Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Jim Jones' "opposition" delayed Dennis Ross' announcement...

"There is no question that the pace of activity has picked up around here," said one veteran State Department official yesterday "But, it may be quite a while before we find out if it means anything much different in substance." TheAdministration's most dramatic move so far, the appointment and dispatch to the Middle East of former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell, may be the least
substantive.Text Color
With Israeli elections two weeks away and the formation of a government there perhaps taking another month, the regional visit by a high profile envoy, can be, in the view of a number of observers, little more than a symbolic trip. "The Mitchell appointment and trip suggests nothing more than a symbolic break with what is perceived as an indifferent Bush Administration approach," says one former US official. "What everyone conveniently forgets is that [former] Secretary Rice was visiting the region at least once a month during the last year in office."This former official contrasts the Mitchell trip with the more studious approach on the part of the other high profile appointee, Richard Holbrooke, who is seen as having a much more substantive assignment. Holbrooke's job will be to help create and fully coordinate US policy for the war in Afghanistan. Int he view of a number of observers, this is a model that Mitchell cannot realistically aspire to.
Moreover, in the scheme of Middle East priorities, most observers place Iraq and Iran well ahead of Arab-Israeli peacemaking. As the nearly three week war in Gaza demonstrated, Israel -- whether led by the current Kadima party or as many observers now believe more likely, a resurgent and more hawkish Likud Party -- is determined "to chart a more muscular course,"as one well-placed Israeli official puts it.
The Israelis feel vindicated by their strategy in dealing with Hamas. Although critics decry the
widespread destruction the Israeli military left in its wake ["They make an earthquake and call it peace," said one State Department official, displaying his knowledge of Roman history], top Israeli
officials say they have nothing to apologize for. As one key official put it, "No matter what we said over the many months before the Gaza attack, no one cared. They didn't seem to understand that
Israel couldn't conduct an election with eighty rockets a day falling on its towns and villages." They also disparage all critics, save those in the US. And here, support was widespread, especially on Capitol Hill where nearly unanimous resolutions backing the Israeli actions were passed by both the House and Senate.
This hard nosed attitude is clearly apparent as Israel focuses ever more closely on the growing Iranian nuclear program. With the Iranians running 5,000 centrifuges in their nuclear enrichment program, even some US officials now believe 2009 will be a breakthrough year for Teheran. Says one veteran USofficial, "Once the new team takes a look at the `intel' on Iran,they will sober up pretty quickly." If a number of Israeli officials are to be believed, including the likely next Prime
Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, the new Administration may have a limited amount of time to deal with the emerging Iranian nuclear threat. Emboldened by their "success" in Gaza, Israeli officials now quietly but persistently talk about their willingness and ability to confront Iran militarily.
Meanwhile, the Obama Administration is struggling a bit in "getting up to speed" on its Iran policy. The widely anticipated announcement of Dennis Ross as point man on Iran [though likely without such a specific title] has taken at least second place to the Holbrooke and Mitchell appointments. One informed source says that the delay has been due, in part, to the opposition of National Security Advisor, Jim Jones. "The more special envoys there are, the less clout has the NSC," suggests one long time observer. Notwithstanding this kind of opposition, Ross is now
"packing up" for his imminent move, say intimates.

The first decision Ross and others working the Iran issuwill face is whether to press for engagement with Iran [A givewith the new Administration] before or after its June Presidential elections. Some fear that an early US outreach would vindicate hard liners like current President Ahmadinejad. They argue for careful coordination with allies and to seek a "window of opportunity" between June and the end of the year. Others argue that time is of the essence. That to wait is togive the Iranians enough time to stall talks, allowing them to make their crossing the nuclear threshold a fait accompli. In trying to deal with Iran, some argue that, given the current international economic climate, Teheran in uniquely vulnerable to financial pressures. "The Iranian economy is going downhill and may actually reach bottom around the time of the Presidential elections," says one long time Iran watcher. And this diplomat notes, that unlike their last bout of economic troubles in 1999, this time around Teheran does not have access to significant outside credit. This argues, he says, for a concerted approach in the second half of the year.
Meanwhile, US officials say that Iran is struggling to deal with its setbacks in Iraq. After unsuccessfully trying to block the US-Iraq Status of Forces Agreement, Iran has had to scale back its ambitions with its neighbor. "The hegemony they once aspired to is no longer within their reach," says one well-placed State Department official. This official admits that Teheran will never stop trying to play a significant role in the affair of its neighbor ["I'm not sure we should object, anyway," he says]. However, as the ability of Iraqis to manage their own affairs increases, Iran, in his view, will run the risk of a backlash from all but its most ardent supporters.
In Iraq, campaigning for the January 31 elections is well advanced. US officials there are encouraged by the process aswell as the anticipated results. Noting the abundance of "normal electioneering" paraphernalia such as balloons and posters; theregular gathering of "town hall" type meetings, some US officials are prepared to declare that a "critical mass of activity" --meaning no turning back -- has been achieved. As for the outcome, this too, in the view of veteran US officials, is awatershed. "They are running as individuals, people who can get things done -- technocrats," says one exultant State Departmentofficial.
That is not to say all is well in Iraq. The three Kurdish provinces have yet to hold elections [Although, here too, say US officials, previous tensions with Turkey over the activities bythe militant PKK rebels, have eased considerably]. One areawhere agreement still eludes the central government is Kirkuk,where attempts to find a power sharing agreement among Kurds, Arabs and Turkmen have foundered, at least on the national level.
Among its fellow Arab Leagues members, the Shia-led al-Maliki government has found considerable support from Sunni Egypt, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates. However,
US officials are still frustrated with Saudi Arabia's reluctance to reach out to Iraq [They are more patient with Kuwait, given the "understandable" sensitivities of what Iraq once called its "19th Province"]

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