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POLITICS: Where Iran Fits in the Mideast Peace Puzzle

ANKARA, Turkey, May 29 2009 (IPS) - What is the relationship between the United States’ policy towards Iran and its performance on Arab-Israeli peacemaking, including the crucial quest for peace between Israel and the Palestinians?

This quest took on new urgency after Palestinian Authority head Mahmoud Abbas had his first visit with Pres. Barack Obama in Washington on Thursday. After the meeting, Obama told reporters that “time is of the essence” regarding ending the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

The question of the linkage between the Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy and Washington’s Iran policy assumed new importance this week after Israeli reporter Yossi Melman reported that Dennis Ross, the State Department’s special adviser on Iran, has co-authored a book, due out next month, that scoffs at “the idea that if only the Palestinian conflict were solved, all other Middle East conflicts would melt away” – which was how the two writers defined the ‘linkage’ argument.

Melman observed that it was strange that a man holding those views should be working for a U.S. administration that has made linkage between Iran policy and Israeli-Arab peacemaking a centrepiece of its Middle East policy.

For example, right after his May 18 meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Pres. Obama said, “To the extent that we can make peace… between the Palestinians and the Israelis, then I actually think it strengthens our hand in the international community in dealing with a potential Iranian threat.”

For his part, Netanyahu seems to hate the idea that any such linkage exists, since that would imply that Israel should engage seriously with the Palestinians if it wants to win full U.S. support for the confrontational policy he favours towards Iran. At that same May 18 press event, Netanyahu said defiantly, “There isn’t a policy linkage, and that’s what I hear the president saying, and that’s what I’m saying too.”

The difference between the two leaders is one of priorities – and also, perhaps, of the substance of their preference regarding Iran.

Obama wants to prioritise progress in the Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking, arguing that that will help win Arab support for a tougher confrontation against Iran down the road, if that is needed. Netanyahu wants to prioritise taking tough action against Iran, arguing that removing the threat he sees Iran posing to the whole Middle East will make peacemaking with Israel’s neighbours easier down the road.

Regarding substance, Netanyahu has made clear on many occasions that tough action, including quite possibly even direct military action, will certainly be needed to destroy Iran’s ability to produce the nuclear weapons that, he alleges, the Tehran government is working fast to build. (The Iranian government, which has signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), claims its current uranium enrichment programme is for peaceful purposes only.)

Obama, by contrast, promised during his election campaign and since that he will make a good faith effort to resolve the U.S.’s differences with Iran through diplomacy. But he has still done little to deliver on that promise. Indeed, as Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett noted in a recent article, he has even continued a semi-clandestine programme that aims at fomenting complete regime change in Tehran.

Obama indicated May 18 that he hoped to be able to start serious discussions with Tehran soon after Iran’s Jun. 12 election. He added that he might have “a fairly good sense by the end of the year as to whether they are moving in the right direction.” That seemed to fall far short of the demand Netanyahu had voiced that Obama set a strict and speedy deadline for the end of any negotiations with Tehran.

Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have meanwhile pushed forward with their approach of prioritising Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy. Clinton has spelled out publicly her and Obama’s view that the Israeli government needs to stop all construction activity in the West Bank settlements, in line with commitments Israel made under the 2002 Road Map, in order to get the peace talks resumed.

Netanyahu has refused to comply. An Israeli government spokesman said Wednesday that though Netanyahu plans to dismantle some small settlement “outposts”, within the older and larger West Bank settlements, “normal activity will continue”.

Many people in the Middle East and elsewhere are watching closely to see how Washington will respond to Netanyahu’s recalcitrance.

The difference between Obama and Netanyahu over whether the Arab-Israeli peacemaking or the Iran question should have priority hangs to a large degree on a judgment regarding the motives of those Arab parties that have continued to resist Israel’s plans for the Middle East over recent years – primarily, Hamas, Hizbullah, and the Syrian government.

Netanyahu and his advisers argue that these three actors resist Israel’s plans primarily because they are tools or proxies for Iran. Thus, they argue, if Iran’s power can be radically decreased, the Palestinians, Lebanese, and Syrians who have followed these Iran-backed leaders until now can then be easily won over to other leaders with policies more favourable to Israel.

Most people familiar with the politics and society of these Arab communities challenge that assessment. They judge that Hamas, Hizbullah, and Syria’s current government are popular among their followers mainly for reasons other than the support they get from Iran.

All three of these leaderships are seen to deliver valuable public goods to their followers. Additionally, the stance of nationalist dignity and resistance to Israel that they have long adopted is very popular indeed among many members of these (and other) Arab publics.

Hence, these specialists say, though it is true that Iran gives some support to all these parties, that is not the crucial determinant of their popularity. They point to the similar arguments that were made a decade ago – by Netanyahu and other like him – about the support that Saddam Hussein gave to Palestinian and other hardliners.

Back then, supporters of Netanyahu’s Likud party used to argue that ‘the road to peace in Jerusalem lies in Baghdad’. That was one of the arguments, indeed, that along with Pres. Bush’s claims about Saddam Hussein’s WMD, was used to help justify the invasion of Iraq.

But Hussein was toppled, and the nationalist line among the Palestinians only got stronger – to the point that Hamas won the election in 2006.

“The argument made by the Israeli hardliners is very similar today,” one Arab-affairs expert told IPS. “Except now it’s Iran that is blamed for Palestinian militancy, not Iraq. But in fact, the main cause of Palestinian militancy all along has been Israel’s actions, and those are what need to change.”

For now, the eyes of most Middle Easterners are on Washington. How will Obama respond to Netanyahu’s recalcitrance on settlements? What will he say about Israeli-Arab peace issues in the major speech he will deliver to the Muslim world when he goes to Cairo on Jun. 4? What other plans do he and special envoy George Mitchell have to push the peacemaking forward – and to help relieve the 1.5 million people of Gaza of their continuing woes?

Two key Middle East elections are looming, too. Will Hizbullah and its allies do well in Lebanon’s elections on Jun. 7 – and how will Washington respond to that? What will Obama do with Iran after their elections, Jun. 12?

The weeks ahead will be momentous ones for the Middle East. And the way that linkage works, or does not work, between the Israeli-Arab arena and Iran will crucially affect these developments.

*Helena Cobban is a veteran Middle East analyst and author. She blogs at

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