Doors open, doors close. Just a month ago, the Middle East was on the precipice of another crisis. Yet now, tension has been replaced with hope, and brinksmanship with diplomacy. Only two weeks after the U.S. was debating a unilateral military strike on Syria that was also intended as a forceful warning to Iran about its nuclear program, President Obama, quite unexpectedly, finds himself facing the theoretical option of diplomatically resolving three of the most intractable international issues his administration faces: Syria’s stockpile of chemical weapons, Iran’s nuclear program, and last but not least – the Israeli – Palestinian conflict.
With his back to the wall, and with his allies and sponsors pushing, Assad seems to be on the right track towards complying with the terms dictated by the Russia – U.S. deal. He submitted the initial report he was required to, and despite being far from perfect, all parties involved were satisfied with its content.
Kerry’s initiative to revive the dead-in-the-water peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians is still very much alive – which, considering former derogatory comments describing the process, is a mainly positive compliment. Despite the re-occurrence of violent incidents, including the murder of two IDF soldiers over the past few days, both sides still seem to be committed to the continuation of the talks.
What about Iran? Over the past week, the freshly appointed Iranian President has become Obama’s pen-pal and a New York Times columnist. Even the Ayatollah Khamenei – the real power broker in Iran, and not someone renowned for expressing any kind of leniency towards the U.S., was quoted as calling for flexibility.
Whether these overtures reflect an Iranian policy shift, or are merely a delaying tactic, is yet to be determined. When attempting to judge the real motives of the Iranians in this case, let us first try to understand where Iran is today from a strategic perspective. The most obvious and simple answer in this case, may also be the correct one.
Regionally, Iran is in a relatively weakened position. Its allies – both Assad’s regime in Syria, and Hezbollah in Lebanon – are hurting badly from the Syrian conflict. Internally, Iran is suffering from a deep economical crisis – a direct result of the crippling sanctions placed upon it by the U.S. and Europe. The sanctions have cut Iran’s oil revenue by more than half, crashed their currency and made international banking all but impossible. This crisis, coupled with the still-present civilian rancor leftover from the “Green Movement”, has given the Ayatollah’s regime plenty of reasons to fear the Arab Spring becoming a Persian Winter.
The coming week will be more about symbolism than anything else, as international focus will be turned towards the possibility of Obama and the newly elected Iranian president arranging to accidentally run into each other at the U.N.’s General Assembly meeting. But his is the easy part of course – negotiating some kind of deal will be the hard part. Iran has the bargaining chips to achieve the respite from international pressure it is looking for. Closing the nuclear facility in Fordo, for example, has the potential of mollifying international scrutiny (since it is the only underground facility that is relatively immune to American/Israeli bombs), and yet does not hurt the Iranian nuclear energy plan. It is likely that in the correspondence between them, Obama and Rouhani implied that a face-saving deal could be achieved.
Given Iran’s track record, and the stakes involved, the Israelis, as well as many in the American administration and Congress, are highly skeptical of Iran’s true intentions. This window of opportunity, as the case of North Korea has taught us, can close just as easily as it suddenly opened.
But at the end of the day, and despite getting here the messiest way possible, President Obama might end up justifying the Nobel Peace prize he won at the beginning of his first presidency. After months of showing a weak and aimless foreign policy, and with the help of three players he distrusts, he has the chance to achieve something big. Time will tell.
These moves should change nothing for Israel. It should leave this chess game for the major players, while quietly doing all it can to disrupt the Iranian nuclear weapon program. The Iranian diplomatic overtures make it crucial Israel stays put, and lets the Americans and Russians haggle over any potential deal. As he has done before, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu should face the U.N. General Assembly in New York, warn again about Iran’s progress in its nuclear program, and proclaim Israel’s willingness to do all it takes to protect itself. No need for gimmicks or high tones this year.