Israeli election muddies Obama's waters
United States President Barack Obama's Middle East project took two impressive steps forward during the week, but eventually got pushed back by almost one.
Obama made his most pronounced overture so far to Iran in his press conference on Monday, and Tehran promptly grasped it within hours. But former Iranian president Mohammad Khatami's decision to jump into the fray in the forthcoming presidential election in June introduces complications in the highly accident-prone US-Iranian enterprise.
Again this week, the Obama administration made a move towards Syria by scheduling the visit of a congressional delegation led by the powerful chairman of the US Senate's foreign relations committee, John Kerry, to Damascus. Kerry's visit next week has been thoughtfully structured during the interregnum between the first round of a regional tour of Israel and pro-West Arab states by special envoy George Mitchell and his expected return to the region later in the month.
But, alas, the results of the parliamentary election in Israel have in the meanwhile begun coming in. They make any significant thawing of relations in the near term between the US and Iran and Syria problematic indeed.
The flurry of diplomatic comments between Washington and Tehran this week underscores that a thawing of relations may have already got underway. Obama further built on his famous remark in his inauguration speech three weeks ago that he was prepared to "extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist". In his press conference on Monday, Obama specifically offered that he was "looking at areas where we [US and Iran] can have constructive dialogue". Renewing his call for direct dialogue with Iran, Obama said he hoped to create conditions to "start sitting across the table, face-to-face" in the coming months with "diplomatic overtures that will allow us to move our policy in the new direction".
Given the time difference between Washington and Tehran, it was extraordinary that Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad responded within hours, "Our nation is ready to hold talks based on mutual respect and in a fair atmosphere." Some timely backstage activity made this exchange possible. Obama sidestepped Vice President Joseph Biden's warning - ably amplified by British Foreign Secretary David Miliband - at the 45th Munich Security Conference that if Iran stayed on its current path, sanctions would intensify. Tehran had amply made its displeasure known about Biden's tough talk.
At any rate, Ahmadinejad chose the podium of the 30th anniversary celebrations of the 1979 Iranian revolution on Tuesday to make his statement. It wasn't lost on anyone, of course, that the revolution's anniversary this year, which was a historic occasion, lacked any vitriolic outbursts against the "Great Satan" - as some Iranians refer to the US.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton swiftly picked up the threads with her own statement on Wednesday that she was hopeful that the US and Iran would be able to "work out a way of talking". And Clinton's Iranian counterpart wouldn't lag behind.
As Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki put it, "We view positively the slogan that Obama raised in the elections. The world has really changed. If the American administration wants to keep up with the changes, this will be good news ... We think these changes will provide excellent opportunities for the American administration in its relations with the countries of the world ... and we wish this would come true."
More importantly, Mottaki might have hinted in a roundabout Persian way that Tehran would be prepared to work with Washington to stabilize the Afghanistan situation - a priority for Obama - in the same pragmatic fashion in which the two adversaries cooperated over Iraq.
A spoiler walks in
The party indeed was warming up rapidly, but then Khatami walked in. Khatami's presidential ambitions, which he announced in Tehran on Monday - "Is it possible to remain indifferent to the fate of the Islamic Revolution and shy away from running in the elections?" - introduce a new angle to the US-Iranian discourse. Actually, it is a 30-year-old angle - the US figuring as a protagonist in the shadow boxing in Iran's vibrant politics.
It was only two years ago during his visit to the US that Khatami all but juxtaposed himself in front of the American audience as the antithesis to Ahmadinejad. He openly offered himself as a pragmatist with whom the US could do business and as a political force though currently out of power. Khatami may or may not pose a serious challenge to Ahmadinejad in the elections in June. Ahmadinejad's populist agenda attracts the country's poor and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has also favored him publicly.
But with his entry into the presidential race, an element of uncertainty creeps in. One can never quite tell the outcome of Iranian elections. Khatami's candidature is likely to pose a dilemma to the Obama administration. Is it prudent for the US to initiate any diplomatic steps before it becomes clear who the next Iranian president will be? Of course, Washington shouldn't contemplate "influencing" the outcome of the Iranian election, as that could only have catastrophic consequences and provoke a severe backlash.
