Commentary Magazine


Topic: Saudi Arabia

Iran Deal Undermines U.S. Credibility

Much has already been written about the problematic nature of the interim agreement signed this weekend by Iran and the P5+1. But the damage goes beyond the fact that it weakens the sanctions regime without halting Iran’s multiple nuclear programs (as the Wall Street Journal’s Bret Stephens aptly said, it will “merely reduce their pace from run to jog”). No less severe is the blow to U.S. credibility.

First, there’s what might be called the Hamid Karzai problem. As the New York Times reported last week, the Afghan president has for years “perplexed and dismayed his allies” by accusing Washington of plotting behind his back with Pakistan and/or the Taliban in an effort to force Kabul into a peace deal “in which Afghanistan’s interests will not even be secondary, but tertiary and worse.” Hitherto, such ravings could be dismissed as paranoia. But we now know Washington did exactly that to Israel and Saudi Arabia, by spending months secretly negotiating the current deal with Iran without even informing them of the talks’ existence. In other words, America went behind the backs of its two closest Mideast allies to negotiate a deal with their worst enemy that both consider detrimental to their interests. So how can any U.S. ally not legitimately fear that it will do the same to them?

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Much has already been written about the problematic nature of the interim agreement signed this weekend by Iran and the P5+1. But the damage goes beyond the fact that it weakens the sanctions regime without halting Iran’s multiple nuclear programs (as the Wall Street Journal’s Bret Stephens aptly said, it will “merely reduce their pace from run to jog”). No less severe is the blow to U.S. credibility.

First, there’s what might be called the Hamid Karzai problem. As the New York Times reported last week, the Afghan president has for years “perplexed and dismayed his allies” by accusing Washington of plotting behind his back with Pakistan and/or the Taliban in an effort to force Kabul into a peace deal “in which Afghanistan’s interests will not even be secondary, but tertiary and worse.” Hitherto, such ravings could be dismissed as paranoia. But we now know Washington did exactly that to Israel and Saudi Arabia, by spending months secretly negotiating the current deal with Iran without even informing them of the talks’ existence. In other words, America went behind the backs of its two closest Mideast allies to negotiate a deal with their worst enemy that both consider detrimental to their interests. So how can any U.S. ally not legitimately fear that it will do the same to them?

Indeed, as Seth noted yesterday, Ukraine’s eleventh-hour decision to scrap a deal with Europe that it spent months negotiating and sign one with Russia instead shows that other countries are already absorbing the lesson: The West is unreliable; trust it at your peril. Granted, neither Ukraine nor Afghanistan is vital to Western interests. But what happens when, say, Japan and South Korea conclude that Washington might just as easily sell them out to China?

Then there’s the John Kerry problem. Prior to last week’s talks with Iran, the secretary of state pledged that the interim deal wouldn’t acknowledge an Iranian right to continue enriching uranium. “That certainly will not be resolved in any first step, I can assure you,” he said. After the deal was signed, he again asserted that “This first step does not say that Iran has the right of enrichment, no matter what interpretative comments are made.”  

Yet the deal states explicitly that the “comprehensive solution” the parties will now seek to negotiate “would involve a mutually defined enrichment programme.” So the word “right” doesn’t appear, but the practical implications are the same as if it had: Despite repeated binding UN resolutions demanding that Iran halt enrichment, the P5+1 has already agreed to let it continue enriching in perpetuity. This would be like Israel signing a deal to resettle five million Palestinian “refugees” in its territory and then claiming it didn’t agree to a “right of return” because those three words don’t appear in the text. And if America’s top diplomat can flat-out lie about the deal’s content even after the text has been published for all to see, why would anyone ever trust America’s word again?

Earlier this month, Walter Russell Mead noted that “Past administrations have generally concluded that the price Iran wants for a different relationship with the United States is unsustainably high,” because “to get a deal with Iran we would have to sell out all of our other regional allies,” and “Throwing over old allies like that would reduce the confidence that America’s allies all over the world have in our support.”

That’s the brave new world America has just entered. And it’s likely to be paying the price for a long time to come.

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Why John Kerry Is Always the Last to Know

The search for explanations for the Obama administration’s serially inept diplomacy yielded some clues in the wake of the deal over Iran’s nuclear program. Though Secretary of State John Kerry had emitted an air of desperation in the last couple of weeks, watching the reactions of America’s allies made it clear not only that Kerry’s desperation was not widely shared but also that the Obama administration seems to have stopped listening–indeed, to have completely tuned out voices that may raise dissenting views.

Kerry’s victory tour on the political talk shows was instructive. Kerry repeatedly tried to squelch any talk of “daylight” between the U.S. and Israel on Iran, while Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was left repeating what he has been saying all week: yes, of course there is daylight between the two. Netanyahu thinks this is a “historic mistake” that will enable Iran to get closer to a bomb and thus put the region in danger. The oblivious Kerry simply ignored that, claiming the Israelis are safer when they say they are not.

Kerry doesn’t hear them, and the Obama administration has a history of claiming to know what Israel’s best interests are, so this is par for the course. The Obama administration is so sure it knows what’s best for Israel, in fact, that it didn’t feel it necessary to keep the Israelis apprised of what they were doing, despite the issue’s obvious impact on Israel and her neighbors. The Wire reports on conflicting claims as to how Israel found out about the U.S.-Iran talks–but neither claim holds that the U.S. told the Israelis what was going on. They apparently found out either through “intelligence” or from the Saudis.

The Saudis, after all, know what it’s like to be ignored by the Obama administration on key issues in the region. As the Washington Post reported earlier this month:

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The search for explanations for the Obama administration’s serially inept diplomacy yielded some clues in the wake of the deal over Iran’s nuclear program. Though Secretary of State John Kerry had emitted an air of desperation in the last couple of weeks, watching the reactions of America’s allies made it clear not only that Kerry’s desperation was not widely shared but also that the Obama administration seems to have stopped listening–indeed, to have completely tuned out voices that may raise dissenting views.

Kerry’s victory tour on the political talk shows was instructive. Kerry repeatedly tried to squelch any talk of “daylight” between the U.S. and Israel on Iran, while Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was left repeating what he has been saying all week: yes, of course there is daylight between the two. Netanyahu thinks this is a “historic mistake” that will enable Iran to get closer to a bomb and thus put the region in danger. The oblivious Kerry simply ignored that, claiming the Israelis are safer when they say they are not.

Kerry doesn’t hear them, and the Obama administration has a history of claiming to know what Israel’s best interests are, so this is par for the course. The Obama administration is so sure it knows what’s best for Israel, in fact, that it didn’t feel it necessary to keep the Israelis apprised of what they were doing, despite the issue’s obvious impact on Israel and her neighbors. The Wire reports on conflicting claims as to how Israel found out about the U.S.-Iran talks–but neither claim holds that the U.S. told the Israelis what was going on. They apparently found out either through “intelligence” or from the Saudis.

The Saudis, after all, know what it’s like to be ignored by the Obama administration on key issues in the region. As the Washington Post reported earlier this month:

Secretary of State John F. Kerry made what amounted to an emergency fence-mending trip to Saudi Arabia on Monday, reassuring King Abdullah in a rare and lengthy meeting that the United States considers the kingdom a major partner and regional power and that the Obama administration will step up its consultation on issues important to both nations. …

He also denied widespread speculation here that Obama is willing to accept a less-than-ironclad nuclear deal with Iran during the current round of negotiations. “The United States will not allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon,” Kerry said in an airport news conference with the foreign minister before departing.

“Did I give some assurances? Yes, absolutely. Of course I did,” he added.

Those “assurances” don’t seem to have had their intended effect. The Saudis were concerned enough to, apparently, alert the Israelis to Kerry’s desperation for a deal. But the Saudis and Israelis weren’t the only ones effectively talking to a wall when the Obama administration was involved. Everyone, perhaps Kerry most of all, acted pretty surprised when the French scuppered the initial deal in Geneva. But they shouldn’t have been surprised. Had Kerry been listening to European concerns he would have expected what he heard from the French. They had been making an argument nearly identical to the one many on the right have been making here in the U.S.: the sanctions, once eased, are likely to stay that way.

But of course it’s silly to think Kerry is listening to his domestic critics either. The Obama administration has stuck its fingers in its ears, choosing to deal only in straw men and never with reality. It would have benefited them greatly, however, to not be sealed off from anything that deviated from the administration’s groupthink. The French showed up in Geneva and said what many had said before. They wanted a deal with more restrictions on Iran because pausing the sanctions in Europe could be the beginning of the end of the European share of the sanctions regime:

France and other European Union countries, however, face fewer political restrictions on ending their core sanctions, which means any decision to lift them could be more far-reaching. In addition, officials said, the measures would be harder to reinstate should the talks unravel or Iran renege on its pledges.

Those considerations left the Europeans more hesitant to consider easing sanctions than the United States was.

That should have been a surprise to nobody. Instead it was a surprise only to Kerry and the rest of the administration’s crack negotiating squad. And if the Obama administration didn’t want to listen to America’s allies, officials could have at least paid attention to their negotiating partner, Iran. The wording of the deal would be crucial because permitting the Iranians leeway in their interpretation could be the deal’s undoing.

Sure enough, the New York Times reports:

There were already indications that Iran and the West were interpreting crucial parts of the six-month agreement differently. Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, has asserted that the agreement explicitly recognizes Iran’s right to enrich uranium. He also said the agreement effectively removed the threat of an American military strike.

Mr. Kerry rejected both of those contentions. “The fact is, the president maintains” the option to use force “as commander in chief, and he has said specifically, he has not taken that threat off the table,” he said on CBS.

Kerry is operating under the assumption that the administration still has reserves of credibility on this issue in the region, which borders on preposterous. But again, how would Kerry even know his credibility is shot? Perhaps the Saudis could let him in on the secret–if he’s willing to listen.

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The Unraveling of Iran Sanctions

There are two major, competing alliances in the Middle East: pro- and anti-Iran. The “pro” bloc obviously includes Iran in addition to Syria, Hezbollah, and arguably the Iraqi government. The “anti” bloc includes just about everyone else–from Israel to Saudi Arabia. The U.S. has long been seen as the strongest supporter of the “anti” bloc, which is hardly surprising since the Iranian regime has been waging war on the United States since its inception, whether with hostage taking or terrorist bombings.

But that perception is fast changing. First the American pullout from Iraq, then the deal with Syria, now the deal with Iran cast into serious doubt American resolve to stop Iran’s power grab and understandably alarm our allies. It feels as if there is a realignment of power taking place, with the U.S. counting for less and less: Both our friends and our enemies are less respectful now of American power and less likely to defer to us.

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There are two major, competing alliances in the Middle East: pro- and anti-Iran. The “pro” bloc obviously includes Iran in addition to Syria, Hezbollah, and arguably the Iraqi government. The “anti” bloc includes just about everyone else–from Israel to Saudi Arabia. The U.S. has long been seen as the strongest supporter of the “anti” bloc, which is hardly surprising since the Iranian regime has been waging war on the United States since its inception, whether with hostage taking or terrorist bombings.

But that perception is fast changing. First the American pullout from Iraq, then the deal with Syria, now the deal with Iran cast into serious doubt American resolve to stop Iran’s power grab and understandably alarm our allies. It feels as if there is a realignment of power taking place, with the U.S. counting for less and less: Both our friends and our enemies are less respectful now of American power and less likely to defer to us.

At least in the case of Syria, one can make the case that we are getting something substantial in return for providing de facto legitimacy to the Assad regime. At least Assad is actually allowing the dismantlement and destruction of his chemical weapons. That is not the case with Iran, which is slightly slowing down–by no more than a few weeks–its pell-mell rush to acquire an atomic bomb in return for at least $7 billion in sanctions relief (and possibly more) along with de facto recognition of its supposed “right” to enrich uranium.

I can understand why the Obama administration reached the deal with Tehran and why so many have embraced it. No one wants a war with Iran–and no one wants an Iranian bomb. It certainly appeared that Iran was on a trajectory to acquire a bomb and that the only thing truly standing in its way was the threat of an Israeli air strike. Given that President Obama long ago sacrificed any credibility in threatening Iran with the use of American force (if he won’t even bomb Syria after the use of WMD, who would imagine he would bomb Iran while it was still trying to acquire WMD?), one can make the case that a deal that delays the Iranian program, however slightly, is worth the price in a few billion dollars in sanctions relief.

The problem is that sanctions were finally, belatedly starting to bite. The Iranian economy has been in freefall since more restrictive economic sanctions were imposed last year. This is the point of maximum leverage–and Obama and Kerry have just taken their foot off the Iranian windpipe. If the Iranians would not agree to a Libya- or Syria-style deal that would dismantle their nuclear complex now, it is hard to imagine they will agree to do so in six months, when their economy will have gotten some badly needed relief. (Already, the Wall Street Journal reports, Western European firms are preparing to rush back into Iran.) The likelihood is that, six months from now, the Iranians will simply extract more concessions for not ramping up their nuclear program once again, all the while maintaining their ability to keep enriching uranium and keep designing and building ballistic missiles capable of carrying  a nuclear warhead.

Confidence in the U.S. among our Middle Eastern allies is plunging to new lows, and no wonder: Countries from Israel to Saudi Arabia, which see Iran as a mortal threat, no longer feel they can count on American protection. This is a dangerous perception because it encourages those states to take actions that no American president would favor–whether bombing Iran (in the case of Israel) or acquiring its own nuclear bomb (in the case of Saudi Arabia). The risk of appearing feckless may be worth running if it actually results in a deal that dismantles the Iranian program. But the odds are that Obama’s high-risk gamble won’t pay off.

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Was There An Alternative to the Iran Deal?

As I wrote earlier this morning, the deal that President Obama has struck with Iran has very little chance of actually stopping them from reaching their nuclear goal. Their centrifuges remain intact and will, at best, delay them from “breaking out” to full nuclear capability by a few weeks. It will reward them for a decade of lies and deceptions and effectively normalize a rogue regime that continues to sponsor international terrorism and spew anti-Semitism while also starting the process of unraveling sanctions. But to all this Secretary of State John Kerry has what he thinks is a devastating answer: what’s the alternative?

The point of this question is to not-so-subtly imply that the only other choice was a war that no one wants. But this favorite rhetorical device of the president’s in which he poses false choices is a deception. There was an alternative to surrendering to Iran’s diplomatic demands that we effectively recognize their “right” to enrich uranium and scrapping the president’s campaign promise that his goal was to force it give up its nuclear program–and it didn’t mean war. All it required was for him to tighten sanctions and enforce them to the point where Iran’s elites, rather than the common people, started to feel the economic pain. But by wasting five years during which he opposed sanctions, stalled on their enforcement and then started to scale them back at the first hint of an Iranian willingness to negotiate, the president has discarded all of America’s leverage.

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As I wrote earlier this morning, the deal that President Obama has struck with Iran has very little chance of actually stopping them from reaching their nuclear goal. Their centrifuges remain intact and will, at best, delay them from “breaking out” to full nuclear capability by a few weeks. It will reward them for a decade of lies and deceptions and effectively normalize a rogue regime that continues to sponsor international terrorism and spew anti-Semitism while also starting the process of unraveling sanctions. But to all this Secretary of State John Kerry has what he thinks is a devastating answer: what’s the alternative?

The point of this question is to not-so-subtly imply that the only other choice was a war that no one wants. But this favorite rhetorical device of the president’s in which he poses false choices is a deception. There was an alternative to surrendering to Iran’s diplomatic demands that we effectively recognize their “right” to enrich uranium and scrapping the president’s campaign promise that his goal was to force it give up its nuclear program–and it didn’t mean war. All it required was for him to tighten sanctions and enforce them to the point where Iran’s elites, rather than the common people, started to feel the economic pain. But by wasting five years during which he opposed sanctions, stalled on their enforcement and then started to scale them back at the first hint of an Iranian willingness to negotiate, the president has discarded all of America’s leverage.

Kerry’s assumption and that of others who advocated appeasement of Iran is based on the idea that it was not reasonable or realistic for the West to demand that Iran dismantle its nuclear program as the president demanded in his foreign-policy debate with Mitt Romney last year. They say that asking for the dismantling of the centrifuges that will continue to spin and enrich uranium even after the president’s deal is in place was just too much, as was the demand that the nuclear facilities that are openly discussed and covered in the deal (as opposed to the secret underground Iranian nuclear facilities that even the New York Times concedes that the CIA, the Europeans, and the Israelis believe exist) be decommissioned or that its stockpile of enriched uranium be shipped out of the country.

Why were these demands unrealistic? Because the Iranians said they were.

That’s it. The entire foundation of this agreement isn’t a matter of what was technically feasible or even a belief that the sanctions weren’t working or couldn’t be tightened to the point where the Iranian economy could collapse. Everyone knows that the sanctions are hurting, but if Iran’s oil trade was subjected to a complete embargo (as a third round of sanctions that Congress was considering would have done), Tehran could have been brought to its knees.

If the Iranians had been pushed harder and sooner and had they believed that there was a credible threat of force on the table from the United States, which was clearly not the case, they might have been convinced that they had no alternative but to give up their nukes. But for five years, President Obama has been signaling not only that they needn’t fear him but also that he was willing to settle for far less than the demands he had been making in public. We don’t know for how long the administration has been conducting the secret diplomatic talks with Iran or whether they were run by Obama consigliere Valerie Jarrett. But it’s apparent that Washington’s assumption that it couldn’t make the ayatollahs give up their nuclear toys was a self-fulfilling prophecy. By refusing to push them harder and by showing their willingness to accept far less than the minimum that would have ensured that a weapon was not possible, they gave the Iranians the confidence to stick to their positions in the talks.

So what Kerry and other administration apologists are doing is turning the question of alternatives on its head. Instead of falsely implying that the only alternative to appeasement was war, he should be called to account for not exploring all the diplomatic and economic options that could have brought about a far more satisfactory result than the weak deal he signed.

In exchange for superficial and easily reversed nuclear concessions, Obama and Kerry have normalized Iran and begun the process of unraveling sanctions. The alternative to this was an American foreign policy that was determined to make it clear to Iran that they would have to give up their nuclear program in the same manner than Libya was forced not do and they would not be given the chance to take the North Korean route to nuclear capability.

Instead of avoiding war, what Kerry has done is to set in motion a chain of events that may actually make armed conflict more likely. It’s not just that Israel must now come to terms with the fact that it has been abandoned and betrayed by its American ally and must consider whether it must strike Iran’s nuclear facilities before it is too late. Saudi Arabia must now also consider whether it has no choice but to buy a bomb (likely from Pakistan) to defend its existence against a deadly rival across the Persian Gulf. The Western stamp of approval on Iran will also embolden its Hezbollah terrorist auxiliaries and make it even less likely that Tehran’s ally Bashar Assad will be toppled in Syria.

By deciding that the U.S. was too weak to stand up to Iranian demands, Obama and Kerry have put the Islamist regime in a position where it can throw its weight around in the region without any fear of U.S. retaliation.

The choice here was not between war with Iran or a weak deal. It was between the U.S. using all its economic power and diplomatic influence to make sure that Iran had to give up its nuclear program and a policy of appeasement aimed at allowing the president to retreat from his promises. The Middle East and the rest of the world may wind up paying a terrible price for Obama’s false choices.

