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By George Friedman ~ Honorable Political Season Contributor
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is scheduled to meet with U.S. President Barack Obama on March 23. The meeting follows the explosion in U.S.-Israeli relations after Israel announced it was licensing construction of homes in East Jerusalem while U.S. Vice President Joe Biden was in Israel. The United States wants Israel to stop all construction of new Jewish settlements. The Israelis argue that East Jerusalem is not part of the occupied territories, and hence, the U.S. demand doesn’t apply there. The Americans are not parsing their demand so finely and regard the announcement — timed as it was — as a direct affront and challenge. Israel’s response is that it is a sovereign state and so must be permitted to do as it wishes. The implicit American response is that the United States is also a sovereign state and will respond as it wishes.
The polemics in this case are not the point. The issue is more fundamental: namely, the degree to which U.S. and Israeli relations converge and diverge. This is not a matter of friendship but, as in all things geopolitical, of national interest. It is difficult to discuss U.S. and Israeli interests objectively, as the relationship is clouded with endless rhetoric and simplistic formulations. It is thus difficult to know where to start, but two points of entry into this controversy come to mind.
The first is the idea that anti-Americanism in the Middle East has its roots in U.S. support for Israel, a point made by those in the United States and abroad who want the United States to distance itself from Israel. The second is that the United States has a special strategic relationship with Israel and a mutual dependency. Both statements have elements of truth, but neither is simply true — and both require much more substantial analysis. In analyzing them, we begin the process of trying to disentangle national interests from rhetoric.

Anti-Americanism in the Middle East

Begin with the claim that U.S. support for Israel generates anti-Americanism in the Arab and Islamic world. While such support undoubtedly contributes to the phenomenon, it hardly explains it. The fundamental problem with the theory is that Arab anti-Americanism predates significant U.S. support for Israel. Until 1967, the United States gave very little aid to Israel. What aid Washington gave was in the form of very limited loans to purchase agricultural products from the United States — a program that many countries in the world participated in. It was France, not the United States, which was the primary supplier of weapons to Israeli.
In 1956, Israel invaded the Sinai while Britain and France seized the Suez Canal, which the Egyptian government of Gamal Abdul Nasser had nationalized. The Eisenhower administration intervened — against Israel and on the side of Egypt. Under U.S. pressure, the British, French and Israelis were forced to withdraw. There were widespread charges that the Eisenhower administration was pro-Arab and anti-Israeli; certainly no one could argue that Eisenhower was significantly pro-Israel.
In spite of this, Nasser entered into a series of major agreements with the Soviet Union. Egypt effectively became a Soviet ally, the recipient of massive Soviet aid and a center of anti-American rhetoric. Whatever his reasons — and they had to do with U.S. unwillingness to give Egypt massive aid — Egypt’s anti-American attitude had nothing to do with the Israelis, save perhaps that the United States was not prepared to join Egypt in trying to destroy Israel.
Two major political events took place in 1963: left-wing political coups in Syria and Iraq that brought the Baathist Party to power in both countries. Note that this took place pre-1967, i.e., before the United States became closely aligned with Israel. Both regimes were pro-Soviet and anti-American, but neither could have been responding to U.S. support for Israel because there wasn’t much.
In 1964, Washington gave Cairo the first significant U.S. military aid in the form of Hawk missiles, but it gave those to other Arab countries, too, in response to the coups in Iraq and Syria. The United States feared the Soviets would base fighters in those two countries, so it began installing anti-air systems to try to block potential Soviet airstrikes on Saudi Arabia.
In 1967, France broke with Israel over the Arab-Israeli conflict that year. The United States began significant aid to Israel. In 1973, after the Syrian and Egyptian attack on Israel, the U.S. began massive assistance. In 1974 this amounted to about 25 percent of Israeli gross domestic product (GDP). The aid has continued at roughly the same level, but given the massive growth of the Israeli economy, it now amounts to about 2.5 percent of Israeli GDP.
The point here is that the United States was not actively involved in supporting Israel prior to 1967, yet anti-Americanism in the Arab world was rampant. The Arabs might have blamed the United States for Israel, but there was little empirical basis for this claim. Certainly, U.S. aid commenced in 1967 and surged in 1974, but the argument that eliminating support for Israel would cause anti-Americanism to decline must first explain the origins of anti-Americanism, which substantially predated American support for Israel. In fact, it is not clear that Arab anti-Americanism was greater after the initiation of major aid to Israel than before. Indeed, Egypt, the most important Arab country, shifted its position to a pro-American stance after the 1973 war in the face of U.S. aid.

Israel’s Importance to the United States

Let’s now consider the assumption that Israel is a critical U.S. asset. American grand strategy has always been derived from British grand strategy. The United States seeks to maintain regional balances of power in order to avoid the emergence of larger powers that can threaten U.S. interests. The Cold War was a massive exercise in the balance of power, pitting an American-sponsored worldwide alliance system against one formed by the Soviet Union. Since the end of the Cold War, the United States has acted a number of times against regional hegemons: Iraq in 1990-91, Serbia in 1999 and so on.
In the area called generally the Middle East, but which we prefer to think of as the area between the Mediterranean and the Hindu Kush, there are three intrinsic regional balances. One is the Arab-Israeli balance of power. The second is the Iran-Iraq balance. The third is the Indo-Pakistani balance of power. The American goal in each balance is not so much stability as it is the mutual neutralization of local powers by other local powers.
Two of the three regional balances of power are collapsed or in jeopardy. The 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq and the failure to quickly put a strong, anti-Iranian government in place in Baghdad, has led to the collapse of the central balance of power — with little hope of resurrection. The eastern balance of power between Pakistan and India is also in danger of toppling. The Afghan war has caused profound stresses in Pakistan, and there are scenarios in which we can imagine Pakistan’s power dramatically weakening or even cracking. It is unclear how this will evolve, but what is clear is that it is not in the interest of the United States because it would destroy the native balance of power with India. The United States does not want to see India as the unchallenged power in the subcontinent any more than it wants to see Pakistan in that position. The United States needs a strong Pakistan to balance India, and its problem now is how to manage the Afghan war — a side issue strategically — without undermining the strategic interest of the United States, an Indo-Pakistani balance of power.
The western balance of power, Israel and the surrounding states, is relatively stable. What is most important to the United States at this point is that this balance of power also not destabilize. In this sense, Israel is an important strategic asset. But in the broader picture, where the United States is dealing with the collapse of the central balance of power and with the destabilization of the eastern balance of power, Washington does not want or need the destabilization of the western balance — between the Israelis and Arabs — at this time. U.S. “bandwidth” is already stretched to the limit. Washington does not need another problem. Nor does it need instability in this region complicating things in the other regions.
Note that the United States is interested in maintaining the balance of power. This means that the U.S. interest is in a stable set of relations, with no one power becoming excessively powerful and therefore unmanageable by the United States. Israel is already the dominant power in the region, and the degree to which Syria, Jordan and Egypt contain Israel is limited. Israel is moving from the position of an American ally maintaining a balance of power to a regional hegemon in its own right operating outside the framework of American interests.
The United States above all wants to ensure continuity after Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak dies. It wants to ensure that the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan remains stable. And in its attempts to manage the situation in the center and east, it wants to ensure that nothing happens in the west to further complicate an already-enormously complex situation.
There is very little Israel can do to help the United States in the center and eastern balances. On the other hand, if the western balance of power were to collapse — due to anything from a collapse of the Egyptian regime to a new Israeli war with Hezbollah — the United States might find itself drawn into that conflict, while a new intifada in the Palestinian territories would not help matters either. It is unknown what effect this would have in the other balances of power, but the United States is operating at the limits of its power to try to manage these situations. Israel cannot help there, but it could hurt, for example by initiating an attack on Iran outside the framework of American planning. Therefore, the United States wants one thing from Israel now: for Israel to do nothing that could possibly destabilize the western balance of power or make America’s task more difficult in the other regions.
Israel sees the American preoccupation in these other regions, along with the current favorable alignment of forces in its region, as an opportunity both to consolidate and expand its power and to create new realities on the ground. One of these is building in East Jerusalem, or more precisely, using the moment to reshape the demographics and geography of its immediate region. The Israeli position is that it has rights in East Jerusalem that the United States cannot intrude on. The U.S. position is that it has interests in the broader region that are potentially weakened by this construction at this time.
Israel’s desire to do so is understandable, but it runs counter to American interests. The United States, given its overwhelming challenges, is neither interested in Israel’s desire to reshape its region, nor can it tolerate any more risk deriving from Israel’s actions. However small the risks might be, the United States is maxed out on risk. Therefore, Israel’s interests and that of the United States diverge. Israel sees an opportunity; the United States sees more risk.
The problem Israel has is that, in the long run, its relationship to the United States is its insurance policy. Netanyahu appears to be calculating that given the U.S. need for a western balance of power, whatever Israel does now will be allowed because in the end the United States needs Israel to maintain that balance of power. Therefore, he is probing aggressively. Netanyahu also has domestic political reasons for proceeding with this construction. For him, this construction is a prudent and necessary step.
Obama’s task is to convince Netanyahu that Israel has strategic value for the United States, but only in the context of broader U.S. interests in the region. If Israel becomes part of the American problem rather than the solution, the United States will seek other solutions. That is a hard case to make but not an impossible one. The balance of power is in the eastern Mediterranean, and there is another democracy the United States could turn to: Turkey — which is more than eager to fulfill that role and exploit Israeli tensions with the United States.
It may not be the most persuasive threat, but the fact is that Israel cannot afford any threat from the United States, such as an end to the intense U.S.-Israeli bilateral relationship. While this relationship might not be essential to Israel at the moment, it is one of the foundations of Israeli grand strategy in the long run. Just as the United States cannot afford any more instability in the region at the moment, so Israel cannot afford any threat, however remote, to its relationship with the United States.

A More Complicated Relationship

What is clear in all this is that the statement that Israel and the United States are strategic partners is not untrue, it is just vastly more complicated than it appears. Similarly, the claim that American support for Israel fuels anti-Americans is both a true and insufficient statement.
Netanyahu is betting on Congress and political pressures to restrain U.S. responses to Israel. One of the arguments of geopolitics is that political advantage is insufficient in the face of geopolitical necessity. Pressure on Congress from Israel in order to build houses in Jerusalem while the United States is dealing with crises in the region could easily backfire.
The fact is that while the argument that U.S. Israel policy caused anti-Americanism in the region may not be altogether true, the United States does not need any further challenges or stresses. Nations overwhelmed by challenges can behave in unpredictable ways. Netanyahu’s decision to confront the United States at this time on this issue creates an unpredictability that would seem excessive to Israel’s long term interests. Expecting the American political process to protect Israel from the consequences is not necessarily gauging the American mood at the moment.
The national interest of both countries is to maximize their freedom to maneuver. The Israelis have a temporary advantage because of American interests elsewhere in the region. But that creates a long-term threat. With two wars going on and two regional balances in shambles or tottering, the United States does not need a new crisis in the third. Israel has an interest in housing in East Jerusalem. The United States does not. This frames the conversation between Netanyahu and Obama. The rest is rhetoric.

“This report is republished with permission of STRATFOR

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By George Friedman ~ Honorary Political Season Contributor

Two major leaks occurred this weekend over the Iran matter.

