The Interim Deal With Iran: The Winners, The Losers, and Those at a Loss

I can’t recall a single set of diplomatic negotiations that has been accompanied by as much spin as the recent Geneva talks on the future of Iran’s nuclear programme. What is even worse is that the spin continued throughout the post-mortems. And so, rather than being used to clarify issues, the period after the interim agreement was announced only created more confusion.


For example, it was only a week after the deal was proclaimed in Geneva that the Americans were forced to admit that this wasn’t really the final deal because a whole bunch of undefined “technical matters” had to be worked out first.


As a result, it turned out that the interim agreement wouldn’t actually last 6 months, as had been originally stated. In fact the interregnum prior to the interim agreement being implemented could, theoretically go on forever because the six month time period is only supposed to begin once the technical matters have been ironed out—if they ever are ironed out.  In the meantime, Iran is not bound by any of the provisions of the proposed agreement and can do anything it pleases.


It is no wonder, therefore that, even now, most people are still in the dark about what the agreement really means—or doesn’t mean.


About the only thing that all those involved in crafting the deal and those who are heavily critical of the pact can agree on is that it is supposed to “put more time on the clock” so that a final, comprehensive agreement can eventually be negotiated. Whether a final deal can be agreed to is anybody’s guess.


For that reason, and in order to bring a bit of clarity to this extremely opaque issue, I think it is time for people interested in the subject to go back and review just what took place during those interim talks, and why—and what the real results were.


In particular, I want to examine the final results of the talks…as that outcome was perceived by those who took part.


I have long said that in order to understand events that take place in the Middle East, it is essential to view those events, not from the point of view we are accustomed to, but through the different cultural prisms of the various actors. And in this case, every participant has had a very different perception of what was going on.


My favourite metaphor for this kind of situation is a fable I once wrote. In brief, it relates a story about a 96 year old man who enters a marathon race and finally crosses the finish line 3 days later. After crossing the line, the man throws up his hands in triumph and opens a bottle of champagne. A bystander looks at the man in wonder and asks him politely why he is celebrating even though everyone else had long ago gone home.


“Because I beat everybody,” the man replied with a huge smile on his face.


The bystander, now convinced that the man is senile, asks him disparagingly: “If everyone else crossed the finish line days ago, how is it that you can even think of claiming that you have beaten them all?”


“Don’t you understand anything?” the runner asks the bystander impatiently. “Not one of the other runners set a world record. Correct?


“If you beat a world record in a race, and no one else does, you win the race, don’t you?


“Well, I set a world record in this race. I ran the race faster than any other 96 year old who has had 3 heart operations. Therefore, I won.”

As I say, much depends on the eye of the beholder, and his or her perception of the truth.


But, before I go on, I have to add a note of caution. We shouldn’t necessarily believe what all beholders say they see. Some beholders’ eyes really distort reality. For example, President Obama in his UN speech, tried to link the Iran talks to the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. As I will show in a moment, if there was any linkage, it was been the talks with Iran and the revolts underway in the Arab states.


I’ll go even further. The way the revolts have been interpreted in the Arab world has had an enormous impact in how the Iran negotiations were perceived in the various Arab and non-Arab Moslem states in the Middle East.


Obama was not the only person who saw what he wanted to see. Bibi too tried to link the Iranian and Israeli-Palestinian talks together—but only because Obama had done so, and because Netanyahu thought he could then gain something from Obama by also trying to make the link-up.


Obama saw linkage only between the two situations that he thought he could influence. The United States was already involved in the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks and was also negotiating with Iran. So he chose to link them in his own mind. It was obvious, at least to me, that because he had been totally unable to come up with a workable policy on how the US should deal with the Arab revolts, he chose, instead, to engage in selective blindness and completely ignore the impact of the Arab revolts were having on the negotiations with Iran.


I usually hate treating news events as horse races. However, discussing the winners and the losers who emerged from the Geneva talks was the best format I could find for explaining the perceptions each of the parties brought to and took away from the negotiations.


