Written September 2013

What happens next in the Middle East is anyone’s guess.

Making predictions is difficult, especially for the future, say the Chinese. And yet things happen that leave even diplomats befuddled.

A short time ago, no one could predict that among all possible people, two of America’s adversaries, Russian President Putin and the new Iranian President Hasan Rouhani would help Barack Obama get out of the corner into which he had painted himself.

First, the Russian initiative to turn Syrian President Assad’s chemical arsenal over to international control and then the Iranian president’s offer of meaningful dialogue stopped the dangerous escalation into a unilateral strike against Syria that was sure to cause more deaths and to widen violence in the whole region. President Obama’s strike plan was opposed by a large number of nations, by the pope and U.N. Secretary Ban Ki-moon. Two countries, however, were pushing to let the Tomahawk cruise missiles fly: Israel and Saudi Arabia, sworn enemies of Iran. If Obama were to strike a deal with Iran, they would be the losers. But peace would be the winner and that would be very good news.

The next major job would be to force Assad to the bargaining table. It is bound to be a complicated and costly effort for the simple reason that the “good guys” in Syria, call them “moderates,” are outnumbered by the radical and Islamic insurgents, many of whom are proxy armies for the Gulf actors, and particularly Saudi Arabia, that are financing and arming the rebel factions. Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Bahrain are not interested in promoting democracy or finding a diplomatic resolution with Iran.

The American public has made clear its opposition to the United States getting involved in another quagmire in the Middle East, no matter how justified the intent to punish Assad for his crimes against humanity through the use of gas. Congress has gotten the message as well. Americans have understood that the Sunni-Shiite sectarian conflict is deepening and threatens to become a regional conflict. The insurgency in Syria will continue to have major consequences, however, primarily by hindering the strategic agenda of the United States in the region, including promotion of democracy by diplomatic means rather than military intervention. The Iranian overtures have opened the road to engagement with that government with the hope that a true shift in the foreign policy in Tehran may lead to an accord on the Iranian nuclear program.

On the other hand, even a surprising new beginning in the relationship between Washington and Tehran is unlikely to guarantee a resolution of the proxy war in Syria. For the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council led by Saudi Arabia, it is a proxy war with Iran and there is little prospect that it will abate in the near future. As ironic as it may seem, while the United States is in a position to engage Iran in a constructive dialogue based upon a full and unequivocal renunciation by Iran of developing nuclear weapons, the dialogue with the Gulf states that are in a position to stop the sectarian struggle in the Middle East is even more unpredictable. In his speech to the U.N. General Assembly, President Rouhani officially stated that Iran has no place for nuclear weapons. True to form, the Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu does not believe him, but in so doing he is making it more difficult to test the Iranian leader’s seriousness.

Another sideshow is concern for the Israeli-Palestinian peace process that is being affected not just by the worsening of the proxy war in Syria but by the very prospect of an American-Iranian dialogue that will undoubtedly absorb a great deal of diplomatic energy of the Obama administration. The prospect of a Palestinian state will fade even more, thus leaving Israel in full control of the territory that Netanyahu aims to annex by way of rapidly expanding Jewish settlements.

While the United States has a commitment to the creation of a Palestinian state, it is a fact of life that the diplomatic efforts to that end are destined to the back burner while the United States tries to sort out its Syrian strategy under the pressure of the authoritarian Gulf states that do not support democratic institutions and do not foster human and civil rights. True, the powerful instrument of pressure constituted by the Saudi control of the oil spigots is becoming less determinant in the face of increasing American energy independence, a development which the American public cannot but welcome. It would be short of incredible, but not out of the realm of possibilities, if the reestablishment of a constructive relationship with Iran were to open the old spigots of Iranian oil for America.

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