In the first, The New York Times published an article reporting that staff at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the U.N. nuclear oversight group, had produced an unreleased report saying that Iran was much more advanced in its nuclear program than the IAEA had thought previously. According to the report, Iran now has all the data needed to design a nuclear weapon. The New York Times article added that U.S. intelligence was re-examining the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) of 2007, which had stated that Iran was not actively pursuing a nuclear weapon.

The second leak occurred in the British paper The Sunday Times, which reported that the purpose of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s highly publicized secret visit to Moscow on Sept. 7 was to provide the Russians with a list of Russian scientists and engineers working on Iran’s nuclear weapons program.

The second revelation was directly tied to the first. There were many, including STRATFOR, who felt that Iran did not have the non-nuclear disciplines needed for rapid progress toward a nuclear device. Putting the two pieces together, the presence of Russian personnel in Iran would mean that the Iranians had obtained the needed expertise from the Russians. It would also mean that the Russians were not merely a factor in whether there would be effective sanctions but also in whether and when the Iranians would obtain a nuclear weapon.

We would guess that the leak to The New York Times came from U.S. government sources, because that seems to be a prime vector of leaks from the Obama administration and because the article contained information on the NIE review. Given that National Security Adviser James Jones tended to dismiss the report on Sunday television, we would guess the report leaked from elsewhere in the administration. The Sunday Times leak could have come from multiple sources, but we have noted a tendency of the Israelis to leak through the British daily on national security issues. (The article contained substantial details on the visit and appeared written from the Israeli point of view.) Neither leak can be taken at face value, of course. But it is clear that these were deliberate leaks — people rarely risk felony charges leaking such highly classified material — and even if they were not coordinated, they delivered the same message, true or not.

The Iranian Time Frame and the Russian Role

The message was twofold. First, previous assumptions on time frames on Iran are no longer valid, and worst-case assumptions must now be assumed. The Iranians are in fact moving rapidly toward a weapon; have been extremely effective at deceiving U.S. intelligence (read, they deceived the Bush administration, but the Obama administration has figured it out); and therefore, we are moving toward a decisive moment with Iran. Second, this situation is the direct responsibility of Russian nuclear expertise. Whether this expertise came from former employees of the Russian nuclear establishment now looking for work, Russian officials assigned to Iran or unemployed scientists sent to Iran by the Russians is immaterial. The Israelis — and the Obama administration — must hold the Russians responsible for the current state of Iran’s weapons program, and by extension, Moscow bears responsibility for any actions that Israel or the United States might take to solve the problem.

We would suspect that the leaks were coordinated. From the Israeli point of view, having said publicly that they are prepared to follow the American lead and allow this phase of diplomacy to play out, there clearly had to be more going on than just last week’s Geneva talks. From the American point of view, while the Russians have indicated that participating in sanctions on gasoline imports by Iran is not out of the question, Russian President Dmitri Medvedev did not clearly state that Russia would cooperate, nor has anything been heard from Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin on the subject. The Russian leadership appears to be playing “good cop, bad cop” on the matter, and the credibility of anything they say on Iran has little weight in Washington.

It would seem to us that the United States and Israel decided to up the ante fairly dramatically in the wake of the Oct. 1 meeting with Iran in Geneva. As IAEA head Mohamed ElBaradei visits Iran, massive new urgency has now been added to the issue. But we must remember that Iran knows whether it has had help from Russian scientists; that is something that can’t be bluffed. Given that this specific charge has been made — and as of Monday not challenged by Iran or Russia — indicates to us more is going on than an attempt to bluff the Iranians into concessions. Unless the two leaks together are completely bogus, and we doubt that, the United States and Israel are leaking information already well known to the Iranians. They are telling Tehran that its deception campaign has been penetrated, and by extension are telling it that it faces military action — particularly if massive sanctions are impractical because of more Russian obstruction.

If Netanyahu went to Moscow to deliver this intelligence to the Russians, the only surprise would have been the degree to which the Israelis had penetrated the program, not that the Russians were there. The Russian intelligence services are superbly competent, and keep track of stray nuclear scientists carefully. They would not be surprised by the charge, only by Israel’s knowledge of it.

This, of course leaves open an enormous question. Certainly, the Russians appear to have worked with the Iranians on some security issues and have played with the idea of providing the Iranians more substantial military equipment. But deliberately aiding Iran in building a nuclear device seems beyond Russia’s interests in two ways. First, while Russia wants to goad the United States, it does not itself really want a nuclear Iran. Second, in goading the United States, the Russians know not to go too far; helping Iran build a nuclear weapon would clearly cross a redline, triggering reactions.

A number of possible explanations present themselves. The leak to The Sunday Times might be wrong. But The Sunday Times is not a careless newspaper: It accepts leaks only from certified sources. The Russian scientists might be private citizens accepting Iranian employment. But while this is possible, Moscow is very careful about what Russian nuclear engineers do with their time. Or the Russians might be providing enough help to goad the United States but not enough to ever complete the job. Whatever the explanation, the leaks paint the Russians as more reckless than they have appeared, assuming the leaks are true.

And whatever their veracity, the leaks — the content of which clearly was discussed in detail among the P-5+1 prior to and during the Geneva meetings, regardless of how long they have been known by Western intelligence — were made for two reasons. The first was to tell the Iranians that the nuclear situation is now about to get out of hand, and that attempting to manage the negotiations through endless delays will fail because the United Nations is aware of just how far Tehran has come with its weapons program. The second was to tell Moscow that the issue is no longer whether the Russians will cooperate on sanctions, but the consequence to Russia’s relations with the United States and at least the United Kingdom, France and, most important, possibly Germany. If these leaks are true, they are game changers.

We have focused on the Iranian situation not because it is significant in itself, but because it touches on a great number of other crucial international issues. It is now entangled in the Iraqi, Afghan, Israeli, Palestinian, Syrian and Lebanese issues, all of them high-stakes matters. It is entangled in Russian relations with Europe and the United States. It is entangled in U.S.-European relationships and with relationships within Europe. It touches on the U.S.-Chinese relationship. It even touches on U.S. relations with Venezuela and some other Latin American countries. It is becoming the Gordian knot of international relations.

STRATFOR first focused on the Russian connection with Iran in the wake of the Iranian elections and resulting unrest, when a crowd of Rafsanjani supporters began chanting “Death to Russia,” not one of the top-10 chants in Iran. That caused us to focus on the cooperation between Russia and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on security matters. We were aware of some degree of technical cooperation on military hardware, and of course on Russian involvement in Iran’s civilian nuclear program. We were also of the view that the Iranians were unlikely to progress quickly with their nuclear program. We were not aware that Russian scientists were directly involved in Iran’s military nuclear project, which is not surprising, given that such involvement would be Iran’s single-most important state secret — and Russia’s, too.

A Question of Timing

But there is a mystery here as well. To have any impact, the Russian involvement must have been under way for years. The United States has tried to track rogue nuclear scientists and engineers — anyone who could contribute to nuclear proliferation — since the 1990s. The Israelis must have had their own program on this, too. Both countries, as well as European intelligence services, were focused on Iran’s program and the whereabouts of Russian scientists. It is hard to believe that they only just now found out. If we were to guess, we would say Russian involvement has been under way since just after the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, when the Russians decided that the United States was a direct threat to its national security.

Therefore, the decision suddenly to confront the Russians, and suddenly to leak U.N. reports — much more valuable than U.S. reports, which are easier for the Europeans to ignore — cannot simply be because the United States and Israel just obtained this information. The IAEA, hostile to the United States since the invasion of Iraq and very much under the influence of the Europeans, must have decided to shift its evaluation of Iran. But far more significant is the willingness of the Israelis first to confront the Russians and then leak about Russian involvement, something that obviously compromises Israeli sources and methods. And that means the Israelis no longer consider the preservation of their intelligence operation in Iran (or wherever it was carried out) as of the essence.

Two conclusions can be drawn. First, the Israelis no longer need to add to their knowledge of Russian involvement; they know what they need to know. And second, the Israelis do not expect Iranian development to continue much longer; otherwise, maintaining the intelligence capability would take precedence over anything else.

It follows from this that the use of this intelligence in diplomatic confrontations with Russians and in a British newspaper serves a greater purpose than the integrity of the source system. And that means that the Israelis expect a resolution in the very near future — the only reason they would have blown their penetration of the Russian-Iranian system.

Possible Outcomes

There are two possible outcomes here. The first is that having revealed the extent of the Iranian program and having revealed the Russian role in a credible British newspaper, the Israelis and the Americans (whose own leak in The New York Times underlined the growing urgency of action) are hoping that the Iranians realize that they are facing war and that the Russians realize that they are facing a massive crisis in their relations with the West. If that happens, then the Russians might pull their scientists and engineers, join in the sanctions and force the Iranians to abandon their program.

The second possibility is that the Russians will continue to play the spoiler on sanctions and will insist that they are not giving support to the Iranians. This leaves the military option, which would mean broad-based action, primarily by the United States, against Iran’s nuclear facilities. Any military operation would involve keeping the Strait of Hormuz clear, meaning naval action, and we now know that there are more nuclear facilities than previously discussed. So while the war for the most part would be confined to the air and sea, it would be extensive nonetheless.

Sanctions or war remain the two options, and which one is chosen depends on Moscow’s actions. The leaks this weekend have made clear that the United States and Israel have positioned themselves such that not much time remains. We have now moved from a view of Iran as a long-term threat to Iran as a much more immediate threat thanks to the Russians.

The least that can be said about this is that the Obama administration and Israel are trying to reshape the negotiations with the Iranians and Russians. The most that can be said is that the Americans and Israelis are preparing the public for war. Polls now indicate that more than 60 percent of the U.S. public now favors military action against Iran. From a political point of view, it has become easier for U.S. President Barack Obama to act than to not act. This, too, is being transmitted to the Iranians and Russians.

It is not clear to us that the Russians or Iranians are getting the message yet. They have convinced themselves that Obama is unlikely to act because he is weak at home and already has too many issues to juggle. This is a case where a reputation for being conciliatory actually increases the chances for war. But the leaks this weekend have strikingly limited the options and timelines of the United States and Israel. They also have put the spotlight on Obama at a time when he already is struggling with health care and Afghanistan. History is rarely considerate of presidential plans, and in this case, the leaks have started to force Obama’s hand.

From Stephen Hayes of the Weekly Standard:

“When Barack Obama strode on stage to scold Iran for its failure to disclose the existence of a second uranium-enrichment facility in the country, his message was timid and at times almost apologetic. When the tough language came, it was because French president Nicolas Sarkozy had taken the podium. Sarkozy excoriated the Iranians for their deception, saying that the revelations have caused “a very severe confidence crisis” and issued a time-specific warning about oft-threatened (but never implemented) sanctions. “We cannot let the Iranian leaders gain time while the centrifuges are spinning,” he declared. “If by December there is not an in-depth change by the Iranian leaders, sanctions will have to be imposed.”

The above is one of several pieces I have seen since the UN meetings began that essentially says, “France’s Sarkozy talks tougher than Obama” and the comparison is made to paint Obama as weak. Its trash talking foolishness. Lets bottomline it. If push comes to shove on Iran, the US is going to do the shoving. There won’t be a frenchman anywhere to be found if the time comes to dance with Iran. Someone remind me: how many French combat troops are on the ground in Iraq? In Afghanistan they number about 2,000 or so mostly stationed in and around Kabul (not where the real heavy lifting is going down).