As could have been predicted, winners and losers emerged at different stages in the talks with Iran. For example, Iran and China perceived, accurately,—even before the negotiations began—that they were going to be big-time winners…maybe the biggest winners of all…and for polar  opposite reasons.


Even before the talks got underway in earnest, the spinmeisters, both among the Iranians and in the West, gauged, accurately, that the wide-eyed world was seeking a new hero—and so, they set out to create one. Their choice was the new Iranian President, Hassan Rouhani. This man, who had always been at the heart of the Iranian theocratic revolution was presented to gullible journalists as a liberal moderate, whose primary concern was easing his country’s economic plight, and who was willing to compromise. In other words, they stretched his ability to do up his shoelaces to also claim that he could do all sorts of other things as well. However, going so far as to picture him, of all people, as a moderate willing to compromise, was stretching things beyond reason.


But the tactic worked. The media soon began giving him the honorific “moderate” before mentioning his name. There is no doubt that Rouhani did want to lift the sanctions that had been imposed on Iran. But that did not mean that he was willing to accept painful compromises in order to do so.


Nonetheless, his smiling face and that of his American-educated foreign minister became the icons for the talks—and the focus of the other participants’ belief that Iran could be convinced to adopt moderate positions.


People seemed to forget or never bothered to discover that Rouhani had, after all, been one of only eight people out of more than 700 applicants who had been permitted to run for the presidency by the country’s absolute leader, Ayatollah Khamenei. In other words, Khamenei had only let Rouhani run for office only after the ayatollah had been assured that Rouhani was willing to obey any orders coming from the hard-line leader at the top.


Fortunately for anyone wanting to discover what was really going on, MEMRI (Middle East Media Reserch Institute) did a superb job of collecting, sorting and analyzing Khamenei’s speeches and the media statements written by his acolytes. The picture that that material produced was totally different from the one the spinmeisters were so carefully fabricating.


To make a very long story short, Khamenei had no fears about entering the talks.  From the outset, he took the invitation to negotiate that was issued by the so-called P5+1 (the five permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany) as a victory—or at least an acceptance by these countries of a reality that the 1979 Iranian revolution had created. He interpreted the invitation as being merely the final acceptance by the other leading superpowers that this revolution had created a new world order and that, as a result of that revolution, Iran too had become a superpower. All Iran needed in order to don the mantle of its newly acquired status was to create the large nuclear infrastructure that it deserved.


As proof of his supposition, Khamenei could eventually point to the final picture of the conclave. It showed Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif standing, as an equal, beside all the other negotiators—all of whose countries, with the exception of Germany, have possession of a home-made nuclear bomb.


In Khamenei’s eyes, the deal that had been reached was a sign of Iran’s power, not of a weakness caused by the economic sanctions. He appears to have been convinced that the Geneva talks would enable Iran to release at least some of the money being held up by sanctions, without it having to make any real compromises.


A close look at where Iran stands now enables us to draw some fairly clear conclusions:


  • In a sea of political fluidity, one thing is fixed. No one can take away the knowledge Iran has already acquired on how to refine uranium.
  • Iran has succeeded in setting some very important precedents. The most important is that, although the United Nations Security Council resolutions call for Iran to give up its entire nuclear weapons infrastructure, as a result of the interim agreement, it is now going to be allowed to keep its new, high-speed centrifuges.
  • It is also going to be permitted to continue refining uranium to 5 percent purity.
  • Although, as part of the interim deal, Iran did agree not to install any instrumentation at the ARAK plutonium reactor, that was irrelevant. Work on designing and building that instrumentation hadn’t been completed in any case, and that R&D work could continue off-site.
  • In sum, the restrictions agreed to applied only to Iran’s production facilities. They put no limit on the work going on apace in the laboratories and weapons development centres.  In particular, there are no limitations at all on the work going on to design the missiles and the other weapons systems that the warheads of highly-enriched uranium are supposed to crown.


