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President Obama on the phone with Irani Prime Minister Hassan Rouhani. (PHOTO: Wikimedia Commons)
Next week, two momentous occasions in Middle Eastern affairs will take place: President's Obama's long-negotiated sanctions deal with Iran takes effect on Monday, and on Wednesday, the Geneva II peace conference begins in Switzerland, where Syria's opposing forces will come together to begin negotiating an end to hostilities and the building of a transitional government. Successful navigation of both events by all parties involved will bring the region significantly closer to long-term stability, with the Obama administration and both houses of Congress leading the charge in the days to come.

Now, I know what you're thinking: there's no way that our gridlocked, warmongering Congress will ever let either of these events go off without a hitch, and in that, you're probably right. There will undoubtedly be setbacks, due to both the aforementioned gridlock and our rather contentious relationship with both Iran and Syria. However, despite all that, there is a glimmer of hope: the combination of strategic incoherence, partisanship, and political posturing on behalf of the US government over both nations just might be the thing that will allow the success of both the sanctions deal and the peace conference.

In order to parse this one out, let's start with the state of affairs surrounding Geneva II. At present, the Obama administration is essentially seeking complete surrender by Bashar Al-Assad as a precondition for the negotiations to begin. This is an impossible demand; Assad's regime is well-supported by Russia, Iran, and numerous other nations, firmly entrenching his political authority. While the Syrian government is prepared to make a variety of concessions for peace, Assad's surrender is not one of them, nor will it ever be.

At the same time, the various insurgent forces that make up Assad's opposition are equally entrenched in the region, and equally unwilling to surrender. A military solution is no longer an option; too many people are dead. The solution must be a diplomatic one, and the best candidate for facilitating that solution is – you guessed it - Iran. However, Iran is currently being blocked from participation in Geneva II by the US, despite the recent thaw in US-Iran relations over the latter's nuclear program. It's a bad move, one that stands to thoroughly invalidate any hope for peace not only in Syria, but in the rest of the region.

In recent years, Iran has emerged as something of a diplomatic linchpin for the Middle East. According to former US State Department official Hillary Mann Leverett, “Iran brings not only a deep, long-standing relationship with the sitting government in Syria...but also brings an ability to work with countries around Syria, as well.” This includes both Iraq and Turkey, who have played an active role in Syrian affairs since not long after the conflict began. Together, the three nations can further encourage Assad's willingness to negotiate. Iran's absence at the talks will likely condemn them to failure before they even begin.

It also stands to reason that blocking Iran from Geneva II will set the upcoming US-Iran sanctions deal off to a very rocky start, something that Obama really can't afford. Bipartisan support in the Senate for new, tougher sanctions has greatly hampered the peace process thus far, making any current margin of error very slim both from a political and foreign policy standpoint. Here's where that 'glimmer of hope' comes in: House Republicans are currently considering bringing the Senate's sanctions bill to the House floor, a purely political maneuver that would force a vote from Senate Democrats on their bill,  expediting the process of putting a sanctions bill in front of the president prior to the interim deal.

If House Republicans decide go on the offensive over sanctions, “Democrats may become more anxious about supporting [them] and less likely to buck the White House,” according to The Huffington Post. Without Democratic support, Senate Republicans cannot override a promised veto of their bill by the president. House Democrats are already in mostly in line with the President on Iran, and while there have been some tensions, there support will not likely waver if new sanctions are proposed.

When you begin looking at both Iran's sanctions deal and Syria's peace talks in a larger context, it's hard to ignore the significance of their scheduling. The latter comes not two days after the former, with both Iran's and America's reputation on the line in both circumstances. Obama met with Senate Democrats in a closed-door meeting yesterday to lobby their support against the new sanctions, and while it's unclear whether Iran's potential role in Geneva II was discussed, it seems likely that it was on the agenda. If Obama can convince Senate Democrats to withdraw their support for new sanctions before the interim agreement with Iran goes live, it seems feasible that he could then immediately pivot toward allowing Iran's participation in Geneva II as a sign of good faith. This would further encourage to Iran to honor their end of the sanctions deal, and free up much-needed political will for Obama and Iran to focus on the Geneva talks together. This will allow the president room to buck opposition against Assad from nations like Saudi Arabia, and soften his position on Syria as the conference proceeds.