I really want to understand the logic of all these people who are so hot to mix it up with Iran and spend so much time trying to paint Obama as a coward. First off, Obama’s diplomatic dance is actually Bush’s diplomatic dance. This is the same policy people, for the same reasons. The consequences and unknown impacts of large scale military action against Iran are no joke. Bush hesitated to pull such a trigger and Obama isn’t jumping to do it for the same reasons. Lets be clear about the realities of such an action and likely aftermath. George Friedman summarizes nicely:

First, a strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities would be no one-day affair. Intelligence on precise locations has uncertainty built into it, and any strike would consist of multiple phases: destroying Iran’s air force and navy, destroying Iran’s anti-aircraft capability to guarantee total command of the skies, the attacks on the nuclear facilities themselves, analysis of the damage, perhaps a second wave, and of course additional attacks to deal with any attempted Iranian retaliation. The target set would be considerable, and would extend well beyond the targets directly related to the nuclear program, making such an operation no simple matter.

Israel could unilaterally draw the United States into an airstrike on Iran. Were Israel to strike Iran by any means, it most likely would lack the ability to conduct an extended air campaign. And the United States could not suffer the consequences of airstrikes without the benefits of taking out Iran’s nuclear program. Apart from the political consequences, the U.S. Navy would be drawn into the suppression of Iranian naval capabilities in the Persian Gulf whether it wanted to or not simply to keep the Strait of Hormuz open. Even if Iran didn’t act to close off the strait, Washington would have to assume that it might, an eventuality it could not afford. So an Israeli attack would likely draw in the United States against Iran one way or another. The United States has had no appetite for such an eventuality, particularly since it considers a deliverable Iranian nuclear weapon a ways off. The U.S. alternative — in both administrations — was diplomatic.

Second, Iran has the ability to respond in a number of ways. One is unleashing terrorist attacks worldwide via Hezbollah. But the most significant response would be blocking the Strait of Hormuz using either anti-ship missiles or naval mines. The latter are more threatening largely because the clearing operation could take a considerable period and it would be difficult to know when you had cleared all of the mines. Tankers and their loads are worth about $170 million at current prices, and that uncertainty could cause owners to refuse the trip. Oil exports could fall dramatically, and the effect on the global economy — particularly now amid the global financial crisis — could be absolutely devastating. Attacking Iran would be an air-sea battle, and could even include limited ground forces inserted to ensure that the nuclear facilities were destroyed.

This is what we’re talking about people. Bush hesitated rightly to jump this off, and Obama is not doing anything different. There was a strategic rationale for doing Iraq, one I don’t quibble with, but we’re in Iraq 6+ years because we didn’t think through some of the angles. What is it that these dweebs at the Weekly Standard and all those who want to make a game out of calling the President weak want to have happen? Are they really so cavalier about the costs and consequences of putting a hit on Iran? We’re talking about jumping off open warfare with a regional power by severely bombing the place for at least a week, a country that we don’t intend to occupy and couldn’t if we wanted to. Its absolutely irresponsible.

I agree that their is some uncertainty about the character of Obama’s cahones in these matters. As has been asked elsewhere, Obama is loved in many places, but does anyone fear him? Obama is aware of the sentiment at home and in foreign capitals that he is weak. The time may come that he’s going to have to do something seriously unpleasant to someone to make his point. But there is no intellectual or patriotic honesty in goading the President into being some kind of cowboy with regard to Iran. The consequences of military action are serious and unforeseeable, particularly in a time when the global economy is still a fragile mess. The reality is that Iran is still some ways off from a viable nuclear weapon. If he can contain Iran’s nuclear ambitions by getting Russia to deal on crippling sanctions and using diplomacy, that is preferred to the alternative and the unknowns that come with it.

For heaven’s sake, cease and desist with the comparisons to Sarkozy for toughness. When it comes time to play globo-cop, that 911 is not going to ring at Sarkozy’s desk. It is EASY for Sarkozy to talk tough, because when it comes down to it, he is not the one who’s going to have to face off against Iran. That’s going to be Obama’s job. When France becomes the country that gets the call to kick butt and take names, then feel free to tell me all about how Sarkozy is such a badass. Until then, please shut the hell up.

By George Friedman ~ Honorary Political Season Contributor

The United States announced late Sept. 17 that it would abandon a plan for placing ballistic missile defense (BMD) installations in Poland and the Czech Republic. Instead of the planned system, which was intended to defend primarily against a potential crude intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) threat from Iran against the United States, the administration chose a restructured system that will begin by providing some protection to Europe using U.S. Navy ships based on either the North or Mediterranean seas. The Obama administration has argued that this system will be online sooner than the previously planned system and that follow-on systems will protect the United States. It was also revealed that the latest National Intelligence Estimate finds that Iran is further away from having a true intercontinental missile capability than previously thought, meaning protecting Europe is a more pressing concern than protecting the United States.

Poland and the Czech Republic responded with a sense of U.S. betrayal, while Russia expressed its satisfaction with the decision. Russian envoy to NATO Dmitri Rogozin said Moscow welcomes the decision and sees it as an appropriate response to Russia’s offer to allow U.S. supplies to flow into Afghanistan through Russia. Later, the Russians added another reward: They tentatively announced the cancellation of plans to deploy short-range ballistic missiles in Kaliningrad, which they previously had planned as a response to the components of the U.S. BMD system planned for Poland and the Czech Republic.

Polish Despair and Russian Delight

Polish despair (and Warsaw seemed far more upset than Prague) and Russian satisfaction must be explained to begin to understand the global implications. To do this, we must begin with an odd fact: The planned BMD system did not in and of itself enhance Polish national security in any way even if missiles had actually targeted Warsaw, since the long-range interceptors in Poland were positioned there to protect the continental United States; missiles falling on Poland would likely be outside the engagement envelope of the original Ground-based Midcourse Defense interceptors. The system was designed to handle very few missiles originating from the Middle East, and the Russians obviously have more than a few missiles.

Given that even small numbers of missiles easily could overwhelm the system, the BMD system in no way directly affected Russian national security: The Russian strike capability — against both Poland and the continental United States — was not affected at all. Indeed, placing the system on ships is no less threatening than placing them on land. So, if it was the BMD system the Russians were upset with, they should be no less upset by the redeployment at sea. Yet Moscow is pleased by what has happened — which means the BMD system was not really the issue.

For Poland, the BMD system was of little importance. What was important was that in placing the system in Poland, the United States obviously was prepared to defend the system from all threats. Since the system could not be protected without also protecting Poland, the BMD installation — and the troops and defensive systems that would accompany it — was seen as a U.S. guarantee on Polish national security even though the system itself was irrelevant to Polish security.

The Russians took the same view. They cared little about the BMD system itself; what they objected to was the presence of a U.S. strategic capability in Poland because this represented an American assertion that Poland was actively under the defense of the United States. Of particular note from the Russian point of view was that such a guarantee would be independent of NATO. The NATO alliance has seen better days, and the Russians (and Poles) perceive an implicit American security guarantee as more threatening than an explicit one from NATO.

This whole chain of events was an exercise in the workings of the Post-Post-Cold War World, in which Russia is a strong regional power seeking to protect its influence in the former Soviet Union (FSU) and to guarantee its frontiers as well — something that in the West has often been misinterpreted as a neurotic need for respect. Poland is the traditional route through which Russia is invaded, and the Russian view is that governments and intentions change but capabilities do not. Whatever Washington intends now, it is asserting dominance in a region that has been the route for three invasions over the last two centuries. By the Russian logic, if the United States has no interest in participating in such an invasion, it should not be interested in Poland. If the United States chooses Poland of all places to deploy its BMD when so many other locations were willing and possible, the Russians are not prepared to regard this choice as merely coincidence.

Overall, the Russians desire a new map of the region, one with two layers. First, Russia must be recognized as the dominant power in the former Soviet Union. The United States and Europe must shape bilateral relations with other former Soviet states within the framework of this understanding. Second, Central Europe — and particularly Poland — must not become a base for U.S. power. The United States and Europe must accept that Russia has no aggressive intent, but more to the point, Poland in particular must become a neutral buffer zone between Russia and Germany. It can sign whatever treaties it wants, attend whatever meetings it wishes and so forth, but major military formations of other great powers must remain out of Poland. Russia sees the BMD system as the first step in militarizing Poland, and the Russians have acted accordingly.

From the standpoint of the Bush administration and the Obama administration early on, the Russian claims to great power status, rights in the former Soviet Union and interests in Poland represented a massive overreach. The perception of both administrations derived from an image developed in the 1990s of Russia as crippled. The idea of Russia as a robust regional power, albeit with significant economic problems, simply didn’t register. There were two generations at work. The older Cold War generation did not trust Russian intentions and wanted to create a cordon around Russia — including countries like Georgia, Ukraine and, most important, Poland — because Russia could become a global threat again. The newer post-Cold War generation — which cut its teeth in the 1990s — wanted to ignore Russia and do what it wished both in Central Europe and the former Soviet Union because Russia was no longer a significant power, and the generation saw the need to develop a new system of relationships. In the end, all this congealed in the deployments in Poland and the Czech Republic.

For Russia, Poland mattered in ways the United States could not grasp given its analytic framework. But the United States had its own strategic obsession: Iran.

Iran: The U.S. Strategic Obsession

The Islamic world has been the focus of the United States since 9/11. In this context, the development of an Iranian nuclear capability was seen as a fundamental threat to U.S. national interests. The obvious response was a military strike to destroy Iranian power, but both the Bush and Obama administrations hesitated to take the step.

First, a strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities would be no one-day affair. Intelligence on precise locations had uncertainty built into it, and any strike would consist of multiple phases: destroying Iran’s air force and navy, destroying Iran’s anti-aircraft capability to guarantee total command of the skies, the attacks on the nuclear facilities themselves, analysis of the damage, perhaps a second wave, and of course additional attacks to deal with any attempted Iranian retaliation. The target set would be considerable, and would extend well beyond the targets directly related to the nuclear program, making such an operation no simple matter.

Second, Iran has the ability to respond in a number of ways. One is unleashing terrorist attacks worldwide via Hezbollah. But the most significant response would be blocking the Strait of Hormuz using either anti-ship missiles or naval mines. The latter are more threatening largely because the clearing operation could take a considerable period and it would be difficult to know when you had cleared all of the mines. Tankers and their loads are worth about $170 million at current prices, and that uncertainty could cause owners to refuse the trip. Oil exports could fall dramatically, and the effect on the global economy — particularly now amid the global financial crisis — could be absolutely devastating. Attacking Iran would be an air-sea battle, and could even include limited ground forces inserted to ensure that the nuclear facilities were destroyed.

The country most concerned with all of this is Israel. The Iranians had given every indication that they plan to build a nuclear capability and use it against Israel. Israel’s vulnerability to such a strike is enormous, and there are serious questions about Israel’s ability to use the threat of a counterstrike as a deterrent to such a strike. In our view, Iran is merely creating a system to guarantee regime survival, but given the tenor of Tehran’s statements, Israel cannot afford to take this view complacently.

Israel could unilaterally draw the United States into an airstrike on Iran. Were Israel to strike Iran by any means, it most likely would lack the ability to conduct an extended air campaign. And the United States could not suffer the consequences of airstrikes without the benefits of taking out Iran’s nuclear program. Apart from the political consequences, the U.S. Navy would be drawn into the suppression of Iranian naval capabilities in the Persian Gulf whether it wanted to or not simply to keep the Strait of Hormuz open. Even if Iran didn’t act to close off the strait, Washington would have to assume that it might, an eventuality it could not afford. So an Israeli attack would likely draw in the United States against Iran one way or another. The United States has had no appetite for such an eventuality, particularly since it considers a deliverable Iranian nuclear weapon a ways off. The U.S. alternative — in both administrations — was diplomatic.
Israel and Complications to the Diplomatic Alternative

Washington wanted to create a coalition of powers able to impose sanctions on Iran. At meetings over the summer, the Obama administration appears to have promised Israel “crippling” sanctions to prevent any unilateral Israel action. At an April G-8 meeting, it was decided that Iran must engage in serious negotiations on its nuclear program prior to the next G-8 meeting — on Sept. 24 — or face these sanctions.

