Friday, April 18, 2014
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The Great American Losing Streak

JERUSALEM – The interim agreement reached in Geneva between the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany (the P5+1) and Iran is probably the best deal to curtail Iran’s nuclear program that could be reached, given current circumstances. The United States and its Western allies were unwilling to risk a military option, and not concluding a deal would have allowed Iran to proceed unimpeded toward acquiring nuclear weapons.

In an ideal world, Iran should have been forced to scrap its nuclear program altogether and hand over all of its enriched uranium to an outside power; but, realistically, that was unattainable. So the outcome of the Geneva talks is that Iran has secured some international legitimation as a nuclear-threshold power, which deeply worries its regional neighbors, from Saudi Arabia and Israel to Turkey, Egypt, and the small and vulnerable Gulf states.

Western statesmen are right to congratulate themselves on averting an immediate major crisis. But they are wrong to believe that they have resolved the Iranian nuclear threat. Indeed, it is naïve to imagine that a final agreement with Iran will be achieved in the coming six months: Iran’s seasoned diplomats will make sure that that does not happen.

So, while the interim agreement may not be a replay of the Munich Agreement in 1938, as many critics contend, it may have set the stage for an even more combustible future. US President Barack Obama may not be in office when the fire ignites, but if things do go terribly wrong, he may be remembered as another statesman who, like Neville Chamberlain, was blind to the consequences of his peaceful intentions.

The main reason for pessimism stems from the interim agreement’s wider geopolitical context, which has been ignored in favor of the regional dimension. In fact, the agreement, which alleviates much of the economic pressure on the Iranian regime, is a result of Russia’s success in delaying international sanctions against Iran and its stubborn refusal to tighten them further.

For the Kremlin, Iran’s nuclear program is only one chapter in a campaign to reassert Russia’s role as a great power. Indeed, the interim agreement should be viewed as another in a string of recent Russian diplomatic victories over the US.

The current US administration lacks the type of grand strategy that animates Russian President Vladimir Putin. Instead, it considers every issue separately, unsure about how to balance its role as a global power with its commitment to liberal values, and led by a president who apparently believes that soaring rhetoric is a substitute for strategic thinking. There should be no illusion: The interim agreement with Iran is a resounding triumph for Putin, not for Obama and US Secretary of State John Kerry.

That victory was quickly followed by another – Ukraine’s decision to reject an association agreement with the European Union, opting instead to join Putin’s pet project, a Eurasian customs union designed to reconstitute much of the Soviet Union as a single economic zone. Meanwhile, the Syrian crisis also is going the Kremlin’s way, with President Bashar al-Assad remaining in power, despite Obama’s insistence that he leave.

Obama’s threat last summer to use limited force in Syria was empty rhetoric. It might have convinced Assad to give up his chemical weapons, but Russia’s threat to veto any muscular Security Council resolution against Syria guaranteed that his murderous regime would retain control. Even if a Geneva II meeting on Syria is convened in January, Russia will ensure that Assad remains on the throne.

America’s strategic vacuum can also be seen in Egypt in the wake of the military’s overthrow of President Mohamed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood government. Obama’s uncertainty about how to deal with the coup has created an absurd situation in which most Western-oriented groups in Egypt – the military and secular elites who underpinned Mubarak’s alliance with the US – have now turned, in desperation, to Russia as a source of future military supplies.

Decades of American strategic thinking and diplomacy, initiated by Henry Kissinger in the 1970’s, aimed at weaning Egypt from its Russian alliance, now appear in danger of going down the drain because of Obama’s inability to make up his mind about Morsi’s overthrow. Of course, it is not easy to support a military coup against a democratically elected president (even one who, like Morsi, undermines the democratic values and institutions that brought him to power). But one wonders how Obama would have reacted in 1933 had the German military toppled Hitler (who, after all, was appointed Chancellor after winning an election).

One does not have to demonize Russia – or Putin – to be worried by these developments. Russia is entitled to its place as a leading power. And the US should shun a domineering policy. But, confronted with a resolute Russian policy of imperial re-assertion, now also visible in the Caucasus, the US seems unable to see how global developments are linked. Is anyone in Washington asking how the Geneva agreements on Syria and Iran are connected to Ukraine’s refusal to move closer to the EU, much less developing a strategic response?

The choice facing the US is not former President George W. Bush’s megalomaniacal swashbuckling or global withdrawal. Russia’s resurgence calls for a reasoned American response, combining its preponderant power and recognition of the inherent limits on the use of that power. The current US administration seems incapable of this, and Tea Party isolationism certainly is not the answer. A rudderless US foreign policy is no response to a resurgent and neo-authoritarian Russia flexing its geopolitical muscle. Nostalgia for a Metternich, or a Kissinger, may not be out of order.