There's never been an easy solution to any problems in the Middle East, and the days ahead will once again test the mettle of everyone involved. But in a strange twist of fate, business as usual on Capitol Hill just might be the very thing that paves the road to peace.

Originally posted to Randle Aubrey on Thu Jan 16, 2014 at 01:35 PM PST.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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Comment Preferences

  •  This is a great diary. (10+ / 0-)

    I am not optimistic though that the Senate Democrats will choose Obama, who has barely three years left as President, over AIPAC, which is forever.

    When the United States becomes a low wage country, only bobbleheads shall go forth from American soil.

    by amyzex on Thu Jan 16, 2014 at 01:57:30 PM PST

  •  going to be interesting to see AIPAC's reaction (10+ / 0-)

    to the threat of peace breaking out in the region.

    I note that Israel is already accusing Kerry of "messianic" aspirations (as compared to GWB who said God directly guided him and referred to the US Crusade in the US?) so we are having a tiff with them as our national interests appear to diverge (though long term they do not)

    Wild card right now is the Saudis as it appears they are arming both elements of the Syrian dissidents as well as some Sunni tribesmen in Iraq to try to disrupt the "Shia' Crescent" which has concerned them for a couple of decades now  

  •  I don't understand the Syria angle (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    There won't be a negotiated solution in Syria.  Either Assad will exterminate his opponents and preside over the ruins, or he'll lose and be killed.  The antagonism between the parties in Syria far exceeds any other inter- or intra-national conflict I can think of.  Improved US-Iranian relations should be weighed on their own terms, and in regional terms for some things but Syria likely isn't one of them.

    It's not the side effects of the cocaine/I'm thinking that it must be love

    by Rich in PA on Thu Jan 16, 2014 at 03:52:02 PM PST

    •  Don't be so sure. (5+ / 0-)

      All of the nations surrounding Syria have been sorely affected by the ongoing conflict, and are just as eager to see an end to the fighting as anyone else. Right now, the Irani prime minister is on a diplomatic mission in the region to rally support for the peace process, and their coalition-building can be used to pressure Assad into making real concessions at the conference. This will only work if Iran is allowed to attend, however.

      Assad's intractability in negotiations seems primarily due to the fact that the West is calling for him to relinquish his power, and his knowledge that he doesn't actually have to. We're coming from a weak bargaining position in our demands, as Assad is too well-supported by Russia, Iran, Iraq, Turkey, and so on.

      The only ace we have up our sleeve in Geneva is the blocking of Iran's attendance, and frankly, it's a nuclear option. Any hope we have of successful negotiations with Syria will be dashed if Iran is not allowed to guide the coalition they're presently building, and a snubbing by the US will surely damage relations over the sanctions deal. As a matter of national pride, why would Iran hold up their end of the sanctions deal if the US is prepared to embarass them on the world stage in such a fashion?

      •  I'm not just blaming Assad (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        He won't quit under any circumstances because he knows it means death, and his opponents won't accept any deal in which he doesn't quit (and die) because they can't survive such an agreement.  Some things really are fights to the death.

        It's not the side effects of the cocaine/I'm thinking that it must be love

        by Rich in PA on Fri Jan 17, 2014 at 05:40:24 AM PST

        [ Parent ]

    •  "Peace" will include Assad (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      My guess, for whatever it is worth, is that some deal will eventually emerge that allows Assad to remain in power because there will be seen to be no good alternative, good meaning something/someone who/that is powerful enough to provide some stability, however short-lived.  Israeli government you can bet would live with that, after all their border with Syria under Assad has been quiet for decades.  And looking at Egypt after Mubarak makes all players in the region long for stability through strongman.  Iraq too.

  •  I can see many benefits (8+ / 0-)

    to improved relations with Iran.  

  •  There are so many upsides to making it work (5+ / 0-)

    ...and only a MIC downside.

    I am not a praying man, but I've put out so many intentions to the Universe in the past few years to stabilize the world.

    There are no misconceptions on my part that players beyond the direct U.S. sphere of influence wish to continue to destabilize the region.  

    But, qui bono? Big Oil prospers with every negative headline from the Middle East.

    Let's posit for a moment: what if true diplomacy was Obama's legacy in the Middle East, rather than belligerence?  Yeah, OK, so it would ruffle Bibi's feathers.

