An Isolationist America Has Chosen to Appease Tehran and to Not Confront Assad

An Isolationist America Has Chosen to Appease Tehran and to Not Confront Assad

Raghida Dergham |

Holding a bilateral meeting for two hours between Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal and US Secretary of State John Kerry is not sufficient to repair the damage suffered by the relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia in terms of tension and waning trust. Saving this relationship from deterioration requires not pretending that things have gone back to normal after the meeting between the two officials in London at the beginning of the week, for the first time since the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia voiced its objections to American policies on Syria and to how the United Nations has been handling the Syrian issue last week, by turning down a seat on the Security Council. The difference in stances on several matters and issues has turned into profound disagreement that requires serious reconsideration to explore the perspectives of agreement and the challenges of disagreement. Indeed, if US President Barack Obama has taken a strategic decision that requires changes to the traditional relationship of alliance between the United States and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, that is his right, if he considers it to be in America’s interest. Yet the Saudi side also has the right, nay the duty, to closely and profoundly examine what such a change in American policy might require in terms of decisions that would protect Saudi and Arab interests. Frank discussion is necessary, on the condition that it not be passing discussion aimed at superficial reconciliation. There are matters both sides must delve into truthfully – regarding regional issues such as those of Syria and Palestine, and regarding the roles played by prominent countries in the balance of power in the Middle East as a whole. The formula of oil in exchange for security is taking on new perspectives. The policies the Obama administration has come up with regarding the Middle East have been neither ordinary nor customary. The point is that voicing objections alone does not represent a policy. Indeed, both countries have numerous tools at their disposal to express satisfaction or anger, if either of them were serious and coherent about new policies based on divergence. Yet what the current phase requires, and what both sides seem to be more prepared for, is for them to attempt to listen to one another, so as to explore the perspectives of reaching an understanding over a constructive strategic relationship, even if its foundations have become different and it now rests on unusual bases.


This is no time for the American-Saudi relationship to recede – especially as the American-Iranian relationship grows, based on what is being viewed as an era of moderation heralded by the election of Hassan Rohani to the presidency in Tehran. Indeed, the Iranian President and his new era are still under scrutiny and are still being tested. If the American and Western wager on a moderate Iran were to fail, this will have an impact on the relationship between the West and Iran, and will cause a relapse in the relationship to which President Rohani has given the highest priority, namely the relationship between the United States and Iran. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia should then be prepared for developments such as these. If, on the other hand, the Islamic Republic of Iran were to prove serious in turning towards moderation and adopting a political discourse that is not based on regional hegemony, then too should Saudi Arabia be prepared to benefit from and to build upon such developments. Indeed, what matters is for it not to absent itself out of anger or frustration – but more importantly, to be ready for both scenarios.


The Obama administration always opts for the “nuclear” discourse when it talks about Iran, while purposely ignoring Iran’s violations in Syria and the fact that the American war in Iraq gave Iran a strategic victory and extensive influence in Iraq. The Obama administration, as well as the American media and public opinion, pays no heed to what represents the utmost priority for the Arab region, when the Arabs speak the language of rejecting the imposition of the Iranian model of religious theocratic rule on the Arab region. Indeed, America, as a government and as a people, does not care about the fact that the Arab side is preoccupied with “regional” – rather than “nuclear” – priorities, in terms of confronting Iran’s staggering ambitions of a role for itself beyond its borders and at the heart of the Arab homeland.


In other words, the United States has decided not to recognize the significance of Iran’s victory in Syria and its repercussions on the regional equation. In other words, the United States – as a President, as an administration, as a Congress, as a media, and as a public opinion – has decided to bury its head in the sand, so as not to face the fact that the regime in Damascus has made use of chemical weapons against civilians, as it itself has concluded, doing away with its own ethical claims and international commitments. In other words, the United States has decided that it did not want to go to war or be dragged into it, and has thus chosen a policy of appeasing all those who would spare it war or help it avoid engagement. Indeed, an isolationist America has come to the conclusion that its best interest now resides in satisfying Iran and giving its blessing to Tehran’s support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, regardless of what their victory would signify at the regional level, and what such a victory would entail for long-term American interests.


Arab doubts about American stances on the events in Syria and on the role played by Iran there should be taken note of by American decision-makers. This is why it is necessary for the Obama administration to stop slipping into the meanders produced by shrewd Russian diplomacy and effective Iranian diplomacy with skillful negotiation and artful polarization.


To begin with, one can only wish that the Iranian campaign to draw sympathy and convince of serious moderation by the leaders of the regime in the Islamic Republic of Iran represents sincere and serious efforts. Testing this must not be restricted to the nuclear talks. Indeed, the first stage of such testing should be Syria. That is why the Obama administration should stop restricting the future of its relationship with Iran to the nuclear priority, and should instead broaden the spectrum of its testing and start where Tehran could prove its good intentions immediately, and that is in Syria.


