This column was written on Orthodox Easter, but the reminder that Christ is risen is not the only reason for its upbeat tone. There is good news on several foreign fronts, making a major new war less likely today than at any time since the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq was announced last October.
Back then, it was widely assumed that the pullout from Iraq was a necessary prelude to military intervention against Iran. Leaving reduced American forces in Iraq would have exposed them to attacks by an enraged Shi’ite majority once Iran was attacked. Even more importantly, relinquishing American responsibility for the defense of Iraq’s airspace would pave the way for an Israeli air strike against Iranian targets as the first stage of the operation, which would involve the United States at a later point. The flight path from Israel to Iran’s Natanz Nuclear Facility goes some 1,100 miles across Jordan and Iraq. By leaving Iraq to the Iraqis Washington was establishing the grounds for plausible deniability of complicity in the Israeli operation.
President Barack Obama’s decision on December 31, 2011, to apply sanctions against any institution dealing with Iran’s central bank made it effectively impossible for most countries to buy Iranian crude oil. The European Union followed with its own sanctions only weeks later. In January Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said American troops in the Persian Gulf were ready for action. The neoconservatives and their liberal-interventionist allies were beating the war drums in unison on editorial pages and TV shows. By the second half of February, war seemed imminent.
That President Obama was having second thoughts, however, became obvious in early March. In an interview with The Atlantic he reiterated his determination to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons, while sounding a conciliatory note by saying that diplomacy had not run its course. At the AIPAC conference in Washington on March 4 Obama gave a Congressional Medal of Honor to Israeli President Shimon Peres—an opponent of attacking Iran—and criticized “loose talk of war,” to the chagrin of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
On March 5 Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell suggested that, “if Iran, at any time, begins to enrich uranium to weapons grade levels, or decides to go forward with a weapons program, then the United States will use overwhelming force to end that program.” This sounded bellicose, but was in fact a step back from the preventive war urged by the interventionists. Significantly, McConnell also insisted that such casus belli would require prior verification by the intelligence community, which is skeptical of the war advocates’ extravagant claims about Iran’s current nuclear capabilities and future intentions.
Netanyahu’s attempt to push President Obama back on the warpath during a White House meeting on March 6 came to naught. The President dislikes him personally—as he famously admitted to Nicolas Sarkozy in an unguarded open-mike comment last November—and he resented Netanyahu’s earlier hints to various third parties that Jewish-American voters should consider supporting a more reliable friend of Israel come November. “We have a window through which we can resolve this peacefully,” Obama said at a news conference after meeting Netanyahu. “The notion that we have a choice to make in the next week or two weeks or one month or two months is not borne out by the facts.”
Netanyahu’s attempts to wag the dog by threatening unilateral Israeli action proved counterproductive. Senior members of the U.S. military, intelligence, and foreign-policy establishments concluded that Netanyahu wanted war with Iran come what may, that he wanted the United States to fight that war for him, and that the President therefore should be encouraged to stand firm in resisting the pressure.
The White House counteroffensive was closely coordinated with the Israeli opponents of Netanyahu’s hazardous strategy. It kicked off on March 12, when former Israeli intelligence chief Meir Dagan declared that it was not the time to attack Iran. “The regime in Iran is a very rational one,” Dagan told CBS’s 60 Minutes. “No doubt, they are considering all the implications of their actions . . . They will have to pay dearly . . . [They are] very careful on the project . . . They are not running.” This was just what the White House and the Pentagon needed. On March 20, Obama made a video appeal to the Iranian people on the occasion of the Persian New Year, saying that there was “no reason for the United States and Iran to be divided from one another.” A week later Israel’s Defense Minister Ehud Barak—a Peres ally on this issue—announced that the plans for an Israeli attack on Iran had been shelved, and that the decision was “the result of contacts between the [Israeli] Defense Ministry and the Pentagon.” Netanyahu’s gamble had failed.
The magnitude of that failure became clear on April 14, when negotiators from Tehran and six world powers gathered in Istanbul to resume talks after more than a year. The negotiating process was back on track, and a new, constructive atmosphere was in the air, because this time Iran appeared ready to do business. “We expect that subsequent meetings will lead . . . to a comprehensive negotiated solution which restores international confidence in the exclusively peaceful nature of the Iranian nuclear program,” said Catherine Ashton, the E.U. foreign-policy chief who headed negotiations for the six powers. A further sign of progress was that the powers agreed to the Iranian proposal that the next meeting (on May 23) be held in Baghdad, a rare Iran-friendly venue. A diplomat present in Istanbul said this showed commitment on both sides: “Baghdad was a test. The Iranians are saying, If you really want to talk to us, then come and talk to us. And they are coming.”