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Obama’s Israel Spat Boosts Iran’s Leverage

Western negotiators sat down again today in Geneva with Iran’s representatives hopeful that they could strike a nuclear deal with Tehran. But after seemingly coming so close to an agreement when the parties last met two weeks ago, most of the spin coming from the Obama administration about this issue wasn’t so much on whether they could entice the Islamist regime to sign an accord as it was on aggressively pushing back against critics of their approach to Iran. In the last several days, the president’s foreign-policy team has been intent on squelching dissent from Israel and Saudi Arabia about Washington’s desire to strike an interim deal with Iran that would leave in place the regime’s nuclear program and its “right” to enrich uranium. The president and Secretary of State Kerry have gone all-out to lobby Congress against increasing sanctions on Iran as well as to justify a decision to start the process of loosening sanctions without Iran having to dismantle its nuclear infrastructure. Enlisting their allies in the media like the New York Times’s Thomas Friedman and a host of others, their main goal has been as much to delegitimize skeptics about their Iran policy, especially supporters of Israel who rightly see what is going on as the beginning of a betrayal of the president’s repeated promises on the subject.

For the moment, the administration has succeeded. The Senate will not vote on increasing sanctions until after the Thanksgiving recess, giving Kerry plenty of time to get his deal before Congress could theoretically scare the Iranians away from the table. Moreover, by seeking to depict the argument as one between those seeking a peaceful solution to the problem and those who really want the U.S. to fight a war, they have put themselves in line with the same war weariness that helped obstruct the president’s faltering attempts to deal with the crisis in Syria. But the collateral damage from this strategy will be considerable. While Obama and Kerry seem most focused on beating Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Jewish state’s American supporters, what they have failed to realize is that by shifting their focus in this manner they may have actually made their goal of an agreement with Iran even more difficult to obtain. And by alienating both Israel and moderate Arab states and treating their understandable concerns about Iran’s nuclear ambitions as secondary to the president’s desire to get out from under his campaign promises on the issue, they may have set the stage for a train of events they will not be able to influence or stop.

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Western negotiators sat down again today in Geneva with Iran’s representatives hopeful that they could strike a nuclear deal with Tehran. But after seemingly coming so close to an agreement when the parties last met two weeks ago, most of the spin coming from the Obama administration about this issue wasn’t so much on whether they could entice the Islamist regime to sign an accord as it was on aggressively pushing back against critics of their approach to Iran. In the last several days, the president’s foreign-policy team has been intent on squelching dissent from Israel and Saudi Arabia about Washington’s desire to strike an interim deal with Iran that would leave in place the regime’s nuclear program and its “right” to enrich uranium. The president and Secretary of State Kerry have gone all-out to lobby Congress against increasing sanctions on Iran as well as to justify a decision to start the process of loosening sanctions without Iran having to dismantle its nuclear infrastructure. Enlisting their allies in the media like the New York Times’s Thomas Friedman and a host of others, their main goal has been as much to delegitimize skeptics about their Iran policy, especially supporters of Israel who rightly see what is going on as the beginning of a betrayal of the president’s repeated promises on the subject.

For the moment, the administration has succeeded. The Senate will not vote on increasing sanctions until after the Thanksgiving recess, giving Kerry plenty of time to get his deal before Congress could theoretically scare the Iranians away from the table. Moreover, by seeking to depict the argument as one between those seeking a peaceful solution to the problem and those who really want the U.S. to fight a war, they have put themselves in line with the same war weariness that helped obstruct the president’s faltering attempts to deal with the crisis in Syria. But the collateral damage from this strategy will be considerable. While Obama and Kerry seem most focused on beating Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Jewish state’s American supporters, what they have failed to realize is that by shifting their focus in this manner they may have actually made their goal of an agreement with Iran even more difficult to obtain. And by alienating both Israel and moderate Arab states and treating their understandable concerns about Iran’s nuclear ambitions as secondary to the president’s desire to get out from under his campaign promises on the issue, they may have set the stage for a train of events they will not be able to influence or stop.

The main problem with the current U.S. approach to Iran is that it is based on the assumption that Iran’s desire to get economic sanctions lifted is greater than their commitment to achieving their nuclear goal. Preserving their nuclear option is, as they have repeatedly stated, their “red line” in negotiations. Having prevaricated and delayed talks with the West with this object in mind for more than a decade, it is a fundamental error to think that they have any intention of giving up now, especially since they have gotten so close to achieving it.

From the Iranian point of view, the charm offensive led by new President Hassan Rouhani has already succeeded since it has driven a wedge between the United States and Israel as well as Saudi Arabia. But by escalating the argument with Israel in this manner, President Obama has failed to realize that by demonstrating his zeal for a deal, even at the cost of heightening tensions with two key allies and alienating a key domestic constituency, he may be influencing the Iranian negotiating position more than he imagines. By trashing all those counseling caution in dealing with Iran as warmongers, the administration may have not so much empowered the alleged “moderates” in Iran but actually given the country’s supreme leader a reason to hold out for even better terms than the West is offering.

The regime’s true boss, Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, made clear his contempt for President Obama’s diplomatic efforts yesterday in a speech to members of his Basij paramilitary forces broadcast live in on Iranian TV when he not only put the U.S. down as weak but supplied the usual denunciation of Israel as “an “illegitimate regime” led by “untouchable rabid dogs.” Having demonstrated throughout the last five years that he thought President Obama was a paper tiger whose threats should be discounted, it is difficult to imagine that the last two weeks–during which the administration has shown its eagerness to find a way to appease Iran and its desire to distance itself from Israel and the Saudis–have altered Khamenei’s view of the confrontation.

By beating back efforts to impose even tougher sanctions on Iran and essentially marginalizing Israel in this fashion, the president may think he has given himself more room to make diplomacy work. But what he may really have done is to convince Khamenei that, as with Iran’s past decisions to stonewall the West’s efforts, further delay will only net him an even more favorable deal. While raising the pressure on Iran would have given the regime an incentive to compromise or even back down, the American decision to cut Israel loose in this fashion may have done the opposite.

Just as bad is the long-term damage the president’s push for an Iran deal has done to America’s allies in the Middle East. Both Israel and the Saudis understand, even if Obama does not, that Iran will not abide by even the most generous of Western deals and sooner or later will evade or cheat their way to a nuclear weapon. But after being cut out of the diplomatic process in this fashion, they will have less reason to listen to American advice in the future and may even consider acting on their own to stop Iran despite Obama’s insincere assurances that he is looking out for their interests. The net result is a lack of trust that will only undermine Middle East stability and make it less likely anyone will heed the president’s warnings or advice even after Iran goes nuclear.

By downgrading the alliance with Israel and Saudi Arabia and trying to delegitimize his critics as warmongers, the president has strengthened Iran’s bargaining position and made it less rather than more likely that there will be a satisfactory conclusion to both the current negotiations and those that will follow. Rather than allowing diplomacy to succeed, what he has done may have ensured that Iran will never be convinced to give up its nukes by any means short of a use of force that no one wants.

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An Inadequately-Clothed Emperor

Saudi Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal was interviewed yesterday on CBS This Morning, and was asked how strained the relationship between Saudi Arabia and the U.S. is (answer: “very strained”); what he thought about President Obama’s failure to strike Syria after his red line was crossed (answer: “[the whole world] saw it as a blinking”); and whether Saudi Arabia would like someone to strike Iran (answer: “Most of the countries in the region want Iran to be struck by the United States or by the western powers”). 

Then he was asked whether he had confidence the U.S. would execute a military option as a last resort, which produced this colloquy: 

PRINCE ALWALEED BIN TALAL: Frankly speaking, no, we don’t have confidence that the military strike would happen if Iran does not succumb to the pressure and the —  

CHARLIE ROSE: So you don’t trust the United States, you’re saying. The Saudi government does not trust the United States to do it. 

PRINCE ALWALEED BIN TALAL: I think at the more macro level, the whole trust issue on United States is very much on shaky grounds these days, not only from Saudi Arabia but also Europe. … 

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Saudi Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal was interviewed yesterday on CBS This Morning, and was asked how strained the relationship between Saudi Arabia and the U.S. is (answer: “very strained”); what he thought about President Obama’s failure to strike Syria after his red line was crossed (answer: “[the whole world] saw it as a blinking”); and whether Saudi Arabia would like someone to strike Iran (answer: “Most of the countries in the region want Iran to be struck by the United States or by the western powers”). 

Then he was asked whether he had confidence the U.S. would execute a military option as a last resort, which produced this colloquy: 

PRINCE ALWALEED BIN TALAL: Frankly speaking, no, we don’t have confidence that the military strike would happen if Iran does not succumb to the pressure and the —  

CHARLIE ROSE: So you don’t trust the United States, you’re saying. The Saudi government does not trust the United States to do it. 

PRINCE ALWALEED BIN TALAL: I think at the more macro level, the whole trust issue on United States is very much on shaky grounds these days, not only from Saudi Arabia but also Europe. … 

The whole world has watched over the last year as the president of the United States: (1) took no action as a U.S. ambassador and U.S. personnel were killed in Libya on 9/11; (2) promised two weeks later, in a UN speech to representatives of every country in the world, that he would be “relentless” in tracking down the killers, but still has taken no action; (3) issued a “red line” in Syria and then blinked when it came time to enforce it; (4) lateraled his proposed “shot across the bow” to Congress; (5) avoided his “red line” commitment (and vitiated his “Assad must go” policy) by approving an agreement leaving Assad ensconced in power, free to continue his war by conventional means; (6) negotiated with Iran while disregarding the objections of Israel, Saudi Arabia, and other Middle East allies; and (7) exposed his word to his own citizens as unreliable (after which he expressed regret that “the way I put that forward unequivocally ended up not being accurate”). 

