It was initially billed as a "peace conference"
to decisively address the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. But as President George
W. Bush's ambitious Annapolis gathering approached – his most intensive effort
to restart peace talks in seven years – any prospect of a comprehensive breakthrough
appeared as distant as ever, as Israeli and Palestinian leaders struggled to
agree on a joint statement until the last minute.
Annapolis only lasted about 24 hours – not nearly enough time to untangle
the fears and distrust that have exacerbated the longest running protracted
refugee crisis in the Middle East. But nearly one week later, it appears that
the meeting, attended by 40 countries, including 16 member states of the Arab
League, served a more crucial purpose – to convince Israel and Arab regimes
that they face their most dangerous threat from the ascendance of Iran and its
brand of Islamic radicalism.
"The battle is underway for the future of the Middle East, and we must
not cede victory to the extremists," said President Bush during the conference,
offering an ominous view of the region that remains consistent with his dualistic
view of "good" vs. "evil."
"With their violent actions and contempt for human life, the extremists
are seeking to impose a dark vision on the Palestinian people, a vision that
feeds on hopelessness and despair to sow chaos in the Holy Land. If this vision
prevails, the future of the region will be endless terror, endless war and endless
suffering," he said.
President Bush's desire to frame Annapolis as an anti-terrorism conference
at the expense of seemingly laudable goals of peace may sour many in the region,
but the attendance of so many Arab states – notably Iran's ally Syria – suggests
that since the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, the strategic calculus of
the region has irrevocably shifted. And that has many authoritarian regimes
in the region worried that a nuclear Iran will assume the role of Gulf hegemon
and pose a challenge to their security.
"[Iranian hegemony] became deeply threatening to the Sunni Arab states,
and they, and Israel, suddenly found that they were on the same side against
the Iranians," said Martin Indyk, a former special assistant to President
Bill Clinton, in an interview with National Public Radio the day of the conference.
"That created the strategic opportunity which the administration has finally
come to recognize, and that's more than anything else what's fueling the move
Indyk worked at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and served as
the founding executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Washington believes that by isolating Iran, it can stabilize the region, but
Iran's exclusion from the Middle East's political order has reinforced Tehran's
willingness to play a "spoiler role" in broader US-led initiatives
in the Gulf and beyond. Washington's diplomatic track has remained largely ineffective
because the White House always viewed Iran through the prism of a successful
campaign in Iraq, but it never accounted for possible failure, and the regional
Four years after the "liberation" of Baghdad, the Iraq quagmire has
marred the White House's idealistic vision for a "new" Middle East,
and Iran has become the main beneficiary of Washington's foreign policy nightmare.
While the White House wall of hubris has cracked, the administration remains
hawkish on Tehran, offering highly conditional talks over its nuclear program,
and pushing for UN Security Council sanctions while pursuing its own unilateral
sanctions against key elements of Iran's security apparatus, namely the Islamic
Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).
The US only appears willing to deal with the Iranian regime at an incremental
pace on issues of immediate US concern, such as the security of Iraq.
US-Iranian antipathy dates back to Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution, which deposed
US-backed Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi and brought the charismatic and reactionary
Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to power. While it is clear that US security imperatives
shifted after the fall of the Shah, the ascent of the Islamic Republic in 1979
did not exactly change the broader security interests of two regional actors:
Iran and Israel. Iran needed Israel to offset the threat it felt from its Arab
neighbors, namely Iraq, as well as the looming threat of Soviet influence in
From Israel's perspective, Iran balanced Iraq, and Tel Aviv viewed Saddam Hussein's
Ba'athist regime as its more immediate threat. Through this prism, Israel continued
to view Iran – in spite of Khomeini's vitriolic rhetoric against the "Zionist
entity" – as its periphery ally with mutual interests: to check Iraq. Baghdad
has been naturalized since the 1991 Gulf War, worn down by US led sanctions,
but the 2003 invasion and its aftermath allowed Tehran to increase its influence
over its erstwhile foe.
As much as the Bush White House paints Tehran as an unapologetic and ideological
nemesis – the very architects of "Islamic terrorism" – Tehran has
made overtures to the US in hopes of laying the foundations for normalization.
They condemned the 9/11 attacks, pledged to fight al-Qaeda and the Taliban in
Afghanistan, and, during their weakest and Washington's strongest moment – in
the first days of the Iraq invasion – Iran signaled it was willing to put its
nuclear program and support of Islamist rejectionist groups (Hamas, Hezbollah,
Islamic Jihad) on the negotiating table in hopes of being placed on the list
of Washington vanquished foes: Saddam Hussein and the Taliban.
"The Iranians had real contacts with important players in Afghanistan
and were prepared to use their influence in constructive ways in coordination
with the US," said Flynt Leverett, a senior fellow at the Washington-based
New America Foundation, in a statement to the House subcommittee on National
Security and Foreign Affairs earlier this month.
The hope was that by engaging Iran over Afghanistan, the US could later convince
Iran to give up its military support of rejectionist groups that threatened
Israel. Any possible cooperation was scuttled by White House neoconservatives,
who were unwilling to make any move towards engaging Iran.
The US strategy towards Syria also appears to have shifted in an attempt
to break Damascus's alliance with Iran. Syria was the only Arab country to support
Iran through its Islamic Revolution and its war against Iraq, but many analysts
say the alliance between both countries is more out of necessity, and has little
to do with ideological commitments.
Syria defended its attendance at the conference, saying it is open to any serious
attempt to reach a peace deal with Israel that brings the return of the Golan
Heights. Syria's deputy foreign minister, Faysal Mekdad, told the conference
Tuesday his country was "sincere in our pursuit of a just and comprehensive
The Bush administration publicly chided House of Representatives Speaker Nancy
Pelosi for visiting Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad in Damascus more than a
year ago, but the Annapolis conference signals Washington's new willingness
to compromise with Syria, especially over the Lebanese presidential deadlock,
the nation's largest political crisis since the Lebanese Civil War.
Washington's political allies agreed this week to end their opposition to the
presidential bid of a candidate viewed as a Syrian favorite, according to a
report in the Wall Street Journal.
"Ultimately, the US can get more out of Assad in exchange for the Golan
than it can by isolating him," wrote Mohamad Bazzi, a fellow at the Council
on Foreign Relations, in an op-ed for the Christian Science Monitor.
"If there are serious negotiations, Washington can demand that Assad stop
interfering in Lebanon and Iraq, carry out domestic reforms, and drop Syrian
support for Hamas and other Palestinian groups that reject peace with Israel."
It remains to be seen how much the US can benefit from isolating Iran from
the broader future of the region.
(Inter Press Service)