The Iran Nuclear Agreement and the Question of Palestine
The Institute for Middle East Understanding (IMEU) hosted an interview on 'The Iran Nuclear Agreement and the Question of Palestine' with Palestine Studies Fellow Mouin Rabbani, Harvard Kennedy School of Government Fellow and former advisor to the PLO Diana Buttu, and Kennedy Fellow and Daily Star columnist Rami Khouri.
Institute for Middle East Understanding (IMEU): From what we know about it so far, how would you assess the Iran nuclear agreement as it affects the region as a whole?
Diana Buttu (DB): This deal is a good start for the region as a whole. For years, people have called for a nuclear-free Middle East and it appears that with this agreement, a nuclear-free Iran is in the works. The main problem, however, is that Israel is not nuclear-free. Israel’s nuclear arsenal is much more advanced than anything developed by Iran. Moreover, Israel has both denied that it has nuclear weapons, despite ample evidence to the contrary and, unlike Iran, has consistently refused any inspections. Now is the time to start addressing Israel’s nuclear capability.
Mouin Rabbani (MR): I think this agreement needs to be evaluated at several levels: globally, regionally, and locally. At the global level, assuming of course that it is properly ratified and actually implemented, I think it is a major even if imperfect development that enhances and makes a real contribution to international peace and security, and should be welcomed and supported if for that reason alone.
At the regional level, I don't see it having much of an impact except over the longer-term. Neither the United States nor Iran are going to reconfigure their regional policies or alliances on the basis of this agreement anytime soon, though it could lead to more cooperation between the two on specific issues, such as confronting the Islamic State (IS) movement in Iraq or sorting out particular elements of the chaos that has been produced in Afghanistan. But those who think that the agreement is quickly going to be followed by a settlement in Palestine, Syria, Lebanon, Bahrain, and Yemen or even one of these I think misread both the agreement and its broader political context.
I think a more persuasive argument can be made that tensions are likely to rise between Iran and its Arab adversaries, particularly Gulf states and specifically Saudi Arabia, and that this is probably going to lead to an intensification of their regional proxy conflicts. Whereas Israel rejects any agreement with Iran irrespective of its contents as a matter of principle, and is primarily motivated by opposition to Iran coming in from the cold in any way, shape or form whether with or without a nuclear program (though preferably without one), Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states are generally less concerned about the nuclear dimension than Israel has been, and are more apprehensive about the increased regional role and influence Iran is likely to achieve in the years ahead. These Arab states are convinced this will necessarily be at their expense, and their media is already abuzz with talk of a new American-Iranian strategic alliance and similar theories. What this means is that under certain circumstances, which again I do not see emerging anytime soon, Iranian-Arab tensions (or rather those between Iran's present rulers and those of their Arab counterparts opposed to its regional influence) can be negotiated and resolved, perhaps under American auspices because the latter are essentially American client regimes. In the meantime the primary risk is that this increasingly pernicious and nefarious sectarian genie that has been let out of the bottle at least in part on account of this rivalry, will prove increasingly difficult to demobilize.
With Israel the situation is different, because its agenda remains regime change in Tehran and nothing less. The consensus seems to be that there is little the Israelis can do apart from incessantly whine about being thrown under the Washington-Tehran bus line, and puff their chests in Congress, captive media, and the like. I tend to agree that Israel's politicians will be restrained by its generals from doing anything excessively rash, and that if Israel is stupid enough to carry out major actions within Iran intended to derail this agreement it will pay an intolerably high price for doing so. It could however decide to take on Iran elsewhere in the region, such as in Lebanon or Syria. But is such a demonstration of power and lunacy going to destroy the agreement? I very much doubt it.
Additionally, and although Israeli and Arab attitudes to the agreement are different and motivated by differing concerns, we can expect to see even greater cooperation, collaboration, and normalization between Israel and those Arab governments most hostile to Iran. For Israel in the hope of preventing the implementation of this agreement, for its Arab partners in the hope of stemming Iran's regional influence. The conventional wisdom is that for the sake of appearances an open alliance between Israel and its Arab partners is unlikely to be consummated this side of Israel-Palestinian peace. That will probably remain true, but you don't need to be formally married to conduct intimate relations.