He has made other unequivocal assurances–he’s got your back, all options are on the table, he doesn’t bluff, no deal is better than a bad deal–but at this point it has become increasingly clear that he is an inadequately-clothed emperor, dressed in assurances that end up not being accurate. When a prominent Saudi prince answers a direct question as directly as he did on national TV yesterday, a critical point has been reached.

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Don’t Ignore Riyadh in Iran Talks

In the ongoing debate over whether the interim agreement now being discussed with Tehran will or won’t effectively slow Iran’s nuclear program, U.S. policymakers seem to have overlooked one major issue: Even if they’re convinced that Israeli and Saudi concerns about the deal are unfounded, America’s own interests would be undermined by a deal that leaves Jerusalem or Riyadh too unhappy–and especially the latter. Indeed, an agreement Saudi Arabia can’t live with ought to be every American’s worst nightmare. And nothing illustrates this better than last week’s BBC report that the Saudis have nukes “on order” from Pakistan, ready for delivery whenever they give the nod.

Even if this particular report is false, foreign-policy experts generally agree that if Iran does succeed in obtaining nukes, or even becoming an acknowledged threshold state, Saudi Arabia will swiftly follow suit. As long as the current regime retains power in Riyadh, this would merely be detrimental to American interests: More nuclear states in the Middle East would further destabilize an already unstable region. But as the Arab Spring showed, even in the Mideast, repressive regimes don’t last forever, and when they fall, the people most likely to initially take over are the Islamists, since they are the best organized. And Saudi Arabia’s Islamists happen to be the same people who provided 15 of the 19 hijackers on 9/11.

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In the ongoing debate over whether the interim agreement now being discussed with Tehran will or won’t effectively slow Iran’s nuclear program, U.S. policymakers seem to have overlooked one major issue: Even if they’re convinced that Israeli and Saudi concerns about the deal are unfounded, America’s own interests would be undermined by a deal that leaves Jerusalem or Riyadh too unhappy–and especially the latter. Indeed, an agreement Saudi Arabia can’t live with ought to be every American’s worst nightmare. And nothing illustrates this better than last week’s BBC report that the Saudis have nukes “on order” from Pakistan, ready for delivery whenever they give the nod.

Even if this particular report is false, foreign-policy experts generally agree that if Iran does succeed in obtaining nukes, or even becoming an acknowledged threshold state, Saudi Arabia will swiftly follow suit. As long as the current regime retains power in Riyadh, this would merely be detrimental to American interests: More nuclear states in the Middle East would further destabilize an already unstable region. But as the Arab Spring showed, even in the Mideast, repressive regimes don’t last forever, and when they fall, the people most likely to initially take over are the Islamists, since they are the best organized. And Saudi Arabia’s Islamists happen to be the same people who provided 15 of the 19 hijackers on 9/11.

Preventing al-Qaeda from taking over a government with nukes is clearly a supreme American interest. But revolutions tend to happen swiftly, and altering their course is difficult and messy. Thus once a Saudi revolution starts, the chances of America being able to prevent an al-Qaeda takeover drop to near zero.

The easiest way to prevent this nightmare scenario is thus to prevent Riyadh from acquiring nukes in the first place. In principle, that’s not hard; the Saudis have hitherto shown little interest in getting the bomb. But they’ve made it very clear that their calculations will change if Iran’s nuclear program isn’t effectively halted–and on this issue, they aren’t prepared to take Washington’s word for it. Hence a deal with Tehran that leaves the Saudis fuming is liable to have far worse consequences for America than no deal at all.

The ramifications of a deal that leaves Israel unhappy are less severe, but still non-negligible if the Obama administration is serious about wanting to prevent an Israeli attack on Iran. As I’ve written before, Israel’s history proves that if it feels pushed to the wall in the face of an existential threat, it will launch a preemptive strike even in defiance of its major patron. Jerusalem obviously considers Iranian nukes an existential threat, and a deal that it interprets as leaving Iran with a clear path to the bomb could easily make it feel its back is to the wall.

An Israeli strike on Iran obviously isn’t in the same league as al-Qaeda getting the bomb. But since the Obama administration has repeatedly declared that such an attack would be “incredibly destabilizing” (to quote former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen), it presumably has an interest in forestalling such a situation.

New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, who often channels the administration’s thinking, declared last week that “We, America, are not just hired lawyers negotiating a deal for Israel and the Sunni Gulf Arabs, which they alone get the final say on. We, America, have our own interests.” But one of those interests is making sure the deal leaves neither Jerusalem nor Riyadh so unhappy that they are driven to take steps America would rather avoid. And forgetting that could prove a serious blunder.

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A Saudi-Israel Alliance Against Iran?

The administration is again floating rumors of an impending nuclear agreement with Iran this weekend, leaving Israel and other nations worried about the prospect assessing their options. Given the proven lack of professionalism and incompetence of the Obama foreign-policy team and Iran’s predilection for stringing Western interlocutors along, any assumption that an accord is a certainty when the parties meet again in Geneva later this week is unjustified. But given Secretary of State John Kerry’s obvious zeal for a deal, both Israel and Saudi Arabia are looking to France for some assurances that it will continue to play the unlikely role of the diplomatic conscience of the West, as it did at the last meeting of the P5+1 talks. French President Francois Hollande reiterated his demands for a tougher deal that would make it harder for Iran to break any pact intended to spike their nuclear ambitions during a visit to Israel.

The French are still apparently holding out for conditions that Iran may never accept, such as putting all of their nuclear facilities under international control, ceasing construction of the plutonium plant at Arak and reduction of their existing uranium stockpiles. But France is still accepting the principle that Tehran can go on enriching uranium, albeit at low levels. Which means that Israel must still be pondering the very real possibility that it will be faced with a situation in which it will not be able to rely on the U.S. to act against Iran.

It is in that context that the story published today by Britain’s Sunday Times about Israel and Saudi Arabia preparing to cooperate on a strike against Iran must be understood. According to the paper, both countries rightly believe a Western deal with Iran would likely be a disaster that would expose them to a deadly threat. Accordingly, they are, if this report is to be believed, exploring the possibility of the Saudis offering the Israelis the use of their air space for strikes on Iran as well as providing rescue aircraft, tanker planes, and drones to facilitate a possible attack.

Let’s state upfront that these details should be viewed with some skepticism.

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The administration is again floating rumors of an impending nuclear agreement with Iran this weekend, leaving Israel and other nations worried about the prospect assessing their options. Given the proven lack of professionalism and incompetence of the Obama foreign-policy team and Iran’s predilection for stringing Western interlocutors along, any assumption that an accord is a certainty when the parties meet again in Geneva later this week is unjustified. But given Secretary of State John Kerry’s obvious zeal for a deal, both Israel and Saudi Arabia are looking to France for some assurances that it will continue to play the unlikely role of the diplomatic conscience of the West, as it did at the last meeting of the P5+1 talks. French President Francois Hollande reiterated his demands for a tougher deal that would make it harder for Iran to break any pact intended to spike their nuclear ambitions during a visit to Israel.

The French are still apparently holding out for conditions that Iran may never accept, such as putting all of their nuclear facilities under international control, ceasing construction of the plutonium plant at Arak and reduction of their existing uranium stockpiles. But France is still accepting the principle that Tehran can go on enriching uranium, albeit at low levels. Which means that Israel must still be pondering the very real possibility that it will be faced with a situation in which it will not be able to rely on the U.S. to act against Iran.

It is in that context that the story published today by Britain’s Sunday Times about Israel and Saudi Arabia preparing to cooperate on a strike against Iran must be understood. According to the paper, both countries rightly believe a Western deal with Iran would likely be a disaster that would expose them to a deadly threat. Accordingly, they are, if this report is to be believed, exploring the possibility of the Saudis offering the Israelis the use of their air space for strikes on Iran as well as providing rescue aircraft, tanker planes, and drones to facilitate a possible attack.

Let’s state upfront that these details should be viewed with some skepticism.

There will be those who will file this story along with last year’s much-publicized rumor about Azerbaijan preparing to help Israel hit Iran. When that story was first floated, it was leaked by Obama administration sources that probably hoped to reduce any cooperation between the Azeris and Israel by exposing it. But the fact that the Saudis are almost as panicked by Washington’s desire for détente with Iran as the Israelis is not exactly a secret. Whether they have gone so far as to do some planning about how to help the Israelis hit their hated Iranian enemy may be debated. Certainly doing so would expose Riyadh to considerable criticism in the Muslim and Arab worlds. But even if the story is exaggerated or inaccurate, it says something about the current situation that an alliance of this sort between Jerusalem and a sworn enemy of Zionism is even thinkable.

The point here is that when Kerry assured the world that he was neither blind nor stupid, it’s obvious that the Israelis and Saudis are prepared to answer in the affirmative with respect to both adjectives. By rushing to a deal that would, even in its most stringent form, effectively guarantee Iran’s “right” to enrich uranium, the West is setting in motion a train of events that could very well lead to the Islamist regime eventually achieving its nuclear ambition. The Israelis and the Saudis both know Iran is, like North Korea, perfectly capable of cheating and evading international observers in such a manner as to use its considerable existing uranium stockpile to create a bomb. Moreover, they have also, like Iran, probably already come to the conclusion that the Obama administration has no intention of ever making good on any threat to use force against Iran.

Iran is probably still more interested in employing its traditional delaying tactics that give them more time to work on their nuclear project than in signing a deal, no matter how favorable it might be to their cause. But they’d be smart to snatch the kind of lopsided nuclear deal Kerry is trying to sell them. The Israelis and Saudis know this and have to consider the possibility that President Obama is about to leave them both on their own and that France won’t hold out indefinitely for better terms. So even if you don’t believe that the Mossad has already begun talks with Saudi officials, there’s no doubt both countries are clearly thinking about how they will survive a Western betrayal on Iran. 

