How sloppy US diplomacy is empowering Iran

Israel isn’t the only Middle East player concluding that the Geneva negotiators deserve a prize for incompetence, and that a dire amateurish trend is gathering pace

Avi Issacharoff

Avi Issacharoff, The Times of Israel's Middle East analyst, fills the same role for Walla, the leading portal in Israel. He is also a guest commentator on many different radio shows and current affairs programs on television. Until 2012, he was a reporter and commentator on Arab affairs for the Haaretz newspaper. He also lectures on modern Palestinian history at Tel Aviv University, and is currently writing a script for an action-drama series for the Israeli satellite Television "YES." Born in Jerusalem, he graduated cum laude from Ben Gurion University with a B.A. in Middle Eastern studies and then earned his M.A. from Tel Aviv University on the same subject, also cum laude. A fluent Arabic speaker, Avi was the Middle East Affairs correspondent for Israeli Public Radio covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and the Arab countries between the years 2003-2006. Avi directed and edited short documentary films on Israeli television programs dealing with the Middle East. In 2002 he won the "best reporter" award for the "Israel Radio” for his coverage of the second intifada. In 2004, together with Amos Harel, he wrote "The Seventh War - How we won and why we lost the war with the Palestinians." A year later the book won an award from the Institute for Strategic Studies for containing the best research on security affairs in Israel. In 2008, Issacharoff and Harel published their second book, entitled "34 Days - The Story of the Second Lebanon War," which won the same prize.

Germany's Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, US Secretary of State John Kerry, and French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius at the UN Palais on November 24, 2013, in Geneva, after announcing an interim deal at the Iran nuclear talks. (photo credit: AP/Carolyn Kaster, Pool)
Germany's Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, US Secretary of State John Kerry, and French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius at the UN Palais on November 24, 2013, in Geneva, after announcing an interim deal at the Iran nuclear talks. (photo credit: AP/Carolyn Kaster, Pool)

After all the hype about an interim agreement between Iran and world powers on Sunday, it became clear on Wednesday that the deal is not actually finalized. Not only has the six-month interim agreement not come into effect yet, but also Iran is free to proceed with its military program at full speed until the deal’s final “technical” details have been worked out, as US State Department Spokeswoman Jen Psaki put it.

Psaki was speaking on Tuesday, just a few hours after Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif announced that his country’s interim agreement with the P5+1 — the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council and Germany — does not obligate it to stop construction of the heavy-water production plant in Arak, which could be used in the production of weapons-grade plutonium. Zarif said the agreement only required Iran to cease heavy water production at the site.

Various experts have also said that the agreement published by the White House leaves the Iranians the ability to manufacture crucial components for their nuclear program outside the Arak facility and install them if the site is reopened. The highlight came later on Tuesday when the Iranian Foreign Ministry announced that the agreement Washington published was not the one it had agreed to. If it weren’t so sad, it might almost be funny.

In her earlier announcement, Psaki explained that there is no clear timetable for implementing the signed interim agreement with Iran. If that is really the case, someone on the American negotiating team in Geneva deserves a prize for incompetence – or possibly for misleading the public.

Leaving aside Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s contempt for the interim accord, and his now openly problematic relationship with President Barack Obama over this most acute of crisis, certain Arab countries, particularly those belonging to the Saudi-Egyptian camp, see the handling of the negotiations with Iran and the resulting agreement as part of trend. The White House, they say, is reliably amateurish and clumsy when attempting to intervene in the Middle East. In 2010, White House Spokesperson Robert Gibbs declared that the administration had no intention of allowing Iran to continue enriching uranium. But as of November 2013, under the interim deal’s terms — which allow Iran to continue enrichment to 5% — Washington has consented to this very thing. So happily state Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Zarif, and other Iranian leaders.

The nuclear issue is not the only one that worries various countries in the region, particularly Saudi Arabia. “The [Persian] Gulf countries are now concerned that the US is essentially supporting Iranian hegemony in the region and that there in nothing that they can do about it,” said professor Asher Susser, of the Department of Modern Middle Eastern History and The Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African studies at Tel Aviv University. “An important historical shift is now reaching its climax. The Middle East’s center has shifted from the Arab countries to the Persian Gulf. And when the US permits Iranian hegemony, it projects onto the situation in Syria, Iraq and other places. Saudi Arabia is now concerned about the Iranian-Shi’ite subversion, which is only expected to worsen over time.

The problem for these worried countries, Susser went on, “is, again, that there is nothing that they can do. Consider Syria, for example. Everyone has buried [President Basher] Assad, and who’s fighting alongside him? Iran and Hezbollah. Which Arab country has taken his side? Not a single one. No country has given him military support.”

According to Susser, if these processes continue, the Arab countries will have no choice but to tighten bonds with Iran. “They won’t like it but they may not have any other alternative,” he said.

Making Riyadh sweat

The first signs of these tightening bonds were already apparent this week, when Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu visited Tehran and met with Rouhani and Zarif. Davutoglu welcomed Iran’s announcement that it is willing to attend the second round of talks to try to find a political solution to the Syrian crisis scheduled for January 2014 in Geneva.

Khalid Bin Ahmed al-Khalifa, the foreign minister of Bahrain, has also invited Tehran to participate in a dialogue held annually in Manama, Bahrain’s capital. The foreign minister noted that his country was one of the first to acknowledge the interim agreement between Iran and the world powers. This is the same Bahrain that Tehran considers to be Iran’s 14th province.

If all that wasn’t enough to cause Saudi Arabia to break out in a cold sweat, there was the phone call between Damascus and Tehran on Wednesday. Assad, who has taught the leaders of the Arab world a thing or two about survival, spoke to his Iranian counterpart. According to reports from Syria, Rouhani promised to support Damascus in its war against the “terrorists.” Assad added that Iran’s success in Geneva would enhance its position in the region and in the world and that a strategic partnership between the two countries would have bearing on the situation in Syria.

Dr. Michal Yaari, an expert on Saudi Arabian foreign policy from the Open University and Bar Ilan University, said that Riyadh’s greatest concern is that the US will to ignore Saudi Arabian interests and focus on Iran. “Outwardly, they have been relatively cordial. They did not attack the Geneva agreement outright, they only hinted at their objections,” he said. “But beneath the surface, Riyadh understands that Washington may choose to proceed in a way that conflicts with Saudi Arabian interests, causing a crisis.

Iran, she clarified, “is their greatest enemy. On the religious front, there’s the hostility between the Sunnis and the Shiites. On the ethnic front, there’s the Arab-Persian conflict. From a security perspective, since Iraq disintegrated, no power has been able to stand in the way of Iranian hegemony in the Persian Gulf. And politically, there are the Iranian attempts to weaken the monarchies in the region. They see an Iranian threat everywhere they turn. So while Tehran may not have the upper hand in all of the conflicts in the region, it certainly is not losing its battles.”

There have been quite a few reports recently of improved relations between Riyadh and Jerusalem, including of senior officials in Saudi Arabia who referred directly to the two countries’ shared interests. But Yaari doesn’t recommend that Israel start preparing to host the Saudi king in Jerusalem just yet.

“The Saudi ambassador to Britain made a statement the day before the interim agreement was signed, to the effect that his country won’t ‘stand idly by’ while Iran remains a threat. But he made sure to mention Israel’s nuclear reactor, as a form of lip service. Statements about improved relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia are harmful to Riyadh.

“Saudi Arabia may need Israel’s assistance on security issues to a certain extent, but any relationship between the two countries will harm its position in the Arab world,” Yaari elaborated. “So if any such relationship is formed, Saudi Arabia will insist on keeping it a secret.”

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