Either PT Barnum or HL Mencken (depending on who you ask) once said: “No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people.” That saying was particularly apt on Election Night 2016. I’d like to apply the saying to the region at hand–the Middle East: no one ever went broke underestimating the chance for hope in the Middle East. Or if you’re a Dylan fan, you’ll remember his “Love is Just a Four-Letter Word.” In the Middle East, hope is a four-letter word.
But there is an ever so small sliver of hope in the news over the past few days. As someone who has permitted himself too many times to hope for peace in the region, I don’t want to get carried away. And I’m sure as a faithful reader, you won’t permit me to do so.
Today, the Guardian noted that Iran has brokered a meeting between Saudi Arabia’s intelligence minister and his Syrian counterpart in Damascus:
The meeting in the Syrian capital on Monday is being seen as a precursor to an imminent detente between two regional foes, who have been at odds throughout much of the conflict…
…Officials in Riyadh said the normalisation of relations could begin shortly after the three-day Eid al-Fitr festival next week that will mark the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
“It’s been planned for a while, but nothing has moved,” said a Saudi official who asked not to be identified. “Events have shifted regionally and that provided the opening.”
…It would also be a landmark moment in regional diplomacy, nominally allying Riyadh with Tehran in one of the most bitterly contested corners of the region, where both countries have clashed with each other through the use of proxy forces.
Keep in mind that Saudi Arabia has been committed for over a decade to overthrow the Assad regime. It spent billions supporting ISIS and other Islamist groups fighting in Syria to do just that. For the Saudis to now be willing to sit in the same room with their sworn enemy is a huge development.
If this were the only piece of positive news, it would be enough (“dayenu“) as the Passover Haggadah says. But there is much more:
- Over the past few months, high-level talks were also held between Iran and Saudi Arabia. In fact, these discussions may have brokered the Damascus meeting.
- Saudi Arabia ended its four-year embargo on Qatar and even invited its leader to meet the Saudi king.
- Iranian sources proclaimed a few days ago that a prisoner exchange between the US and Iran was imminent; along with an announcement that the US had agreed to remove sanctions as part of a deal bringing both countries back into compliance with the JCPOA.
- A senior US foreign policy team is making the rounds of major regional capitals briefing leaders on the talks underway; and Iran’s foreign minister is scheduled to travel to UAE for talks there that would lead to easing of tensions.
While it is true that the Biden administration immediately tamped down any expectations, denying any such deal was imminent, representatives for both nations have been negotiating on these issues for several weeks. In fact, both sides have declared recently they were making substantial progress. Put all this together and it becomes entirely believable that while a deal may not be in the immediate offing, the sides have come very close to sealing one.
The potential ramifications of this are astounding. If Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has determined that his implacable hostility toward Iran and its Houthi, Syrian and Iraqi allies has passed its sell-by date and a new approach is needed, it could change everything. Some analysts have pointed to the Biden administration’s reassessment of US commitments in the region. In this process, the president has made clear that the region is no longer on the front burner of US interests. To reinforce this message, this week, our last troops were withdrawn from Afghanistan. The US Congress has declared it will no longer support military aid to the Saudis in their war against Yemen. Biden promised on the campaign trail that he would end such arms sales. Bin Salman may have made a cold hard calculation that he will no longer have the US as his loyal ally willing to arm it to the hilt and support it regardless of what he does.
If the Saudis ceased their war on Yemen it would permit Iran to withdraw its support for the Houthis. If Saudi Arabia reconciled with Bashar al Assad, it would permit Iran to step back from its intensive Syrian intervention. It could also dramatically alter Iran’s relations with Hezbollah, the latter providing the major ground forces defending the Assad regime over the past decade.
Presumably, the Biden administration is either a party to these negotiations or closely apprised of them. The fact that Iran believes a prisoner exchange with the US and sanctions relief deal is imminent must be tied to all these other reports. If there is such an exchange and Biden proves willing to remove some of the most onerous sanctions imposed by Pres. Trump during his term in office, that opens a path toward returning to JCPOA.
Even more enticing, it could also enable both Iran and the US to contemplate a second round of JCPOA addressing Iranian ballistic missile testing and withdrawal from several countries in which it has intervened on behalf of its allies. None of this could happen unless Iran’s adversaries (Saudi Arabia and UAE) also committed themselves to a parallel disengagement. And that is apparently what the Saudi-Iran talks taking place in Bagdhad were about.
A major factor that could complicate this reconciliation process is the Iranian presidential election in June, which it seems likely a hardliner would win. Ayatollah Khamenei is the true power who would likely be guiding these decisions. But having a hardliner as president could either complicate or entirely derail this process.
The $64,000 Question is: where does this leave Israel? Under Netanyahu’s leadership, the country has exploited Iran as a security threat/bogeyman for well over a decade. If Iran reduced its military footprint in Syria and Yemen, and agreed to limit its support for Hezbollah, Israel would be hard-pressed to find anything to complain about.