    Reports today were slanted on SOS Kerry being on a "personal mission" to enable a peace process in the entire Middle East.

    My fucking God, isn't that the goal??  If not, why not?

    I was gobsmacked every time I heard the insinuation about Kerry today, and I can only imagine that blast faxes from AIPAC were flooding all news media outlets.

    It will not get easier before it gets harder. But the harder it gets, the easier it will be.

    by Richard Cranium on Thu Jan 16, 2014 at 07:43:24 PM PST

  •  Peace in Syria and with Iran, wonders never (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    cease, hooray Mr. President.

  •  What's interesting is another shaking up of the (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    whizdom, CJB2012

    pecking order in the Middle East.  Since the end of WWI and the break-up of the Ottoman Empire, there has been a contest between the countries in the ME for predominance in the region.  Egypt under Nasser, Iran under the Shah, Turkey, Iraq under Saddam and Saudi Arabia have all vied with each other for having the most influence.  However, each has had its own agenda, which often conflicted with the others.

    By bringing Iran in from the cold, there is a real possibility that it will play a much greater role in the region, especially with Egypt and Iraq in turmoil.  It's unclear, however, if this will be a "good thing" from a US point of view.  Or from an Israeli one either.

    On the one hand, an Iran as part of the international community can help bring peace/stability to Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and also help with Afghanistan to a degree.  On the other, Israel might see Iran as a greater threat, while the US won't have as much influence over it as it does over Saudi Arabia or the Gulf states.

    I think, in the end, that this will be a big positive in the region, though much will depend on the relationships that Russia (a traditional Iranian enemy) and China develop with Iran.

    To be free and just depends on us. Victor Hugo.

    by dizzydean on Fri Jan 17, 2014 at 07:32:07 AM PST

    •  The Iranian mullahs have to want the warmth (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      Remember that they aren't Liberal Democrats like us. They are theocrats who make the Religious Right in the US look like Progressives. They will have to walk back a lot of rhetoric and action.

      •  I am not worried about the Mullahs (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        I am worried about the Revolutionary Guards.   They have been institutionalized and now control a good section of the economy in light and heavy manufacturing, not unlike Egypt's Army control of industry, and they still control the Basiji militia thugs.

        Rouhani will have his hands full.  

      •  Honestly, I think it matters less from a US (0+ / 0-)

        standpoint what the internal politics of the thawing is--the fact is that the thawing is taking place.  

        The mullahs et al. are taking a bit of a risk in that by having the sanctions loosened, they lose the xenophobic "they're out to get us" narrative, which is always effective at taking attention away from internal issues.  No sanctions, no explanation for the crappy economy, lack of opportunity, etc.

        That might turn into something more (i.e., the green revolution) or not--we'll have to see.  However, for the US, having a stable and predictable Iran--which could be helpful in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Lebanon--is preferable to a belligerent Iran...

        To be free and just depends on us. Victor Hugo.

        by dizzydean on Fri Jan 17, 2014 at 11:50:41 AM PST

        [ Parent ]

    •  That's the thing... (0+ / 0-)

      ...Russia and China are both supporting Iran's engagement in the peace process, because, if I recall, Assad has promised them pipeline rights to funnel oil from Iran. If Iran manages to keep the sanctions lifted through Obama's interim deal and beyond, everybody in that arrangement stands to make a whole lot of money. At the same time, Assad has snubbed Saudia Arabia's offers to build pipelines to Russian and China on Syrian land, and as such they're more likely the ones backing our denial of Iran's Geneva II involvement rather than Israel. I don't get any sense that AIPAC is too involved; the shared border between Israel and Syria has been fairly quiet throughout the civil war, and I'm sure they'd love to keep it that way. They seemed to be more focused on disrupting the US-Iran sanctions deal at the moment, as well as on Egyptian affairs.

      But I agree with you; seeing the shakeup of the Middle East in recent years has been fascinating, especially since I'm so far removed from it and don't have to worry about IEDs in the supermarket. ;) I'm reading a fascinating book called "Lawrence In Arabia" by Thomas Anderson that I highly recommend you pick up. It's a historical narrative of WWI's Middle Eastern theatre, and gives incredible insight into how we're still feeling the effects of what happened nearly a century ago.

      "Larence In Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East

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