Obama and Rouhani — A Meeting in New York?

The nuclear negotiations with Iran have entered their final phase. According to all the press reports and the direct quotes from the principals themselves, both sides remain far apart. Yet there persists wild speculation that a meeting between the two presidents — Barack H. Obama and Hassan Rouhani — could be imminent. The likely location for such an historic meeting would be at UN headquarters in New York, next week. Amazingly, it was a left-wing Israeli journalist, Aluf Benn (editor of Haaretz) who first broached the subject on American television during the airing of the Charlie Rose show. It appears that even the far left in Israel fears the possibility of an impending US-Iran rapprochement. But what is the likelihood of such a meeting or the prospect of an overall US-Iran understanding as to Tehran’s nuclear future within the region?

The short answer is that a roll-back compromise on the enrichment infrastructure of the Iranian nuclear program, whereby Iran’s capability is severely curtailed, is very remote. Unless President Obama is ready to capitulate by allowing Iran a vast capacity to enrich, no deal will be struck before the November 24th deadline. It appears as if the hardliners in Tehran have won. They seem to have convinced their Supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, that the international sanction regime is not only shaky (because of a breakdown in US-Russia-Chinese relations), but also could be broken in the near future. These same anti-reform revolutionaries have argued strenuously that without a dramatic change in the “strategic relationship” with the US, from their perspective no deal would be better than a bad deal. Sounds a lot like the US Congress, only the mirror image.

But an alteration in the Iranian strategic relationship with the US would require a complete US break from its present regional allies — the Arab Sunni states, Turkey and Israel. Now, however, with the US poised to embark on a Levant-wide anti-Islamic State campaign, such a dramatic break would only work to strengthen ISIS. Any Sunni perception of a US tilt toward Iran could send not only the region, but the whole Sunni world (figuratively) spinning off its axis. In such a scenario, it seems to me that new ISIS recruits would be (literally) coming from everywhere. The nuclear negotiations with Iran will now be watched as a barometer of the future direction of the entire region. After years when the Obama administration attempted to compartmentalize its Middle East policy (specifically nuclear negotiations with Iran), the regional dynamic has now ascended and overthrown the singular importance of the P5+1 file.

Even Iran’s view has changed. When Assad appeared to be winning, the status quo was just fine. But now with the Sunnis on the offensive (including ISIS), Iran has been amenable to a kind of cooperation with the new American campaign. But Washington knows that it is walking a tightrope. Its support in Jordan, Turkey and Saudi Arabia has yet to firm up. Meanwhile, it rejected any outward Iranian participation in its anti-ISIS coalition. With only the skeleton of a broad political deal in Iraq, and without a coherent Syrian strategy, Obama’s judgement continues to be questioned by his allies. Events in Syria (Assad’s weakening and long-term prospects) have Tehran watching the American campaign, as well as the Kurdistan region of Iraq, intently. Even though Iran initially sent the Kurds weapons to hold back ISIS, now the KRG wants to equip its entire army with advanced US weapon systems. Tehran can only view this with trepidation. Is it any wonder that with the US Air Force poised to bomb targets in Syria (ISIS and/or Assad), with a potential Kurdistan rising, and the Baghdad government and army in tatters, that the hardliners in Tehran now want to firmly hold on to their nuclear assets? It is not just about Israel anymore. Iran has a lot of other problems. First and foremost, the Iranians are trying to figure out just what the Obama administration is up to.

But that is true of everyone. I’ve been saying for over two years that I didn’t understand US policy in the Middle East. In February of 2012, I suggested in a speech that unless the US was ready to alter its strategic relationship with Iran, I doubted very much that a nuclear deal could be struck. However, I went on to conclude that this strategic readjustment could not be accomplished at the expense of America’s traditional allies. It appears that I’m in at least partial agreement with the hardliners in Tehran. I don’t deny it. But for a nuclear negotiation to work, not only must the US alter its strategic relationship with Iran, but Iran must also alter its strategic relationship with Israel and the Sunni states of the region. In the final analysis, no nation in the region or any outside power can be allowed to dominate. Hegemony is the plague of history.

I stick with my regional Middle East peace plan, published on more than one occasion in this newspaper. The Iran nuclear negotiations must have a total regional dynamic inclusive of all nuclear programs. A regional nuclear-weapons-free zone, accompanied by a zone of non-hegemony, can only be guaranteed by the full faith and cooperation of the permanent members of the UN Security Council. This means the global leadership of Washington, Moscow, Beijing, London and Paris. Any bifurcation among these five nations will once again bring on an era of Cold War. As both a realist and a Wilsonian collective nations idealist (in a kind of synthesis), I believe that a Middle Eastern regional balance of power must be enshrined by both the friendly neighbors (pledging non-aggression) and an over-the-horizon global commitment (the full Security Council). This extra layer is required to ensure its strict enforcement. All foreign military assets (including the US) will be asked to leave the area in order to satisfy a non-imperial criterion to the international commitment. A Zone of Peace without any hegemony (either foreign, nuclear or conventional) will become the order of the day. Nuclear enrichment within the zone will be outlawed. The same is true for proxy war using non-state actors and multi-state pacts for the purpose of military domination.

Only within this all-encompassing regional/global context can the problems of the Middle East begin to be solved. Piecemeal solutions will never work. Syria and Iraq are symptoms of a hegemonic dysfunction that can only be solved through both international and regional cooperation. America has simply been overwhelmed by its role as global policeman. It needs both local and global partners to construct an equitable international structure based on the principle of non-hegemony. All the nations of the world need a new strategic relationship with each other. This is most true in the Middle East. The old realist dynamic has broken down on more than one occasion. It is breaking down once again. The world needs a long transition period based on a synthesis of balance of power and cooperative, collective international action. This has become crucial in order to begin the important process of determining the proper balance between the planet’s ecology and its economy. This vital sorting out or proper balance of nature can only be accomplished in an atmosphere of relative calm and international peace.

If President Obama is to meet any world leader at the UN in New York, the most important leader should be President Putin of Russia. Because without the cooperation of these two leaders, events in the Middle East could be headed down a very slippery slope, and very soon. November 24th is only two months away. Without a negotiated nuclear settlement, the Middle East will begin a period of the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. I can’t think of any outcome worse than this scenario (even an expanded conventional war). Only a totally out-of-the-box solution will work to put the genie back in the box. Conventional establishment thinking just hasn’t worked. Either we start thinking idealistically, or we risk the serious consequences. Time is running out.

To all my readers — I wish them a very happy and successful Jewish New Year (5775). May the world’s name be enshrined in the Book of Life. The blog will return after the holidays. L’Shana Tova everyone!

About the Author
Steven Horowitz has been a farmer, journalist and teacher spanning the last 45 years. He resides in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA. During the 1970's, he lived on kibbutz in Israel, where he worked as a shepherd and construction worker. In 1985, he was the winner of the Christian Science Monitor's Peace 2010 international essay contest. He was a contributing author to the book "How Peace came to the World" (MIT Press).