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  1. Commentedj. von Hettlingen

    Mr. Avineri, we don't live in "an ideal world."
    No doubt you share Prime Minister Netanyahu's view that this interim agreement between Iran and the P5+1 was a "historic mistake", like the 1938 Munich Agreement.
    You mention that it worries Iran's regional neighbours that it "has secured some international legitimation as a nuclear-threshold power." Indeed, Iran's foes - Israel and Saudi Arabia - are bearing a grudge against Washington. Yet other Gulf States hope the deal could contribute towards ensuring nuclear non-proliferation, which would in turn safeguard peace and stability in the region.
    Fortunately we live in a world of political realism. It is the instinct for survival that has urged the Iranian leadership to warm its ties with the West. It is the war-weariness in America that has discouraged President Obama from taking military actions. It is the aspiration among peoples in Iran and across the globe for peace and international security, that has forced leaders to seek peaceful negotiations instead of starting a new Cold War.
    You assert that Obama's "rudderless US foreign policy" in the Middle East gives rise to Moscow's expansionistic foreign politics conducted by a "neo-authoritarian Russia" under Putin. Indeed, Russia sees the volatile Caucasus as its backyard. Easing tension in the region serves one of its national interests: security.
    That China and Russia - Washington's two old rivals - have played a role in hammering the interim deal with Iran, is an undeniable truth that the US alone can no longer tackle major international problems. The world population surges. With economic growth China is becoming a global player. Others might follow suit. Bearing this in mind, Obama is in fact a pragmatist. He has adopted that "leading from behind" approach and let other countries share the burden of dealing with pressing issues, that affect us all.

  2. CommentedChris Nomin

    "A rudderless US foreign policy is no response to a resurgent and neo-authoritarian Russia flexing its geopolitical muscle."-that just an incontrovertible credo of a hawkish troublemaker; and of which history holds quite an abundance. According to historical annals, the world order cant be permanent, and it cant be cemented in a perennial sociopolitical ground. Changes are on its way! Its hardly possible anymore for Western Hegemony to countervail an embryonic world construct, though it can strive so, but with enormous risk to get into even more serious economic complexities than prevail now.

  3. CommentedAriel Tejera

    it's been a stunning development, a terrible swing of fortunes, beyond anyone's fears (or expectations), the image of our global superpower, the US, in the last 15 years.
    I once heard a dear teacher of mine referring, to Osama bin Laden, as 'diabolical' . But ... who else could drive a the most magnificent power ever ... into such a rabid self-destructing spree, or how else to call it? And now, 12 years later, comes mere Snowden .. which calls our attention also, by the immense discrediting power exerted by a man acting also single-handed, and redefining the direction of a manifest destiny .. really, what sense is in this?
    Well, of course Putin's doing his share, but with much lesser merit, as, is he not, "the most powerful" man on earth ?

  4. Commentedtemesgen abate

    the article begins by lauding the Iran nuclear deal then throws some premonitory aspersions on the final agreement.the ubiquitous 1933 Munich agreement is drawn as a magic wand and template to turn the whole episode into oblivion .but it was years since the birth pangs of a new Mideast was uttered .but the article slyly moans the passing of this old order.the proximate midwives of this parturition were the neocons -bush premptive doctrinaires.the post-American world and the rise of the rest demand a new geopolitical oddity noticed in the analysis is the absence of the recent furtive nibblingS by china in south china sea.the ADIZ was announced immediately after the Geneva deal .the common sense reading of the geopolitical Rorschach blot is as the onset of Iranian,Russian and Chinese hegemony in their proximate neighborhood.i conjure it is better to be adept in delivering these new babies with new security layers in their respective blocks.

  5. CommentedZsolt Hermann

    I think looking at this from systemic point of view there are no "losers or gainers".
    We evolved into a global human system where individuals and nations have become mutually interconnected and interdependent.
    We still do not fully comprehend how different this system is to what we are used to.
    We still try to see the world as a fragmented, polarized system with East and West, North and South, left and right, one "ism" against the other, enemies and allies and so on.
    In a global, integral system such notions simply do not exist, "global leaders" and "global policemen" do not exist either.
    What we are watching is a great equalization process, there might be temporary ups and downs but at the end we will settle into a mutually complementing equal system, cogwheels connecting and working together.
    And not on ethical, moral or "spiritual" grounds but out of necessity.
    This is what our evolutionary conditions demand from us, and if we do not adapt willingly, pro-actively, then we will have to do it the hard way, through blows and suffering.