Strategically, it is critically important to Iran that the support and assistance in international fora of both China and Russia have remained intact.


But maybe best of all from Khamenei’s point of view, is that in order to protect themselves from their own critics, the Western negotiators have had to take upon themselves the potentially very hard PR job of convincing the public that Iran has made a major gesture.


As an aside, I am quite sure that when it was all over, and the interim deal turned out as it did, Khamenei was reinforced in his belief that God was on his side because He had created seemingly impossible, man-made miracles.


By contrast, China put all its efforts into staying out of the limelight. Beijing could only come out an undeniable winner if nobody took any notice of it, and what it had done. Otherwise, some people might have focussed on the fact that even though the UN had imposed sanctions on the sale of Iranian oil,


  • China has remained one of Iran’s major oil export markets.
  • Payments to Iran could still be channeled through Chinese banks.
  • China has prevented attempts by other countries to launch reprisals for Iran’s intervention in Syria
  • And, precisely because Iran has become so anxious to sell oil, China has been able to bargain for world-beating low oil prices, which have then given Beijing yet another advantage in world markets for manufactured goods.


But that wasn’t all. Maybe most of all, the Chinese didn’t want anyone to start talking about the fact that it had been China that had supplied much of the nuclear reprocessing equipment being used at the Natanz facility….and China had also supplied Iran with missiles that might one day carry Iranian designed and constructed nuclear warheads.


So much for the pre-talks winners.


There were also two states were going to come out as losers even before the talks began—Israel and Saudi Arabia.


Israel was going to be a loser precisely because Netanyahu had been so extraordinarily successful in making the Iranian problem an international issue and not merely an Israeli one. Because of Israel’s pressure and its threats to attack Iran, the UN had created an international group to negotiate with Iran—the 5 permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany (the so-called 5 P+1). But, these negotiators were far from neutral parties because they had had extensive trade relations with Iran in the past and wanted them renewed. So, each had enormous stakes in the potential outcome of the talks.


No less importantly, Israel was not included in the list of negotiators. For that reason, aside from the few changes that were made as a result of Netanyahu’s constant sniping, Israel had very little input in the drafting of the final document. The underlying reason for that was that Netanyahu had long before led Israel into a trap. During his famous UN speech, he had set a “red line” that if crossed by Iran, would lead Israel to attack Iran. That red line—refining uranium to greater than 20 percent purity—had turned out to be a blessing for the Iranians. They had immediately realized that so long as they did not cross that line Israel would have no excuse to attack. So, they could and did do anything and everything else they wished on their road to creating nuclear weapons.


This meant that Bibi, as the talks proceeded, could only hold out for his maximalist demands—which then made him irrelevant during the negotiators’ attempts to develop a set of mutually agreed-upon compromises.


I found it interesting that not one of the media commentators played up the very clever trap that US Secretary of State John Kerry was able to set for to Netanyahu. When Netanyahu’s criticisms of the negotiations reached fever pitch, Kerry quietly suggested at a press conference that if Netanyahu didn’t like the ideas being proposed, he, Bibi, should present a set of alternative suggestions.


The thing is, Kerry understood in advance that Bibi couldn’t suggest anything new because to have done so would have meant that he would then have had to enter an even more formidable trap from which he couldn’t escape.


You see, at this point, as folks say, Bibi was caught between a rock and a hard place. Any suggestion he might have made that was even the tiniest bit less demanding than the maximalist line he was then pushing would have naturally been taken by the Iranians as opening a door to an Iranian counter-proposal.


At that point, the other negotiators would, undoubtedly, have taken any Iranian reply as a lever for creating a new dynamic in the talks—and atmosphere of give and take—that would have led to stiff pressure on Israel to compromise further. The demand for such Israeli compromises would eventually have left Bibi open to heavy public criticism from the other negotiators because he had not bowed to their wishes.