In fact, if any of these things happen, Pres. Biden would have an excellent opening to demand that Israel reciprocate in a substantial and meaningful way. Unfortunately, it seems unlikely any Israeli leadership, whether Netanyahu or anyone else would respond in kind. Since 1948, Israel’s primary response to any opportunity for peace that involved major compromise echoed Khrushchev’s infamous shoe-banging “Nyet” speech at the United Nations.
Nor is Israel in a particularly strong position, without a functioning government following four elections over a two-year period. In today’s news, Netanyahu lost his mandate to form a government and the president has turned to his rival, Yair Lapid, to do so. Further, Israel has received a clear message from the US that it is no longer the King of Hill. Biden has in a number of ways communicated subtle, but clear messages that it is downgrading relations with Israel.
But even if Israel does maintain its rejectionist stance, it will be the odd man out in the region. Both its former allies and enemies will be falling all over themselves to adapt to the revolutionary changes in the region. While Israel will be left holding the bag.
HOPE is really a four-letter word if you think the US has the balls to do anything against Israel. Congress just voted the US would give Israel anything it wants in terms of money and support. Israel was and continues to be the worst terrorist in the region. They refused to allow Palestinians in Jerusalem to vote, then put enough pressure on Abbas, the Petaine of Palestine, to call off elections. There are 6.8 million Palestinians and 6.8 million Israelis in the same sandbox, yet Israel lives in the castle and keeps Palestinians in the dungeon.
Where is the hope when that continues? The last thing Israel wants is any kind of rapprochement between Iran and Saudi. You can be sure they’ll do everything they can to sabotage any agreements. They already have, including blowing up Iranian officials (using the US as their surrogate), damaging Iranian nuclear facilities, murdering Iranian scientists, supporting ISIS, occupying the Golan…. I could go on and on, but you know it as well as I do. Israel needs to become a state for all its people, one state for everything, and STFU about perceived threats when it’s clear they who are the threat.
Mighty Afrodite says
The world is changing, and we have to adapt to it, or we’ll find ourselves tossed aside like refuse.
If Iran begs out of Syria and Yemen, is she inclined to beg out of Lebanon and Gaza as well?
Maybe Iran, KSL and the United States should all butt out and leave the locals to sort out their differences by themselves.
Iran is not in Gaza and both Hezbollah and Hamas are resistance groups as well as members of the government. I notice you say nothing about Israel butting out and it’s got its nasty fingers in every country in the area. How interesting you leave that one out.
Hamas and Gaza receives funding from Qatar, connection with Muslim Brotherhood. Hamas militants attacked the Egyptian detention center where Morsi was imprisoned in 2011.
Richard Silverstein says
I think that will depend on Israel. If Iran lessens its involvement in Syria I think that will change its relations with Hezbollah. But Gaza is a different story. As long as Israel denies Palestinian rights I think Iran will be motivated to support Palestine.
Mighty Afrodite says
“As long as Israel denies Palestinian rights I think Iran will be motivated to support Palestine”
I’m not so sure that.
Iran has a new, long term, multi billion dollar business partner in China, which makes Iran complicit in the horrendous suppression of the that country’s Uyghur minority.
If Iran is willing to countenance a Uyghur (Sunni Muslims) genocide, why wouldn’t she do the same to Palestinians?
Richard Silverstein says
@ Mighty: I do so love it when non-Iranians and non-Muslims tell an entire Muslim nation how it should conduct its foreign policy, and how it should fulfill its obligations to the rest of the Muslim world.
I think Iran has to weigh its interests and act accordingly. If it has a choice of forging a commercial alliance with China that relieves the pressure of world sanctions; or maintaining Muslim solidarity by rejecting Chinese largesse, that’s a decision that is Iran’s to make. The idea that you get to rail against Iranian ‘hypocrisy’ is laughable.
Can Israel be involved in Iran as long as Iranians deny Kurds rights?
If yes, stop complaining about Israel’s involvement.
If no, can you explain what is the difference between Palestinian and Kurds.
Richard Silverstein says
@ Dan: If you want to support Kurdish rights, be my guest. But don’t tell me what I should do or support. My interests are mine. If you don’t approve of them, go elsewhere.
Veni Vidi Victor says
“They already have, including blowing up Iranian officials (using the US as their surrogate), damaging Iranian nuclear facilities, murdering Iranian scientists, supporting ISIS, occupying the Golan…. I could go on and on ”
No. Please stop.
Both Israel, the Netherlands and the US damaged Natanz in the past, and Israel continues to try and thwart an Iranian bomb (which can only harm the entire region). See below.
The United States, with cause, assassinated General Soleimani. Israel did not assassinate Soleimani though in the past, she had the opportunity to.
Israel never supported ISIS. That is a falsehood. Israel supported a dozen different local Golan Syrian militias at different times, mostly Druze. Israel aided the militias in order to fight ISIS. Israel gave humanitarian aid to al Nusra only.
BTW, Greta, Dutch Intelligence reports today that Iran is seeking to weaponize a nuclear arsenal.
