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Commentary from JL Granatstein

For Washington, this is as bad as it gets in the Middle East

by J. L. Granatstein

National Post
March 18, 2015

American policy in the Middle East is in ruins. The re-election Tuesday of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel means that there will be no progress toward a two-state solution for Israel and the Palestinians, for one thing, though few held many hopes for this. The Abbas government will now have few options before it, and another intifada is surely a possibility.

More important in the intermediate term, Netanyahu’s victory further emboldens the Congressional Republicans who invited the Israeli leader to speak to Congress and to damn U.S. President Barack Obama’s negotiations with Iran for a nuclear deal. The American-led P5+1 discussions with Tehran are said to be close to a conclusion, but the Republican majorities mean that no major relaxation or elimination of economic sanctions, a sine qua non for Iran, will get support from Congress. Indeed, some in the House and Senate want to impose even more severe sanctions, and 47 Republican senators have already signed a letter threatening to scuttle any nuclear agreement. Blocking the lifting of sanctions could do just that. Obama may be able to use his executive powers to seal a weak bargain, but any successor president could undo it. Some deal. Why would Iran commit to such an arrangement?

For their part, the Saudis continue to suggest that if Iran is permitted to keep any of its potential nuclear bomb-making capacity, they will be obliged to move in that direction as well. So might the Egyptians. Both nations are buying arms in huge quantities; the Saudis are expected to spend almost $10 billion in 2015, making the oil kingdom the largest purchaser of American arms.

This doesn’t seem to frighten Tehran very much, though the Saudi efforts to keep oil prices low and production down must be severely crippling its treasury. Nonetheless, Iran has seen its sway expand enormously in the region on Obama’s watch. Persian forces are fighting ISIS in Iraq — and quietly co-operating with the United States and its other allies (including Canada’s RCAF and special forces?) — in doing so. Iranian arms are flowing to Shia Iraqis, and Iranian senior officers and units are leading the battle against the Islamists. If and when ISIS is stopped, Iraq may well become an Iranian fiefdom.

In Yemen, the Houthi have seized control of the capital and large parts of the country. The Houthi, their slogan “Death to America, Death to Israel,” are Shia, and Tehran has supplied them with money, arms and training. The impact of this on U.S. drone strikes against al-Qaida in Yemen is uncertain, but there is unlikely to be much co-operation between a Houthi-led regime and Washington. The Iranian intention, it appears, is to make Yemen a dependency.

Syria and Lebanon already are. The Iranian forces have propped up President Bashar Al-Assad’s regime in Damascus with arms, money and advice. Assad looked to be finished two years ago, but he has hung on to power to the point that Secretary of State John Kerry has suggested that the time may be coming to strike a deal with the butcher of the Syrian people. All that can be said is that Assad may be marginally less poisonous than the ISIS forces. But if he remains in the palace, he will be an Iranian puppet.

In Lebanon, Tehran continues to pull the strings of Hezbollah. Its well-trained troops are fighting in Syria and sit perched on the Golan Heights. For the Israelis, this means that the Iranians are de facto on their border with modern missiles and puppet forces. So long as the Syrian opposition to Assad continues, so long as ISIS needs to be fought, the Israeli northern borders are likely to remain quiet. Thereafter…?

The Middle East has been and is a swamp of religious warfare, bad governance, oil politics and foreign interference. Perhaps no government in Washington could have finessed its way through the present morass. What is undeniable, however, is that Obama’s Middle East policies have been disastrous. He might get a (bad) nuclear deal with Iran, but he will also have left Tehran’s ayatollahs in the catbird seat throughout the region with Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen under their sway. Meanwhile, Obama’s relations with Israel, a cornerstone of both nation’s politics, are in worse condition now than ever. There seems no resolution to this debacle.

J.L. Granatstein is a fellow of the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute.

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