Saturday, July 11, 2009

MEPGS: "...the Saudi outreach may come at a price that the US is not happy to see paid..."

Excerpts from MEPGS, July 11, 2009

"The continuing turmoil which has embroiled Iran since its disputed elections has left few in Washington certain of howrelations between the Islamic Republic and the outside world will unfold. Some top Administration officials believe that the Teheran regime, weakened by its blatant manipulation of last month's voting, is more likely to be susceptible to the all-important nuclear deal sought by the US and its European allies. Other analysts believe just the opposite, that a regime under attack by an invigorated opposition and engaged in an internal power struggle, is much less likely to be able to engage in the give and take necessary to promote a deal. They argue that what was previously a polycentric regime is now a dysfunctional one. "There is no one to pick up the phone to call," is the way one experienced diplomat put it recently.....
Prior to the election, regime officials were espousing a hard line, especially on the nuclear issue. Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki, on a visit to European capitals was dismissive of American efforts to engage on the nuclear issue. He told European officials that the US was "weak" and "on the run" in Iraq. And that President Obama' s Cairo speech was made in reaction to events in the region, not an attempt to shape them.
Now, however, a number of regional actors, notably Saudi Arabia are trying to take advantage of Iran's preoccupation with its internal affairs. "The Saudis want to persuade Iran's erstwhile allies, notably Syria, that Teheran is a weak regime," says one veteran analyst. Another notes, "The uprising has killed the myth of Iran stability." One problem with this approach, say US officials, is that, in the case of Syria, the Saudi outreach may come at a price that the US is not happy to see paid. Specifically, they worry that the Saudis will reduce their support for their allies in the Lebanese government in order to attract Syria. Already, their protege, Saad Hariri, has seen Saudi support for a more independent Lebanese stance towards Syria dissipate. Or as one US official put it last week, "The Saudis may be willing to sell out Lebanon for Arab unity against Iran." [US officials say they have remonstrated with the Saudis about this, but so far to little effect].
As the Administration tries to confront the new reality in Iran, one policy has remained constant. Regardless of the form and substance of the regime in Teheran that emerges from the post election chaos, there is a "date certain" for the beginning of serious negotiations over Iran's nuclear program. "It has always been linked to the opening of the UNGA [the United Nations General Assembly] in September, " says one Administration insider. And Administration officials are still sticking to the President's public assertion that significant headway needs to be made by the end of the year in order for his policy of "engagement" with Iran not to turn into a determined effort to ratchet up economic sanctions against the regime.
What is still unclear is where the Israelis fits into Administration calculations. They have been told in no uncertain terms to stand aside thought the end of the year, while the Administration tries to work its will. But they, too, believe the picture has become murkier in the post-election environment. They note that dealing with the "Supreme Leader, " Ali Khamenei is more difficult for the American public to countenance, now that he is seen as even more repressive, if in fact he and not the even more widely disliked security forces led by Ahmadinejad supporters, hold the upper hand. And like other interested observers, they worry that internal political maneuvering has become a major distraction for Iran's leaders, even if they were to entertain the idea of dealing on the nuclear issue.
As all this complexity has come to the surface, Vice President Biden added another element last Sunday when he spoke of Israel's right to respond to what it perceives as an"existential" threat to its security, should Iran move to acquire a nuclear weapons capability. Although, President Obama and Joint Chiefs Chairman Mullen attempted to "walk back" those comments, it left observers puzzled. One veteran analyst said,"Joe Biden would never have said that if he were still Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee. He, like Mullen, would have warned of the consequences of Israel's unilateral use of force." Others take a more benign view. One analyst notes that Biden, now famous for his impolitic remarks, may well have been reflecting options presented in the meetings he has attended on Iran. Israeli reaction is put this way by a skeptical diplomat,"I stop for all `green lights'."
Still, with Dennis Ross now overseeing Iranian policy from his heightened perch on the National Security Council staff, it is clear to most observers that the Israeli view will be well explained. Ross, who started this week as Senior Director for a wide swath of the region, was brought into the post at the personal request of President Obama. Able to bring with him few of his former State Department staff, Ross, nevertheless is expected to have provide an overview to issues that range from North Africa to Afghanistan. His role, first proposed by National Security Advisor General James Jones, is an attempt to be the civilian equivalent of the area of responsibility under General David Petreus, as head of Central Command [CENTCOM]. However, Ross will also be overseeing issues related to Israel and the Palestinians, something CENTCOM does not cover.
Until now, Special Envoy George Mitchell has had nocompetitors for suzerainty over Israeli-Palestinian issues. And, when Ross was working on Iran and the Gulf at the State Department, Mitchell reportedly made it clear that there was a wide "red line" that former Middle East negotiator Ross was not to cross. However, now some, particularly in the diplomatic community have begun to snipe at Mitchell's approach. Not unexpectedly, the Israelis have bristled at his insistence on a complete halt to settlement activity on the occupied West Bank [Noting, for example that private contractors now do most of the building, making it no easy matter to stop work in progress orcontracts undertaken]. But more telling criticism has come from other, unexpected sources. From within the Administration and as well as among European friends and allies there is growing concern that Mitchell's plans, based on his successful experience mediating the Irish conflict, do not transfer well to the many sided nature of Arabs vs.Israelis. As one experienced European diplomat put it recently, "Small incremental steps like those between two parties to the Irish conflict do not apply to the many Middle East players, notably the Saudis, who are not about to engage in a tit-for-tat exchange with Israel."

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