As the war between Israel and Hamas rages on, with horrifying humanitarian toll for the civilians in Gaza, the United States is continuing its unwavering support for Israel: it is not only sending Israel arms and shielding it from criticisms at the United Nations, but also boosting the deterrence against the so-called “axis of resistance,” which includes Iran and its allies in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen.
The U.S. moves to show solidarity with Israel are understandable. However, unless they are complemented by a credible diplomatic strategy in pursuit of a comprehensive stabilization in the Middle East, not only will they fail to bring the U.S. any benefits, but, to the contrary, they would risk entangling it in a wider regional war. To prevent such a dire scenario, Washington should, in addition to its existing contacts in the region, launch a direct channel to Tehran and seek serious talks about the future not only of Gaza and Palestine, but the broader Middle East.
Since the war started on October 7, following Hamas’s terrorist attack on Israel, Washington reportedly warned Tehran, through third parties, against expanding, either directly or through allies, the front against Israel. To deter Iran, Biden sent an attack submarine to the Persian Gulf, in addition to two aircraft carriers with warplanes and other military assets already dispatched to the region in the immediate aftermath of Hamas’s attack.
The usual suspects in Washington were quick to jump on the war’s bandwagon to push for their favorite obsession: make it all about Iran. Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-S.C.), true to form, threatened military action to target Iran’s oil infrastructure. United Against Nuclear Iran, hawkish advocacy group, painted doomsday scenarios of impending multi-front “Iranian escalation” against Israel. And others like the Atlantic Council’s Matthew Kroenig fell back on a tired cliché of Iran and its allies being the principal source of all instability in the Middle East.
Making the Israel-Hamas war being all about Iran not only completely denies Palestinians’ own agency and conditions under the occupation. It also misreads actual Iranian policies, as opposed to the rhetoric.
As usual, Tehran presents a mix of ideology and pragmatic pursuit of national interest. Top officials, starting with the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, while expressing full support for Hamas, clearly emphasized that Iran had no operational role in the attack of October 7. Iran is not willing to confront Israel or the U.S. directly as such a conflict would be too destructive for it and its most prized assets in the region, like the Lebanese Hezbollah. Hence, Tehran insists that the “resistance front” has autonomy in its actions against Israel and the U.S.
Another factor that the rulers in Tehran need to take into account is that the Iranian population on the whole cares far more about the difficult economic conditions in their own country rather than Gaza. With the regime hard-liners doubling down on divisive policies, such as insistence on mandatory hijabs for women, the gap between the establishment and significant portion of the Iranian population is growing. Since the commitment to Palestine is one of the Islamic Republic’s enduring identity badges, it is not surprising that a growing disaffection with the system translates into a weaker support for Iran’s involvement in what many Iranians consider a foreign conflict.
The fact that Iran is compelled to act, so far, in a restrained fashion, opens a window of opportunity for some bold, creative diplomacy on the U.S. side. A true diplomatic effort should go far beyond sending warnings to Tehran through third parties like Qatar, Oman, or Iraq. It should include direct talks not only about how to end the war in Gaza, but also the outlines of a broader order in the Middle East.
Given the entrenched enmity between the U.S. and Iran, it may seem like a tall order. Yet, as international relations scholar Stephen Walt reminds us, some of the roots of the current situation could be traced to the Madrid peace conference on the Middle East in 1991 and subsequent Oslo agreements on Palestine. While crediting then-President George H.W. Bush and his secretary of state James Baker with a serious effort to bring peace to the Middle East, Walt points to a fatal flaw of the Madrid/Oslo process: the exclusion of Iran and the whole “rejectionist” front from the discussions, which only incentivized Iran to act as a spoiler against a regional order that was being shaped explicitly against its interests.
Importantly, that happened at a time when Iran, exhausted by the long, brutal war with Iraq and under the pragmatic presidency of Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani was showing signs of moderation and willingness to re-engage with the U.S. Rebuffed, Iran turned to Islamic Jihad and other extremist Palestinian groups that contributed to a collapse of the peace process.
As the U.S. and its allies ponder their next steps, they should avoid repeating the same fatal mistake. The costs of non-relationship between Washington and Tehran are already highlighted by the almost daily attacks by the Shiite militias in Syria and Iraq on U.S. military assets in those countries. The U.S. retaliates in what it claims to be “self-defense strikes” against Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). In the absence of a meaningful diplomatic track and de-escalation mechanisms, these exchanges could easily spiral out of control and lead to a direct military confrontation between the U.S. and Iran.