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The Bizarro Doctrine

American foreign policy in the Middle East has now entered Bizarro World–a place made humorously famous by comedian Jerry Seinfeld, describing a parallel universe where “up is down, down is up,” and where the opposite of what one expects occurs. Seinfeld was riffing off the comic book character Bizarro, the parallel character to Superman, who lived on a strange planet called Htrae (Earth spelled backwards).

Well, welcome to the Elddim Tsae. It’s a place where long-standing state sponsors of terrorism Iran, Syria, and Sudan are basking in the warmth of America’s evolving Middle East policies, while long-standing American allies Israel, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and others are increasingly sidelined.

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American foreign policy in the Middle East has now entered Bizarro World–a place made humorously famous by comedian Jerry Seinfeld, describing a parallel universe where “up is down, down is up,” and where the opposite of what one expects occurs. Seinfeld was riffing off the comic book character Bizarro, the parallel character to Superman, who lived on a strange planet called Htrae (Earth spelled backwards).

Well, welcome to the Elddim Tsae. It’s a place where long-standing state sponsors of terrorism Iran, Syria, and Sudan are basking in the warmth of America’s evolving Middle East policies, while long-standing American allies Israel, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and others are increasingly sidelined.

Iran, a country that has sponsored nearly every terrorist group on the planet and is now hurtling toward a nuclear weapon, is the biggest winner in the Elddim Tsae. Newly elected President Hassan Rouhani has Washington eating out of his hands after a charm offensive consisting of 140-character vows promising moderation, even as his boss, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, keeps the centrifuges spinning. The Obama administration is now mulling a grand nuclear bargain, which will provide Iran sanctions relief in exchange for vague promises of change.

Syria is also benefiting from America’s Bizarro Doctrine. In the span of days, America went from threatening punitive strikes against Bashar al-Assad’s regime for launching a chemical-weapons attack on his own people to enlisting Assad as a partner in his own disarmament, and then praising him for compliance he has yet to deliver on. Even if Assad does fully disarm, he will effectively have a green light to get back to the business of mowing down the Syrian opposition, which fights to end his family’s decades-long dictatorship.

Then there is Sudan, where the leadership has been indicted for genocide and which provided a headquarters to al-Qaeda in the 1990s. Khartoum is now indicating that ties with Washington are warming. This comes after two cordial meetings between Sudan’s foreign minister and Secretary of State John Kerry, first in New York and then Washington.

On the flip side of our parallel universe is Saudi Arabia. Admittedly, Riyadh is more of a frenemy. But America’s Saudi policy, designed to maintain good ties to the ruling family and access to an affordable and steady supply of their oil, has never wavered–until now. Riyadh is outwardly displeased with America’s warming ties to its arch-foe Iran, with fears that an ascendant Iran could pose a direct threat to the Kingdom’s stability. Washington’s recent lifeline to Syria, after months of calling for Assad’s removal, also has the Saudis seething.

Turkey and Qatar, it should be noted, are equally vexed by Washington’s Syria policy, prompting both countries to consider charting their own courses, which may involve the co-opting of jihadi groups to fight the Assad regime.

Egypt, another ally of the United States, has also recently fallen victim to the Bizarro Doctrine. To be sure, Egypt has brought many of its problems upon itself. The military’s toppling of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi was not its finest moment. But Washington has now taken it upon itself to cut aid to Egypt, dismantling an alliance that could require years to properly rebuild.

Then there is Israel, which is reeling from America’s decision to cut aid to Egypt. That aid was a cornerstone of the 1978 Camp David Accords, a peace agreement that has kept Israel’s southern flank quiet since the Accords were inked. It now is entirely unclear whether Cairo will want to uphold that agreement. The Israelis are further unnerved by America’s backtracking on Syria, particularly after Washington enlisted its help in calling for military intervention. And finally, the rapprochement with Iran has the Israelis wondering whether America will have its back when Tehran invariably makes that final dash for the bomb.

Fittingly, Bizarro World was first depicted by DC Comics in 1960. Today, Washington D.C. has become a parallel universe of a superpower’s foreign policies of the past.

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Saudis, Turks Send Obama a Message

President Obama has been trying to reorient American policy in the Middle East. He is pulling back and either striking or looking to strike deals with longstanding American enemies such as Syria and Iran. He is also looking ever more hesitant and uncertain, a problem exemplified by his indecision over whether or not to bomb Syria. Such actions may not have much impact on domestic public opinion, which is focused on the economy and the budget crisis, but it has a large impact on our allies, who are increasingly concerned about the drift of American policy.

Saudi Arabia is making its concerns manifest. According to the Wall Street Journal, “Saudi Arabia’s intelligence chief [Prince Bandar Bin Sultan al-Saud] told European diplomats this weekend that he plans to scale back cooperating with the U.S. to arm and train Syrian rebels in protest of Washington’s policy in the region.” This comes only days after the Saudis decided not to accept a coveted seat on the UN Security Council, which the U.S. had lobbied for.

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President Obama has been trying to reorient American policy in the Middle East. He is pulling back and either striking or looking to strike deals with longstanding American enemies such as Syria and Iran. He is also looking ever more hesitant and uncertain, a problem exemplified by his indecision over whether or not to bomb Syria. Such actions may not have much impact on domestic public opinion, which is focused on the economy and the budget crisis, but it has a large impact on our allies, who are increasingly concerned about the drift of American policy.

Saudi Arabia is making its concerns manifest. According to the Wall Street Journal, “Saudi Arabia’s intelligence chief [Prince Bandar Bin Sultan al-Saud] told European diplomats this weekend that he plans to scale back cooperating with the U.S. to arm and train Syrian rebels in protest of Washington’s policy in the region.” This comes only days after the Saudis decided not to accept a coveted seat on the UN Security Council, which the U.S. had lobbied for.

What explains the Saudi actions? According to the Journal, the issue is “Riyadh’s frustration with the Obama administration and its regional policies, including the decision not to bomb Syria in response to its alleged use of chemical weapons in August.” The newspaper quotes Bandar telling diplomats: “This was a message for the U.S., not the U.N.”

This comes not long after the news that Turkey’s intelligence service, long a partner for the CIA, had burned a network of Iranians spying for Israel on Iran’s nuclear program. That action would not have been taken if the Turks seriously feared American retribution from President Erdogan’s friend, President Obama.

The fact that the Turks and Saudis are acting as they are suggests that they hold U.S. foreign policy in growing contempt and have less regard than in the past for America’s influence in the region. That is part of the damage that the Obama administration has wrought–damage that will take years to undo, assuming a more tough-minded leader is elected in 2016.

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What the Saudis Really Care About

As I noted yesterday, the idea that ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could help stabilize the Middle East is fatuous. Yet many world leaders continue to espouse it. In his UN address last month, for instance, President Barack Obama proclaimed that while this conflict is “not the cause of all the region’s problems,” it has been “a major source of instability for far too long,” and resolving it would help lay “a foundation for a broader peace.” In August, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius termed the conflict “one of the issues, perhaps the central one, for the region.”

Given that the events of the past few years would seem to have decisively disproved this theory–nobody would seriously argue, for instance, that ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would ease the sectarian bloodletting in Syria or Iraq or the feud between the army and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, while the Syrian conflict alone has been far more destabilizing to the region than the Israeli-Palestinian one has–the question is why so many world leaders still cling to it. A good place to look for answers is Saudi Arabia’s unprecedented decision not to address the UN General Assembly last week.

Riyadh billed this decision as a protest against the UN’s position “on Arab and Islamic issues, particularly the issue of Palestine that the UN has not been able to solve in more than 60 years, as well as the Syrian crisis.” If you took that at face value, you’d naturally assume that what upsets Riyadh most is the Israeli-Palestinian issue: The bulk of its statement was devoted to this issue, with Syria seemingly thrown in as an afterthought. The problem is that objectively, this makes no sense: After all, by Riyadh’s own admission, the conflict has gone on for 60 years now, yet it never boycotted the UN before. So why now of all times–precisely when Washington has finally succeeded in restarting Israeli-Palestinian talks after a five-year freeze?

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As I noted yesterday, the idea that ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could help stabilize the Middle East is fatuous. Yet many world leaders continue to espouse it. In his UN address last month, for instance, President Barack Obama proclaimed that while this conflict is “not the cause of all the region’s problems,” it has been “a major source of instability for far too long,” and resolving it would help lay “a foundation for a broader peace.” In August, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius termed the conflict “one of the issues, perhaps the central one, for the region.”

Given that the events of the past few years would seem to have decisively disproved this theory–nobody would seriously argue, for instance, that ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would ease the sectarian bloodletting in Syria or Iraq or the feud between the army and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, while the Syrian conflict alone has been far more destabilizing to the region than the Israeli-Palestinian one has–the question is why so many world leaders still cling to it. A good place to look for answers is Saudi Arabia’s unprecedented decision not to address the UN General Assembly last week.

Riyadh billed this decision as a protest against the UN’s position “on Arab and Islamic issues, particularly the issue of Palestine that the UN has not been able to solve in more than 60 years, as well as the Syrian crisis.” If you took that at face value, you’d naturally assume that what upsets Riyadh most is the Israeli-Palestinian issue: The bulk of its statement was devoted to this issue, with Syria seemingly thrown in as an afterthought. The problem is that objectively, this makes no sense: After all, by Riyadh’s own admission, the conflict has gone on for 60 years now, yet it never boycotted the UN before. So why now of all times–precisely when Washington has finally succeeded in restarting Israeli-Palestinian talks after a five-year freeze?

