Marino de Medici: Obama and his mistrustful Middle East allies

By Marino de Medici

Should Americans be concerned if Saudi Arabia is upset with the United States or if Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu does not trust President Barack Obama to do the right thing in dealing with Iran’s insistence on initiating a dialogue with the United States?

The past few weeks have opened the door to game-changing developments in the Middle East, in both Syria, where President Bashar al-Assad’s chemical arsenal is being suppressed, and in Iran, where new President Hassan Rouhani has launched a charm offensive that so far has gained him access by phone to Obama and a restart of negotiations in Geneva over the nuclear program of Iran.

The negotiations referred to as P5+1 (five members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany) hold the promise for Iran of relief from the stringent sanctions imposed by the U.S. and other nations. This turn of events has resulted in a great deal of unhappiness by two U.S. allies that officially do not even talk to each other, Israel and Saudi Arabia.

While the Israeli prime minister long ago made his enmity to Iran the basic staple of his political action, justifying it with the imperative of neutralizing Iran’s nuclear ambitions that in his words threaten Israel’s existence, Saudi Arabia is a recent entry on the anti-U.S. antipathy front.

The reason for the Saudi disgruntlement is that the United States has engaged the Iranian leadership in a negotiating stance without first consulting or even apprising the Saudi ally. In a gesture of official pique, the Saudis have refused to accept the nomination to an interim seat in the Security Council of the United Nations. Hence the question: should these events be a matter of concern to the United States at a time when pragmatism should be prevailing in the Middle East, with a view to negotiating a political solution in Syria and an agreement with Iran that could put a strict and verifiable ceiling on its nuclear enrichment without entirely dismantling the nuclear program that Iran claims it is in its right to maintain?

The objectives of American policy are clear enough. In Syria, the imperative is to find a political way to stop a civil war that continues to kill thousands of innocent civilians. In Iran, the objective is to obtain Iran’s renunciation of the potential production of a nuclear weapon.

Netanyahu has been adamant in demanding that Iran get rid of its fissile material and underground installations where the Iranians could enrich uranium to weapons grade level. In warning Obama against a “bad deal,” Netanyahu is pressing for maintaining the sanctions. In this stance, he has a powerful ally in the U.S. Congress, where new legislation is in the works to tighten those sanctions even more. This is the same Congress that in May 2011 interrupted Netanyahu’s speech 29 times to render standing ovations.

There was a time when Israel was regarded as the front line bastion against the Iranian Shite menace. The analogy was drawn of Netanyahu standing against Iran like Winston Churchill stood up to Nazi Germany. The analogy however has lost its strength of persuasion not just because the new Iranian leadership has declared its intention not to produce nuclear weapons but for the simple fact that the same leadership is not suicidal.

Teheran knows full well that Israel has an arsenal of nuclear armed missiles that it would not hesitate a moment to unleash if the Iranians launched an attack. By continuing to denounce the new Iranian president as “a wolf in sheep’s clothing,” Netanyahu has taken a line of intransigence that finds him openly isolated.

The analysts in Washington and other capitals are convinced that Netanyahu has to stick to a hard line for reasons of internal politics. The new demographics of Israel have increased the influence of the immigrants from Russia, Yemen and the horn of Africa who are prevailing over the lay Zionism, both democratic and socialist, that ruled Israel from the time of David Ben Gurion. The ultra-orthodox political bloc does not believe that a reasonable leadership will ever emerge in Iran.

Yet, there are ways to work for democracy building in countries with a recent past of hostility toward Israel and the United States and to advance the work of diplomacy for the resolution of conflict. Obama has taken promising steps while Netanyahu, and a large number of members of the U.S. Congress, have decided not to advance with him.

The interest of the American public is to try and prod Iran to proceed along the path of international treaties and to get the Iranian leadership to adhere to the letter and the spirit of the Treaty for the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons in particular. It is possible that some day Teheran may sign the document of full implementation of the treaty and at the same time demand that Israel also sign it.

Israel has never disclosed its nuclear capabilities in what the experts have called “the bomb in the basement” policy. It has not signed the treaty and according to unofficial estimates it possesses well over two hundred 50-megaton warheads. It may be a chimera at this time, but a regional non-proliferation treaty in the Middle East should not be ruled out in the future. Saudi Arabia, which also nurtures nuclear designs, should be a participant as well.

As the dialogue with Iran moves forward, the U.S. Congress would be well advised to favor it and stop applauding Netanyahu’s intransigence.

Marino de Medici is a Winchester resident and formerly the dean of foreign correspondents in the United States.