The crippling sanctions foreseen were some sort of interruption of the flow of gasoline into Iran, which imports 40 percent of its supply despite being a net exporter of crude. Obviously, in order for this to work, all of the G-8 nations (and others) must participate, particularly Russia. Russia has the capacity to produce and transport all of Iran’s needs, not just its import requirements. If the Russians don’t participate, there are no sanctions.

The Russians announced weeks ago that they opposed new sanctions on Iran and would not participate in them. Moreover, they seemed to flout the ineffectiveness of any U.S. sanctions. With that, the diplomatic option on Iran was off the table. Russia is not eager to see Iran develop nuclear weapons, but it sees the United States as the greater threat at the moment. Moscow’s fundamental fear is that the United States — and Israel — will dramatically strengthen Ukraine, Georgia and other states in the FSU and on its periphery, and that Russia’s strategic goal of national security through pre-eminence in the region will be lost.

From the Russian point of view, the U.S. desire for Russian help with Iran is incompatible with the U.S. desire to pursue its own course in the FSU and countries like Poland. From the U.S. point of view, these were two entirely different matters that should be handled in a different venue. But Washington didn’t get to choose in this matter. This was a Russian decision. The Russians faced what they saw as an existential threat, believing that the U.S. strategy threatened the long-term survival of the Russian Federation. The Russians were not prepared to support a U.S. solution for Iran without American support on Russian concerns. The Americans ultimately did not understand that the Russians had shifted out of the era in which the United States could simply dictate to them. Now, the United States had to negotiate with the Russians on terms Moscow set, or the United States would have to become more directly threatening to Russia. Becoming more threatening was not an option with U.S. forces scattered all over the Middle East. Therefore, the United States had to decide what it wanted.

American attention in the run-up to the Oct. 1 talks with Iran was focused by Israel. The Obama administration had adopted an interesting two-tier position on Israel. On the one hand, it was confronting Israel on halting settlement activity in the West Bank; on the other hand, it was making promises to Israel on Iran. The sense in Israel was that the Obama administration was altering Washington’s traditional support for Israel. Since Iran was a critical threat to Israel, and since Israel might not have a better chance to strike than now, the Obama administration began to realize that its diplomatic option had failed, and that the decision on war and peace with Iran was not in its hands but in Israel’s, since Israel was prepared to act unilaterally and draw the United States into a war. Given that the Obama diplomatic initiative had failed and that the administration’s pressure on Israel had created a sense of isolation in Israel, the situation could now well spiral out of control.

Although all of these things operated in different bureaucratic silos in Washington, and participants in each silo could suffer under the illusion that the issues were unrelated, the matters converged hurriedly last week. Uncertain what leverage it had over Israel, the United States decided to reach out to the Russians. Washington sought a way to indicate to the Russians that it was prepared to deal with Russia in a different way while simultaneously giving away as little as possible. That little was the redeployment of BMD components originally planned for Poland and the Czech Republic to ships. (Money already has been allocated to upgrade additional Atlantic-based Aegis warships to BMD capability.) Whatever the military and engineering issues involved, whatever the desire not to conflate U.S. strategic relations with Israel with pressure on the settlement issue, whatever the desire to “reset” relations without actually giving the Russians anything, the silos collapsed and a gesture was made.

From the Russian point of view, the gesture is welcome but insufficient. They are not going to solve a major strategic problem for the United States simply in return for moving the BMD. For that, the United States got access to Afghanistan through Russia if desired, and the removal of missiles in Kaliningrad. The Americans also got a different atmosphere at meetings between U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitri Medvedev at the United Nations next week. But the sine qua non for Russian help on Iran is Russia’s sphere of influence in the FSU. The public relations aspect of how this sphere is announced is not critical. That the U.S. agrees to it is.

This is the foreign policy test all U.S. presidents face. Obama now has three choices.

1. He can make the deal with Russia. But every day that passes, Russia is creating the reality of domination in the FSU, so its price for a deal will continue to rise from simply recognizing their sphere of influence to extending it to neutralizing Poland.

2. He can select the military option of an air campaign against Iran. But this means accepting the risk to maritime traffic in the Persian Gulf and the potentially devastating impact on the global economy if oil exports through the Strait of Hormuz are impacted significantly.

3. He can wait to see how things unfold, and place overwhelming pressure on Israel not to attack. But this means finding a way to place the pressure: Israel in 2009 does not have the dependence on the United States it had in 1973.
The Importance of Poland

Ultimately, the question of Iran is secondary. The question of U.S.-Russian relations is now paramount. And ultimately, policymakers don’t really have as much freedom to make choices as they would like. Under any of these scenarios, the United States doesn’t have the power to stop Russian dominance in the FSU, but it does have the ability to block further Russian expansion on the North European Plain. Preventing an amalgamation between Russia and Europe is a fundamental interest to the United States; neutralizing Poland and depending on Germany as the Russian-European frontier is not inviting — especially as Germany has no interest in reprising the role it played from 1945 to 1991.

The United States has an Iran crisis, but it is not its fundamental geopolitical problem. Interestingly, the Iran crisis is highlighting the real issue, which is Russia. It is Russia that is blocking a solution to Iran because Russian and American interests have profoundly diverged. What is emerging from Iran is the issue of Russia. And obviously, when Russia becomes an issue, so does Poland. If the United States acts to limit Russia, it will act in Poland, and not with BMD systems.

The Obama administration’s decision to withdraw BMD is insufficient to entice Russia into assisting with Iran. An agreement to respect Russian rights in the FSU would be sufficient (and in a way would merely recognize what is already in place). Obama might quietly give that assurance. But if he does, the United States will not add Poland to the pile of concessions. The greater the concessions in the FSU, the more important Poland becomes. The idea of conceding both Russian hegemony in the FSU and the neutralization of Poland in exchange for Russian pressure on Iran is utterly disproportionate.

The United States has already completed delivery of 48 late-model F-16C/Ds with advanced offensive capabilities to Poland. That matters far more to Polish national security than BMD. In the U.S. tradition with allies — particularly allies with strong lobbies in the United States, where the Polish lobby is immense — disappointment on one weapon system usually results in generosity with other, more important systems (something the Poles must learn).

As the United States has a strong military option in Iran, redrawing the map of Europe to avoid using that option — regardless of Polish fears at the moment — is unlikely. Moreover, Washington also could decide to live with an Iranian nuclear capability without redrawing the map of Europe. Ultimately, the United States has made a gesture with little content and great symbolic meaning. It is hoping that the Russians are overwhelmed by the symbolism. They won’t be.

For their part, the Russians are hoping the Americans panic over Iran. The fact is that while Russia is a great regional power, it is not that great, and its region is not that critical. The Russians may be betting that Obama will fold. They made the same bet on John F. Kennedy. Obama reads the same reports that we do about how the Russians believe him to be weak and indecisive. And that is a formula for decisive — if imprudent — action.
Political Season Response: This is turning into a real game of geopolitical chicken and the question of the day is…will Obama blink?

By George Friedman~Honorary Political Season Contributor

As August draws to a close, so does the first phase of the Obama presidency. The first months of any U.S. presidency are spent filling key positions and learning the levers of foreign and national security policy. There are also the first rounds of visits with foreign leaders and the first tentative forays into foreign policy. The first summer sees the leaders of the Northern Hemisphere take their annual vacations, and barring a crisis or war, little happens in the foreign policy arena. Then September comes and the world gets back in motion, and the first phase of the president’s foreign policy ends. The president is no longer thinking about what sort of foreign policy he will have; he now has a foreign policy that he is carrying out.

We therefore are at a good point to stop and consider not what U.S. President Barack Obama will do in the realm of foreign policy, but what he has done and is doing. As we have mentioned before, the single most remarkable thing about Obama’s foreign policy is how consistent it is with the policies of former President George W. Bush. This is not surprising. Presidents operate in the world of constraints; their options are limited. Still, it is worth pausing to note how little Obama has deviated from the Bush foreign policy.

During the 2008 U.S. presidential campaign, particularly in its early stages, Obama ran against the Iraq war. The centerpiece of his early position was that the war was a mistake, and that he would end it. Obama argued that Bush’s policies — and more important, his style — alienated U.S. allies. He charged Bush with pursuing a unilateral foreign policy, alienating allies by failing to act in concert with them. In doing so, he maintained that the war in Iraq destroyed the international coalition the United States needs to execute any war successfully. Obama further argued that Iraq was a distraction and that the major effort should be in Afghanistan. He added that the United States would need its NATO allies’ support in Afghanistan. He said an Obama administration would reach out to the Europeans, rebuild U.S. ties there and win greater support from them.

Though around 40 countries cooperated with the United States in Iraq, albeit many with only symbolic contributions, the major continental European powers — particularly France and Germany — refused to participate. When Obama spoke of alienating allies, he clearly meant these two countries, as well as smaller European powers that had belonged to the U.S. Cold War coalition but were unwilling to participate in Iraq and were now actively hostile to U.S. policy.

A European Rebuff

Early in his administration, Obama made two strategic decisions. First, instead of ordering an immediate withdrawal from Iraq, he adopted the Bush administration’s policy of a staged withdrawal keyed to political stabilization and the development of Iraqi security forces. While he tweaked the timeline on the withdrawal, the basic strategy remained intact. Indeed, he retained Bush’s defense secretary, Robert Gates, to oversee the withdrawal.

Second, he increased the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan. The Bush administration had committed itself to Afghanistan from 9/11 onward. But it had remained in a defensive posture in the belief that given the forces available, enemy capabilities and the historic record, that was the best that could be done, especially as the Pentagon was almost immediately reoriented and refocused on the invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq. Toward the end, the Bush administration began exploring — under the influence of Gen. David Petraeus, who designed the strategy in Iraq — the possibility of some sort of political accommodation in Afghanistan.

Obama has shifted his strategy in Afghanistan to this extent: He has moved from a purely defensive posture to a mixed posture of selective offense and defense, and has placed more forces into Afghanistan (although the United States still has nowhere near the number of troops the Soviets had when they lost their Afghan war). Therefore, the core structure of Obama’s policy remains the same as Bush’s except for the introduction of limited offensives. In a major shift since Obama took office, the Pakistanis have taken a more aggressive stance (or at least want to appear more aggressive) toward the Taliban and al Qaeda, at least within their own borders. But even so, Obama’s basic strategy remains the same as Bush’s: hold in Afghanistan until the political situation evolves to the point that a political settlement is possible.

Most interesting is how little success Obama has had with the French and the Germans. Bush had given up asking for assistance in Afghanistan, but Obama tried again. He received the same answer Bush did: no. Except for some minor, short-term assistance, the French and Germans were unwilling to commit forces to Obama’s major foreign policy effort, something that stands out.

