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Archive for Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Diplomatic doors are opening in Mideast

January 24, 2007

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The White House has long castigated its critics for failing to write about the "good news" in the Middle East.

Well, despite the Iraq gloom, some good news has emerged in recent days from the Middle East. The good news concerns Iran and Syria and points to an opening for a diplomatic process involving all of Iraq's neighbors.

Such a process holds the best hope for averting a dangerous defeat in Iraq. The burning question is whether the Bush team is willing or able to take advantage of the opportunity that this news presents.

First, the good news from Tehran. Iran's obnoxious President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is coming under harsh criticism from the highest authorities in Tehran. Contrary to Western perception, Ahmadinejad does not have either power to make foreign policy or control over Iran's nuclear program - powers that rest with Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Khamenei appears to be reconsidering Ahmadinejad's behavior; the ayatollah's newspaper has called on the president to stay out of all nuclear matters. Criticism in Iran's press and parliament has also focused on Ahmadinejad's economic failures. U.S. and U.N. sanctions make foreign investment scarce, including in Iran's oil fields. This puts the country's economic future at risk.

The pressure on Ahmadinejad signals that Iran is concerned about further economic and political isolation. That means the United States has strong cards to play in any talks.

Moreover, Shiite Iran cannot afford the open confrontation with the Sunni Arab world that looms if the Iraq civil war continues. Rather than rally Sunni Arab states against Tehran, as it is now doing, Washington could be working to prevent that Sunni-Shiite explosion. The condition: that Iran (and Sunni Arab states) stop destabilizing Iraq.

There is also a bit of good news from Syria. Last week news broke in Israel of a two-year long "Track II" negotiations between a former Israeli foreign ministry director general and a Syrian-American businessman with key connections to the family of President Bashar al-Assad.

Track II talks are informal, nongovernmental efforts to test diplomatic waters. These particular talks produced interesting ideas for overcoming hurdles to an Israeli-Syrian peace treaty but ended in 2006. Now that they have become public, they've been disavowed by both governments. But both were reportedly kept informed, and the Syrians seem to have been open to the idea.

Geoffrey Aronson of the Foundation for Middle East Peace helped organize the talks. He says: "We wanted to jump-start a discussion." At a time when some senior Israeli political and intelligence officials are calling for talks with Damascus, the White House shouldn't veto the idea. The White House should keep pushing Syria to end its misbehavior in Lebanon, but it should not block needed Syrian involvement in regional talks.

Recently, Pennsylvania's Republican Sen. Arlen Specter made his 16th trip to Syria and had his fourth conversation with President Assad. "I don't think he (Assad) views us in a position of weakness," said Specter, who believes it would be "sensible" to talk with Syria. "We remain the colossus. I think he knows that."

In other words, America has leverage for the kind of diplomacy that is essential if we want to quit Iraq without it collapsing. The goal of such diplomacy: to convince Iraq's neighbors that Iraq's future collapse would so endanger them that they have to work to stabilize the country. Their cooperation would go far in enabling U.S. forces to leave.

But President Bush has made clear he has no interest in using regional talks as a means to stabilize Iraq. Such talks - a key recommendation of the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group - would have to involve Syria and Iran, as well as Saudi Arabia.

Instead, the White House has chosen a confrontational approach toward Iran, moving additional ships and missiles off Iran's coast, and putting the economic squeeze on Tehran. The administration believes Iran has grown overconfident because of the Iraq mess, so there is no point to talks.

Speculation is rising in Washington that the White House may choose to divert attention from Iraq by attacking suspected Iranian nuclear energy sites (a move that would end in disaster). Washington's tough stance might make some sense, however, if it were part of a larger strategy that matched military sticks with diplomatic carrots.

Neither Bush, nor Vice-President Cheney, nor Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice have given any hint of such thinking. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, however, once part of the Baker-Hamilton group, said last week: "Right at this moment, there's really nothing the Iranians want from us. We need some leverage, it seems to me, before we engage with the Iranians." He added, "I think at some point engagement probably makes sense."

I would argue the United States already has serious economic and political leverage with Iran and Syria. You can see this in the good news out of Iran and Syria.

But will the White House grasp the opening it presents?

- Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

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