National Security Adviser James Jones was the headline speaker at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy‘s 25th-anniversary gala dinner in Washington last night. Substantively, General Jones’ speech focused on “two defining challenges” confronting the United States and its allies in the region: “preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them, and forging a lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians as part of a comprehensive peace in the region.”
Unsurprisingly, Jones drew a specific relationship between these two challenges, explicitly linking progress in brokering negotiated settlements on the Israeli-Palestinian and Israeli-Syrian tracks and improved chances for successfully containing Iran:
One of the ways that Iran exerts influence in the Middle East is by exploiting the ongoing Arab-Israeli conflict. Iran uses the conflict to keep others in the region on the defensive and to try to limit its own isolation. Ending this conflict, achieving peace between Israelis and Palestinians and establishing a sovereign Palestinian state would therefore take such an evocative issue away from Iran, Hizballah, and Hamas. It would allow our partners in the region to focus on building their states and institutions. And peace between Israel and Syria, if it is possible, could have a transformative effect on the region. Since taking office, President Obama has pursued a two-state solution — a secure, Jewish state of Israel living side by side in peace and security with a viable and independent Palestinian states. This is in the United States’ interest. It is in Israel’s interest. It is in the Palestinians’ interest. It is in the interest of the Arab countries, and, indeed, the world. Advancing this peace would also help prevent Iran from cynically shifting attention away from its failures to meet its obligations.
In strategic terms, belief in this particular kind of linkage — that, by pushing on Arab-Israeli peacemaking, the United States can marginalize and contain the Islamic Republic and its regional allies — is the equivalent of believing that the earth is flat: both ideas are wrong and stand in the way of real progress. But Arab-Israeli peace should be pursued on its own merits — not as part of a futile effort to diminish a pivotal state in the region — and with a realistic assessment of what it will take to broker regional peace.
In response to General Jones’ remarks, we want to highlight three of our recent pieces, “Getting the Iran-Palestine Connection Wrong,” “Syria Is Emerging as Important Player in the ‘Race for Iran’,” and “Syria’s Strategic Ties to the Islamic Republic: Diplomacy in the Post-Iraq/Post Peace Process Middle East.” We believe that these pieces provide a much more accurate picture of the Middle East’s strategic dynamics and a better guide for policymaking by the United States. Three points deserve special emphasis:
- First, it is simply not possible today — if it ever were possible at some point in the past — to achieve Israeli-Palestinian or Arab-Israeli peace in a manner that excludes and marginalizes the Islamic Republic and its regional allies. HAMAS and Hizballah have become indispensable political players in their respective national and regional contexts. For multiple reasons, the United States cannot get sustained peace agreements on the Palestinian and Syrian tracks without their buy-in. And that means the Islamic Republic is bound to be at least an indirect party to any serious Middle East peace process.
- Second, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad wants better relations with the United States and a peace settlement with Israel that meets well-established Syrian red lines. But, as President Assad made clear to us and has repeated publicly, Syria’s relations with Iran, Hizballah, and HAMAS “are not on the table.” That is why Assad has, since late 2008, adopted a position on Arab-Israeli diplomacy emphasizing the need for a “comprehensive” Arab-Israeli settlement, encompassing the Palestinian track along with the Syrian and Lebanese tracks, and with HAMAS playing a central role on the Palestinian side. In this regard, Assad underscores that he can play a critical role in bringing HAMAS and other “rejectionist” groups into a truly comprehensive regional settlement — a settlement that would also normalize Iran’s standing as an important regional player. (And, as senior figures in HAMAS have pointed out to us, if the United States and others do not deal with them, in a relatively short period of time we may be dealing with much more radicalized set of actors on the ground in Gaza and, perhaps, elsewhere.)
- Third, the Obama administration continues to buy into a Bush-era delusion: that concern about a rising Iranian threat could unite Israel and moderate Arab states in a grand alliance under Washington’s leadership. In reality, the prospect of strategic cooperation with Israel is profoundly unpopular with Arab publics. Even moderate Arab regimes cannot sustain such cooperation. Pursuit of an Israeli-moderate Arab coalition united to contain Iran is not only delusional, it will continue to leave the Palestinian and Syrian-Lebanese tracks of the Arab-Israeli conflict unresolved and prospects for their resolution in free fall — as these tracks cannot be resolved without meaningful American interaction with Iran and its regional allies, HAMAS and Hizballah.
Reflecting the politically convenient paradigm that currently prevails in the Administration he serves, General Jones continues to draw the wrong relationship between Iran and Arab-Israeli peacemaking. In reality, the relationship between Iran and Arab-Israeli peacemaking runs in exactly the opposite direction from that described by General Jones: today, one of the reasons that the United States needs a better and more productive relationship with the Islamic Republic is that it will be impossible to achieve Arab-Israeli peace without U.S.-Iranian rapprochement.
Is there a strategist in the (White) House?
Flynt Leverett directs the Iran Project at the New America Foundation, where he is also a Senior Research Fellow. Additionally, he teaches at Pennsylvania State University’s School of International Affairs. Hillary Mann Leverett is CEO of Strategic Energy and Global Analysis (STRATEGA), a political risk consultancy. In September 2010, she will also take up an appointment as Senior Lecturer and Senior Research Fellow at Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs. This article was first published in The Race for Iran on 22 April 2010 under a Creative Commons license.