Russia's decision to rein in Syria's Assad regime after its use of chemical weapons set the stage for a diplomatic arrangement to end Syria's civil war. It also opens the possibility that Iran can be induced to suspend nuclear weapons development, in return for an easing of economic sanctions. And it raises the possibility that Israel and Palestinians will finally agree on a two-state solution in Palestine.
Critics say this is wishful thinking, that even if Syria's civil war winds down, Iran will never give up plans to become a nuclear power, or that Israel will agree to Palestinian statehood.
It may be useful to assess the short-term and long-term goals of the key players in this drama and try to estimate whether these interests could lead to a negotiated settlement of Middle East danger points.
Vladimir Putin demonstrated that Russia will not permit its long-time ally, Syria, to be overthrown by the insurgents, but he seems willing to accept a change of its leadership so long as it doesn't alter the regime, or Russia's influence in Damascus.
Moscow's longer-term interest is expanding its influence in the wider Middle East, which it largely lost to the United States over the past forty years. This includes in Egypt and Iraq, and briefly in Lebanon. It's an ambitious diplomatic undertaking.
The Obama administration's short-term goal is to avoid another costly war in the Middle East, which would sap America's economic and military strength. With an economy struggling to regain momentum and a military recovering from the strains of two prolonged wars, the president's national security team wants to try diplomatic negotiations instead of war to resolve regional conflicts.
America's long-term goals in the Middle East remain largely unchanged from previous administrations: 1) Maintain peace and stability in the region; 2) Prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons; 3) Ensure the free flow of Persian Gulf oil to world markets; 4) Defend Israel's ability to exist in a secure environment. A crucial question is whether these long-term Middle East goals are achievable through diplomacy.
President Hassan Rouhani's short-term goal, and his reason for a "charm offensive" in the United States and Europe, is the lifting of U.N. sanctions that are damaging Iran's economy. Russia agreed to the sanctions and will also have a role in modifying or ending them. However, Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is the final decider on whether Rouhani will agree to stop Iran's nuclear weapons program.
Tehran's long-term goal is to expand its influence in the Persian Gulf region and eventually exercise hegemony there. Its religious ties with Shiite Muslim adherents in other Gulf states gives Iran indirect influence in Sunni-dominated Arab countries, But its dream of hegemony is blocked by the large U.S. naval presence in the Gulf.
Three short-term goals predominate in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's view of Israel's interests: 1) Prevent Iran from building nuclear weapons; 2) Maintain good relations with Egypt, in order to secure its long southern border; 3) Insure that a potential Palestinian state is disarmed and poses no threat to Israel. To achieve these objectives, Israel needs steadfast support from the U.S. government.
Israel's long-term goal is ensuring peace and security in the Middle East and good relations with its Arab neighbors. To achieve this, most Israelis believe a two-state arrangement with the Palestinians is necessary. But hard-line conservatives reject a two-state solution and insist on expanding Jewish settlements in the West Bank and in East Jerusalem. Netanyahu will be forced to decide soon whether stopping settlement building is politically feasible without additional U.S. security guarantees.
These four leaders, Putin, Obama, Rouhani, and Netanyahu are agreed to have diplomatic negotiations resolve Syria's civil war. However, Iran's nuclear weapons program and Palestinian statehood pose a more daunting problem for diplomacy.
Russia, a permanent U.N. Security Council member, has a major interest in preventing a war between Israel and Iran that could inflame the entire Middle East. Putin could also be helpful in encouraging an Israeli-Palestinian deal on statehood.
Is collaboration between Washington and Moscow likely?
In "Russia Beyond the Headlines," a paid supplement in the Washington Post (October 9), Moscow signaled its intentions with this story: "Taking the U.S. Russia Framework Seriously: Cooperation between the White House and Kremlin may even bear fruit." A photo of smiling Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, warmly greeting U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, accompanied the story.
The challenge for Barack Obama is deciding how far the United States should go to accommodate Russia's desire to expand its influence in the Middle East. In my view, the president should be willing to share responsibility with Moscow for keeping peace in this volatile area. It is where diplomacy, and patience, could lead to a successful accommodation of interests.
File last modified on Monday, 14-OCT-2013 10:16 AM EST