From Israel’s point of view, the internationalization of the negotiations had led to the worst of all possible worlds.


Only Saudi Arabia, among all the other protagonists in this drama, was in worse shape when the talks began. Ever since the revolts in the Arab countries had broken out, and especially ever since the US government had begun to react to those events, Saudi Arabia had had to bear witness, helplessly, to the collapse of its carefully designed and constructed diplomatic world.


In order to understand why such a traumatic event had taken place, it is very important to recognize what the Saudi’s diplomatic strategy had originally entailed.


Beginning in 1973, Saudi Arabia’s burgeoning royal family was in need of more money and it was under considerable pressure from radical Arab leaders to show that it was not a colonialist toady. So, it began to nationalize oil production. That process took until 1980. However, once the process began, the Saudis were in a very peculiar position that continues to this day. Because it has such huge, valuable, natural resources, it needs a means to protect itself from both enemies from within and predators from without.


However, it cannot afford to create a big, strong army because the royal family fears, justifiably, that the larger the army becomes, the more people there will be who will be in a position to stage a coup and overthrow the House of Saud.


So, in order to defend itself, it therefore established a large and ruthless intelligence infrastructure and a small, very well-trained and equipped military force made up of regime loyalists. The primary task of both these organizations is not to defend the country from external enemies. It is to guard the royal family from domestic threats such as those posed by democracy-seekers and malcontents seeking modernity.


For that reason, the Saudis have used their formidable diplomatic skills and money to create a situation in which real protection against external enemies has been coming from US forces stationed in and around the country.


The Saudis pay for these American military services indirectly by buying billions of dollars of the most sophisticated and most expensive military equipment the Americans make—even though the Saudi military forces will never be able to use most of it. For example, it has no need at all for the long-distance in-air refueling tankers that it has recently purchased from the  US.


Such purchases have a double effect. They boost the American economy, which helps incumbent presidents and thus makes them grateful to the purchasers. But even more so, they boost the economies of those states whose senators and congressmen hold senior positions on congressional foreign affairs, intelligence and defense committees. Almost invariably, those factories with whom the Saudis place orders have been established where they are precisely because those states’ senators and congressmen, as members  of the defence-related committees the Saudis want to influence, can also pass on American military tenders to companies they favour.


Until very recently, Riyadh has been able to leave most of the work of defending the country to others because it has been able to maintain a perception in the West that it is both a “moderate” state and an “ally” of the United States. Both labels have always been, at best, a vast overstatement of the relationship. But, a measure of the Saudi’s success in shaping world perceptions was the fact that up to just a few months ago, and as with Iranian President Rouhani today, articles in the US media invariably added both the adjectives—“moderate” and “ ally”—before the words “Saudi” and “Arabia” were mentioned for the first time.


In what was an extraordinary example of mass amnesia and a distortion of the facts, the Saudis were invariably said to be in the process of moderating and stabilizing international oil prices. That, of course, was simply untrue. People stopped recalling that the Saudis were among the leaders of the 1973 oil embargo and the 1976 OPEC campaign that vastly raised oil prices. Afterwards, whenever there was a spike in oil prices, so-called “analysts” would invariably relate that the Saudis were certainly going to use their huge spare oil production capacity to moderate those spikes. Again, not true.


What actually happened after production in Kuwait, Iraq and Libya was cut or halted…and after sanctions were imposed on Iran…was that the Saudis did allow oil prices to rise. However, in a carefully-planned and executed media campaign, they would then, very demonstrably let it be known that they had drawn on their spare production capacity to halt the continuous rise in oil prices. That leak to the press would only come, though, only once the price of oil had reached the point where competing energy supplies, such as wind and solar power, were about to become economically worthwhile.


