It was initially billed as a "peace conference" to decisively address the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. But as President George W. Bush’s ambitious Annapolis gathering approached—his most intensive effort to restart peace talks in seven years—any prospect of a comprehensive breakthrough appeared as distant as ever, as Israeli and Palestinian leaders struggled to agree on a joint statement until the last minute.
Annapolis only lasted about 24 hours—not nearly enough time to untangle the fears and distrust that have exacerbated the longest running protracted refugee crisis in the Middle East. But one week later, it appears that the meeting, attended by 40 countries, including 16 member states of the Arab League, served a more crucial purpose: to convince Israel and Arab regimes that they face their most dangerous threat from the ascendance of Iran and its brand of Islamic radicalism.
"The battle is underway for the future of the Middle East, and we must not cede victory to the extremists," said President Bush during the conference, offering an ominous view of the region that remains consistent with his dualistic view of "good" vs. "evil."
"With their violent actions and contempt for human life, the extremists are seeking to impose a dark vision on the Palestinian people, a vision that feeds on hopelessness and despair to sow chaos in the Holy Land. If this vision prevails, the future of the region will be endless terror, endless war, and endless suffering," he said.
Bush’s desire to frame Annapolis as an antiterrorism conference at the expense of seemingly laudable goals of peace may sour many in the region, but the attendance of so many Arab states—notably Iran’s ally Syria—suggests that since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, the strategic calculus of the region has irrevocably shifted. And that has many authoritarian regimes in the region worried that a nuclear Iran will assume the role of Gulf hegemon and pose a challenge to their security.
"[Iranian hegemony] became deeply threatening to the Sunni Arab states, and they, and Israel, suddenly found that they were on the same side against the Iranians," said Martin Indyk, a former special assistant to President Bill Clinton, in an interview with National Public Radio the day of the conference.
"That created the strategic opportunity which the administration has finally come to recognize, and that’s more than anything else what’s fueling the move to Annapolis."
Washington believes that by isolating Iran, it can stabilize the region, but Iran’s exclusion from the Middle East’s political order has reinforced Tehran’s willingness to play a "spoiler role" in broader U.S.-led initiatives in the Gulf and beyond. Washington’s diplomatic track has remained largely ineffective because the White House always viewed Iran through the prism of a successful campaign in Iraq, but it never accounted for possible failure and the regional consequences.
Four years after the "liberation" of Baghdad, the Iraq quagmire has marred the White House’s idealistic vision for a "new" Middle East, and Iran has become the main beneficiary of Washington’s foreign policy nightmare. While the White House wall of hubris has cracked, the administration remains hawkish on Tehran, offering highly conditional talks over its nuclear program and pushing for UN Security Council sanctions while pursuing its own unilateral sanctions against key elements of Iran’s security apparatus, namely the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
The United States only appears willing to deal with the Iranian regime at an incremental pace on issues of immediate U.S. concern, such as the security of Iraq.
U.S.-Iranian antipathy dates back to Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution, which deposed U.S.-backed Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi and brought the charismatic and reactionary Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to power. While it is clear that U.S. security imperatives shifted after the fall of the Shah, the ascent of the Islamic Republic in 1979 did not exactly change the broader security interests of two regional actors: Iran and Israel. Iran needed Israel to offset the threat it felt from its Arab neighbors, namely Iraq, as well as the looming threat of Soviet influence in the region.
From Israel’s perspective, Iran balanced Iraq, and Tel Aviv viewed Saddam Hussein’s Ba’athist regime as its more immediate threat. Through this prism, Israel continued to view Iran, in spite of Khomeini’s vitriolic rhetoric against the "Zionist entity," as its periphery ally with mutual interests: to check Iraq. Baghdad has been neutralized since the 1991 Gulf War, worn down by U.S.-led sanctions, but the 2003 invasion and its aftermath allowed Tehran to increase its influence over its erstwhile foe.
As much as the Bush White House paints Tehran as an unapologetic and ideological nemesis—the very architects of "Islamic terrorism"—Tehran has made overtures to the United States in hopes of laying the foundations for normalization. Tehran condemned the 9/11 attacks, pledged to fight al-Qaida and the Taliban in Afghanistan, and, during its weakest and Washington’s strongest moment—in the first days of the Iraq invasion—Iran signaled it was willing to put its nuclear program and support of Islamist rejectionist groups (Hamas, Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad) on the negotiating table.
"The Iranians had real contacts with important players in Afghanistan and were prepared to use their influence in constructive ways in coordination with the United States," said Flynt Leverett, a senior fellow at the Washington-based New America Foundation, in a statement to the House subcommittee on National Security and Foreign Affairs earlier this month.
The hope was that by engaging Iran over Afghanistan, the United States could later convince Iran to give up its military support of the rejectionist groups that threatened Israel. But any possible cooperation was scuttled by White House neoconservatives, who were unwilling to make any move toward engaging Iran.
The U.S. strategy toward Syria also appears to have shifted in an attempt to break Damascus’s alliance with Iran. Syria was the only Arab country to support Iran through its Islamic Revolution and its war against Iraq, but many analysts say the alliance between both countries is more out of necessity than anything to do with ideological commitments.
Syria defended its attendance at the conference, saying it is open to any serious attempt to reach a peace deal with Israel that brings the return of the Golan Heights. Syria’s deputy foreign minister, Faysal Mekdad, told the conference Tuesday his country was "sincere in our pursuit of a just and comprehensive peace."
The Bush administration publicly chided House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) for visiting Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad in Damascus in April, but the Annapolis conference signals Washington’s new willingness to compromise with Syria, especially over the Lebanese presidential deadlock, the nation’s largest political crisis since the Lebanese Civil War.
Washington’s political allies agreed this week to end their opposition to the presidential bid of a candidate viewed as a Syrian favorite, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal.
"Ultimately, the United States can get more out of Assad in exchange for the Golan than it can by isolating him," wrote Mohamad Bazzi, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, in an op-ed for the Christian Science Monitor. "If there are serious negotiations, Washington can demand that Assad stop interfering in Lebanon and Iraq, carry out domestic reforms, and drop Syrian support for Hamas and other Palestinian groups that reject peace with Israel."
It remains to be seen how much the United States can benefit from isolating Iran from the broader future of the region.
Khody Akhavi writes for the Inter Press Service.