Rutland Herald and Montpelier (Barre) Times Argus

Sunday November 24th, 2013 

By the time you read this, the most significant diplomatic achievement since the end of the Cold War may have been reached. Or maybe not. There are powerful forces against such an agreement – in Israel, the U.S. Congress, Saudi Arabia and Iran. Matters have been complicated this past week by a vituperative anti-Israel, anti-American tirade by Iran’s supreme Leader, the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Official Israel was outraged, although one Israeli analyst actually suggested this may have been a sop to its hardliners, prior to Iran making concessions in the Geneva talks. 

 In any event, if or when there is a deal, we know it will be an interim agreement under which Iran will freeze its nuclear program for six months - in exchange for very limited lifting of international sanctions. That would be just a first step, but it would portend a comprehensive resolution of the global dispute over Iran’s nuclear ambitions. What that would mean is that a massively destructive war in the Middle East- one which could involve nearly all the countries of the area, quite possibly dragging in big powers such as the United States and Russia – would be less likely. It would also suggest that the 34 year not-so-cold war between the United States and Iran, may be coming to an end. In my view ending that war would represent enormous benefits, not just to this country and Iran, but for all of the countries of the Middle East.


My conclusions have been shaped by wise and distinguished diplomats and policy makers I have known and whose opinions I greatly respect.  As the critics of the proposed interim agreement, whether in Israel or the Congress, have been getting nearly all of the space in the news media, let me bring your attention to some recent statements by some of its noted proponents. 


Two of the most effective National Security Advisers out of the many I have watched in action over four decades, issued a joint letter this past week supporting the Iran talks. In that letter, Zbigniew Brzezinski, who was President Jimmy Carter’s National Security Adviser, and General Brent Scowcroft, who served Presidents Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush, said the interim agreement with Iran, “would advance the national security of the United States, Israel and other partners in the region.” They urged both the American people and the Congress to, “stand firmly with the President in the difficult but historic negotiations with Iran.”  Their letter concludes, “Should the United States fail to take this historic opportunity, we risk….losing the support of allies and friends while increasing the probability of war.”


These men are not political partisans but professionals from both parties with years of experience at the highest levels of government. They are far from being appeasers but rather have deserved reputations as hard-nosed realists.


Then there is Leslie Gelb, one of the authors of the famous Pentagon Papers, and now president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, who wrote this past week that even this short term deal, “would lead to the Middle East equivalent of ending the Cold War” and in the longer term, could help resolve the current conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon.


Likewise there are veteran journalists, with decades of experience reporting on the Middle East, who have written about the potential benefits of the current negotiations with Iran.


David Ignatius, a former editor of the International Herald Tribune and now a national security columnist with the Washington Post, a few days ago, answered the strident critics of the interim agreement in Israel and Saudi Arabia.


“Given the seeming benefits of the deal, it’s curious that (Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin) Netanyahu, has set himself so adamantly against it. Netanyahu’s rejectionist stance directly challenges the authority of President (Barack) Obama, who has invested the credibility of his administration in gaining this diplomatic resolution. It’s as if West Germany had denounced John F. Kennedy while he was negotiating a deal to resolve the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.”


As for the Saudis, Ignatius acknowledges their concern that Shiite Iran has become a threat to Sunni Saudi Arabia’s influence in the region, but, “the Saudi strategy of an ever deepening Sunni- Shiite divide is unwise. The schism will fuel permanent sectarian war in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon…. Better to seek a turn in relations with Iran through diplomacy that can limit its nuclear program, Obama reasons. He’s right.”

The New York Times heavyweight columnist Thomas Friedman, a Pulitzer Prize winner for his Middle East reporting, weighed in a few days ago with this perspective from the region.

“ Never have I seen Israel and America’s core Arab allies working more in concert to stymie a major foreign policy initiative of a sitting U.S. president, and never have I seen more lawmakers — Democrats and Republicans — more willing to take Israel’s side against their own president’s. I’m certain this comes less from any careful consideration of the facts and more from a growing tendency by many American lawmakers to do whatever the Israel lobby asks them to do in order to garner Jewish votes and campaign donations.”

Whatever agreements are reached with Iran will not be based on trust, but on unfettered, intrusive, inspections by the United Nation’s International Atomic Energy Agency. At a minimum these inspections would give the international community fair warning if Iran suddenly decided to break out of the agreement and quickly construct a nuclear weapon. That is not a perfect solution. But what is the credible alternative?

 Mr. Netanyahu and his hawkish friends in Congress are strongly implying, almost daily, that air strikes (presumably by the U.S. and Israel) on Iran’s nuclear facilities are the answer. Yet the best estimate for such strikes is that they would set back Iran’s nuclear program for a year at most. And during that year when Iran was inevitably rebuilding a new, full blown nuclear weapons program - this time without any restrictions- a major Middle East War would be underway.  

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