In articles and television commentaries, the Saudis were also, invariably labelled “pro-Western.” And most commentators looked positively on the Americans’ pledge to protect Saudi oil supplies in return for the Saudi’s public posture of support for the Americans’ behaviour in the Middle East. The writers and commentators who did so, though, ignored the fact that most of the Saudi’s foreign aid funds go to the establishment of madrassas in countries from Pakistan to Nigeria, and from Indonesia to the United States, that teach extreme jihadi interpretations of Islam. The Salafi movement and al-Qaeda are both products of those schools. In this regard, it’s worth remembering that most of the terrorists who took part in the 9/11 attack were Saudi citizens.


However, this common perception of the Saudis began to break down when the US and the Saudis began to differ so greatly on major issues arising as a result of the Arab revolts. For that reason, for example, in the past 3 years, more Western media attention was given to the Saudis horrible human rights record—and especially the status of women there.


Once those first cracks in their image appeared, there was a veritable deluge of critical reporting about the Saudis. Added to that was the news that the United States would soon be producing enough oil itself that it wouldn’t need the Saudis.


And to top things off, there was a news report that while the US was spending hundreds of millions of dollars each year protecting the Saudis and their oil fleets and oil installations, it was the Chinese who had become the biggest importers of Arab and especially Saudi oil.


All this was enough for US analysts in Washington to take a second look at what an end to Iranian oil sanctions would mean for world energy markets. They estimated that


  • Over 1.5 million barrels of oil per day would be added to the global world energy market. This would lower oil prices.
  • Risk premiums on oil being shipped by tanker from the Persian Gulf would also be drastically reduced, lowering prices further.
  • But an even more important strategic consideration is the fact that Russia, for the past decade, has been trying to keep a gas-supply stranglehold on Europe and to establish one in Asia. Only Iran is now in a position to break that Russian hold over Europe.


The Saudis have reacted so far to the American handling of the negotiations with Iran with anger and confusion. Petulantly, they have offered to buy Russian military equipment to replace the US military aid to Egypt that was cut after the army there took control of government. The Saudi Intelligence Chief, Prince Bandar Bin Sultan also recently told European diplomats that Saudi Arabia would make a “major shift” away from the “US.”


The thing is that everyone knows that the Saudis have no one else to turn to—except, of course, the Israelis, whom the Saudis despise.


So now, let us look at what the negotiations themselves produced.


The talks themselves revealed that there are actually three groups involved in this process—the winners, the losers, and those who are at a loss.


The biggest winners so far have been the Germans. To date, they have alienated no one. And the moment the supposed deal was announced German industrialists and businessmen were lined up outside the Iranian embassies to get visas.


Another big winner was French President Francois Hollande. He has been doing very badly domestically. But his opposition to the continued construction of the ARAK plutonium processing plant thrust him into the international spotlight…which then diverted public attention away from all the troublesome domestic issues he was having difficulty coping with—as he had hoped.


A third major winner was Britain because Washington had chosen the Brits and the Omanis as their secret, backroom conduits to and liaison with the Iranians.

Russia too could chalk up a victory. President Putin in recent years has been going out of his way to prove that while Russia may no longer be the world power it once was, it still cannot be ignored because it can still marshal some major assets on its own. Putin’s ability to put together a deal with Syria to destroy the chemical weapons stockpiles and thus get Barak Obama off the hook is but one example of the image the Russian leader wants to create. His willingness to sell Iran advanced arms also meant that he couldn’t be ignored. So, just by being at the Geneva talks, Putin was able to show that, at least when it comes to Middle Eastern issues, he cannot be disregarded and he has to be included as a full partner in any regional initiative.


But by far, the most interesting batch of countries involved in the discussions with Iran was that group of states that I have come to call “the lost souls.” They include Turkey, the Gulf Sheikhdoms, and the US.  All three have emerged from the drama with the appearance that they have been bewitched, bothered, and bewildered enough to be uncertain where they are and what they should do.

It is hard to believe, but only two years ago, Turkey was riding a diplomatic crest. The New York Times had declared that Ankara was the “true victor of the Arab Spring,” while Time Magazine had anointed Prime Minister Erdogan as “the most popular and influential leader in the wider region.”