The local, Israeli-Palestinian ramifications of this agreement are discussed in my response to your questions below.
Rami Khouri (RK): Assuming it is fully implemented by all sides, which I do, it opens tremendous positive opportunities for normalizing relations between Iran and its government critics in the Arab world, on the heel of the expected brisk expansion in commercial trade, tourism, and cultural exchanges. That can only positively influence other conflict situations like Lebanon, Syria, and Palestine, if there is political will to do so.
IMEU: There has been speculation that the nuclear deal might be followed quickly by a renewed international push for Israelis and Palestinians to resume the negotiations process. What do you think the nuclear deal's impact will be on the diplomatic situation in Palestine-Israel in the near term?
DB: This government is not interested in ending its military rule and the Iran deal will not change this. Netanyahu will continue expanding illegal settlements, maintain Israel’s siege on the Gaza Strip and continue killing with impunity. Moreover, while Netanyahu keeps espousing that he wants a resumption in negotiations, his actions demonstrate that he simply wants negotiations for the sake of negotiations – a fig leaf – and not because he is interested in ending Israel’s apartheid. His repeated statements that he does not believe in Palestinian freedom and the continued demolition of Palestinian homes while expanding Israeli illegal settlements are indicative of his overall leanings. For their part, Palestinians are well aware that negotiations are a sham. Unless an international push is backed by sanctions for Israel’s continued illegal settlement expansion and home demolitions, any diplomatic push will be as weak as the pushes that preceded this deal.
MR: I wouldn't be overly concerned that this agreement is going to lead to yet another revival of the farce conventionally known as the peace process. Its main beneficiary, Israel, simply will not allow this to happen because even the most nonsensical of negotiations processes requires at least the pretense of an agenda and objective, and there is no formula available that would not cause the immediate collapse of this Israeli government, which it bears recollection is the most extreme in the state's short history.
I additionally suspect the Americans will not push a deeply offended Netanyahu too hard in this respect, and are more likely to salve his wounds with yet more advanced weapons systems and UN Security Council vetoes. That's been the general pattern of US-Israeli relations since the 1970s: Tel Aviv gives Washington nothing, and is rewarded with everything for doing so. Expertise in politics and strategic affairs is of only limited value in understanding contemporary US-Israeli relations. A solid grasp of romance and eroticism is at least as if not more important in this respect. I can think of no other instance in which a head of state is condemned rather than praised for not being “in love” (i.e., personally and emotionally infatuated) with a foreign entity, and this unfathomably weird accusation actually leads to serious discussion.
So while not losing sleep over the prospects of a speedy resumption of the self-proclaimed peace process, I would nevertheless offer several caveats. Unlikely as it seems, if Netanyahu succeeds in mobilizing his American constituents—primarily but by no means exclusively the Congressional Likud faction—sufficiently to derail this agreement, there will be hell to pay. And Washington knows there is no better way to retaliate against Israel and particularly its politicians than to remove American protection from its insatiable appetite for Arab land. The same would apply if Israel's leaders–who increasingly act like incorrigible pyromaniacs in their dealings with the United States (and, having gotten away with everything for so long, who can blame them?) manage to seriously damage or humiliate President Obama or Secretary Kerry personally, even if the agreement is left standing. We are after all dealing with human beings and all their frailties, vanities, delusions of grandeur etc.
On the same subject, Kerry has just scored a major success and in the megalomania of victory could decide there remains unfinished business in the Middle East–for the US and for him personally–and persuade Obama of the same. I suspect cooler heads will prevail, but you never know. More importantly, from Washington's perspective there are numerous other priorities, globally and also within the Middle East, on which to expend political capital. These include not only the challenges of implementing the Iran agreement but also Syria, Libya, Yemen and other conflicts. None of the latter involve potential confrontations with important domestic constituencies and they are considered greater threats to American national security than half a century of colonial occupation by the apple of its eye.