Given the degree to which the Europeans disliked Bush and were eager to have a president who would revert the U.S.-European relationship to what it once was (at least in their view), one would have thought the French and Germans would be eager to make some substantial gesture rewarding the United States for selecting a pro-European president. Certainly, it was in their interest to strengthen Obama. That they proved unwilling to make that gesture suggests that the French and German relationship with the United States is much less important to Paris and Berlin than it would appear. Obama, a pro-European president, was emphasizing a war France and Germany approved of over a war they disapproved of and asked for their help, but virtually none was forthcoming.

The Russian Non-Reset

Obama’s desire to reset European relations was matched by his desire to reset U.S.-Russian relations. Ever since the Orange Revolution in the Ukraine in late 2004 and early 2005, U.S.-Russian relations had deteriorated dramatically, with Moscow charging Washington with interfering in the internal affairs of former Soviet republics with the aim of weakening Russia. This culminated in the Russo-Georgian war last August. The Obama administration has since suggested a “reset” in relations, with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton actually carrying a box labeled “reset button” to her spring meeting with the Russians.

The problem, of course, was that the last thing the Russians wanted was to reset relations with the United States. They did not want to go back to the period after the Orange Revolution, nor did they want to go back to the period between the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Orange Revolution. The Obama administration’s call for a reset showed the distance between the Russians and the Americans: The Russians regard the latter period as an economic and geopolitical disaster, while the Americans regard it as quite satisfactory. Both views are completely understandable.

The Obama administration was signaling that it intends to continue the Bush administration’s Russia policy. That policy was that Russia had no legitimate right to claim priority in the former Soviet Union, and that the United States had the right to develop bilateral relations with any country and expand NATO as it wished. But the Bush administration saw the Russian leadership as unwilling to follow the basic architecture of relations that had developed after 1991, and as unreasonably redefining what the Americans thought of as a stable and desirable relationship. The Russian response was that an entirely new relationship was needed between the two countries, or the Russians would pursue an independent foreign policy matching U.S. hostility with Russian hostility. Highlighting the continuity in U.S.-Russian relations, plans for the prospective ballistic missile defense installation in Poland, a symbol of antagonistic U.S.-Russian relations, remain unchanged.

The underlying problem is that the Cold War generation of U.S. Russian experts has been supplanted by the post-Cold War generation, now grown to maturity and authority. If the Cold warriors were forged in the 1960s, the post-Cold warriors are forever caught in the 1990s. They believed that the 1990s represented a stable platform from which to reform Russia, and that the grumbling of Russians plunged into poverty and international irrelevancy at that time is simply part of the post-Cold War order. They believe that without economic power, Russia cannot hope to be an important player on the international stage. That Russia has never been an economic power even at the height of its influence but has frequently been a military power doesn’t register. Therefore, they are constantly expecting Russia to revert to its 1990s patterns, and believe that if Moscow doesn’t, it will collapse — which explains U.S. Vice President Joe Biden’s interview in The Wall Street Journal where he discussed Russia’s decline in terms of its economic and demographic challenges. Obama’s key advisers come from the Clinton administration, and their view of Russia — like that of the Bush administration — was forged in the 1990s.

Foreign Policy Continuity Elsewhere

When we look at U.S.-China policy, we see very similar patterns with the Bush administration. The United States under Obama has the same interest in maintaining economic ties and avoiding political complications as the Bush administration did. Indeed, Hillary Clinton explicitly refused to involve herself in human rights issues during her visit to China. Campaign talk of engaging China on human rights issues is gone. Given the interests of both countries, this makes sense, but it is also noteworthy given the ample opportunity to speak to China on this front (and fulfill campaign promises) that has arisen since Obama took office (such as the Uighur riots).

Of great interest, of course, were the three great openings of the early Obama administration, to Cuba, to Iran, and to the Islamic world in general through his Cairo speech. The Cubans and Iranians rebuffed his opening, whereas the net result of the speech to the Islamic world remains unclear. With Iran we see the most important continuity. Obama continues to demand an end to Tehran’s nuclear program, and has promised further sanctions unless Iran agrees to enter into serious talks by late September.

On Israel, the United States has merely shifted the atmospherics. Both the Bush and Obama administrations demanded that the Israelis halt settlements, as have many other administrations. The Israelis have usually responded by agreeing to something small while ignoring the larger issue. The Obama administration seemed ready to make a major issue of this, but instead continued to maintain security collaboration with the Israelis on Iran and Lebanon (and we assume intelligence collaboration). Like the Bush administration, the Obama administration has not allowed the settlements to get in the way of fundamental strategic interests.

This is not a criticism of Obama. Presidents — all presidents — run on a platform that will win. If they are good presidents, they will leave behind these promises to govern as they must. This is what Obama has done. He ran for president as the antithesis of Bush. He has conducted his foreign policy as if he were Bush. This is because Bush’s foreign policy was shaped by necessity, and Obama’s foreign policy is shaped by the same necessity. Presidents who believe they can govern independent of reality are failures. Obama doesn’t intend to fail.


by George Friedman ~ Honorary Political Season Contributor

At Friday prayers July 17 at Tehran University, the influential cleric and former Iranian President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani gave his first sermon since Iran’s disputed presidential election and the subsequent demonstrations. The crowd listening to Rafsanjani inside the mosque was filled with Ahmadinejad supporters who chanted, among other things, “Death to America” and “Death to China.” Outside the university common grounds, anti-Ahmadinejad elements — many of whom were blocked by Basij militiamen and police from entering the mosque — persistently chanted “Death to Russia.” 

Death to America is an old staple in Iran. Death to China had to do with the demonstrations in Xinjiang and the death of Uighurs at the hands of the Chinese. Death to Russia, however, stood out. Clearly, its use was planned before the protesters took to the streets. The meaning of this must be uncovered. To begin to do that, we must consider the political configuration in Iran at the moment. 

The Iranian Political Configuration

There are two factions claiming to speak for the people. Rafsanjani represents the first faction. During his sermon, he spoke for the tradition of the founder of the Islamic republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who took power during the 1979 Iranian Revolution. Rafjsanjani argued that Khomeini wanted an Islamic republic faithful to the will of the people, albeit within the confines of Islamic law. Rafsanjani argued that he was the true heir to the Islamic revolution. He added that Khomeini’s successor — the current supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei — had violated the principles of the revolution when he accepted that Rafsanjani’s archenemy, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, had won Iran’s recent presidential election. (There is enormous irony in foreigners describing Rafsanjani as a moderate reformer who supports greater liberalization. Though he has long cultivated this image in the West, in 30 years of public political life it is hard to see a time when has supported Western-style liberal democracy.) 

The other faction is led by Ahmadinejad, who takes the position that Rafsanjani in particular — along with the generation of leaders who ascended to power during the first phase of the Islamic republic — has betrayed the Iranian people. Rather than serving the people, Ahmadinejad claims they have used their positions to become so wealthy that they dominate the Iranian economy and have made the reforms needed to revitalize the Iranian economy impossible. According to Ahmadinejad’s charges, these elements now blame Ahmadinejad for Iran’s economic failings when the root of these failings is their own corruption. Ahmadinejad claims that the recent presidential election represents a national rejection of the status quo. He adds that claims of fraud represent attempts by Rafsanjani — who he portrays as defeated presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi’s sponsor — and his ilk to protect their positions from Ahmadinejad. 

Iran is therefore experiencing a generational dispute, with each side claiming to speak both for the people and for the Khomeini tradition. There is the older generation — symbolized by Rafsanjani — that has prospered during the last 30 years. Having worked with Khomeini, this generation sees itself as his true heir. Then, there is the younger generation. Known as “students” during the revolution, this group did the demonstrating and bore the brunt of the shah’s security force counterattacks. It argues that Khomeini would be appalled at what Rafsanjani and his generation have done to Iran. 

This debate is, of course, more complex than this. Khamenei, a key associate of Khomeini, appears to support Ahmadinejad’s position. And Ahmadinejad hardly speaks for all of the poor as he would like to claim. The lines of political disputes are never drawn as neatly as we would like. Ultimately, Rafsanjani’s opposition to the recent election did not have as much to do with concerns (valid or not) over voter fraud. It had everything to do with the fact that the outcome threatened his personal position. Which brings us back to the question of why Rafsanjani’s followers were chanting “Death to Russia?” 

Examining the Anomalous Chant

For months prior to the election, Ahmadinejad’s allies warned that the United States was planning a “color” revolution. Color revolutions, like the one in Ukraine, occurred widely in the former Soviet Union after its collapse, and these revolutions followed certain steps. An opposition political party was organized to mount an electoral challenge the establishment. Then, an election occurred that was either fraudulent or claimed by the opposition as having been fraudulent. Next, widespread peaceful protests against the regime (all using a national color as the symbol of the revolution) took place, followed by the collapse of the government through a variety of paths. Ultimately, the opposition — which was invariably pro-Western and particularly pro-American — took power. 

Moscow openly claimed that Western intelligence agencies, particularly the CIA, organized and funded the 2004-2005 Orange Revolution in Ukraine. These agencies allegedly used nongovernmental organizations (human rights groups, pro-democracy groups, etc.) to delegitimize the existing regime, repudiate the outcome of election regardless of its validity and impose what the Russians regarded as a pro-American puppet regime. The Russians saw Ukraine’s Orange Revolution as the breakpoint in their relationship with the West, with the creation of a pro-American, pro-NATO regime in Ukraine representing a direct attack on Russian national security. The Americans argued that to the contrary, they had done nothing but facilitate a democratic movement that opposed the existing regime for its own reasons, demanding that rigged elections be repudiated. 

In warning that the United States was planning a color revolution in Iran, Ahmadinejad took the Russian position. Namely, he was arguing that behind the cover of national self-determination, human rights and commitment to democratic institutions, the United States was funding an Iranian opposition movement on the order of those active in the former Soviet Union. Regardless of whether the opposition actually had more votes, this opposition movement would immediately regard an Ahmadinejad win as the result of fraud. Large demonstrations would ensue, and if left unopposed, the Islamic republic would come under threat. 

In doing this, Ahmadinejad’s faction positioned itself against the actuality that such a rising would occur. If it did, Ahmadinejad could claim that the demonstrators were — wittingly or not — operating on behalf of the United States, thus delegitimizing the demonstrators. In so doing, he could discredit supporters of the demonstrators as not tough enough on the United States, a useful charge against Rafsanjani, whom the West long has held up as an Iranian moderate

Interestingly, while demonstrations were at their height, Ahmadinejad chose to attend — albeit a day late — a multinational Shanghai Cooperation Organization conference in Moscow on the Tuesday after the election. It was very odd that he would leave Iran at the time of the greatest unrest; we assumed that he had decided to demonstrate to Iranians that he didn’t take the demonstrations seriously. 

The charge that seems to be emerging on the Rafsanjani side is that Ahmadinejad’s fears of a color revolution were not simply political, but were encouraged by the Russians. It was the Russians who had been talking to Ahmadinejad and his lieutenants on a host of issues, who warned him about the possibility of a color revolution. More important, the Russians helped prepare Ahmadinejad for the unrest that would come — and given the Russian experience, how to manage it. Though we speculate here, if this theory is correct, it could explain some of the efficiency with which Ahmadinejad shut down cell phone and other communications during the postelection unrest, as he may have had Russian advisers. 

Rafsanjani’s followers were not shouting “Death to Russia” without a reason, at least in their own minds. They are certainly charging that Ahmadinejad took advice from the Russians, and went to Russia in the midst of political unrest for consultations. Rafsanjani’s charge may or may not be true. Either way, there is no question that Ahmadinejad did claim that the United States was planning a color revolution in Iran. If he believed that charge, it would have been irrational not to reach out to the Russians. But whether or not the CIA was involved, the Russians might well have provided Ahmadinejad with intelligence of such a plot and helped shape his response, and thereby may have created a closer relationship with him. 