In such a scenario the U.S. would have little regional support as the Arab and Islamic world is focused on ending Israel’s war in Palestine, not joining a new one against Iran. It is highly meaningful that it was the war in Gaza that provided the context for the first visit of Iran’s president Ebrahim Raisi to Saudi Arabia after years of hostility — for a joint meeting of the League of Arab States and Organization Islamic Conference. A handshake between Raisi and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman in Riyadh would have been unthinkable only a few years ago.
The U.S. should encourage these regional reconnections and establish its own direct dialogue with Iran. The alternative — dividing the region neatly into the moderates (such as Saudi Arabia, UAE, Egypt and Jordan) and pariahs (Iran and its allies and proxies) — has been tried and failed abysmally. The consequences of this failure are being tragically played out in Gaza.
Establishing direct talks with Iran will not solve all of the region’s problems. It may also carry domestic political risks for Biden in the pre-election year. But doubling down on the strategy of exclusion of Iran from any solution in Gaza and future security configuration in the Middle East is guaranteed to perpetuate the cycles of violence in the region.
DOHA, QATAR — In remarks Sunday at the 21st Doha Forum in Qatar, Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov seemed to revel in what is becoming a groundswell of international frustration with the United States over its policies in Israel. Despite Russia’s own near-isolated status after its 2022 invasion of Ukraine, Lavrov glibly characterized the U.S. as on the wrong side of history, the leader of the dying world order, and the purveyor of its own brand of “cancel culture.”
“I think everybody understands that this (Gaza war) did not happen in a vacuum that there were decades of unfulfilled promises that the Palestinians would get their own state,” and years of political and security hostilities that exploded on Oct. 7, he charged. “This is about the cancel culture, whatever you don’t like about events that led to the current situation you cancel. Everything that came before February 2022, including the bloody coup (in Ukraine) and the unconstitutional change of power … all this was canceled. The only thing that remains is that Russia invaded Ukraine.”
Lavrov, beamed in from Russia to the international audience in Doha, went fairly unchallenged, though his interviewer James Bays, diplomatic editor at Al Jazeera, attempted to corner him on accusations stemming from Russia’s own bloody record in Chechnya in the 1990s and and 2000s and its ongoing military campaign in Syria, which Lavrov noted was at the “behest” of the Syrian government.
On the issue of the failed ceasefire vote at the UN Security Council, of which Russia is a permanent veto member, Lavrov said, “we strongly condemn the terrorist attack against Israel. At the same time we do not think it is acceptable to use this (terrorist) event for collective punishment of millions of Palestinian people.” Did he condemn the United States for vetoing the ceasefire measure? “It’s up to the regional countries and the other countries of the world to judge,” he declared.
When asked if there was a “stalemate” in the Russian war in Ukraine, and what the Russians may have gained from their invasion in 2022, he said simply, “it’s up to the Ukrainians to understand how deep a hole they are in and where the Americans have put them.”
On whether a ceasefire may be in the offing in that war Lavrov said, “a year and half ago (Zelensky) signed a decree prohibiting any negotiations with the Putin government. They had the chance in March and April 2022, very soon after the beginning of the special military operation, where in Istanbul the negotiators reached a deal with neutrality for Ukraine, no NATO, and security guarantees…it was canceled,” he added, because the Americans and Brits wanted to “exhaust (Ukrainians) more.”
Lavrov gleefully piggybacked on themes from an earlier forum panel on the Global South. He accused “the United States and its allies” of building “the model of globalization, which they thought would serve them well.” But now, Lavrov contends, the unaligned are using “the principles and instruments of globalization to beat the West on their own terms.” As for Russia, Lavrov deployed a little “cancel culture” of his own, cherry picking the high points of his country's history over the last 200 years to project a nation that he boasts will emerge unscathed by Western assaults today.
“In the beginning of the 19th century Napoleon (rose European armies) against Russia and we defeated him; in the 20th century Hitler did the same. We defeated him and became stronger after that as well,” he said. With the Ukraine war, the West will find “that Russia has already become much stronger than it was before this.”