This agreement could also prove important for another reason. It has been an article of faith in many circles that Israel and US Jewish advocacy groups exercise absolute control over US Middle East policy, and are at least powerful enough to ensure that key American decisions serve and are consistent with Israeli interests. Well, it has just been demonstrated once again that when push comes to shove, “the Lobby” is very much a paper tiger because Washington and not Tel Aviv ultimately calls the shots. This is going to weaken Israel, whose foreign policy is in significant part based on cultivating an image of unparalleled access and influence in Washington. How will this impact tin-pot dictators persuaded that the road to America goes through Israel, and Israel alone? How will it affect Arab inertia on Palestine, reliant as it is on the pretext that you cannot fight Israel without defeating America first? Will it embolden the Europeans, who increasingly and openly express that their patience with Israel has reached an end? For Israeli diplomacy, losing a battle with Washington that Israel consistently and until this very day defines as being of existential importance doesn't augur particularly well.
RK: Much depends on what happens in Syria, which impacts how Iran and Hizballah connect in future. In the near term the deal will force Israel to be more realistic in its dealings with Iran and also with the United States, which it antagonized badly in the past two years. Normal Iranian relations with Arab states and the United States should dampen Iranian-Israeli antagonisms and force Hizballah to recalibrate its role in Lebanon. All these moves suggest brighter prospects for Israel-Palestine talks. The most important impact of the Iran deal, though, is the manner in which antagonists who were on the verge of war shifted to a diplomatic negotiation and resolved their tensions peacefully. The example for Israel-Palestine is compelling.
IMEU: How do you think a broader rapprochement between Iran and the US might impact the political situation in Palestine-Israel in the longer term?
DB: A sane person would put an end to Israel’s military rule and denial of freedom to the Palestinians. Unfortunately, Israeli leaders are not driven by sanity and American leaders lack the courage to finally demand that Israel abide by international rules. As a result, this agreement will not change much but will serve to highlight that Israel is not an ally to the United States but merely a burden. An ally would not oppose this deal, nor demand that traitors and spies be released in order to make an agreement more palatable.
MR: I cannot answer that question because, again, I simply do not see such a rapprochement happening except on the bilateral issues resolved in their agreement and specific other issues—the Question of Palestine not among them. The United States is not going to negotiate with Hamas or suddenly discover Palestinian self-determination, and Iran is not going to recognize Israel next week and support the disarmament of Hizballah.
I would also argue that Iran's influence on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is very much a function of its support for Palestinian and Arab militant movements. Should this cease, its ability to play a significant role and, for example, promote a political settlement will pale in comparison to that of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, or even Turkey. Iran could presumably barter its support for such movements in exchange for a seat at the table, but that is unlikely to happen or make much difference, and it is unclear whether either the United States or Iran would even want this. Iran could conceivably offer to normalize relations with Israel, supply it with oil, invite the Israeli military and Mossad back in to help prop up the regime and earn hefty profits along the way as during the reign of the Shah, but if we are going to discuss that scenario it is equally plausible the US will declare war on Israel.
What we do see happening is various Palestinian groups responding to the new regional dynamics produced by the agreement. Hamas, always an ally of convenience for Iran rather than soul mate of Tehran, has quickly moved to restore relations with Saudi Arabia in order to benefit from these dynamics, and would for various reasons probably prefer to replace Iranian with Saudi patronage. (Iranian support of Hamas has in any case decreased significantly in recent years on account of the Syria conflict). An increasingly assertive Iran is additionally demanding greater allegiance to the party line from organizations, like Palestinian Islamic Jihad, that are counted among its soul mates. Thus Islamic Jihad's professions of neutrality on the Yemen conflict were not received well in Tehran and have led to retaliatory measures, including a reduction in support and reported Iranian sponsorship of a more malleable Palestinian grouplet.
