News / Middle East

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.

Barbara Slavin

Barbara Slavin is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center and a correspondent for Al-Monitor.com, 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.

You May Like

As US Strikes Syria, China Sees Parallels at Home

Beijing is debating how much support to give international coalition against IS militants and trying to figure out how many Chinese nationals may have joined group overseas More

CDC: Ebola Could Infect 1.4 Million by January

US health officials say if efforts to curb the outbreak are not increased, cases will soar dramatically by early next year More

Video USAID Provides $231 Million for Girls Education in 5 Countries

US Agency for International Development partners with celebrities to call attention to importance of education for girls worldwide More

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
Comments
     
by: Godwin from: Nigeria
April 11, 2014 10:44 AM
Barbara here can only be an Iranian or Arab sympathizer. Nothing here matters except those that lean towards pleasing an Arab cause. It is a pity she had to write like this praising all the wrong things and deriding the right ones. McCain predicted Obama-Kerry failure in all of these and the failure is starring you in the face and yet you praise it? Pressure to get Iran to agree to a safer world is disapproved by you? A Palestinian Hamas that wants no sort of peace with neighbors is no fault? Hezbollah with agenda of a denied holocaust deserves your sympathy? No you got it all wrong Barbara Slovin, this is not how to be columnist of repute.


by: jr from: br
April 10, 2014 7:57 PM
almost 40 years since Camp David and what we have seen is only death. unhappily.


by: charlie from: California
April 10, 2014 2:19 PM
The USA could try using the stick against Israel, which Israel now uses against the occupied people. Never does the US Congress threaten Israel with anything. For Netanyahu its win if he makes peace and win if he doesn't. For the occupied people it's lose either way There will only be Israel, no Palestine, but a majority of Israelis will soon consist of occupied people born in the land where they have no legal rights except those in the UN Charter.

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
NASA’s MAVEN Probe Enters Mars Orbiti
X
September 22, 2014 9:20 PM
NASA’s newest Mars probe, called MAVEN, has successfully entered its designated orbit around the Red Planet. Scientists will use its sophisticated instruments to try to learn what happened to the atmosphere Mars had a few billion years ago. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video NASA’s MAVEN Probe Enters Mars Orbit

NASA’s newest Mars probe, called MAVEN, has successfully entered its designated orbit around the Red Planet. Scientists will use its sophisticated instruments to try to learn what happened to the atmosphere Mars had a few billion years ago. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video For West Ukraine City, Conflict Far Away Yet Near

The western Ukrainian city of Lviv prides itself on being both physically and culturally close to Western Europe. The Russian-backed separatists in the eastern part of the country are 1,200 kilometers away, and seemingly even farther away in their world view. Still, as VOA’s Al Pessin reports, the war is having an impact in Lviv.
Video

Video Saving Global Fish Stocks Starts in the Kitchen

With an estimated 90 percent of the world’s larger fish populations having already vanished, a growing number of people in the seafood industry are embracing the concept of sustainable fishing and farming practices. One American marine biologist turned restaurateur in Thailand is spreading the word among fellow chefs and customers. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman reports from Bangkok.
Video

Video Chinese Admiral Key in China’s Promotion of Sea Links

China’s President last week wrapped up landmark visits to India, Sri Lanka and Maldives, part of a broader campaign to promote a new “Maritime Silk Road” in Asia. The Chinese government’s promotion efforts rely heavily on the country’s best-known sailor, a 15th century eunuch named Zheng He. VOA's Bill Ide reports from the sailor’s hometown in Yunnan on the effort to promote China’s future by recalling its past.
Video

Video Experts Fear Ebola Outbreak ‘Beyond Our Capability to Contain’

Each day brings with it new warnings about the deadly Ebola outbreak already blamed for killing more than 2,600 people across West Africa. And while countries and international organizations like the United Nations are starting to come through on promises of help for those most affected, the unprecedented speed with which the virus has spread is raising questions about the international response. VOA's Jeff Seldin has more from Washington.
Video

Video Natural Gas Export Plan Divides Maryland Town

A U.S. power company that has been importing natural gas now wants to export it. If approved, its plant in Lusby, Maryland, would likely be the first terminal on the United States East Coast to export liquefied natural gas from American pipelines. While some residents welcome the move because it will create jobs, others oppose it, saying the expansion could be a safety and environmental hazard. VOA’s Deborah Block examines the controversy.
Video

Video Difficult Tactical Battle Ahead Against IS Militants in Syria

The U.S. president has ordered the military to intensify its fight against the Islamic State, including in Syria. But how does the military conduct air strikes in a country that is not a U.S. ally? VOA correspondent Carla Babb reports from the Pentagon.
Video

Video Iran, World Powers Seek Progress in Nuclear Talks

Iran and the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany, known as the P5 + 1, have started a new round of talks on Iran's nuclear program. VOA State Department correspondent Pam Dockins reports that as the negotiations take place in New York, a U.S. envoy is questioning Iran's commitment to peaceful nuclear activity.
Video

Video Migrants Caught in No-Man's Land Called Calais

The deaths of hundreds of migrants in the Mediterranean this week has only recast the spotlight on the perils of reaching Europe. And for those forunate enough to reach a place like Calais, France, only find that their problems aren't over. Lisa Bryant has the story.
Video

Video Westgate Siege Anniversary Brings Back Painful Memories

One year after it happened, the survivors of the terror attack on Nairobi's Westgate Shopping Mall still cannot shake the images of that tragic incident. For VOA, Mohammed Yusuf tells the story of victims still waiting for the answer to the question 'how could this happen?'
Video

Video Whaling Summit Votes to Uphold Ban on Japan Whale Hunt

The International Whaling Commission, meeting in Slovenia, has voted to uphold a court ruling banning Japan from hunting whales in the Antarctic Ocean. Conservationists hailed the ruling as a victory, but Tokyo says it will submit revised plans for a whale hunt in 2015. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video A Dinosaur Fit for Land and Water

Residents and tourists in Washington D.C. can now examine a life-size replica of an unusual dinosaur that lived almost a hundred million years ago in northern Africa. Scientists say studying the behemoth named Spinosaurus helps them better understand how some prehistoric animals adapted to life on land and in water. The Spinosaurus replica is on display at the National Geographic museum. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Colonel Steve ‘Spiros’ Pisanos left Greece and came to the U.S. to learn to fly. He flew fighters for the Allies in World War II, narrowly escaping death multiple times.Colonel Steve ‘Spiros’ Pisanos left Greece and came to the U.S. to learn to fly. He flew fighters for the Allies in World War II, narrowly escaping death multiple times.

AppleAndroid