mitchell, says this critic, missed an opportunity to build upon gestures made by Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. In particular, it is argued that Netanyahu's announcement of a partial, temporary settlement freeze should have been seized upon thus allowing for it to be extended and expanded. Instead, the Administration reacted with conflicting statements that only served to antagonize many Arabs and leave Netanyahu in a relatively comfortable political position at home.
Ultimately, it will not be Mitchell but the President who will have to make some crucial decisions, say State Department insiders. They say that elements of the bureaucracy do not back Mitchell and that President Obama, in the words of one veteran State Department official, "...will have to assert what he wants before Mitchell can do his job." Right now, according to this official, no decision has been made on how to proceed.