December 4, 2007
The Anti-Iran Annapolis Conference
At the Annapolis Middle Eastern peace conference much more went on behind the scenes than took place before the cameras. The prearranged commitment of the Palestinians and Israelis to talk again was little enough gain from the one-day meeting, particularly as the agreement did not explicitly address any of the substantive issues that continue to divide the two sides. One Palestinian described the concluding remarks as "more of the same," with the United States essentially adhering to a status quo defined by Israel.
As there is little chance of a breakthrough for peace, there has been much speculation over why the conference took place at all. The U.S. media, always seeking a simple explanation, is suggesting that President George W. Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice see Middle East peace as a legacy issue that could result in a positive historical assessment of the Bush foreign policy after the disastrous mishandling of Iraq, Afghanistan, and the fight against terrorism. But that explanation assumes that Bush, Rice, and their Israeli counterparts believe a peace agreement to be possible within the next year. Almost no one involved in the process would agree that such an outcome is likely barring major bilateral concessions, which are difficult to envision given the political weakness of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, coupled with the unwillingness of the White House to pressure the Israelis.
The conference is only comprehensible in terms of the other agendas that drove it. Behind the scenes, the United States and Israel were less interested in making peace with the Palestinians than they were in building up a de facto coalition of Arab states against Iran, which is why there was intense diplomatic pressure to obtain the participation of every Arab country. Many foreign ministries only reluctantly sent-low ranking officials, knowing in advance that the views of anyone but Israel and the United States were irrelevant. The decision on whom not to invite was also significant. The refusal to include Tehran and Hamas was irrational if there was any serious intention to address the core issues that might lead to peace in the Middle East, but it was perfectly rational if one assumes that one aim of the conference was to marginalize the two and confirm their pariah status.
The Iranians are undoubtedly aware of what the conference was all about. They are maneuvering to counter any Arab front being stitched together by Washington and Tel Aviv to challenge their regional ambitions, while the Arab states for their part have been quick to assure Tehran that they pose no threat as a result of their attendance in Annapolis. Tehran knows that its influence in the region means it has the ability to derail any substantive agreements that might be reached as a result of the conference, but it also knows that its relationship with its neighbors depends on leverage over key surrogates Syria and Hezbollah. As a Shi'ite, Persian state surrounded by largely Sunni and mostly Arab countries, its regional power needs to be exercised indirectly.
It is that exercise of power through surrogates that Israel and the United States are seeking to take away. In the discussions that preceded the actual meeting in Annapolis, many key Arab states balked at committing themselves to any explicit anti-Iran alignment, but the U.S. and Israel were able to focus on Syria, which they see as the weak link in Iran's strategic arrangements. The Syrians attended the conference because the issue of the Golan Heights was placed on the agenda. Israel and Syria were able to restate their adversarial positions, but the United States was also able to arrange a series of secret meetings between senior U.S. diplomats and Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faysal Mekdad, followed by additional meetings with senior Syrian representatives in Washington on the two days after the conference closed. Syria is seen as vulnerable both to economic and political pressure, and it has long been believed that President Bashar Assad is eager for a deal that will establish peaceful coexistence with Israel and end U.S. attempts to destabilize the country and bring about regime change.
The discussions centered on the subject of Damascus' ties to Iran and to Hezbollah. The U.S., coordinating closely with Israel, sought to determine what would be necessary to detach Syria from its support of Hezbollah and its strategic relationship with Iran. The Syrian representatives conveyed Syrian President Bashar Assad's position that Syria has at least two demands that must be met before it will consider changing its foreign policy alignment. The first requirement is an agreement on the return of the Golan Heights to complete Syrian control, and the second is a guarantee that the UN Special Court that is investigating the assassination of Lebanese politician Rafik Hariri will neither implicate nor indict Syrian President Bashar Assad.
The U.S. State Department was not surprised by either demand, as they have been raised before, but several senior analysts also noted that the Syrian statement is the first solid indication that Damascus is willing to break with Iran if it can obtain a substantial political payoff in return. Washington was also aware that nothing is necessarily as it seems. Damascus carefully hedged its bets before the Annapolis conference began by sending a high-level emissary to Tehran to assure the Iranians that their interests would not be affected by the Syrian participation.
But there are also signs that Israel might be more willing to cut a deal. The Syrians, through their own bilateral contacts with the Israelis, believe that Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak is anxious for some kind of agreement with Damascus, because military action by Israel and the U.S. against Iran would be easier without the danger that Syrian territory might be used to launch Iranian missiles. The Israelis know that it is hard to detect and intercept such short-range missiles before they actually strike their targets.
In the Washington follow-up meetings both Israel and the Syrians were informed that the U.S. has no objection to discussions on the status of the Golan Heights at the next peace talks, tentatively scheduled to be held in Moscow later this year, although the State Department is not optimistic that it will lead anywhere because Olmert is in no position to make the major concessions required. Last year the Bush administration adhered to a policy shaped by Vice President Dick Cheney and National Security Council Deputy Elliott Abrams that actively discouraged Olmert from pursuing talks with Damascus, but the Bush administration is now less ideologically driven on the subject. A number of leading neocons have left the government, and the president is reportedly heeding the advice of the "realists" in his cabinet, particularly Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates.