The Magazine

The New Middle East

Israel and its neighbors

Nov 26, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 11 • By ELLIOTT ABRAMS
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Just managing the current developments in the region would seem to be enough to keep our diplomats busy when the president’s second term begins, without the reach for an Israeli-Palestinian peace and a great ceremony on the White House lawn. Not only will there be Syria, the violence coming from Gaza, a Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt whose commitment to democracy is at best unproved, and an increasing sense of instability in Jordan, but looming over all this will be Iran. Negotiations between the Islamic Republic and the P5+1​—​the United States, Britain, China, France, Germany, and Russia​—​will resume soon. But what is the president’s game? Obama loyalists debate whether he really means “all options are on the table” and might some day bomb Iran or support an Israeli strike.

The first steps will be diplomatic, and the question is whether the administration will avoid the hardest choice​—​war​—​not by ending the Iranian program through sanctions and negotiations, but by accepting a bad deal and calling it victory. Defining what is a bad deal will of course be the substance of the debate, and it can be very technical at points. But the gap between what the Security Council resolutions demand and what Iran will be willing to accept seems very wide, and a deal that can be described as “even weaker than what the U.N. wanted!” may not seem too attractive to most Americans. There’s no particular reason for Republicans​—​who have always taken a harder line on Iran than has Obama, and who forced many of the current sanctions on him​—​to accept such a deal, and they can be expected to oppose it. So may the Israelis, and so at least in private may the French. And so may the Arab Gulf states, who not only oppose a deal that allows Iran to have any nuclear program at all but also fear that an Iran that feels triumphant and has gotten all sanctions removed may step up its subversion in the region.

If there are serious negotiations with Iran, the president must decide fast whether they will be bilateral rather than with the Security Council members and Germany​—​which would make both the Israelis and Arabs very nervous​—​and whether he will offer Iran a “grand bargain” that goes beyond nukes to end 30 years of hostility between the United States and the Islamic Republic, which would make the Israelis and Arabs even more nervous. He may well find that Khamenei, whose loathing for the United States knows no limits, refuses such talks and such a deal​—​or indeed any deal. If so, the president will next spring face an Israel that thinks its military option must be exercised soon, as he will face a decision about American military options.

All of this is in the cards, but wild cards may appear. What if we find that al Qaeda groups in northern Mali were involved in the Benghazi attack and need to strike at them before that region becomes a new safe haven for al Qaeda bases? What if the palpable unease in Jordan turns into serious demonstrations (and there were sizable demonstrations this past week) against the king? What if the king and crown prince of Saudi Arabia, both in questionable health, die or become incapacitated in the coming months? What if Iran decides to turn Bahrain into a greater crisis by spurring riots there, or sends more Revolutionary Guard and Hezbollah troops into Syria to bolster the Assad regime?

Also among the wild cards are the names of our own top officials. Who will deal with crises on the American side? A Secretary of State Susan Rice, who saw Ben­ghazi as a demonstration and not terrorism, or John Kerry, who long argued that Assad was a reformer? Who will be running the Pentagon on the day the president must decide about bombing Iran, or supporting an Israeli bombing and helping the Israelis deal with its consequences? Who will be CIA director as we contemplate everything from drone strikes in Mali, to arming the Syrian rebels, to sabotage in Iran?

The next three to six months in the Middle East will make Obama administration officials look back to 2012 with nostalgia as a quiet time when they were able to focus on the campaign. The coming year will be much tougher​—​starting now.

Elliott Abrams is a senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. His book Tested By Zion: The Bush Administration and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict comes out in December.

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