As the Iran talks progressed, though, the Turks looked more and more as though they were going to emerge from the talks as losers.


It’s hard to imagine today, but just four years ago, just before the Arab revolt broke out, Turkey’s foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu had declared that Turkey had adopted a policy of “zero problems” with his country’s neighbours.


Turkey’s position in the world at that time had been the product of more than a decade of careful and thoughtful diplomacy that had enabled the Turks to project an image of themselves as the one nation in the Middle East that was modernizing its system of governance and was capable of talking to every country in the region.


That, of course, was before Turkish President Erdogan was smitten with an almost deadly case of hubris and self-infatuation. But once Erdogan’s ego went nuclear, we were witness to the Mavi Marmara affair, Turkey’s open support for the Egyptian Moslem Brotherhood and Hamas, its support for some of the Moslem rebels fighting in Syria, its support for Sunnis battling Shiites in Iraq, Erdogan’s crackdown on his domestic opponents, and most recently his open split with Egypt’s military government.


As well, while all these things were going on, Turkey was in open competition with Iran for hegemony in the Middle East.


All told, at the very least, Turkey was hoping to take the mantle of patron of Middle Eastern Sunni Moslems off the shoulders of the Saudis.


But as Iran’s influence has grown because it appears to be becoming more moderate, Turkey’s has fallen dramatically because of Erdogan’s increasing extremism. The Turks have now even come up with a wonderfully peculiar euphemism to describe their current condition. They call it “precious loneliness,” or “worthy solitude.” Put simply they are admitting that nobody wants to have anything to do with them. The phrasemaking is thus an admission that recent Turkish foreign policy has been neither rational nor sustainable—and it had isolated Turkey.


So, the Turks have had to find a new policy direction so that it can reposition themselves in the direction events are going. To that end, Erdogan now appears to be trying to rebuild his foreign policy on the few solid foundations that have survived his egomania. Iran, in particular, is playing an increasingly important role in that effort.


Since the American talks with the mullah regime began, Erdogan has not only been downplaying Turkey’s former competition with Iran, he has been trying to build a common economic front with the Iranians that is of unprecedented proportions. Iran sees itself as a nuclear super-power, but Erdogan seems to want Turkey to be perceived as an super-power of a different sort—one that controls the largest cache of water in the Middle East, one that has a fast-growing industrial economy and is thus deserving of increased foreign investment, and one that is turning Turkey into an international petroleum transport super-power.


Erdogan’s new campaign began to reach a peak when he visited Iraq last month in an attempt to come to a reconciliation with Iraq’s Shiite President Nour el Maliki. For the last few years, Turkey had not only been supporting the anti-Iranian, anti-Maliki, Iraqi Sunnis, it had also been courting the Iraqi Kurds, who have been fighting for greater regional autonomy. Among other things, The Turks had already signed deals to build new oil pipelines from Iraqi Kurdistan to Turkey. One pipeline will open early next year and another is in the advanced planning stage.


Those pipelines are part of a much larger project that has been underway for more than a decade. As part of that project, Turkey has already been criss-crossed by a series of new pipelines. One goes from Baku, through Tbilisi to the Turkish port of Ceyhan. Another coming from Baku ends up in Erzurum. A third brings petroleum from Kazakhstan to Ceyhan. A fourth runs from the Black Sea. And a fifth runs from a giant new gas field in, you guessed it, Iran.


These trans-Turkish gas pipelines are now also in the process of being connected up to a new line that runs through Greece to Italy and another one that will reach Austria and open next year.


Because Ankara already has extensive trade relations with Tehran, this now puts Turkey, which, as I mentioned earlier, had been seeking hegemony over the Sunni Arabs, into a symbiotic relationship with Shiite Iran. It is significant that just after the P5+1 interim deal with Iran was announced, Turkish Foreign Minister Davutoglu paid a highly publicized visit to Teheran.


