x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

US focus should be on Iran, Obama told

Report advises the president-elect to engage the Islamic republic in negotiations while promoting peace between Israel and Syria.

An American soldier guards the site of twin blasts in central Baghdad that killed six people on Monday.
An American soldier guards the site of twin blasts in central Baghdad that killed six people on Monday.

Barack Obama, the US president-elect, must swiftly tilt the thrust of US foreign policy in the Middle East from Iraq to Iran by engaging unconditionally with the Islamic republic in an attempt to curb its nuclear programme, analysts at two leading American think tanks urge in a new report. The incoming US administration also must press for a peace deal between Israel and Syria and work from the outset for progress between the Jewish state and the Palestinians, they argue. The support of Arab states should be harnessed, which would be achieved more easily if the international community persuades Israel to halt settlement activity. Compiled over 18 months by 15 bipartisan experts at the Brookings Institution and the Council on Foreign Relations, the report recommends greater use of diplomacy with policies that address the region's problems as interrelated rather than isolated challenges, which is how the Bush administration regarded them. The overall strategy is laid out by two veteran Middle East experts - Richard Haass and Martin Indyk, who served under presidents George HW Bush and Bill Clinton, respectively. Their advice is likely to carry some weight with Mr Obama's newly announced foreign policy team. For the past six years under George W Bush, US foreign policy in the volatile region has been dominated by Iraq, they wrote in the report, which is entitled "Restoring the Balance: a Middle East Strategy for the Next President". Instead the focus should be on Iran because, they warn, "the clock is ticking on its nuclear programme". Mr Obama should keep to his promises of direct, official and unconditional engagement. The aim is to persuade Iran to suspend its uranium enrichment activities before it reaches a "breakout" capability. Bruce Riedel and Gary Samore, authors of the chapter on managing nuclear proliferation in the region, said Iran appears to be two to three years away from building an enrichment facility capable of producing sufficient weapons-grade uranium quickly enough to support a "credible nuclear weapons option". So the Obama administration has "some breathing space" to overhaul its Iran strategy, the report says. Engagement, however, should be launched swiftly without waiting for the outcome of Iran's presidential elections next June, argue Suzanne Maloney and Ray Takeyh in their chapter on dealing with Iran. Recent papers by other American experts have advised Mr Obama to keep contacts at a low level with Tehran until those elections in case the prospect of better US ties helps Iran's hard-line president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, win a second five-year term. Another report by Washington insiders urged Mr Obama to cold-shoulder Iran unless it suspends uranium enrichment, and it recommended beefing up the US military presence in the Gulf to give muscle to the US's negotiating hand. The authors of Restoring the Balance acknowledge that negotiations with Iran would be protracted and arduous. "The new paradigm of relations does not preclude tension or even conflict," they write. But a new framework of relations can "demonstrate to Iran that responsibility and restraint offer greater benefits to it than does radicalism". To increase Israel's tolerance for a drawn-out diplomatic engagement and dissuade the Jewish state from striking Iran's nuclear facilities on its own, Mr Obama should bolster Israel's deterrent capabilities by providing a nuclear guarantee and an enhanced antiballistic missile defence capability, the report says. In engaging with Iran, Mr Obama will need to offer it better incentives and at the same time garner international support to impose harsher sanctions on Tehran if "it rejects an outcome the United States and others can accept". The report outlines a grim catalogue of problems in the Middle East but argues Mr Obama's position is strong. Iran has shown interest in engagement while falling oil prices could curb its ability to sponsor its non-state allies such as Hizbollah and Hamas which give Tehran regional reach. The experts say a second emphasis for the new US administration should be on promoting peace between Israel and its Arab neighbours. "The Syrian government is in a position to fulfil a peace agreement, and the difference between the parties appears to be bridgeable," write Mr Haass and Mr Indyk, a former US ambassador to Israel. That could weaken Iran's influence and reduce external support for Hizbollah and Hamas while boosting the prospects for stability in Lebanon. "It [an Israeli-Syrian peace deal] would give President Obama strategic leverage on Iran at the same time as he would be offering its leaders a constructive way out of their security dilemma," the report says. From the outset, Mr Obama must make a serious effort to promote progress between Israel and the Palestinians and propose solutions where obstacles arise in negotiations. The Palestinian issue, viewed by many Arabs as the main reason for regional instability, was largely ignored by the Bush administration, which generated widespread Arab antipathy toward Washington. Addressing Iraq, Mr Indyk and Mr Haass caution against a "too rapid withdrawal" that could lead to renewed instability that could be exploited by Iran and al Qa'eda. A pullout that is too slow, meanwhile, would leave American forces tied down in Iraq and unavailable for other priority tasks, including providing a "credible threat of force" to back diplomacy with Iran. Mr Haass and Mr Indyk also insist that their call for a careful drawdown of US forces from Iraq is not a ­recommendation for a more general American pullback from the greater Middle East. The region will "remain ­vital to the United States for decades to come given its geostrategic location, its energy and financial resources, the US commitment to Israel, and the possibility both for terrorism to emanate from the region and for nuclear weapons to spread there," the report stresses. "Reduced American involvement will jeopardise all these interests." mtheodoulou@thenational.ae