In US politics, things have a way of piling up. For the Obama administration, the Middle East inbox in the last couple of weeks is near full to the top. First it was Syria. General Salim Idris, commander of the opposition Supreme Military Council, was supposed to be in Washington for government meetings and a think-tank symposium. Instead he was running for his life, as the Saudi-backed Islamic Front overran his headquarters. The Obama administration was left holding the bag, while what was touted as a “Syrian policy” turned to shambles as one giant fraud. To make matters worse, Secretary of State Kerry suggested he would be willing to meet with the Islamic Front and then sent Ambassador Ford off to Turkey to arrange a meeting. Once there, Ambassador Ford was left cooling his heels as the Front refused to meet with him. With the SMC in complete military disarray, Monzir Akbic, a spokesperson for its political wing and chief of staff of the Syrian National Coalition, suggested in the press that General Idris had failed. Akbic’s statement had to be the understatement of the year.
The Saudis appear to be playing hardball with the Obama administration. Last Monday a Saudi royal and brother to the foreign minister criticized Washington’s lack of a coherent Middle East policy. Prince Turki al-Faisal demanded that Saudi Arabia be represented at the P5+1 nuclear negotiations with Iran. The Prince stated that the achievement of a comprehensive deal with Iran would require direct Saudi participation. The interview published in the Wall Street Journal was groundbreaking for its candor and its warning.
On Syria, the timing of the interview was a statement in and of itself. The Saudis have the capacity to torpedo the Geneva Two talks, and the storming of General Idris’s headquarters by the Saudi proxy, the Islamic Front, was a strong message to President Obama. It appears the Saudis are a lot more than just miffed. For example, the prince appeared angry when he said: “The aid they’re (the Obama administration) giving to the Free Syrian Army is irrelevant. Now they say they’re going to stop the aid: OK, stop it. It’s not doing anything anyway.”
The Prince accused the administration of double dealing by going behind the back of a long-time ally. He was referring to the secret channel set up by Washington and Tehran for pre-negotiations in Oman. These secret talks were established last March with Ahmadinejad and continued with Rouhani, culminating in Obama’s famous phone call to the new Iranian president.
“What was surprising was that the talks that were going forward were kept from us. How can you build trust when you keep secrets from what are supposed to be your closest allies,” Prince Turki said. Turki was the Saudi ambassador to the US, as well as the intelligence chief for the kingdom. His high positions place him at the very pinnacle of the Saudi royal establishment. His words are considered as a barometer, and he is considered the unofficial spokesman for King Abdullah.
Meanwhile the French Foreign Minister, Laurent Fabius, appeared to have the Saudis’ back when he suggested that any final deal over the Iranian nuclear program must have “no breakout capacity.” As you may recall, it was Mr. Fabius who called the original interim deal with Iran “a fool’s game” and refused to sign on to the Obama administration’s first proposal. Now the French have toughened the West’s approach to the comprehensive nuclear negotiations with Iran. While the Obama team seems eager for some kind of final deal, the French have clearly drawn a line in the sand. Mr. Fabius stated that Western powers need to focus their efforts on depriving Iran of “breakout capacity.” He defined this capacity as the ability to re-start a bomb-making program from dormant nuclear sites and make a quick dash to a weapon before world powers can react. “What is at stake is that there is no breakout capacity”, Mr. Fabius said.
Paris appears to be forging an embryonic Middle East policy on the ruins of Washington’s missteps. While very few in the Middle East feel that “all options are on the table” as far as Obama is concerned, one can only wonder about the French. Certainly they don’t have the military capabilities of the US. So how an endgame with Iran might turn out is anybody’s guess. The same is true for Saudi Arabia. How would either one of these two countries react to a final deal not to their liking? Would they risk war? In the final analysis, is there any replacement for a strong American posture regarding the negotiations and/or their failure?
Next for Obama, besides the Saudis and the French (not to mention Netanyahu) is the US Congress. If ever there was a true barometer for the complete absence of a coherent Middle East policy, it is the bi-partisan support of the US Congress for tougher sanctions on Iran. The House of Representatives passed legislation for tougher sanctions months ago. The tally was an astonishing 400 to 20. In this era of government shut-downs and extreme partisan bickering, the vote on Iran sanctions means that when it comes to Iran policy, Obama is not necessarily in control.
Now it is the US Senate’s turn to prove this hypothesis correct. For the last three weeks, the administration has warned the Senate not to bring forth any new sanctions on Iran. Obama has been adamant. But the feeling among a large portion of Democratic Party senators (and nearly all Republican senators) is that the interim deal with Iran is flawed. The fear is that one interim deal will become the precursor to another interim deal, or perhaps more. In other words, the interim deal becomes established over a much longer period of time than a six-month period.
Meanwhile the global sanctions regime would begin to unravel. The Senate wants assurance that after six months there will either be a diplomatic breakthrough, or a new twist to the sanctions screw.
Now President Obama threatens to veto any new sanctions bill. He wants a free hand in the negotiation process with Iran. But twenty-four Democratic Party senators have signed on to the new legislation. The mere fact that so many members of his own party are willing to challenge him means that the president’s Middle East policy has been exposed to the severest criticism. An early 2014 showdown awaits. A veto would mean a serious political risk for the administration. A split within his own party during an election year could have disastrous effects. Not only could the election results go badly, but Obama’s reputation and legacy could also suffer. If the president’s veto is overridden, he will most certainly be considered a lame duck.
However, the chances of reaching a comprehensive nuclear deal with Iran within six months was never considered realistic by anyone in the administration. Here lies the nature of Obama’s dilemma: The interim deal has been flawed from the beginning because it could be extended indefinitely; but without an interim phase, the negotiations would be under far greater pressure as Iran proceeded forward toward nuclear capability. Obama chose to decrease the pressure on himself. He didn’t want to decide on such an important issue so soon. Like in Syria, it was the inability to decide on a course of action involving a military dimension that most plagues this president. Unlike George W. Bush who suffered from the sin of commission (Iraq), Barack Obama suffers from the sin of omission. Either way, for the last thirteen years, US Middle East policy has been chaotic and ineffective. Like the fairy tale describes: The current emperor needs new clothes. Syria and Iran are linked. There is no escaping the serious decisions ahead, not without dire consequences.