How Iran’s internal struggle will work itself out remains unclear. But one dimension is shaping up: Ahmadinejad is trying to position Rafsanjani as leading a pro-American faction intent on a color revolution, while Rafsanjani is trying to position Ahmadinejad as part of a pro-Russian faction. In this argument, the claim that Ahmadinejad had some degree of advice or collaboration with the Russians is credible, just as the claim that Rafsanjani maintained some channels with the Americans is credible. And this makes an internal dispute geopolitically significant

The Iranian Struggle in Geopolitical Context

At the moment, Ahmadinejad appears to have the upper hand. Khamenei has certified his re-election. The crowds have dissipated; nothing even close to the numbers of the first few days have since materialized. For Ahmadinejad to lose, Rafsanjani would have to mobilize much of the clergy — many of whom are seemingly content to let Rafsanjani be the brunt of Ahmadinejad’s attacks — in return for leaving their own interests and fortunes intact. There are things that could bring Ahmadinejad down and put Rafsanjani in control, but all of them would require Khamenei to endorse social and political instability, which he will not do. 

If the Russians have in fact have intervened in Iran to the extent of providing intelligence to Ahmadinejad and advice to him during his visit on how to handle the postelection unrest (as the chants suggest), then Russian influence in Iran is not surging — it has surged. In some measure, Ahmadinejad would owe his position to Russian warnings and advice. There is little gratitude in the world of international affairs, but Ahmadinejad has enemies, and the Russians would have proven their utility in helping contain those enemies. 

From the Russian point of view, Ahmadinejad would be a superb asset — even if not truly under their control. His very existence focuses American attention on Iran, not on Russia. It follows, then, that Russia would have made a strategic decision to involve itself in the postelection unrest, and that for the purposes of its own negotiations with Washington, Moscow will follow through to protect the Iranian state to the extent possible. The Russians have already denied U.S. requests for assistance on Iran. But if Moscow has intervened in Iran to help safeguard Ahmadinejad’s position, then the potential increases for Russia to provide Iran with the S-300 strategic air defense systems that it has been dangling in front of Tehran for more than a decade. 

If the United States perceives an entente between Moscow and Tehran emerging, then the entire dynamic of the region shifts and the United States must change its game. The threat to Washington’s interests becomes more intense as the potential of a Russian S-300 sale to Iran increases, and the need to disrupt the Russian-Iranian entente would become all the more important. U.S. influence in Iran already has declined substantially, and Ahmadinejad is more distrustful and hostile than ever of the United States after having to deal with the postelection unrest. If a Russian-Iranian entente emerges out of all this — which at the moment is merely a possibility, not an imminent reality — then the United States would have some serious strategic problems on its hands. 

Revisiting Assumptions on Iran

For the past few years, STRATFOR has assumed that a U.S. or Israeli strike on Iran was unlikely.Iran was not as advanced in its nuclear program as some claimed, and the complexities of any attack were greater than assumed. The threat of an attack was thus a U.S. bargaining chip, much as Iran’s nuclear program itself was an Iranian bargaining chip for use in achieving Tehran’s objectives in Iraq and the wider region. To this point, our net assessment has been accurate. 

At this point, however, we need to stop and reconsider. If Iran and Russia begin serious cooperation, Washington’s existing dilemma with Iran’s nuclear ambitions and its ongoing standoff with the Russians would fuse to become a single, integrated problem. This is something the United States would find difficult to manage. Washington’s primary goal would become preventing this from happening. 

Ahmadinejad has long argued that the United States was never about to attack Iran, and that charges by Rafsanjani and others that he has pursued a reckless foreign policy were groundless. But with the “Death to Russia” chants and signaling of increased Russian support for Iran, the United States may begin to reconsider its approach to the region. 

Iran’s clerical elite does not want to go to war. They therefore can only view with alarm the recent ostentatious transiting of the Suez Canal into the Red Sea by Israeli submarines and corvettes. This transiting did not happen without U.S. approval. Moreover, in spite of U.S. opposition to expanded Israeli settlements and Israeli refusals to comply with this opposition, U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates will be visiting Israel in two weeks. The Israelis have said that there must be a deadline on negotiations with Iran over the nuclear program when the next G-8 meeting takes place in September; a deadline that the G-8 has already approved. The consequences if Iran ignores the deadline were left open-ended. 

All of this can fit into our old model of psychological warfare, as representing a bid to manipulate Iranian politics by making Ahmadinejad’s leadership look too risky. It could also be the United States signaling the Russians that stakes in the region are rising. It is not clear that the United States has reconsidered its strategy on Iran in the wake of the postelection demonstrations. But if Rafsanjani’s claim of Russian support for Ahmadinejad is true, a massive re-evaluation of U.S. policy could ensue, assuming one hasn’t already started — prompting a reconsideration of the military option. 

All of this assumes that there is substance behind a mob chanting “Death to Russia.” There appears to be, but of course, Ahmadinejad’s enemies would want to magnify that substance to its limits and beyond. This is why we are not ready to simply abandon our previous net assessment of Iran, even though it is definitely time to rethink it.

By Honorary Political Season Contributor – George Friedman of Stratfor

Amid the rhetoric of U.S. President Barack Obama’s speech June 4 in Cairo, there was one substantial indication of change, not in the U.S. relationship to the Islamic world but in the U.S. relationship to Israel. This shift actually emerged prior to the speech, and the speech merely touched on it. But it is not a minor change and it must not be underestimated. It has every opportunity of growing into a major breach between Israel and the United States.

The immediate issue concerns Israeli settlements on the West Bank. The United States has long expressed opposition to increasing settlements but has not moved much beyond rhetoric. Certainly the continued expansion and development of new settlements on the West Bank did not cause prior administrations to shift their policies toward Israel. And while the Israelis have occasionally modified their policies, they have continued to build settlements. The basic understanding between the two sides has been that the United States would oppose settlements formally but that this would not evolve into a fundamental disagreement.

The United States has clearly decided to change the game. Obama has said that, “The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements. This construction violates previous agreements and undermines efforts to achieve peace. It is time for these settlements to stop.” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has agreed to stop building new settlements, but not to halt what he called the “natural growth” of existing settlements.

Obama has positioned the settlement issue in such a way that it would be difficult for him to back down. He has repeated it several times, including in his speech to the Islamic world. It is an issue on which he is simply following the formal positions of prior administrations. It is an issue on which prior Israeli governments made commitments. What Obama has done is restated formal U.S. policy, on which there are prior Israeli agreements, and demanded Israeli compliance. Given his initiative in the Islamic world, Obama, having elevated the issue to this level, is going to have problems backing off.

Obama is also aware that Netanyahu is not in a political position to comply with the demand, even if he were inclined to. Netanyahu is leading a patchwork coalition in which support from the right is critical. For the Israeli right, settling in what it calls Samaria and Judea is a fundamental principle on which it cannot bend. Unlike Ariel Sharon, a man of the right who was politically powerful, Netanyahu is a man of the right who is politically weak. Netanyahu gave all he could give on this issue when he said there would be no new settlements created. Netanyahu doesn’t have the political ability to give Obama what he is demanding. Netanyahu is locked into place, unless he wants to try to restructure his Cabinet or persuade people like Avigdor Lieberman, his right-wing foreign minister, to change their fundamental view of the world.

Therefore, Obama has decided to create a crisis with Israel. He has chosen a subject on which Republican and Democratic administrations have had the same formal position. He has also picked a subject that does not affect Israeli national security in any immediate sense (he has not made demands for changes of policy toward Gaza, for example). Obama struck at an issue where he had precedent on his side, and where Israel’s immediate safety is not at stake. He also picked an issue on which he would have substantial support in the United States, and he has done this to have a symbolic showdown with Israel. The more Netanyahu resists, the more Obama gets what he wants.

Obama’s read of the Arab-Israeli situation is that it is not insoluble. He believes in the two-state solution, for better or worse. In order to institute the two-state solution, Obama must establish the principle that the West Bank is Palestinian territory by right and not Israeli territory on which the Israelis might make concessions. The settlements issue is fundamental to establishing this principle. Israel has previously agreed both to the two-state solution and to not expanding settlements. If Obama can force Netanyahu to concede on the settlements issue, then he will break the back of the Israeli right and open the door to a rightist-negotiated settlement of the two-state solution.

In the course of all of this, Obama is opening doors in the Islamic world a little wider by demonstrating that the United States is prepared to force Israel to make concessions. By subtext, he wants to drive home the idea that Israel does not control U.S. policy but that, in fact, Israel and the United States are two separate countries with different and sometimes conflicting views. Obama wouldn’t mind an open battle on the settlements one bit.

For Netanyahu, this is the worst terrain on which to fight. If he could have gotten Obama to attack by demanding that Israel not respond to missiles launched from Gaza or Lebanon, Netanyahu would have had the upper hand in the United States. Israel has support in the United States and in Congress, and any action that would appear to leave Israel’s security at risk would trigger an instant strengthening of that support.

But there is not much support in the United States for settlements on the West Bank. This is not a subject around which Israel’s supporters are going to rally very intensely, in large part because there is substantial support for a two-state solution and very little understanding or sympathy for the historic claim of Jews to Judea and Samaria. Obama has picked a topic on which he has political room for maneuver and on which Netanyahu is politically locked in.

Given that, the question is where Obama is going with this. From Obama’s point of view, he wins no matter what Netanyahu decides to do. If Netanyahu gives in, then he has established the principle that the United States can demand concessions from a Likud-controlled government in Israel and get them. There will be more demands. If Netanyahu doesn’t give in, Obama can create a split with Israel over the one issue he can get public support for in the United States (a halt to settlement expansion in the West Bank), and use that split as a lever with Islamic states.

Thus, the question is what Netanyahu is going to do. His best move is to say that this is just a disagreement between friends and assume that the rest of the U.S.-Israeli relationship is intact, from aid to technology transfer to intelligence sharing. That’s where Obama is going to have to make his decision. He has elevated the issue to the forefront of U.S.-Israeli relations. The Israelis have refused to comply. If Obama proceeds with the relationship as if nothing has happened, then he is back where he began.

Obama did not start this confrontation to wind up there. He calculated carefully when he raised this issue and knew perfectly well that Netanyahu couldn’t make concessions on it, so he had to have known that he was going to come to this point. Obviously, he could have made this confrontation as a part of his initiative to the Islamic world. But it is unlikely that he saw that initiative as ending with the speech, and he understands that, for the Islamic world, his relation to Israel is important. Even Islamic countries not warmly inclined toward Palestinians, like Jordan or Egypt, don’t want the United States to back off on this issue.

Netanyahu has argued in the past that Israel’s relationship to the United States was not as important to Israel as it once was. U.S. aid as a percentage of Israel’s gross domestic product has plunged. Israel is not facing powerful states, and it is not facing a situation like 1973, when Israeli survival depended on aid being rushed in from the United States. The technology transfer now runs both ways, and the United States relies on Israeli intelligence quite a bit. In other words, over the past generation, Israel has moved from a dependent relationship with the United States to one of mutual dependence.