Should this new foreign policy succeed, it would put Turkey into direct competition with Russia—which would please European gas customers no end. And should the sanctions on Iranian gas and oil sales be ended, both Iran and Turkey are set to benefit enormously.


However, nothing is easy in this region. In order for the project to reach its full fruition, Turkey is going to have to do some very fancy diplomatic back-pedaling.  That is because for Turkey to create the cartel it needs to compete fully with the Russians in supplying petroleum products to Europe, it will need not only the full cooperation of the Kurds with whom the Turks have been at odds for years, but also better relations with the Greek part of Cyprus once its gas field begins producing…and, of course with Israel once the Leviathan field is ready to start exporting gas in 2017.  At the moment, the Turks appear to be at a loss how they are going to pull that deal off


The Gulf Emirates appear to be similarly confused about the type of foreign policy to adopt. All of the emirates are ruled by Sunni chieftains, but all also have large, pro-Iranian Shiite minorities…and even majorities. In almost all these countries, the Shiites control the merchant economy. For a long time, the only way that the Iranians could break the sanctions on financial payments was by using the services of Arab Gulf states’ Shiite money changers.


All these wealthy principalities fear Iran, and some even have territorial disputes with the Iranians dating back centuries. For example, Iran, basing itself on the history of the 17th century, considers Bahrain to be its 14th province.


To protect themselves from external attacks, the emirs, in the past, had always relied on the American military umbrella that was negotiated by the Saudis. But now, even though the US 5th fleet has remained ensconced in Bahrain, the various emirates are beginning to hedge their bets.  At the beginning of December, Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif made a well-publicized visit to some of the Gulf states, and made a point, while there, of describing the Saudis as “our brethren.”


However, an underlying fear of Iranian political and economic hegemony remains. That has made the residents of the region both cautious and filled with bravado. This example of bi-polarism has meant that, the Sunni residents living on the Western coast of the Gulf do nothing directly to alienate the Iranians for fear of reprisals….and would even relish a reopening of trade with Iran. But, in the past few years, through media advertisements and huge public fundraisers, they have raised and donated tens of millions of dollars to fund the various Sunni militias doing battle with Syria’s Iran-allied Alawite government.


This kind of sometimes confused, sometimes ambivalent attitude to foreign affairs in general and the Iranian issue in particular obviously besets the American government and American public as well. At no time in recent history has American foreign policy been more questioned domestically and more tested internationally.


In the old days, things were so much simpler than they are today. During the Cold War, Americans could focus almost all their foreign affairs efforts on those policies and actions that they believed would control or limit communist influence in the world. It made little difference that its military and policy-planning was heavy, ponderous, cumbersome and slow in reacting to events because the Soviets were no better.


And later, during the Dubya Bush years in the White House, when foreigners could easily and heavily criticize the president for being a gun-slinging cowboy who was trying to impose democracy on unwilling autocrats, at least his political enemies knew what he stood for.


But the same has not been true for the Obama years. America has been reeling from its inability to cope with lithe, quick-acting bodies such as terrorists or local hegemons such as the Taliban. This has then produced a vacuum in American policy making. Today, I don’t think anyone, not even Obama himself has been able to delineate what his approach to world affairs is—other than to avoid using masses of military forces.


The latest poll from the excellent Pew Center found that 53 percent of Americans now believe that America should mind its own business. This is the first time there has been a majority in favor of isolationism since Pearl Harbor. But that’s not all. Fully two thirds also still believe that the US should take an even greater role in the world because it opens new markets for American goods and services, and encourages economic growth. Any president wanting to respond to the public will would have difficulty in reconciling those two popular positions. In other words, in Middle America too, confusion reigns supreme.


