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Column: Mideast Diplomacy Looks Bleak but Alternatives are Worse

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry testifies before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, April 8, 2014.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry testifies before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, April 8, 2014.

The Obama administration has certainly had better weeks in Middle East diplomacy.

The Israeli-Palestinian talks appear to be collapsing in a fit of finger-pointing, and Syria increasingly resembles a slow-motion Rwanda. Only Iran negotiations continue to progress, albeit with obstacles looming as the parties approach a mid-summer deadline for a long-term nuclear agreement.

At a Senate hearing on Tuesday (April 8), Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) taunted Secretary of State John Kerry, just back from another exhausting overseas trip.

“I think you’re about to hit the trifecta,” McCain said. “Geneva II was a total collapse as I predicted to you that it would be. … The Israeli-Palestinian talks, even though you may drag them out for a while, are finished. And I predict that even though we gave the Iranians the right to enrich, which is unbelievable, those talks will collapse, too.”

Kerry replied that McCain’s judgments were premature and that it was “worth the effort” to keep trying.

While McCain’s words were harsh, it is fair to examine the administration’s record six months after President Barack Obama told the UN General Assembly that Iran and the Arab-Israeli conflict would be his top foreign policy priorities for the remainder of his second term.

On Iran, the administration – contrary to McCain’s negative predictions -- appears to be making steady progress following the conclusion of an interim agreement last November. A senior US official, speaking to reporters in Vienna Wednesday on condition of anonymity, said the Iranians and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany had over the past two days “continued our substantive discussions about all of the issues that will have to be part of a comprehensive agreement – every single issue you can imagine. These sessions have been in-depth and the conversations have given us important additional insights into where the biggest and most challenging gaps will be as we move forward.”

A month from now, the official said, negotiators will begin drafting the actual accord with the goal of reaching agreement by July 20 when the interim agreement is due to expire.

Still, there are complications on the horizon. There are persistent reports that while Iran is implementing its responsibilities under the interim deal, it is not yet receiving the limited sanctions relief it was promised . Foreign banks are still balking at processing even authorized transactions with Iran for fear of falling afoul of US sanctions. This behavior could raise doubts in Tehran about how much Iran would benefit from a longer-term deal and whether Western promises can be trusted.

The US Congress, meanwhile, continues to undermine mutual confidence by seeking new ways to sanction Iran on issues other than the nuclear program. Congress’s latest salvo is legislation that targets Iran’s Lebanese partner, Hezbollah, in a manner that appears gratuitous given that the organization is already heavily sanctioned as an organization on the State Department’s list of terrorist groups.

Congress also rushed this week to pass legislation barring Hamid Aboutalebi from coming to the United States as Iran’s next ambassador to the United Nations. Aboutalebi played a peripheral role in the 1979-81 hostage crisis but matured to become a reformer and is close to Iranian president Hassan Rouhani. Such nuances did not impress Congress, where Aboutalebi became an easy target for bipartisan “outrage” that momentarily united even the odd couple of Sens. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Tea Party favorite Ted Cruz (R-Tex.)

There are serious grounds to scrutinize a long-term nuclear agreement with Iran. As McCain alluded, a nuclear accord is likely to permit the Islamic Republic to continue enriching uranium on a limited basis. But to demand otherwise, Kerry has stated, is no longer realistic. A better way to evaluate a potential agreement is whether it provides confidence that Iran cannot build a nuclear weapon without the United States and its allies detecting it quickly enough to take action. Currently, Kerry told the Senate, this “break out time” is about two months. The US goal is to increase that margin to six months to a year, which most experts consider sufficient.

The alternative to no agreement is trying to hold the line on sanctions while Iran resumes enriching uranium to higher and higher grades without daily on the ground inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency. That could provoke U.S. or Israeli military action, with unforeseen but likely negative consequences for the Middle East and the global economy. So a deal remains the less risky choice.

On the Israeli-Palestinian stalemate, there is plenty of blame to go around, but criticism of Kerry also seems unjustified. The hardworking secretary of state has scrambled his schedule repeatedly to shuttle between leaders in an effort to keep negotiations going. Kerry apparently went so far as to dangle long-time US prisoner and convicted Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard as an added incentive to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to implement a promised release of a fourth tranche of Palestinian prisoners on March 29. But Netanyahu reneged and his government added insult to injury by announcing construction of 700 new housing units in East Jerusalem.

The Palestinians retaliated by seeking admittance to 15 UN-related agencies and are threatening to resume their effort to achieve UN membership. Israel then retaliated for that by cutting off ties between Palestinian and Israeli officials apart from the peace negotiators and those responsible for security coordination.

This columnist has argued that the Obama administration should table its own ideas for a two-state solution instead of continuing to waste time and political capital on merely prolonging Israeli-Palestinian talks. After all these years of negotiations, the outlines of an agreement are clear but the two sides lack the political will to agree without heavy American pressure. Obama is not running for re-election and Kerry is also at the apex of his political career. And Camp David, the presidential retreat in the Maryland mountains where Jimmy Carter brokered Israeli-Egyptian peace in 1978, is especially lovely in the springtime.
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    Barbara Slavin

    Barbara Slavin is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center and a correspondent for, a website specializing in the Middle East. She is the author of a 2007 book, Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies: Iran, the US and the Twisted Path to Confrontation, and is a regular commentator on U.S. foreign policy and Iran on NPR, PBS, C-SPAN and the Voice of America.

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