At the same time, it is unwise to let the present buildup of momentum dissipate. On balance, the best course might be to take baby steps towards establishing a full-fledged dialogue. The good thing is that the Obama administration also needs time to formulate its "grand strategy". But any deliberate dragging of feet might also convey a wrong impression to Tehran, which is all set to read meanings into any tiny US move or "non-move". It is against this complex backdrop that the results of the Israeli parliamentary elections on Wednesday come as a setback to Washington. An altogether new dimension arises insofar as any delay in the US-Iranian dialogue may be exploited by Israel to get Washington to adopt its tack.
Israel swings to the right
As things stand, the high probability is that former premier Benjamin Netanyahu will take over as the next Israeli prime minister. Although his right-wing Likud party came second to the centrist Kadima party led by Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, he expects to get the first crack at government formation thanks to his ability to cobble together majority support in parliament.
The issue is what sort of coalition government Netanyahu would lead. Livni made inroads into the left-wing base of Labor and Meretz in managing a last-minute "surge", but the election results as such distinctly show a swing in favor of the right-wing parties, which have bagged the majority of seats in the 120-member parliament.
Netanyahu has important choices to make. Will he make an exclusive right-wing coalition government, which is perfectly feasible in terms of the numbers game, but which is something he might also consciously spurn given the unsavory prospect of becoming a captive of extreme right-wing forces? Or, will he opt for a national unity government involving Kadima but which as well might erode his rightist power base? Trying to decipher Israeli politicians putting together their coalition governments is never an easy task, but this time it is virtually impossible.
What is possible to be predicted is that over the situation around Iran, the new right-wing Israeli government could find itself on a friction course with the Obama administration from the outset. There is a fundamental departure of interests on Iran between Washington and Jerusalem. Israel insists that a clash with Iran is inevitable, despite Obama's robust diplomacy towards Tehran. And to compound it, there is a near-unanimity in Israeli opinion regarding the threat perception of Iran, so much so that there isn't any need felt to even debate this topic.
Israel cannot realistically hope to stand in the way of the US's security interests or torpedo a major project of Obama's foreign policy, but Israel has a perception regarding Iran's inexorable march towards nuclear-weapon capability that does not appear to be open to reasoning, and Israel no doubt possesses the technical capability to hit Iran.
What further complicates the calculus is that the preponderance of right-wing parties - 65 to 55 in the unofficial "right" versus "center" blocs - is likely to go against any decisive US push on the new Israeli government to relaunch negotiations for a Palestinian-Israeli and Arab-Israeli settlement.
Despite his election rhetoric - vowing not to divide Jerusalem, not to give up the West bank, not to return the Golan Heights, etc - Netanyahu may not be the problem for Obama, as he is wired into the US establishment and he would never really contemplate jeopardizing American support. Besides, he is also a mellowed man today after being long in the political wilderness, so much so that some say he may even be susceptible to US pressure.
But more fundamentally, the stability of Israeli politics which traditionally coalesced around two main parties - Likud and Labor - itself has been upset by the emergence of third parties. This is a sure recipe for a wobbly coalition government that may be focused on its survival rather than on peacemaking with Israel's neighbors.
There are pressing issues to be addressed in the coming days and weeks, such as indirect talks with Hamas for a Gaza ceasefire, Gaza's reconstruction, etc. But the paradox is, as a former US peace negotiator, Aaron David Miller, told the Washington Post, even a broad unity government would be unable to move on the peace front but could be in a far better position to reach a consensus on military strikes against Hamas or Hezbollah in Lebanon. "You may get a [Israeli] government good at war-making, not peacemaking," he added.
In sum, Israelis have favored those political parties which promised to take on not only Hamas but its Iranian sponsors as well, and are in no doubt that the Iranian nuclear program's ultimate objective is to build a bomb and, therefore, it poses an existential threat to Israel. On the other hand, the US cannot afford to let the delicately poised dynamic of normalization of relations with Iran or the Mitchell mission falter. Iran's cooperation is vital for the success of the US's new Afghanistan strategy, which is a priority item on Obama's foreign policy agenda, and the clock is ticking on the Iran nuclear issue.
Middle Easterners are closely watching Mitchell's progress too, rooted in their skepticism that the more things appear to change, the more they remain the same. Above all, the credibility of the new US administration is at stake, and any further erosion of the US's regional standing would weaken its capacity to strike grand bargains with tough customers like Iran and Syria. Obama has some real tightrope walking to do in reconciling Israel with his Middle East project.
Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.