Regarding Syria, however, the UN did just do something that upset Riyadh greatly: At Russia’s initiative, it passed a resolution on disarming the Assad regime of its chemical weapons that not only killed American plans for imminent airstrikes, but essentially guaranteed Assad immunity from Western intervention for the foreseeable future and legitimized him as a partner, thereby effectively reversing two years of Western demands that he step down. For Saudi Arabia, which has backed Syria’s rebels heavily with both money and arms, this was a major blow.

Indeed, anyone tracking Riyadh’s actions rather than its words can easily see which issues it cares about and which it doesn’t: In contrast to its massive support for the Syrian rebels, or the $5 billion it pledged to Egypt’s military government after July’s coup, its financial support for the Palestinians is meager. UNRWA, the UN agency responsible for Palestinian refugees, gets almost all its funding from the West; Saudi Arabia gave it a mere $12 million last year–less than half the sum provided by Holland alone. Western states are also the Palestinian Authority’s main financial backers; Arab countries not only pledge less to begin with, but serially default on their pledges.

There are various reasons why Arabs feel the need to cloak their real concerns behind a façade of verbiage about the Palestinians. The truly puzzling question is why the West hasn’t yet learned to look behind this verbiage to the telltale actions–what Arabs care enough to spend money on, or, as I’ve written before, to put their lives on the line for. But until it does, it will keep right on believing that fatuous claim of Israeli-Palestinian centrality. 

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U.S. Romance with Iran Terrifies Arab Allies

Israel is being widely portrayed as the lone holdout against the global love affair with Iran’s new president. Certainly, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been the most outspoken critic. But several other countries are arguably even more worried by the American-Iranian rapprochement than Israel is–namely, America’s Arab allies.

Last month, a senior United Arab Emirates official said in a media interview that “If Israel were to strike Iran to stop it from getting a nuclear bomb, we wouldn’t object at all.” For a senior Arab official to publicly invite the hated Zionist enemy to launch a military strike on fellow Muslims is unprecedented. While Arab states have been urging America to attack Iran for years, they have hitherto opposed an Israeli strike. Moreover, even their pleas to America were strictly behind the scenes; they became public knowledge only due to WikiLeaks. Thus for Arab officials to be willing to publicly support an Israeli strike attests to a desperate fear that the American defense umbrella they have relied on for decades may no longer exist.

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Israel is being widely portrayed as the lone holdout against the global love affair with Iran’s new president. Certainly, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been the most outspoken critic. But several other countries are arguably even more worried by the American-Iranian rapprochement than Israel is–namely, America’s Arab allies.

Last month, a senior United Arab Emirates official said in a media interview that “If Israel were to strike Iran to stop it from getting a nuclear bomb, we wouldn’t object at all.” For a senior Arab official to publicly invite the hated Zionist enemy to launch a military strike on fellow Muslims is unprecedented. While Arab states have been urging America to attack Iran for years, they have hitherto opposed an Israeli strike. Moreover, even their pleas to America were strictly behind the scenes; they became public knowledge only due to WikiLeaks. Thus for Arab officials to be willing to publicly support an Israeli strike attests to a desperate fear that the American defense umbrella they have relied on for decades may no longer exist.

Nor is this the only indication. At the UN General Assembly last week, a Saudi diplomat consulted with his counterpart from Israel–a country Riyadh doesn’t officially recognize–over the Iranian charm offensive. A few days earlier, at an International Peace Institute dinner whose guests included officials from both Israel and several Arab states that don’t recognize its existence, “No Arab minister attacked Israel, and not one stood up and left the room when he found out that a high-ranking representative of the Israeli government was sitting beside him,” Haaretz reported: They were too busy discussing their main mutual concern, Iran.

This isn’t the start of an Arab-Israeli romance; most of these countries still hate Israel, and many are deeply anti-Semitic. Rather, it reflects the fear engendered by America’s gradual withdrawal from the Middle East. Despite years of purchasing top-quality American arms, many Arab states have no real military capabilities, especially against a much larger, more technologically sophisticated country that happens to be located right next door, in easy invasion distance (in contrast, several Arab countries lie between Iran and Israel). Thus they have always counted on America being there to defend them–and now, suddenly, they’re no longer sure they can. In that situation, even Israel is better than nobody.

The problem, of course, is that Israel can’t and won’t supply the same defense umbrella America has. Arabs states can plausibly hope Israel will deal with Iran’s nuclear program, because it views Iranian nukes as a direct threat to itself. But Israel would never intervene to, for instance, rescue Kuwait from Iraqi invasion, as America did in 1991. Hence America is currently indispensable. As one UAE academic put it, “We don’t have any other insurance company, and we live in a dangerous area.”

But if America decides to close up shop, the Arabs will perforce find another insurance company, just like anyone else whose insurer goes out of business. Who it will be remains to be seen: Russia is one obvious possibility; they could even decide they have no choice but to join Iran’s orbit. But either way, the result be the same: For the first time in decades, America will be left with no allies whatsoever in a region that remains crucial to the global oil supply, and hence to America’s own economic well-being.

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Setting America’s Position in the Mideast Back 40 Years

I sympathize with the frazzled Israeli diplomats who argue that halting U.S. aid to Egypt could endanger Israeli-Palestinian talks. Those talks are the only Mideast issue the Obama administration has shown any real interest in, and good salesmen always try to frame their pitch to appeal to their listeners’ interests. The argument is even correct, as far as it goes: The ousted Muslim Brotherhood government did back Hamas against the Palestinian Authority, while the current military government backs the PA against Hamas; that’s why the PA lauded the coup while Hamas denounced it.

Nevertheless, given that the talks haven’t a prayer of succeeding, backing Egypt’s military coup for their sake would be ridiculous. A much better argument, if anyone in Washington is still capable of hearing it, is the one Haaretz columnist Chemi Shalev makes today: Not backing the coup could reverse one of America’s biggest foreign policy achievements of the 1970s–flipping Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and other Arab states from the Soviet to the American camp. Today, Shalev warns, Saudi Arabia is begging Washington to support the coup, and refusing might send it and America’s other Arab clients straight back into Russia’s orbit:

To help make their point, the Saudis might attach the once-unthinkable photo of the meeting held earlier this month between their own Prince Bandar and a smiling Vladimir Putin. The Russian President, after all, has a proven track record in Syria of standing by an ally, even one who massacres his opponents by the tens of thousands. If Cairo turns to Moscow, Washington would be hard put to recover from the political black eye and the regional loss of face.

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I sympathize with the frazzled Israeli diplomats who argue that halting U.S. aid to Egypt could endanger Israeli-Palestinian talks. Those talks are the only Mideast issue the Obama administration has shown any real interest in, and good salesmen always try to frame their pitch to appeal to their listeners’ interests. The argument is even correct, as far as it goes: The ousted Muslim Brotherhood government did back Hamas against the Palestinian Authority, while the current military government backs the PA against Hamas; that’s why the PA lauded the coup while Hamas denounced it.

Nevertheless, given that the talks haven’t a prayer of succeeding, backing Egypt’s military coup for their sake would be ridiculous. A much better argument, if anyone in Washington is still capable of hearing it, is the one Haaretz columnist Chemi Shalev makes today: Not backing the coup could reverse one of America’s biggest foreign policy achievements of the 1970s–flipping Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and other Arab states from the Soviet to the American camp. Today, Shalev warns, Saudi Arabia is begging Washington to support the coup, and refusing might send it and America’s other Arab clients straight back into Russia’s orbit:

To help make their point, the Saudis might attach the once-unthinkable photo of the meeting held earlier this month between their own Prince Bandar and a smiling Vladimir Putin. The Russian President, after all, has a proven track record in Syria of standing by an ally, even one who massacres his opponents by the tens of thousands. If Cairo turns to Moscow, Washington would be hard put to recover from the political black eye and the regional loss of face.

Actually, almost any rational Mideast player today (Israel excepted) would rather have Moscow and Tehran as backers than Washington. Between them, Russia and Iran have supported their Syrian client with arms, diplomatic cover, money, and troops, while America has given the Syrian rebels nothing but empty rhetorical support. America has also done virtually nothing to help NATO ally Turkey, which has suffered both cross-border violence and a massive influx of Syrian refugees, even though Turkey’s prime minister is one of Obama’s favorite world leaders. Nor has it done much to help longstanding ally Jordan cope with the influx of refugees that threatens to overwhelm it.

Granted, Riyadh and its allies would be reluctant to share Russia’s patronage with Iran, which they loathe; they also remember who sent troops to protect them when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990. But Washington’s current passivity is making Saudi Arabia fear that America has become a broken reed; hence its feelers to Russia, via the Bandar-Putin meeting. If Washington now abandons Egypt, that could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. And if Riyadh leaves the American camp, Egypt would swiftly follow suit.

Once, American politicians on both sides of the aisle understood that America has interests as well as values, and that sometimes, the only choices are between two evils. As an example, Shalev aptly cites America’s alliance with the Soviets during World War II. And currently, as Jonathan has argued repeatedly, Egypt’s army is the lesser evil compared to the radical Islamists of the Brotherhood.

But today, leading Republican foreign-policy voices like John McCain and Lindsey Graham are joining leading Democrats to demand that Obama jettison American interests in favor of a “clean hands” policy: We don’t care what becomes of the Middle East as long as we can dissociate ourselves from the violence.

If Obama succumbs to these demands, he will set America’s position in the Mideast back 40 years–to a time when it had no allies at all among countries that remain vital to global energy supplies.

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The Myth of Authoritarian Stability

For years American presidents gave a blank check to Hosni Mubarak in Egypt. The only attempt to pressure him into making any meaningful political reforms occurred during President George W. Bush’s first term in office and was abandoned in the second term when then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice reasserted a traditional stability-above-all foreign policy that was continued by President Obama during his first two years in office. We know where that got us: to a revolution in 2011 which overthrew Mubarak and led to the election of a Muslim Brotherhood regime bent on consolidating power at all costs, the Brotherhood being the best-organized opposition group in the entire country. Now that Brotherhood government, too, has been overthrown and Egypt stands on the brink of civil war.