Richard Silverstein says
@ Veni: So much bullshit. So little time (and such a waste of time) to rebut it:
No one has ever accused the Dutch of having anything to do with Natanz. If they played any role it was marginal at best. Israel and the US together attacked Natanz. Spreading the blame away from Israel as you’re trying to do is bogus. Israel is the key player in its state-sponsored terror attacks on Iran.
THese attacks thwart nothing. In fact, they strengthen Iranian resolve to pursue the nuclear track. And they make it even more likely Iran will pursue breakout.
And the US could not have murdered him without Israeli Unit 8200 intercepts which pinpointed his location. Israel’s fingerprints are all over this state sponsored terror attack as well. There is NEVER any justification for murdering the military or political leaders of other countries. Unless you agree Iran “with justification” can murder Israel’s top generals and prime ministers. Which you don’t–making you a friggin’ hypocrite.
False. Israel supported militias affiliated with al-Nusra, which is in turn affiliated with al Qaeda. Israel didn’t aid the militias to “fight ISIS.” It aided them to ensure that Syria under Assad continued to be a failed, fragmented country that could not mount any effort against Israel itself to regain its Golan territory.
You are peddling horse manure. I do not enjoy wasting my time having to rebut this crap.
Veni Vidi Victor says
“No one has ever accused the Dutch of having anything to do with Natanz ”
Greta’s claim that Israel has ‘supported ISIS’, is false. You don’t even make that absurd claim.
Richard Silverstein says
@ Veni: As I said in my blog post, the overwhelming share of the Stuxnet operation was Israeli & American. Netherlands played a tiny role in comparison.
Greta was only wrong in which Islamist terror group she identified. Israel supported al Nusra which is affiliated with al Qaeda.
The only country in the Middle East with weapons of mass destruction is Israel. If Israel didn’t have over 200 nuclear bombs, no one else would be trying to make them. I’m all for everyone having them or no one having them. Got it?
@Richard … I appreciate your great optimism as I have seen certain signs once Joe Biden won by a landslide. Reconciliation with Qatar took place earlier as Trump ‘s defeat was written in the stars. The Obama years saw favoritism to Qatar and Turkey as allies for peace and stability. Mike Pompeo went on a rampage of diplomatic destruction … a scorched earth policy. Pompeo wasn’t welcome in Brussels and I believe Baghdad. The attempted overthrow of the Jordanian King Abdullah II was another fatal error by the Abraham Economic Powers. Dividing Jerusalem amongst themselves. Is Al Aqsa mount temporarily closed for Jews due to the Arab revolt? The Colonial powers and the Balfour Declaration has certainly struck home to haunt the region. The British double-cross of the Hashemite King comes to mind. President Biden signed a new military agreement with Jordan. Proxy war is fine elsewhere, but not at the doorstep of the Saudi Kingdom. The role of the UAE is more aggressive with Mohammed Dahlan as NSC adviser to the Sheikh of Abu Dhabi. Hopefully there is some concern for the abuse of Human Rights by all parties in the Middle East. For Europe and especially the French, the total destruction of Lebanon and Syria must be quite painful. The spoils out of the Ottoman Empire from allied “victory” of WWI has seen mostly 100 years of destruction.
The Netherlands as a neutral source is an illusion. See my writings past 17 years. Partner in Nine Eyes with asterisk for excellence. Mossad functions freely at Schiphol Airport admitted in a documentary. Location is a major Internet hub with infrastructure in Europe. Dutch telecom KPN is source and is partner of GCHQ and Israel. Germany cooperated to infect Siemens control systems (PLC) in Natanz with Stuxnet.
what nonsense… iran isn’t begging out of anything.. it wants to de-escalate with Saudi to eject US presence, strengthen its control over the region, and build strategic advantage over Israel.. Saudi withdrawal from conflict in Yemen will see the Houthis complete takeover of the country as an Iranian client… Iran has constantly privileged security over economy – any economic inflows will continue to primarily fund Iranian military spend in and across the region.. senior Iranian regime officials are clear on their priorities, this view here is divorced from reality
Richard Silverstein says
@ Bob: Israel is the only power in the region seeking to impose its dominance. Iran’s activities are in response to Israel’s aggressive interventions beyond its borders (such as they are).
The Houthi are not robots. Nor are they creatures of the Iranians. Nor does a Houthi takeover mean Iran will have a backdoor to attack the Saudis. It means simply that the Houthis will be able to determine their national future without Saudi intervention.
It’s laughable you claim Iran has “privileged security over economy.” Why is that? Why is it that the US, Israle and the Saudis have spent tens of billions attacking Iran? And given that, why wouldn’t the Iranians need to privilege security over economy. HOwever, even this formulation is wrong. The Iranian economy is in a shambles not because of anything the Iranians have done, but because outside powers have punished and strangled it. If Israel, the US and Saudis stopped their aggression against Iran, it would be able to reduce security spending and turn those funds toward the civilian economy. But it can’t.