by Emile Nakhleh
Concluding historic deals on Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could catapult the United States back to the center of the Middle East great game. Although these deals seem unimaginable at the moment, they are not unthinkable.
Now that the “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran and Kushner’s so-called Peace for Prosperity plan have fizzled, President Trump could translate his anti-war sentiments into two major diplomatic deals to settle these critical international disputes, with boldness, realism, and imagination.
It’s possible to imagine a public meeting at the White House at which Trump and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani announce a renegotiated nuclear agreement and an end to America’s unilateral sanctions against Iran. Similarly, Trump could quietly jettison Jared Kushner’s stillborn “deal of the century” and embark on a new and more realistic effort to settle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in an arrangement acceptable to Arab leaders, the Palestinians, and Israel. Israeli and Palestinian leaders could be invited to the White House to announce a new Israeli-Palestinian deal.
In order to achieve a new grand design for the region, the president would have to accept the uncomfortable truth that his current approach to Iran and the Palestinians has not worked. Despite the draconian economic sanctions he has imposed on Iran, the country’s leaders have not cried uncle. Nor have the administration’s recent anti-Palestinian policies forced the Palestinian leadership to attend Kushner’s Bahrain Workshop.
Trump’s hawkish advisers, including John Bolton, have not served him well, as was evident in the planning for the recent meeting with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un in the demilitarized zone. The current situation regarding Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is untenable. If the president doesn’t believe that going to war will resolve either conflict, he should seriously consider pursuing other avenues that might net him two genuine deals of the century.
The anti-Iran mantra of some Gulf Arab leaders, especially the Saudi and United Arab Emirates’ crown princes, and Israel was not sufficient to bring Arabs to the Kushner-engineered Bahrain Workshop or to abandon their decades-old stance on the Palestinian issue. Arab presence in Bahrain was sparse, low-key, tepid, and mostly non-committal. Kushner essentially left Manama empty-handed.
An Iran Deal
Neither Tehran nor Washington is interested in war, yet both are engaged in dangerous brinkmanship. Although there is always a high probability that such high-wire diplomatic maneuvering could lead to conflict, both countries could pursue negotiations through intermediaries. Oman, Qatar, and Kuwait are three important Gulf Cooperation Council candidates that would be willing to host intermediary talks. Oman, of course, played a constructive role, which ultimately led to the signing of the P5+1 agreement. Any of the three countries would be an acceptable negotiation venue for Iran.
The Iranian leadership seems to be using its decision to breach the nuclear deal as a tactic to force the EU to take a stand on preserving the agreement. Using the good offices of mediators, official statements from Iran seem to hint at the clerical regime’s willingness to renegotiate the agreement, perhaps with a longer break-out period. Iran expects such negotiations to accompany the lifting of sanctions. Despite rising anti-Americanism among radical factions inside Iran, the Iranian leader Ali Khamenei has decided, at least for now, to keep President Rouhani and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif in their positions.
The anti-agreement radical centers of power in Iran remain relatively marginalized. The longer the JCPOA remains on life support and the more the Iranian people suffer because of the sanctions, however, the more their influence will rise. Which, of course, will result in the disempowerment of the Rouhani-Zarif faction within the power structure. Mistrust of America is growing in Iran, especially as the flashbacks of removing Mohammad Mosaddegh from power in 1953 and the U.S. downing of commercial airliner Iran Air Flight 655 in 1988 are replayed over and over on Iranian social media. It’s time to defuse this manufactured crisis and move toward negotiation.
In order to start meaningful, and potentially promising, negotiations with Iran, the Trump administration will have to appoint a special American team of distinguished diplomats and scientists to re-examine the P5+1 agreement with an eye toward improving the deal, not to torpedo it. If the negotiating team pursues the dual strategy of revising the agreement while lifting some of the most harmful sanctions, the EU would be willing to participate—which would improve the chances of success.
It’s erroneous to argue that all Gulf Arabs share the Saudi and Emirati animus toward Iran. Kuwait, Oman, and Qatar see their interests served better through engagement with Iran. Bahrain hews to the Saudi-Emirati line, but it is an insignificant player in the region. Even within the UAE, not all emirates are as hostile toward Iran as Abu Dhabi and its Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed. Dubai, for example, would be much happier with friendly commercial and political relations with Iran.
The Israel-Palestine Conundrum
For over 30 years, Palestinian leaders have pushed for a state of their own with East Jerusalem as its capital to live alongside Israel in peace and security. This has also been the position of most if not all Arab states and peoples, including Egypt and Jordan, which have had peace treaties with Israel.
The Arab representatives who attended the Bahrain Workshop on June 25-26 did so mostly to appease the White House and to remain in Trump’s good graces. Most Arabs, however, have so far resisted the push by the White House and Jared Kushner in particular for Gulf Arab normalization with Israel before a political solution is concluded. Although most Arab states, including the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah, recognize the reality of the state of Israel and deal with it almost routinely on security and intelligence matters, they have not deviated from the two-state and land-for-peace paradigm. Had Jared Kushner internalized this fact before he went to Bahrain, he would have avoided the embarrassing conclusion of the Bahrain meeting.
The Bahrain Workshop failed in its twin goals of Arab normalization (tatbi’) with Israel and in persuading the Palestinians to place economics ahead of politics. A reading of the White House’s glossy Arabic language document extolling the enduring benefits of “Peace to Prosperity” gives the impression that the author of the well-translated document is tone deaf to what the Arabs and the Palestinians have been telling American policymakers for decades.
As I wrote in a previous posting on this blog, fewer and fewer Israelis and Palestinians truly believe that the two-state solution could ever be realized. Yet, Arab states and the Palestinians still believe that this approach should be the starting point in any negotiations. It’s becoming more obvious that a formula must be devised for the two peoples to live together (or side by side) between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. Arabs no longer believe that such a formula can be achieved through force or military action.
Palestinians in Gaza have called on Israel and the international community to break the economic and political blockade of the Gaza Strip. Gazans openly describe their situation as living in an “open-air prison.” Commerce and fishing rights are severely restricted, and the freedom of movement and travel is inhumanely curtailed. Poverty, hunger, and malnutrition are prevalent throughout the territory, and unemployment is one of the highest in the world.
Palestinians in the West Bank, mostly occupied by Israel and effectively controlled by Jewish settlers, maintain that Israel has two choices: either keep its control of the West Bank but extend Israeli citizenship to the Palestinian population or withdraw the occupation and negotiate the creation of some sort of a Palestinian state. Arab leaders generally support this position and would endorse whatever solution Israel and the Palestinians conclude.
As in the case of Iran, the Trump administration should appoint a new team of distinguished diplomats with experience and expertise in the Levant to begin negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian leadership. The current Trump troika—Jared Kushner, Jason Greenblatt, and David Freedman, along with financier and avid supporter Sheldon Adelson and his wife Miriam—are not credible interlocutors between Israel and the Palestinians because of their ideological and financial support of Jewish settlements in the West Bank. Kushner’s and Greenblatt’s recent trip to the region was by all indications an utter failure. Even Jordan’s King Abdullah, one of America’s staunchest allies in the region, told the Kushner team that peace in the region could only come through negotiations with the Palestinians, again along the two-state paradigm.
At the risk of stating the obvious, reaching an agreement to settle the disputes in Iran and Palestine is difficult but not undoable. The absence of such an agreement and the apparent disengagement of the United Stated from the region are bound to create a vacuum that will be filled by adversarial actors bent on undermining American security and interests.