As a result, abroad, bully-nations are now willing to test which of these two attitudes—isolationism or activism—has the most influence on the Obama administration. In Ukraine, Russia has tried to scupper the recently-negotiated association pact between Ukraine and the EU, which would strengthen that nation’s ties with the West. And in the South China Sea, China has now declared an aerial defensive zone in one of the most crowded shipping and aerial transit zones in the world. So far, at least, the US government has sent vice president Joe Biden to Japan, Taiwan and South Korea, and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to the Gulf States to soothe some obviously jittery nerves. But Washington has not done much else. The US certainly has done little or nothing to force either Russia or China to reverse their decisions.


When it comes to Iran, however, it is more difficult for the US government to ignore or waffle about what is going on. That is because, at least on this subject, the American public is unequivocal. According to the Pew poll, 68 percent of Americans say that a nuclear Iran is a threat to the well-being of the United States; and 60 percent said, at least before the interim agreement was announced, that Iran’s leaders are not serious about addressing international concerns.


It is obvious from all the polls done recently that Americans are war weary and would prefer, if at all possible, not to expend any more treasure on major foreign adventures. Thus, Obama’s attempt to use diplomacy, rather than military threats directed at Iran, does have a domestic constituency. The big question is whether he can make diplomatic gains without also the waving a credible military threat in the Iranian leaders’ faces.


Obama is certainly committed to avoiding war. That explains his advocacy of diplomacy. But peaceful diplomacy sometimes cannot achieve results without a club being wielded at the table. The very idea of the two being two sides of one coin may seem absurd. However, the concept is far from being crazy. Many governments, the United States in particular, often need to hold deeply inconsistent beliefs in order to function properly. For example, the US believes it should, as a strategic aim, fight for liberty in all places in the world—except, of course, in places such as Saudi Arabia, where American national strategic interests are at stake.


Iran is another excellent example of a country that engages in this kind of calculated, duplicitous thinking. And it may be that it is Netanyahu’s demands that the hypocrisy of both Iran and the United States be publicized that may have annoyed Obama so much.


In any case, Netanyahu keeps demanding to know what the US will do if the talks fail. But the United States, at least at the moment doesn’t even want to consider the possibility that the talks may not succeed.


The ability to live with deeply inconsistent beliefs—for example, that one should always prepare for possible future events but that one should act in the present without regard to future unknowables—enable countries, among other things, to defend themselves from making verbal mistakes such as implying that failure is a reasonable possibility.


However, that advantage is too often offset by the side-effect that it also enables countries to conveniently ignore the need to be forward thinking. Countries that choose not to think ahead do not feel an urgent need to plan for “day after” scenarios—until the need can no longer be ignored.


If we look closely, what we are seeing in the Iran talks is a replay of what happened after the Assad regime was proven to have used chemical weapons on civilians, where the lack of a “day after” plan proved to be embarrassing in the extreme for Obama.. If you recall, despite his prior promises to intervene immediately if the Syrian government used poison gas on civilians, and despite the fact that videos of Syrian gas victims were shown around the world, Obama was shown to have been left without a plan of what to do—and needed to be saved from his inability to act by Russian President Putin.


Now, we are witnessing a similar situation where Obama is holding out for a diplomatic solution for Iran, but Bibi keeps forcing Obama into considering the content and texture of extraordinarily-distasteful “what if?” scenarios.


No wonder the two don’t get along.


But Bibi is not the only person trying to get Obama to plan ahead.


When the Iran talks ended, the Americans began an American initiative that is no less important strategically than the attempt to negotiate a final deal with Iran. This one, conducted by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, on Obama’s behalf, would have led the Arab Gulf states to take greater responsibility for their own defense—and specifically their defense from the threat presented by Iran.


That proposal, however, was declared stillborn by the emirs because they are trying, just as much as Israel to force Obama to consider “next day” scenarios.


So, maybe the lesson for America and Iran that has emerged so far from this drama is that if you want the advantages that come from being a world or a regional hegemon, you have to be prepared to pay a stiff price to acquire and maintain that status.

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