Not much new was heard in Istanbul on the substance of the dispute over Iran’s uranium enrichment, but a peaceful outcome is now a distinct possibility. Predictably, Netanyahu accused the powers of appeasement—earning a swift and curt rebuff from Obama—and the war party at home claimed that the Iranians should not be trusted, and that war must remain an option. Nevertheless, the contours of an eventual deal were becoming clear.
It is possible that in the course of forthcoming negotiations Iran will agree to stop enriching uranium to 20 percent—the level at which it can be further converted for military purposes—if the United States accepts that Iran has the right to enrichment in principle, and allows Iran to enrich uranium up to 5 percent, which is sufficient for peaceful purposes such as electricity generation. The second key part of the package would be for Iran to agree to IAEA inspections, allowing the United States and the European Union to lift the sanctions.
In Syria, the U.N.-brokered ceasefire was holding steady. Most areas were calm as the first contingent of international observers arrived to monitor the truce. The rebels were predictably accusing the government of “violations”—in reality, isolated firefights instigated by the rebels themselves to attract international attention. Syria’s political-military landscape had shifted to the point where America’s key European partners no longer saw military action as a viable option. It is too early to say that Bashar al-Assad has won, but the odds are in his favor. His soldiers have consolidated their hold over former rebel strongholds, following a series of setbacks that the loose coalition of antigovernment forces—known as the Free Syrian Army—suffered in March and early April.
The leading advocates of military intervention in Syria—including Sens. John McCain and Joe Lieberman—have lost ground. There is no political will on Capitol Hill to involve the United States in another war in the Middle East just as the mission in Afghanistan is coming to an inglorious close. The concern that any weapons delivered to the Free Syrian Army may end up in the wrong hands was openly aired by Rep. Mike Rogers (R-MI), chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, who said it would be risky to arm the rebels, “mainly because we just don’t know who they are.” In fact, we do know: Like their Libyan counterparts a year ago, they are predominantly Islamic militants, in this case associated with the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood.
The insurgency in Syria has been consistently blown out of proportion by the media. At fewer than 500 deaths per month before the ceasefire, it was far less lethal than the chaos in Libya, which caused tens of thousands of deaths between March and September 2011, or the U.S. intervention in Iraq and its aftermath. Syria’s intricate sectarian and clannish divisions would ensure a Hobbesian free-for-all if the regime were removed by external force.
The awareness of such a possibility proved to be Assad’s strongest trump card. It guaranteed the loyalty of the quarter of Syrians who are not Sunni Muslim Arabs. Shi’ites, Christians, and numerous Iraqi refugees of all faiths and denominations remain solidly pro-government, as do most Druze and Kurds (not to mention the regime’s Alawite backbone). Many secular, middle-class Sunnis, who do not cherish the prospect of a bloodbath or that of the Muslim Brotherhood emerging victorious in its aftermath, remained on the sidelines. These latent government supporters, who go about their business and try to stay out of trouble, vastly exceed the number of committed enemies of the regime, which is why a “popular uprising” has never materialized.
On the diplomatic front, having seen the misuse of the limited U.N. mandate by the Western powers in Libya, Russia and China successfully blocked U.N. Security Council resolutions that could have been interpreted by the White House as authorization to intervene. But in the end the most compelling argument against intervention was the realization that the “regime change” scenario did not apply. The Alawite-controlled military-security apparatus would never give up the fight, and it has managed to maintain an impressive level of coherence, morale, and operational effectiveness throughout the crisis. Bashar’s departure would have aggravated the crisis by plunging the country into civil war. The choice for an intervening power would not be between “pro-democracy protesters” and “Assad’s blood-soaked regime” but between Sunni and Shia Muslims, Druze and Alawite, Kurds and Christians. The Obama administration wisely gave it a pass.
At the time of this writing, it seems the world has become a safer place. Yet man’s capacity for folly should never be underestimated. In human affairs things can always go wrong, and therefore they probably will.