This is very much Netanyahu’s point of view, and from this point of view follows the idea that he might simply say no to the United States on the settlements issue and live easily with the consequences. The weakness in this argument is that, while Israel does not now face strategic issues it can’t handle, it could in the future. Indeed, while Netanyahu is urging action on Iran, he knows that action is impossible without U.S. involvement.

This leads to a political problem. As much as the right would like to blow off the United States, the center and the left would be appalled. For Israel, the United States has been the centerpiece of the national psyche since 1967. A breach with the United States would create a massive crisis on the left and could well bring the government down if Ehud Barak and his Labor Party, for example, bolted from the ruling coalition. Netanyahu’s problem is the problem Israel has continually had. It is a politically fragmented country, and there is never an Israeli government that does not consist of fragments. A government that contains Lieberman and Barak is not one likely to be able to make bold moves.

It is therefore difficult to see how Netanyahu can both deal with Obama and hold his government together. It is even harder to see how Obama can reduce the pressure. Indeed, we would expect to see him increase the pressure by suspending minor exchanges and programs. Obama is playing to the Israeli center and left, who would oppose any breach with the United States.

Obama has the strong hand and the options. Netanyahu has the weak hand and fewer options. It is hard to see how he will solve the problem. And that’s what Obama wants. He wants Netanyahu struggling with the problem. In the end, he wants Netanyahu to fold on the settlements issue and keep on folding until he presides over a political settlement with the Palestinians. Obama wants Netanyahu and the right to be responsible for the agreement, as Menachem Begin was responsible for the treaty with Egypt and withdrawal from the Sinai.

We find it difficult to imagine how a two-state solution would work, but that concept is at the heart of U.S. policy and Obama wants the victory. He has put into motion processes to create that solution, first of all, by backing Netanyahu into a corner. Left out of Obama’s equation is the Palestinian interest, willingness and ability to reach a treaty with Israel, but from Obama’s point of view, if the Palestinians reject or undermine an agreement, he will still have leverage in the Islamic world. Right now, given Iraq and Afghanistan, that is where he wants leverage, and backing Netanyahu into a corner is more important than where it all leads in the end.

A Political Season Response: Friedman’s analysis suggests to me that Obama is quite focused on getting the US extricated from its entanglements in Iraq and Afghanishtan and he’s thinking broadly about how he needs to do it. His calculus and objective appears to be to create the maximum amount of leverage and room to maneuver in the middle east for the United States as possible. His calculated push on settlements, in particular if sustained despite expected Israeli intransigence, suggests that while he will maintain the US strategic relationship with Israel, he is entirely willing to subsume that relationship to US national security interests in managing the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts.

President Obama today, in an interview with French tv station Canal Plus on I-Television:

“And one of the points I want to make is, is that if you actually took the number of Muslims Americans, we’d be one of the largest Muslim countries in the world.”

This comment has heads exploding in some quarters. Its harmless marketing speak. The President is attempting to condition the environment in the Middle East to give the US more room to maneuver. We have reached the practical and prudent limits of military power to achieve our geopolitical goals. This is a soft power exercise.

By George Friedman~ Honorary Political Season Contributor

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is visiting Washington for his first official visit with U.S. President Barack Obama. A range of issues — including the future of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, Israeli-Syrian talks and Iran policy — are on the table. This is one of an endless series of meetings between U.S. presidents and Israeli prime ministers over the years, many of which concerned these same issues. Yet little has changed.

That Israel has a new prime minister and the United States a new president might appear to make this meeting significant. But this is Netanyahu’s second time as prime minister, and his government is as diverse and fractious as most recent Israeli governments. Israeli politics are in gridlock, with deep divisions along multiple fault lines and an electoral system designed to magnify disagreements.

Obama is much stronger politically, but he has consistently acted with caution, particularly in the foreign policy arena. Much of his foreign policy follows from the Bush administration. He has made no major breaks in foreign policy beyond rhetoric; his policies on Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, Russia and Europe are essentially extensions of pre-existing policy. Obama faces major economic problems in the United States and clearly is not looking for major changes in foreign policy. He understands how quickly public sentiment can change, and he does not plan to take risks he does not have to take right now.

This, then, is the problem: Netanyahu is coming to Washington hoping to get Obama to agree to fundamental redefinitions of the regional dynamic. For example, he wants Obama to re-examine the commitment to a two-state solution in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. (Netanyahu’s foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, has said Israel is no longer bound by prior commitments to that concept.) Netanyahu also wants the United States to commit itself to a finite time frame for talks with Iran, after which unspecified but ominous-sounding actions are to be taken.

Facing a major test in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Obama has more than enough to deal with at the moment. Moreover, U.S. presidents who get involved in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations frequently get sucked into a morass from which they do not return. For Netanyahu to even request that the White House devote attention to the Israeli-Palestinian problem at present is asking a lot. Asking for a complete review of the peace process is even less realistic.

Obstacles to the Two-State Solution

The foundation of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process for years has been the assumption that there would be a two-state solution. Such a solution has not materialized for a host of reasons. First, at present there are two Palestinian entities, Gaza and the West Bank, which are hostile to each other. Second, the geography and economy of any Palestinian state would be so reliant on Israel that independence would be meaningless; geography simply makes the two-state proposal almost impossible to implement. Third, no Palestinian government would have the power to guarantee that rogue elements would not launch rockets at Israel, potentially striking at the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem corridor, Israel’s heartland. And fourth, neither the Palestinians nor the Israelis have the domestic political coherence to allow any negotiator to operate from a position of confidence. Whatever the two sides negotiated would be revised and destroyed by their political opponents, and even their friends.

For this reason, the entire peace process — including the two-state solution — is a chimera. Neither side can live with what the other can offer. But if it is a fiction, it is a fiction that serves U.S. purposes. The United States has interests that go well beyond Israeli interests and sometimes go in a different direction altogether. Like Israel, the United States understands that one of the major obstacles to any serious evolution toward a two-state solution is Arab hostility to such an outcome.

The Jordanians have feared and loathed Fatah in the West Bank ever since the Black September uprisings of 1970. The ruling Hashemites are ethnically different from the Palestinians (who constitute an overwhelming majority of the Jordanian population), and they fear that a Palestinian state under Fatah would threaten the Jordanian monarchy. For their part, the Egyptians see Hamas as a descendent of the Muslim Brotherhood, which seeks the Mubarak government’s ouster — meaning Cairo would hate to see a Hamas-led state. Meanwhile, the Saudis and the other Arab states do not wish to see a radical altering of the status quo, which would likely come about with the rise of a Palestinian polity.

At the same time, whatever the basic strategic interests of the Arab regimes, all pay lip service to the principle of Palestinian statehood. This is hardly a unique situation. States frequently claim to favor various things they actually are either indifferent to or have no intention of doing anything about. Complicating matters for the Arab states is the fact that they have substantial populations that do care about the fate of the Palestinians. These states thus are caught between public passion on behalf of Palestinians and the regimes’ interests that are threatened by the Palestinian cause. The states’ challenge, accordingly, is to appear to be doing something on behalf of the Palestinians while in fact doing nothing.

The United States has a vested interest in the preservation of these states. The futures of Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states are of vital importance to Washington. The United States must therefore simultaneously publicly demonstrate its sensitivity to pressures from these nations over the Palestinian question while being careful to achieve nothing — an easy enough goal to achieve.

The various Israeli-Palestinian peace processes have thus served U.S. and Arab interests quite well. They provide the illusion of activity, with high-level visits breathlessly reported in the media, succeeded by talks and concessions — all followed by stalemate and new rounds of violence, thus beginning the cycle all over again.

The Palestinian Peace Process as Political Theater

One of the most important proposals Netanyahu is bringing to Obama calls for reshaping the peace process. If Israeli President Shimon Peres is to be believed, Netanyahu will not back away from the two-state formula. Instead, the Israeli prime minister is asking that the various Arab state stakeholders become directly involved in the negotiations. In other words, Netanyahu is proposing that Arab states with very different public and private positions on Palestinian statehood be asked to participate — thereby forcing them to reveal publicly their true positions, ultimately creating internal political crises in the Arab states.

The clever thing about this position is that Netanyahu not only knows his request will not become a reality, but he also does not want it to become a reality. The political stability of Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Egypt is as much an Israeli interest as an American one. Indeed, Israel even wants a stable Syria, since whatever would come after the Alawite regime in Damascus would be much more dangerous to Israeli security than the current Syrian regime.

Overall, Israel is a conservative power. In terms of nation-states, it does not want upheaval; it is quite content with the current regimes in the Arab world. But Netanyahu would love to see an international conference with the Arab states roundly condemning Israel publicly. This would shore up the justification for Netanyahu’s policies domestically while simultaneously creating a framework for reshaping world opinion by showing an Israel isolated among hostile states.

Obama is likely hearing through diplomatic channels from the Arab countries that they do not want to participate directly in the Palestinian peace process. And the United States really does not want them there, either. The peace process normally ends in a train wreck anyway, and Obama is in no hurry to see the wreckage. He will want to insulate other allies from the fallout, putting off the denouement of the peace process as long as possible. Obama has sent George Mitchell as his Middle East special envoy to deal with the issue, and from the U.S. president’s point of view, that is quite enough attention to the problem.

Netanyahu, of course, knows all this. Part of his mission is simply convincing his ruling coalition — and particularly Lieberman, whom Netanyahu needs to survive, and who is by far Israel’s most aggressive foreign minister ever — that he is committed to redefining the entire Israeli-Palestinian relationship. But in a broader context, Netanyahu is looking for greater freedom of action. By posing a demand the United States will not grant, Israel is positioning itself to ask for something that appears smaller.

Israel and the Appearance of Freedom of Action

What Israel actually would do with greater freedom of action is far less important than simply creating the appearance that the United States has endorsed Israel’s ability to act in a new and unpredictable manner. From Israel’s point of view, the problem with Israeli-Palestinian relations is that Israel is under severe constraints from the United States, and the Palestinians know it. This means that the Palestinians can even anticipate the application of force by Israel, meaning they can prepare for it and endure it. From Netanyahu’s point of view, Israel’s primary problem is that the Palestinians are confident they know what the Israelis will do. If Netanyahu can get Obama to introduce a degree of ambiguity into the situation, Israel could regain the advantage of uncertainty.

The problem for Netanyahu is that Washington is not interested in having anything unpredictable happen in Israeli-Palestinian relations. The United States is quite content with the current situation, particularly while Iraq becomes more stable and the Afghan situation remains unstable. Obama does not want a crisis from the Mediterranean to the Hindu Kush. The fact that Netanyahu has a political coalition to satisfy will not interest the United States, and while Washington at some unspecified point might endorse a peace conference, it will not be until Israel and its foreign minister endorse the two-state formula.

Netanyahu will then shift to another area where freedom of action is relevant — namely, Iran. The Israelis have leaked to the Israeli media that the Obama administration has told them that Israel may not attack Iran without U.S. permission, and that Israel agreed to this requirement. (U.S. President George W. Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert went through the same routine not too long ago, using a good cop/bad cop act in a bid to kick-start negotiations with Iran.)

In reality, Israel would have a great deal of difficulty attacking Iranian facilities with non-nuclear forces. A multitarget campaign 1,000 miles away against an enemy with some air defenses could be a long and complex operation. Such a raid would require a long trip through U.S.-controlled airspace for the fairly small Israeli air force. Israel could use cruise missiles, but the tonnage of high explosive delivered by a cruise missile cannot penetrate even moderately hardened structures; the same is true for ICBMs carrying conventional warheads. Israel would have to notify the United States of its intentions because it would be passing through Iraqi airspace — and because U.S. technical intelligence would know what it was up to before Israeli aircraft even took off. The idea that Israel might consider attacking Iran without informing Washington is therefore absurd on the surface. Even so, the story has surfaced yet again in an Israeli newspaper in a virtual carbon copy of stories published more than a year ago.

