The Iran nuclear talks remain in suspended animation as the original deadline for their completion passed on Tuesday and they’re now moving into Thursday. It’s hard to tell whether they’ve been extended because the participants see a real possibility of reaching an understanding or because they’re playing a game of chicken to see who blinks first.
The Iranians understand that the U.S. team is under great pressure because it faces a snarling GOP and Israel Lobby ready to pounce whether or not an agreement is reached. The Obama administration will be especially vulnerable if Kerry returns home with no agreement whatsoever. Then the pressure will be on in Congress to redouble Iran sanctions. This in turn will alienate the Iranians and make a future agreement that much less likely. All this is music to the ears of the U.S. hawks and Israel. As Trita Parsi, who is at the talks on behalf of the National Iranian American Council, wrote: the greatest existential threat facing Bibi is peace.
Though the Iranians may understand the U.S. plight, they see no reason to aid Obama in his hour of need. After all, they want a deal that reflects their interests so that they can sell it, in turn, to their own hardliners. So the Iranian team probably feels it can’t afford sympathy for the Americans. No one ever said you had to throw your opponent a life preserver as he flails in the water.
Bibi Netanyahu has been yammering the past few days about the talks and his statements have been weird, wild and wonderful (in the ironic sense of the term). I bring this up both because it’s entertaining in a dark, ghoulish sort of way and because it offers a portal into the mind of a bizarre political animal. Here’s how Ynet characterized his statement at a cabinet meeting:
“After the Beirut-Damascus-Baghdad axis, Iran is carrying out a pincers movement in the south [Yemen] as well in order to take over and conquer the entire Middle East. The Iran-Lausanne-Yemen axis is very dangerous for humanity and needs to be stopped,” he said, drawing a line between Iran’s nuclear ambitions and the actions of the Iranian-allied Houthi rebels in Yemen.
Bibi, who loves bombast and overstatement as much as he loves himself, is never one to make due with saying something once and leaving it at that. So he evokes Bush’s hoary “axis of evil” not once, but twice in the above passage. At first, it’s the Beirut-Damascus-Baghdad axis: meaning Hezbollah, Assad, and Iraq’s Shiite militias. All presumably take orders directly from Iran and are part of a massive conspiracy to control the world, er the Middle East. Note, Bibi has conveniently left off any mention of al Qaeda or ISIS, the latter of which has its own far more overtly expressed ambition of conquering the region (in order to install a Sunni caliphate). Besides the fact that ISIS and al Qaeda are Sunni and therefore can’t be an Iranian ally, it would be awfully inconvenient to blacken the reputation of a Muslim force (al Nusra) with which Israel is actually allied in Syria.
The second axis is, if it’s possible, even more dipsy. I get that Iran is supposedly arming the Houthi rebels, so the Iran-Yemen connection at least makes sense in Bibi’s crazy world-view. But “Lausanne?” The nuclear talks are part of an axis of evil? Actual negotiations aimed to control Iran’s nuclear development and delay or prevent proliferation have become “evil” in themselves. That goes far beyond anything I’ve heard from the mind of Bibi (and I’ve heard a lot!).
The minds of most politicians seek to find historical parallels that bolster their political agenda. So Bibi is like any other one of his class. But the difference is that his mind manages to twist the evidence he offers into bizarre, unrecognizable shapes. If I were a psychiatrist (I’m not) I might even say these are the expressions of a pathological, even megalomaniacal mind.
All this only serves to confirm that Netanyahu is completely shut out of the talks. He’s flying blind except for intelligence his own Mossad can gather from the sorts of spying it did earlier on in the talks. But the CIA and State Department are no longer providing any briefings. Bibi has been shut out of the game. He played his cards in Washington when he went for broke in his Congressional address. But the bet didn’t pan out. This may change if an agreement fails. But so far, it’s not looking good, as there is too much riding on too many parties for the talks to fail.
Since Bibi himself yoked together the civil wars in both Syria and Yemen, this got me to thinking that there are indeed parallels worth noting. First, the Middle East has, for millennia, been a region in which great powers have clashed while making extensive use of local proxies. The Babylonians, Assyrians, Greeks and Romans all clashed with their enemies in this manner. So the current round of bloodletting is nothing new.
In Syria, Shiites have banded together to preserve the rule of Bashar al-Assad. They include Hezbollah and Iran. They fight against a motley crew of Sunni extremists largely associated with ISIS and al Qaeda. They are funded and armed by Sunni states like Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey. Israel too has thrown in its lot with the Sunni Islamists, largely because its sworn enemies are both Hezbollah and Iran.
In Yemen, a similar pattern repeats itself. The Houthi rebels who amount to 30% of the population and are situated mostly in the north of the country, have mounted a rebellion against Sunni forces based largely in the south. A wild card in the midst of this has been al Qaeda which, though Sunni, has not supported either side. Iran has entered the fray on behalf of the Houthis. As their rebellion gathered force and rolled over significant swatches of territory, Yemen’s neighbor, Saudi Arabia, determined to intervene.
Saudi Arabia has escalated the conflict and turned it into a regional nightmare. Instead of internal forces fighting each other, you now have outside major regional powers like the Saudis and Iranians entering the fray. They each have chips on their shoulders and something to prove. Both are willing to fight to the last drop of their proxies’ blood.
If this pattern sounds familiar it’s because you’ve also seen it in the manner in which Israel has fought its battles with its front-line neighboring states. In both Lebanon and Syria, Israel created new proxies (Hamas, South Lebanon army) or used existing ones (al Nusra) to battle its real enemies: in Lebanon first the PLO, then Hezbollah; and in Syria, Hezbollah and Iran.
Is there no sane strategic analyst to say to all of these parties practicing a form of pathological, homicidal mania, that this age-old system doesn’t work? You can try to beat your enemy to a pulp. But in the process you yourself will be beaten to a pulp. The greater powers funding this mayhem only care about their own grander designs. They don’t care if you two little guys kill each other. Someone ought to put a stop to this. But until they do, the endless cycle of bloodletting continues.
Returning to Netanyahu’s maundering about Iran, you can see why Obama has finally grown tired of it all and developed a spine (though too late to have any real significance for negotiating a real peace deal). The American people seem to be getting it too. Two interesting polls have been released this week. In the first, a Pew survey regarding Iran and related matters, Netanyahu’s favorable ratings among Americans dropped seven points (from 38% to 31%) in the past month. Note that the survey headline and subheading are wrong in saying Bibi’s favorables have remained unchanged, an error I find bizarre in such a reputable polling organization. Nearly 30% of Americans now say they have “little” or “no” sympathy for Israel. The number having no sympathy for Israel has risen by 12 points since August.
Pew also finds that a plurality (49% to 40%) support the current nuclear negotiations.
The second poll was conducted for Washington Post and CBS News. It finds that almost 60% of Americans support a nuclear deal either strongly or somewhat. I presume the differences in results in the two polls on this question results from differing questions asked of respondents.
Support for a two-state solution has declined considerably: 39% support it while 36% don’t. 44% disapprove of the way Netanyahu is conducting relations with the U.S. (37% approve).