Specifically, if the Obama administration is serious about its stances on Syria and on Iran, then it should place the role played by Iran inside of Syria on the table, and with it Hezbollah’s role in fighting alongside the regime in Damascus. Today, there are channels of communication between Washington and Tehran. There is also a dire need to stop pretending to refuse to discuss the regional aspect out of concern for negotiations over the nuclear aspect. Indeed, Iran is fighting in Syria through Hezbollah and is violating a Security Council resolution that prevents it, under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, from getting involved militarily beyond its borders, whether directly or by proxy. This is an asset Washington has purposely chosen to ignore, under the pretext of a Russian veto at the Security Council. Today, the specter of the Russian veto has faded away, while the era of communication with Iran has begun. This represents an opportunity for Washington to go ahead and express its stances accusing Iran of involvement in Syria, at least to say: “the time has come to talk about what the Islamic Republic of Iran is doing in Syria, in radical opposition to what the United States wants to see happening there. Let us then stop burying our heads in the sand”.


The Obama administration seems to want Iran to have a role to play at the Geneva II conference, aimed at launching the process of political transition in Syria, whereby a formal body would be established that would have full administrative powers, representing the transition from the regime in Damascus to a new one, over which the Syrian opposition would negotiate with the ruling regime on the basis of what was agreed upon in Geneva I more than a year ago, before it fell prey to conflicting Russian and Western interpretations.


The United Nations Secretariat in turn seems to want to carve out a role for Iran to play, believing that a negotiated solution to the Syrian crisis would imperatively require an Iranian role. It too purposely ignores – and leaps over – the predicament of Iran’s violation of a binding Security Council resolution, believing Tehran to hold the key to obstruct a political solution in Syria if it were to be confronted with the issue of its violations. Washington and the UN Secretariat have therefore come to the conclusion that a political solution to the Syrian issue would require indulging Tehran to the point of giving their blessings to the blatant violation of a Security Council resolution issued under Chapter VII of the UN Charter. And that is a dangerous matter.


Equally dangerous is their willingness to invite Iran to participate in Geneva II, without prior commitment on the part of Tehran to Geneva I, i.e. commitment to the purpose being to launch a process of political transition from the ruling regime in Damascus to a new one in Syria, to be negotiated over between the ruling regime and the Syrian opposition. They are both required to set this as a condition. And they are both required to stop slipping into Tehran’s embrace without any accountability.


The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is in turn required to seriously engage in ensuring that Geneva II is held, with its participation and through its influence on the Syrian opposition, which it can persuade to participate. The first step of the necessary role it must play resides in reconsidering its rejection of membership in the Security Council. Indeed, Riyadh has voiced its objections to the way in which the United Nations has been managing the Syrian issue by turning down the seat which it obtained by being elected as a member of the Security Council. And it would now be useful for it and for the issues it cares about – Syria and Palestine equally – to answer calls to retract its rejection of such membership, so that it may seriously engage in the decision-making process from within the Security Council.


Indeed, refusing membership would only harm the issues the KSA cares about, and could even have the opposite effect, especially as the issue of Syria has returned to the United Nations, instead of turning into trade-offs between the Americans and the Russians. At the United Nations, Saudi diplomacy can wield influence. Abstaining from playing such a role is not in Syria’s best interest. And since it has not officially informed the UN of its refusal, it will be easy for Riyadh to change its mind in order to prove that it is prepared to wage the diplomatic battle, an important battle for the future of Syria, inside the United Nations. Indeed, at the Security Council, for example, nine votes by elected member-states are equivalent to the veto held by the five permanent members. There, Saudi diplomacy can prove its weight and influence in terms of decision-making and can confront exclusive control of the Syrian issue by the Americans and the Russians.


Geneva II is important for the Syrian opposition, no matter how much engagement in this process of political transition may seem to be in the regime’s interest. To be sure, the mere presence of regime delegates at the table to discuss alternatives to it is in the interest of the Syrian opposition. The mere presence of the UN as a sponsor of the process of political transition represents protection for the opposition amidst its talks over alternatives to the regime.


The Geneva II conference signifies change in Syria under international sponsorship. Holding the conference signifies political momentum for change within the framework of an international partnership and an active role played by the United Nations. It is in the interest of the opposition to insist on the international framework provided by Geneva II. Such momentum should not be squandered. Such momentum provides the opportunity to hold all those concerned accountable, which includes holding the United States and Russia’s feet to the fire, so that they may play their role in holding to the fire those of the regime in Damascus and those who support it in Tehran, in order to prove the seriousness of the process of political transition to something new in Syria.