If this realignment continues, it raises interesting possibilities for Palestinian national reconciliation and improved relations between Hamas and Egypt, which could then form a basis for the urgent reconstruction of the Palestinian national movement and the restoration of Palestinian neutrality in the regional cold war. Beyond reviving the national movement, the primary responsibility for Palestinian leadership today is to once again ensure that the Palestinian cause is a sacrosanct one that rises above the region's differences and unites its rivals—including Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey—in its support, rather than one where its mediocre politicians permit themselves to become proxy footballs played between various capitals on behalf of regional agendas that all but ignore Palestine.
RK: I would add to my above answer that normal US-Iran ties would increase the pressure on Israel-Palestine to explore diplomatic talks again, but most importantly they would possibly teach the US that it can be a more effective mediator if it follows the rules it applied in its own negotiations with Iran (i.e., put all key concerns and demands on the table, identify bottom lines, make mutual and equal concessions, and enjoy meaningful gains simultaneously).
IMEU: What role have pro-Israel groups in the US played in shaping the discourse around the deal, and where do you think they may shift their focus to if Congress approves the agreement?
DB: Pro-Israel groups continue to relish in fear-mongering. What is clear is that the United States and Israel do not share common interests: the United States wants to avoid armed confrontation while Israel and its supporters want to encourage it.
MR: I think such groups and lobbies have been absolutely central—just look at what the crazies in Congress and related groups have been spouting and how seriously it is being taken, including of course on the Republican campaign trail. Pro-Israel groups are the primary authors of all this commentary we have been forced to endure, which can only be described as the work of raving lunatics. I do not expect them to shift their focus elsewhere anytime soon, and, in any case, they are quite adept at multi-tasking. If and when this battle is truly over for them, and perhaps depending on who next occupies the White House, I suspect they will simply continue to do what they've always done—advocate for American sanctions, military intervention and wars in the Arab world wherever the opportunity may arise. And probably in Iran as well.
RK: I suspect pro-Israel groups that are equitable in their view of equal Palestinian rights will get a boost, while the extreme hardliners aligned with the Likud will slowly fade out of the picture, as some of the extreme Christian Zionists have in recent years. American public opinion is reasonable and fair, and will not endure extremists for very long.
IMEU: Do you think the agreement with Iran will put increased pressure on Israel, whose secret nuclear arsenal has been a primary motivating factor for other countries in the region that have attempted to acquire the bomb, to come clean on its own nuclear weapons program?
DB: Israel will never come clean about its nuclear program because it does not want to face inspections as other countries around the world. Israel views itself as above the law and exempt from abiding by international agreements while demanding compliance by others. Unfortunately, the United States has never pushed Israeli nonproliferation while demanding nonproliferation from others. This double standard only serves to bolster the mindset that nuclear weapons held by one country can only be countered by developing nuclear capacity. In other words, if Israel is entitled to possess nuclear weapons and not submit to inspections (and instead of facing sanctions receives billions in US support and assistance), why should Iran not be afforded the same luxury? With this Iran deal in place, now is the time to also deal with nuclear Israel and force it to abide by the same international rules. Should Israel fail to come clean, it should face similar sanctions.
MR: No. Washington will ensure this does not happen, or at least ensure such pressure has zero consequence. Even today, in 2015, if you read the mainstream US and European press, which no one claims is state-owned, you very rarely find direct references to “Israel's nuclear arsenal.” It is always “alleged”, “claimed”, “purported”, “assumed”, “presumed” or otherwise qualified—probably to an even greater extent than Iran's non-existent one. This is tantamount to a presumption of innocence decades after being proven guilty solely because the convict has not seen fit to offer a confession.
RK: Some new efforts will be made to discuss a nuclear weapons free zone in the Middle East, but I doubt this will get very far, given Israel's obstinate and imperial assumption of its right to have weapons that are banned to others.