A miracle is in the offing. I, who have reported here about Israeli national security matters for two decades, and experienced much despair and hopelessness over the constant suffering and bloodshed, now see a ray of light in the darkness. Things are happening that I never thought possible. Dare we hope?
Developments over the past months have pointed to major regional realignment of forces and nations. Last month, Iran and Saudi Arabia agreed to restore diplomatic relations severed nearly a decade earlier. Talks that led up to this agreement included reducing military commitments to proxy wars in Syria and Yemen. As I wrote, two of the most powerful figures in the Middle East, Ayatollah Khamenei and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, each enjoying a domineering presence in their respective countries, decided that constant warfare was no longer in their interests. Both determined it was more important to focus on domestic development.
Equally important, Oman has for months served as mediator between the US and Iran as they searched for ways to restore a nuclear understanding which had been jettisoned by Donald Trump in 2017. News reports say a deal is imminent. It is some of the most important news to come out of the region since the 2015 JCPOA agreement.
It’s astonishing that Khamenei, who has railed against western powers pressuring Iran to restrain its nuclear program, has now professed himself to be satisfied at the prospect of a deal. No less astonishing is Bibi Netanyahu’s acquiescence. He was the most implacable enemy of a nuclear agreement and railed against it in venues from the United Nations to the US Congress for a decade or more. Now he’s turned into a pussy-cat. He says this is something he can live with. How the world turns!
Israel may be odd-man-out when the dust settles. It has hitched its wagon to an anti-Iran alliance with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, which may be unraveling. Israeli hopes to bring the Saudis into the Abraham Accords appear to be receding. Israeli blustering about an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities is no longer viable as it would face US and possibly even Saudi opposition.
During the Trump administration, MBS attempted to browbeat Palestinian Pres. Abbas into a deal with the Israelis that offered nothing to them but hush money. Now the Saudis have returned to their commitment to Palestinian statehood. It is a remarkable about-face. This cannot make the current far-right government happy.
One of the geniuses of the arrangement about to be announced, is that it is not a formal agreement, which would force each side to spell out in fine detail every provision. A formal protocol permits each side to understand their responsibilities clearly, while limiting misunderstandings when one side believes the other has reneged (as happened to Iran after Trump’s withdrawal).
On the other hand, an “understanding” as the deal is being called, allows for ambiguity. It commits each party to the general provisions without the minutiae of a formal agreement. It also creates a helpful ambiguity regarding hardline opponents of the deal on both sides. There is no text that they can analyze to point out weaknesses. Any accusations can be finessed by the Iranian and US administrations. They can interpret the arrangement in any manner that is most helpful domestically.
The outline of the agreement includes an Iranian commitment not to exceed 60% enrichment of uranium (90% is needed for a nuclear weapon). It will also release the remaining US prisoners it holds, including Siamak Namazi, who has been imprisoned for ten years. Iran will stop attacks by its Iraqi proxies against US forces in Syria, while the US pledges not to introduce any new sanctions. The US will release $20-billion in frozen assets which Iran may use for humanitarian aid. Iran also seeks to restore $7-billion in frozen oil revenue held in South Korea. This too may be included in the deal.
The agreement is limited in scope. It will not solve all outstanding issues. But it is one part of a larger puzzle, whose pieces are increasingly fitting into place. Together, they could mark the most promising development in the Middle East for a generation.