September 2009 will apparently see a major shake-up in the Middle East. If everything will go according to plan, it will be a month where almost all the players active in this arena will be reshuffling the deck and sitting at the table in order to formulate a simultaneous “all-inclusive” process” – ranging from the release of Gilad Shalit to the handling of the Iranian nuclear program.
The Obama Administration is indeed supposed to stimulate the process, yet the major roles are reserved for the regional players. These are supposed, in line with advance coordination with Washington, to show initiative and creativity on separate channels – all these developments coming together should break the dead-end currently in place in the Middle East.
The phase of coordinating plans and expectations is being carried out at this time, and we are already seeing significant progress. The official launch will take place ahead of, during, and after the United Nations General Assembly, scheduled for September 23rd. The process will mostly start in three (and a half) channels.
Part 3 of analysis
Dialogue or confrontation?
In respect to the third channel – Iran – the US will reach a crossroads at the end of September; it will have to do decide whether to take the path of confrontation or continue its efforts to engage in diplomatic talks.
This depends to a large extent on two developments: Firstly, Tehran’s response to the Obama administration’s offer to engage in dialogue; secondly, a report about to be published by the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Officials in Israel and in the US estimate that Iran will not explicitly reject dialogue, but will continue to adopt diplomatic and media delay tactics, thus confusing the Americans and their allies, putting off the start of the dialogue, and at the same time enabling Iran to make progress on uranium enrichment and the building of new centrifuges.
This will enable the regime in Tehran to set facts on the ground and reinforce its status as a state on the brink of acquiring nuclear weapons. Under such circumstances, the “dialogue” will be empty of all substance in the West’s view. In addition, the UN atomic watchdog is expected to finally confirm that its inspectors uncovered clear signs that Iran is indeed attempting to develop nuclear weapons.
Should these estimates materialize, the Obama administration will reassess its policy, while engaging in intense contacts with other powers and with Arab Gulf states, in an effort to work out an agreement on grave sanctions. This will include an embargo on fuels and refined oil products, in addition to limits on the ability of Iranian banks and companies to raise funds and finalize deals in the global market.
Such sanctions are expected to jeopardize the regime’s stability and are therefore believed to constitute effective pressure. The problem will be to convince Russia and China to cooperate.
Diplomatic officials in the West say that the American reassessment will also include reexamination of what is known as the “military option.” These sources already see today growing understanding within the Obama administration that the military option must be on the table the moment sanctions are imposed.
Without genuine willingness on America’s part to consider the use of force in Iran (on its own or in cooperation with other allies,) the sanctions will also be doomed for failure, as Iran will attempt to annul them through the use of force. Even a superpower cannot secure its diplomatic objective if at the end of the day it is unwilling to use its military power, an influential Western official said.
Finally, there is the Syrian “half channel. Throughout September we will see the continuation of the patient and slow contacts between Washington and Damascus on the possibility of Syria changing its Iraq policy, disengaging from the alliance with Hezbollah, Hamas and Iran, and the possibly resuming the talks with Israel.
The “September processes” will put the Obama Administration’s conception that “everything is related,” and that success in each of the channel will assist in advancing the others, to the test. This holistic conception is also accepted by Prime Minister Netanyahu and Defense Minister Barak, who is one of the main ideologists behind it; it’s also endorsed by Egyptian President Mubarak.
The question is whether the many other elements that need to play their part will not torpedo the conception and its aims. By the end of September we will know the answer, more or less.