There is a lesson here in our relations with other dictatorial Middle Eastern states: Washington needs to push them to provide an opening to the moderate opposition and gradually transform in a democratic direction as the Philippines, Taiwan, and South Korea did in the 1980s. Simply clamping down harder is only a recipe for creating a bigger explosion later.

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For years American presidents gave a blank check to Hosni Mubarak in Egypt. The only attempt to pressure him into making any meaningful political reforms occurred during President George W. Bush’s first term in office and was abandoned in the second term when then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice reasserted a traditional stability-above-all foreign policy that was continued by President Obama during his first two years in office. We know where that got us: to a revolution in 2011 which overthrew Mubarak and led to the election of a Muslim Brotherhood regime bent on consolidating power at all costs, the Brotherhood being the best-organized opposition group in the entire country. Now that Brotherhood government, too, has been overthrown and Egypt stands on the brink of civil war.

There is a lesson here in our relations with other dictatorial Middle Eastern states: Washington needs to push them to provide an opening to the moderate opposition and gradually transform in a democratic direction as the Philippines, Taiwan, and South Korea did in the 1980s. Simply clamping down harder is only a recipe for creating a bigger explosion later.

Yet that is precisely what Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and other Gulf states are doing, emboldened by the overthrow of the Brotherhood government in Egypt with what is seen, rightly or wrongly, as the connivance of the West. The Wall Street Journal reports that the Saudi crackdown extends not only to Muslim Brothers and other Sunni fundamentalists but also to Shiite protesters and, most worrisome of all, to more liberal demonstrators such as the women petitioning for the right to drive.

It is easy for Washington to ignore human rights in its dealings with these regimes, and hard, if it does bring up the human rights issue, to avoid the charge of hypocrisy, although the more so when the Obama administration does so little to help dissidents in Iran or to protest the ongoing crackdown in Egypt. Yet the U.S. will be making a historic mistake–the same mistake, in fact, that it made in Egypt–if it turns a blind eye to the abusive internal conduct of its Middle Eastern allies. Sooner or later there will be a reckoning for these authoritarian regimes and their backers in the West. The best way for the Gulf kingdoms to ensure their stability in the long run is not to crack heads now but to create an opening for constitutional monarchies to slowly develop.

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Is the Arab Peace Plan Really About Peace?

Secretary of State John Kerry hailed the idea of reviving the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative put forward yesterday in Washington by a delegation from the Arab League. Kerry, who reportedly is hoping to host a multi-party peace conference this spring, was pleased that Qatar’s foreign minister had suggested that the proposal might be modified from its original take-it-or-leave-it demand that Israel return to the 1967 lines to one that allowed for a mutually-agreed “minor swap of land” that would modify the border.

This is progress of a sort, and should not be entirely dismissed. But before those advocating for more Israeli concessions in response to the proposal get too excited, it’s important to remember why this initiative flopped the first time around: it’s not really a peace proposal.

While the Arab Peace Initiative continues to be cited by Israel’s critics as proof that the Jewish state really does have partners, this idea has always been more about polishing the image of the Arab world in the United States than anything else. Conceived in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks when the Arab states, and in particular Saudi Arabia, were viewed with disgust by most Americans, the initiative was part of an effort to rehabilitate their image. But despite the fact that New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman (who claimed it stemmed from a conversation he had with Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah) and others in the foreign policy community promoted the idea, it fizzled. Why? Because it was not an invitation to negotiate, but a diktat. Even worse, it contained a vital poison pill: the return of Palestinian refugees to Israel that would, in effect, mean the end of the Jewish state, not peace with it.

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Secretary of State John Kerry hailed the idea of reviving the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative put forward yesterday in Washington by a delegation from the Arab League. Kerry, who reportedly is hoping to host a multi-party peace conference this spring, was pleased that Qatar’s foreign minister had suggested that the proposal might be modified from its original take-it-or-leave-it demand that Israel return to the 1967 lines to one that allowed for a mutually-agreed “minor swap of land” that would modify the border.

This is progress of a sort, and should not be entirely dismissed. But before those advocating for more Israeli concessions in response to the proposal get too excited, it’s important to remember why this initiative flopped the first time around: it’s not really a peace proposal.

While the Arab Peace Initiative continues to be cited by Israel’s critics as proof that the Jewish state really does have partners, this idea has always been more about polishing the image of the Arab world in the United States than anything else. Conceived in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks when the Arab states, and in particular Saudi Arabia, were viewed with disgust by most Americans, the initiative was part of an effort to rehabilitate their image. But despite the fact that New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman (who claimed it stemmed from a conversation he had with Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah) and others in the foreign policy community promoted the idea, it fizzled. Why? Because it was not an invitation to negotiate, but a diktat. Even worse, it contained a vital poison pill: the return of Palestinian refugees to Israel that would, in effect, mean the end of the Jewish state, not peace with it.

While the initiative does not specifically mention the so-called “right of return” by which the descendants of the Arab refugees of 1948 would be allowed to enter Israel, Prince Abdullah made this clear when he said this on the day the Arab League adopted the proposal:

I propose that the Arab summit put forward a clear and unanimous initiative addressed to the United Nations security council based on two basic issues: normal relations and security for Israel in exchange for full withdrawal from all occupied Arab territories, recognition of an independent Palestinian state with al-Quds al-Sharif as its capital, and the return of refugees.

It should be conceded that this is better than the famous “three no’s” enforced throughout the Arab world in the aftermath of the 1967 Six-Day War, when Muslim countries said they would not make peace, recognize or negotiate with Israel. But the effect is not all that different. The Arab League proposal envisions normal relations with an Israel that has been forced to retreat from all territories it won in a defensive war in 1967. But the Israel they want to make peace with is one that would be forced to accept millions of Arabs who would change it from a Jewish nation into yet another Arab one.

If Kerry really wants to promote the cause of peace, what he needs to do is tell the Arab League that while their support for recognition of Israel might be helpful, their proposal will not be allowed to be used as a distraction from the direct peace talks without preconditions that both President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu have endorsed. The Palestinian Authority, which has neither the will nor the ability to end the conflict or recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn, has been trying to avoid such talks.

Instead of providing a distraction from this crucial question, the Arab League needs to be prodding the PA to drop its excuses and return to the negotiating table. The PA walked away from direct talks more than four years ago in order to avoid having to respond to the last Israeli proposal that offered them an independent state. With Hamas stronger than ever and emboldened by its friendship with the Islamist governments of Egypt and Turkey, the odds of getting the PA back to the table, let alone agreeing to peace, are slim.

Negotiations, rather than fiats that dictate the results even before talks begin, are the only path to statehood for the Palestinians. Yesterday, Netanyahu repeated his support for the creation of a Palestinian state living in peace alongside Israel. If the Palestinians can ever get past their ideologically-driven rejection of the Jewish state’s legitimacy, they will find there is a sturdy Israeli majority in favor of peace even along lines that many Israelis will find difficult to accept. But so long as the Arab world continues to attempt to divert the world with public-relations tricks, the Palestinians will continue to believe that if they wait long enough, the world will deliver Israel to them on a silver platter.

No peace proposal that has an attempt to sneak in the right of return at its core is really about peace. It’s time the U.S. told the Arab world to forget about this disingenuous idea and face reality. What the Middle East needs is not a John Kerry photo op in Washington but a sea change within the culture of the Palestinians that will enable their leaders to come to grips with the need to end the conflict and recognize the Jewish state. Until that happens, this latest version of Abdullah’s PR initiative will be as much of a dead end as the first time it was trotted out by Friedman.

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Twitter Crackdown Exposes Saudi Fear

Various news outlets are reporting that Saudi Arabia is seeking to end anonymity for twitter users. At first glance, the Saudi move appears to be just one more example of American information companies knuckling under to pressure from wealthy, autocratic countries. That Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal holds a substantial stake in Twitter underlines how taking Saudi money (as both companies and many universities such as Harvard and Georgetown do) always comes with strings attached.

The Saudi move against Twitter has deeper roots, however. While American and European human rights activists have for more than two years rallied for justice and reform in Bahrain—Bahraini flags flew over the Occupy DC camp—and Bahrain is certainly in need of reform, the situation not only for Shi’ites but also for Sunnis in Saudi Arabia is worse.

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Various news outlets are reporting that Saudi Arabia is seeking to end anonymity for twitter users. At first glance, the Saudi move appears to be just one more example of American information companies knuckling under to pressure from wealthy, autocratic countries. That Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal holds a substantial stake in Twitter underlines how taking Saudi money (as both companies and many universities such as Harvard and Georgetown do) always comes with strings attached.

The Saudi move against Twitter has deeper roots, however. While American and European human rights activists have for more than two years rallied for justice and reform in Bahrain—Bahraini flags flew over the Occupy DC camp—and Bahrain is certainly in need of reform, the situation not only for Shi’ites but also for Sunnis in Saudi Arabia is worse.

The Saudi move comes against the backdrop of debates about political reform and popular Saudi cleric Salman al-Awdah—who has more than 2.5 million followers on Twitter—mocking government attempts to crackdown on Twitter. Al-Awdah may have broken with Usama Bin Laden, but no longer being an al-Qaeda sympathizer is a pretty low bar by which to describe reformism. Al-Awdah may be a reformer in the Saudi context, but no one should conflate reform with liberalism.

Nevertheless, Al-Awdah has become increasingly strident in his calls for political change in Saudi Arabia. According to the Open Source Center, he warned on March 16 that the Saudi people “will not remain silent.” Ten days later, he followed up by suggesting that should the Saudi government ignore calls for reform, “the only solution would be to go out into the square and counter argument with argument.”