Netanyahu has promised that the endless stalemate with the Palestinians will not be allowed to continue. He also knows that whatever happens, Israel cannot threaten the stability of Arab states that are by and large uninterested in the Palestinians. He also understands that in the long run, Israel’s freedom of action is defined by the United States, not by Israel. His electoral platform and his strategic realities have never aligned. Arguably, it might be in the Israeli interest that the status quo be disrupted, but it is not in the American interest. Netanyahu therefore will get to redefine neither the Palestinian situation nor the Iranian situation. Israel simply lacks the power to impose the reality it wants, the current constellation of Arab regimes it needs, and the strategic relationship with the United States on which Israeli national security rests.

In the end, this is a classic study in the limits of power. Israel can have its freedom of action anytime it is willing to pay the price for it. But Israel can’t pay the price. Netanyahu is coming to Washington to see if he can get what he wants without paying the price, and we suspect strongly he knows he won’t get it. His problem is the same as that of the Arab states. There are many in Israel, particularly among Netanyahu’s supporters, who believe Israel is a great power. It isn’t. It is a nation that is strong partly because it lives in a pretty weak neighborhood, and partly because it has very strong friends. Many Israelis don’t want to be told that, and Netanyahu came to office playing on the sense of Israeli national power.

So the peace process will continue, no one will expect anything from it, the Palestinians will remain isolated and wars regularly will break out. The only advantage of this situation from the U.S. point of view it is that it is preferable to all other available realities.

via Stratfor.com

Israel is now in the 12th day of carrying out Operation Cast Lead against the Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas in the Gaza Strip, where Hamas has been the de facto ruler ever since it seized control of the territory in a June 2007 coup. The Israeli campaign, whose primary military aim is to neutralize Hamas’ ability to carry out rocket attacks against Israel, has led to the reported deaths of more than 560 Palestinians; the number of wounded is approaching the 3,000 mark.

The reaction from the Arab world has been mixed. On the one hand, a look at the so-called Arab street will reveal an angry scene of chanting protesters, burning flags and embassy attacks in protest of Israel’s actions. The principal Arab regimes, however, have either kept quiet or publicly condemned Hamas for the crisis — while privately often expressing their support for Israel’s bid to weaken the radical Palestinian group.

Despite the much-hyped Arab nationalist solidarity often cited in the name of Palestine, most Arab regimes actually have little love for the Palestinians. While these countries like keeping the Palestinian issue alive for domestic consumption and as a tool to pressure Israel and the West when the need arises, in actuality, they tend to view Palestinian refugees — and more Palestinian radical groups like Hamas — as a threat to the stability of their regimes.

One such Arab country is Saudi Arabia. Given its financial power and its shared religious underpinnings with Hamas, Riyadh traditionally has backed the radical Palestinian group. The kingdom backed a variety of Islamist political forces during the 1960s and 1970s in a bid to undercut secular Nasserite Arab nationalist forces, which threatened Saudi Arabia’s regional status. But 9/11, which stemmed in part from Saudi support for the Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan, opened Riyadh’s eyes to the danger of supporting militant Islamism.

Thus, while Saudi Arabia continued to support many of the same Palestinian groups, it also started whistling a more moderate tune in its domestic and foreign policies. As part of this moderate drive, in 2002 King Abdullah offered Israel a comprehensive peace treaty whereby Arab states would normalize ties with the Jewish state in exchange for an Israeli withdrawal to its 1967 borders. Though Israel rejected the offer, the proposal itself clearly conflicted with Hamas’ manifesto, which calls for Israel’s destruction. The post-9/11 world also created new problems for one of Hamas’ sources of regular funding — wealthy Gulf Arabs — who grew increasingly wary of turning up on the radars of Western security and intelligence agencies as fund transfers from the Gulf came under closer scrutiny.

Meanwhile, Egypt, which regularly mediates Hamas-Israel and Hamas-Fatah matters, thus far has been the most vocal in its opposition to Hamas during the latest Israeli military offensive. Cairo has even gone as far as blaming Hamas for provoking the conflict. Though Egypt’s stance has earned it a number of attacks on its embassies in the Arab world and condemnations in major Arab editorial pages, Cairo has a core strategic interest in ensuring that Hamas remains boxed in. The secular government of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak is already preparing for a shaky leadership transition, which is bound to be exploited by the country’s largest opposition movement, the Muslim Brotherhood (MB).

The MB, from which Hamas emerged, maintains links with the Hamas leadership. Egypt’s powerful security apparatus has kept the MB in check, but the Egyptian group has steadily built up support among Egypt’s lower and middle classes, which have grown disillusioned with the soaring rate of unemployment and lack of economic prospects in Egypt. The sight of Muslim Brotherhood activists leading protests in Egypt in the name of Hamas is thus quite disconcerting for the Mubarak regime. The Egyptians also are fearful that Gaza could become a haven for Salafist jihadist groups that could collaborate with Egypt’s own jihadist node the longer Gaza remains in disarray under Hamas rule.

Of the Arab states, Jordan has the most to lose from a group like Hamas. More than three-fourths of the Hashemite monarchy’s people claim Palestinian origins. The kingdom itself is a weak, poor state that historically has relied on the United Kingdom, Israel and the United States for its survival. Among all Arab governments, Amman has had the longest and closest relationship with Israel — even before it concluded a formal peace treaty with Israel in 1994. In 1970, Jordan waged war against Fatah when the group posed a threat to the kingdom’s security; it also threw out Hamas in 1999 after fears that the group posed a similar threat to the stability of the kingdom. Like Egypt, Jordan also has a vibrant MB, which has closer ties to Hamas than its Egyptian counterpart. As far as Amman is concerned, therefore, the harder Israel hits Hamas, the better.

Finally, Syria is in a more complex position than these other four Arab states. The Alawite-Baathist regime in Syria has long been a pariah in the Arab world because of its support for Shiite Iran and for their mutual militant proxy in Lebanon, Hezbollah. But ever since the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah, the Syrians have been charting a different course, looking for ways to break free from diplomatic isolation and to reach some sort of understanding with the Israelis.

For the Syrians, support for Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad and several other radical Palestinian outfits provides tools of leverage to use in negotiating a settlement with Israel. Any deal between the Syrians and the Israelis would thus involve Damascus sacrificing militant proxies such as Hezbollah and Hamas in return for key concessions in Lebanon — where Syria’s core geopolitical interests lie — and in the disputed Golan Heights. While the Israeli-Syrian peace talks remain in flux, Syria’s lukewarm reaction to the Israeli offensive and restraint (thus far) from criticizing the more moderate Arab regimes’ lack of response suggests Damascus may be looking to exploit the Gaza offensive to improve its relations in the Arab world and reinvigorate its talks with Israel. And the more da mage Israel does to Hamas now, the easier it will be for Damascus to crack down on Hamas should the need arise.

With Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and Syria taking into account their own interests when dealing with the Palestinians, ironically, the most reliable patron Sunni Hamas has had in recent years is Iran, the Sunni Arab world’s principal Shiite rival. Several key developments have made Hamas’ gradual shift toward Iran possible:

  1. Saudi Arabia’s post-9/11 move into the moderate camp — previously dominated by Egypt and Jordan, two states that have diplomatic relations with Israel.
  2. The collapse of Baathist Iraq and the resulting rise of Shiite power in the region.
  3. The 2004 Iranian parliamentary elections that put Iran’s ultraconservatives in power and the 2005 election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose public anti-Israeli views resonated with Hamas at a time when other Arab states had grown more moderate.
  4. The 2006 Palestinian elections, in which Hamas defeated its secular rival, Fatah, by a landslide. When endowed with the responsibility of running an unrecognized government, Hamas floundered between its goals of dominating the Palestinian political landscape and continuing to call for the destruction of Israel and the creation of an Islamist state. The Arab states, particularly Saudi Arabia and Egypt, had hoped that the electoral victory would lead Hamas to moderate its stance, but Iran encouraged Hamas to adhere to its radical agenda. As the West increasingly isolated the Hamas-led government, the group shifted more toward the Iranian position, which more closely meshed with its original mandate.
  5. The 2006 summer military confrontation between Hezbollah and Israel, in which Iranian-backed Hezbollah symbolically defeated the Jewish state. Hezbollah’s ability to withstand the Israeli military onslaught gave confidence to Hamas that it could emulate the Lebanese Shiite movement — which, like Hamas, was both a political party and an armed paramilitary organization. Similar to their reaction to the current Gaza offensive, the principal Arab states condemned Hezbollah for provoking Israel and grew terrified at the outpouring of support for the Shiite militant group from their own populations. Hezbollah-Hamas collaboration in training, arms-procurement and funding intensified, and almost certainly has played a decisive role in equipping Hamas with 122mm BM-21 Grad artillery rockets and larger Iranian-made 240mm Fajr-3 rockets — and potentially even a modest anti-armor capability.
  6. The June 2007 Hamas coup against Fatah in the Gaza Strip, which caused a serious strain in relations between Egypt and Hamas. The resulting blockade on Gaza put Egypt in an extremely uncomfortable position, in which it had to crack down on the Gaza border, thus giving the MB an excuse to rally opposition against Cairo. Egypt was already uncomfortable with Hamas’ electoral victory, but it could not tolerate the group’s emergence as the unchallenged power in Gaza.
  7. Syria’s decision to go public with peace talks with Israel. As soon as it became clear that Syria was getting serious about such negotiations, alarm bells went off within groups like Hamas and Hezbollah, which now had to deal with the fear that Damascus could sell them out at any time as part of a deal with the Israelis.

Hamas’ relations with the Arab states already were souring; its warming relationship with Iran has proved the coup de grace. Mubarak said it best when he recently remarked that the situation in the Gaza Strip “has led to Egypt, in practice, having a border with Iran.” In other words, Hamas has allowed Iranian influence to come far too close for the Arab states’ comfort.

In many ways, the falling-out between Hamas and the Arab regimes is not surprising. The decline of Nasserism in the late 1960s essentially meant the death of Arab nationalism. Even before then, the Arab states put their respective national interests ahead of any devotion to pan-Arab nationalism that would have translated into support for the Palestinian cause. As Islamism gradually came to replace Arab nationalism as a political force throughout the region, the Arab regimes became even more concerned about stability at home, given the very real threat of a religious challenge to their rule. While these states worked to suppress radical Islamist elements that had taken root in their countries, the Arab governments caught wind of Tehran’s attempts to adopt the region’s radical Islamist trend to create a geopolitical space for Iran in the Arab Middle East. As a result, the Arab-Persian struggle became one of the key drivers that has turned the Arab states against Hamas.

For each of these Arab states, Hamas represents a force that could stir the social pot at home — either by creating a backlash against the regimes for their ties to Israel and their perceived failure to aid the Palestinians, or by emboldening democratic Islamist movements in the region that could threaten the stability of both republican regimes and monarchies. With somewhat limited options to contain Iranian expansion in the region, the Arab states ironically are looking to Israel to ensure that Hamas remains boxed in. So, while on the surface it may seem that the entire Arab world is convulsing with anger at Israel’s offensive against Hamas, a closer look reveals that the view from the Arab palace is quite different from the view on the Arab street.