I speculated six months ago that Saudi Arabia could be next. The autocratic kingdom is strictly off-limits to most Western journalists. Those who get in seldom move outside Riyadh or Jeddah. But if a riot breaks out in the Saudi hinterland and no one is around to cover it, that does not mean that all is well. It will be interesting to see if Saudi Arabia manages to constrain Twitter. Cutting communications, however, is a poor substitute for true reform. And the royal family is kidding itself if it believes it can remain aloof from political modernity forever.

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Can the Saudis Be Trusted in Syria?

What to make of news that the Saudis are providing Croatian surplus arms to the Syrian rebels?

It sounds, at first blush, like a throwback to the 1980s, when the Saudis worked with the CIA to acquire surplus military hardware from all over the world–including in Warsaw Pact states such as Poland–and then deliver them, via the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence Agency, to Afghan rebels fighting the Red Army. We know from that experience that, even with extensive CIA involvement, the Saudis and Pakistanis conspired to provide the bulk of their aid to hard-line Islamist commanders such as Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Jalalludin Haqqani rather than to more moderate mujahideen commanders such as Ahmad Shah Massoud.

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What to make of news that the Saudis are providing Croatian surplus arms to the Syrian rebels?

It sounds, at first blush, like a throwback to the 1980s, when the Saudis worked with the CIA to acquire surplus military hardware from all over the world–including in Warsaw Pact states such as Poland–and then deliver them, via the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence Agency, to Afghan rebels fighting the Red Army. We know from that experience that, even with extensive CIA involvement, the Saudis and Pakistanis conspired to provide the bulk of their aid to hard-line Islamist commanders such as Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Jalalludin Haqqani rather than to more moderate mujahideen commanders such as Ahmad Shah Massoud.

And today? New York Times reporters C.J. Chivers and Eric Schmitt claim: “The [Saudi] weapons’ distribution has been principally to armed groups viewed as nationalist and secular, and appears to have been intended to bypass the jihadist groups whose roles in the war have alarmed Western and regional powers.”

Maybe so, but I’m skeptical. The Saudis, who are after all Wahhabis, have a natural ideological predisposition to favor other hard-line Islamic groups rather than democrats and secularists, in whom they have no interest in taking power in any country in the Middle East.

The only reliable method of helping truly moderate Syrian rebel factions would be if the U.S. were to get more directly involved. It is possible that there is some covert American military aid being provided. But if so, that would represent a significant turnaround from the hands-off policy that the Obama administration has self-destructively followed in Syria over the past two-plus years even as the death toll has climbed north of 70,000.

It is still not too late for the U.S. to get more actively involved in breaking this stalemate, pushing Bashar Assad out of power, and trying to buttress more moderate elements at the expense of al-Qaeda affiliates. But that will require a major rethink of the administration’s “lead from behind” policy, whose only effect–in the eyes of ordinary Syrians–has been to keep Assad in power.

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How to Rein in Bahrain?

In this New York Times op-ed, Bahraini human-rights activist Zainab Al-Khawaja makes a powerful case that the US cannot simply overlook the repression taking place in this small Gulf state with which we are closely allied.  She has personal credibility because of what she and her family have been through. She writes:

My father, Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, was beaten unconscious in my apartment in front of my family, as a report last year by the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry documented. He was then taken away with my husband and brother-in-law; they were all tortured.

My husband was released in January, and my brother-in-law was released after a six-month sentence in late 2011; my father was sentenced to life in prison. He staged four hunger strikes; the longest lasted 110 days and almost cost him his life. (He was force-fed at a military hospital.)

She herself was arrested and jailed earlier this month, charged with the “crime” of inciting hatred against the government.

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In this New York Times op-ed, Bahraini human-rights activist Zainab Al-Khawaja makes a powerful case that the US cannot simply overlook the repression taking place in this small Gulf state with which we are closely allied.  She has personal credibility because of what she and her family have been through. She writes:

My father, Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, was beaten unconscious in my apartment in front of my family, as a report last year by the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry documented. He was then taken away with my husband and brother-in-law; they were all tortured.

My husband was released in January, and my brother-in-law was released after a six-month sentence in late 2011; my father was sentenced to life in prison. He staged four hunger strikes; the longest lasted 110 days and almost cost him his life. (He was force-fed at a military hospital.)

She herself was arrested and jailed earlier this month, charged with the “crime” of inciting hatred against the government.

Yet, as she notes, U.S. protests over such clear violations of human rights have been negligible. This is understandable, because Bahrain is the home of the Fifth Fleet and a close military ally. There are also fears that the Bahraini opposition, mainly Shiite in a country ruled by a Sunni royal family, is a stalking horse for Iranian influence. That, at any rate, is what the Bahrain government would like us to believe; but from everything I saw during a brief visit to Bahrain earlier this year, most of the opposition, while undeniably Shiite, is fairly moderate and not interested in creating an Iranian-style theocracy. Ironically what is most likely to drive them into Iran’s arms is if the Bahrain government continues its policy of repression in cooperation with the Saudis.

It is hard for the U.S. to apply pressure to Bahrain by cutting off arms sales (as Zainab Al-Khawaja suggests) or at least making them conditional on human-rights improvements. But it is also a step we need to seriously consider, lest we repeat the mistake we made with Egypt where we gave unconditional backing to another pro-American dictator, acting under the illusion that he could stave off the people’s demands indefinitely. He couldn’t, and, because we didn’t press Mubarak for reform, instead we got a revolution.

That would be the worst possible outcome in Bahrain. Instead, we need to push for the royal family to turn their country into a constitutional monarchy, reserving some power over the armed forces while ceding most authority to the people’s elected representatives. That is the only long-term formula for stability in Bahrain and indeed throughout the Gulf.

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Outsourcing Syrian Rebel Support to Gulf States Has Consequences

On one level, the news from Syria is encouraging–Bashar Assad’s regime is losing ground. The rebel forces are fighting on the outskirts of the capital and have managed to capture several military bases, at least temporarily. Many analysts think that the Syrian army is cracking–a plausible if perhaps premature conclusion at this point.

But there is still cause for alarm, not only in the fact that the killing continues, but also in the fact that it is hard-line Salafists who appear to be making the biggest military gains on the ground, to the consternation of more secular rebels, thus raising the specter of Syria becoming a Taliban-like state after Assad’s downfall–or, at the very least, the specter of Taliban-like extremists gaining control of substantial territorial enclaves. If that were to occur, the U.S. would have no to blame but itself because the Obama administration’s current policy of not arming the rebels is providing Persian Gulf states such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar with an opening to shape the uprising in their own twisted image.

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On one level, the news from Syria is encouraging–Bashar Assad’s regime is losing ground. The rebel forces are fighting on the outskirts of the capital and have managed to capture several military bases, at least temporarily. Many analysts think that the Syrian army is cracking–a plausible if perhaps premature conclusion at this point.

But there is still cause for alarm, not only in the fact that the killing continues, but also in the fact that it is hard-line Salafists who appear to be making the biggest military gains on the ground, to the consternation of more secular rebels, thus raising the specter of Syria becoming a Taliban-like state after Assad’s downfall–or, at the very least, the specter of Taliban-like extremists gaining control of substantial territorial enclaves. If that were to occur, the U.S. would have no to blame but itself because the Obama administration’s current policy of not arming the rebels is providing Persian Gulf states such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar with an opening to shape the uprising in their own twisted image.

The Washington Post has a telling quote from a rebel leader:

“The lack of support by the international community has led to a situation where support is coming from the gulf states and from Syrian businessmen in those states,” Col. Malik Kurdi, a spokesman for the rebel Free Syrian Army, said in an interview. “These are people who have the ideology of Salafis and the Muslim Brotherhood. They started supporting groups who have the same ideology in Syria, and some adopted this ideology to get financial support.”

The newspaper goes on to note that while many jihadist groups have emerged in Syria, the most successful one is “Jabhat al-Nusra, which is thought to have links to al-Qaeda.” It has “asserted responsibility for a series of suicide attacks against military and security targets,” and it has “overrun at least two government military bases in the past two weeks, collecting weapons left behind by Syrian troops.”

Even if Assad appears to be in danger of falling (and such impressions can be deceiving–he has been frustrating predictions of his demise for almost two years now), it is imperative that the U.S. do more to help the opposition so as to shape the nature of the post-Assad regime.

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Is the Saudi King Dying?

King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia took the throne on August 1, 2005 upon the death of his older brother and predecessor, King Fahd. Abdullah was a sprightly 81 when he took the throne, or so it must seem in hindsight. Now 88 years old, King Abdullah just had “successful” back surgery, or so the strictly controlled Saudi press is reporting.

Twitter, however, is abuzz with reports that the King has Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome. The reports, as the Open Source Center points out, are coming from @mujtahidd, who has more than 750,000 followers and whose previous tweets suggest close and informed access to the royal family. As in any autocratic, opaque society, rumors often substitute for news, though this one seems more solid than most.

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King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia took the throne on August 1, 2005 upon the death of his older brother and predecessor, King Fahd. Abdullah was a sprightly 81 when he took the throne, or so it must seem in hindsight. Now 88 years old, King Abdullah just had “successful” back surgery, or so the strictly controlled Saudi press is reporting.

Twitter, however, is abuzz with reports that the King has Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome. The reports, as the Open Source Center points out, are coming from @mujtahidd, who has more than 750,000 followers and whose previous tweets suggest close and informed access to the royal family. As in any autocratic, opaque society, rumors often substitute for news, though this one seems more solid than most.

Crown Prince Salman is in charge meanwhile back home, but at 76 years old he’s not a beacon of stability. When it comes to Middle Eastern stability, when it rains, it pours.

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