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UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres speaks in opening session of the Doha Forum in Qatar, December 10. (vlahos)
DOHA, QATAR — The U.S. veto of the UN Security Council vote for a ceasefire in the war in Gaza is being met with widespread anger and frustration by the international community and especially in the Arab world, as reflected in opening remarks at the 21st Doha Forum in Qatar on Sunday.
Addressing the forum, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said the vote was “regrettable…that does not make it less necessary. I can promise that I will not give up.” He said since the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas in Israel and the ensuing Israeli retaliation in Gaza, “the Council’s authority and credibility were seriously undermined” by a succession of failed votes to respond to ongoing civilian carnage on the Strip.
Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani, foreign minister of Qatar, said the current crisis and the U.S. reaction to it, including its thwarting of the ceasefire call (it was the only vote of disapproval; the UK abstained) was exposing the “great gap between East and West ... and double standards in the international community.” He pointed to those drawing attention to war crimes in “other contexts” (no doubt referring to Russia in Ukraine ) “hesitating to call for the end of these crimes in the Gaza strip.”
He repeatedly called for the creation of new multipolar world order that "respects justice and equality between the people where no people are more powerful than the other."
The U.S. said it did not approve the ceasefire resolution Friday because of the lack of condemnation of Hamas in the language, and that it not include a declaration of Israel’s right to defend itself. U.S. ambassador Robert Wood said halting Israel’s military action would “only plant the seeds for the next war.”
The result is that people here at the forum say they are more convinced than ever that U.S. policy is reflexively and intimately intertwined with Israel's activities in Gaza. As Mohammad Shtayyeh, prime minister of Palestine, charged, Washington has given the “greenest of green lights” to what Israel is doing on the ground. This was exacerbated this weekend with news that the Biden Administration is bypassing Congressional review to send 13,000 tank rounds to Israel. This, despite efforts by Democrats in his own party to condition the transfer of offensive weapons to prevent their use against civilians.
Meanwhile, humanitarian advocates repeatedly called the situation on the ground “unprecedented.” In an interview with Al Jazeera reporter Stefanie Dekker on the dais, Philippe Lazzarini, commissioner-general of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, said his own organization is “on the brink of collapse.” They have lost 134 relief workers in Gaza since Israeli operations began. He described staff in silent stupefaction over the loss of homes, families. “There is no doubt a ceasefire is needed; we want to put an end to hell on earth right now in Gaza.”
Khaled Saffuri, executive director of the National Interest Foundation in Washington, told RS he was struck by the backlash against American brands in his own travels in Kuwait and Qatar over the last week, citing customer and restaurant boycotts of Coke, Pepsi, MacDonald’s, and Starbucks. “It’s horrible,” he said of the lopsided UN vote. “America is losing a lot in the Muslim world.”
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Journalists in the press room watch as Republican presidential candidate and former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and fellow candidate and businessman Vivek Ramaswamy discuss an issue during the fourth Republican candidates' debate of the 2024 U.S. presidential campaign hosted by NewsNation at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, U.S., December 6, 2023. REUTERS/Alyssa Pointer
It's as if the Ukraine War has all but ended — at least for American politics.
If the Republican debates had occurred last year, they would have been consumed with talk over whether Vladimir Putin was readying to roll across Europe and how weak President Biden was for not giving Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky our best tanks, our most powerful fighter aircraft, the longest range missiles we had — maybe even access to nukes.
But Zelensky wasn’t anywhere near the debate stage in Alabama last night, his name not even invoked. Fitting, we guess, since the Senate failed to pass an aid package yesterday that would have sent another $60 billion to Ukraine. This, despite administration claims that the war effort is literally running out of money. Biden even took to the airwaves Wednesday to warn of a NATO war if the funding wasn’t approved.
Republicans have been souring on the aid for months now, which might account for Ukraine’s diminished importance in the conversation. It was outweighed last night by the conflict in Israel, which in itself only drew three questions: Do we send in special forces to get the eight remaining American hostages back from Hamas? What kind of punishment could be slapped on university presidents who allow “pro Hamas” protests on campus? And how do we “get” Iran for purportedly being behind it all?
Ukraine was wielded, albeit briefly, as a blunt instrument. At the very least it gave us the tiniest of glimpses into the competing world views of the hawks on the dais (Chris Christie and Nikki Haley) and their chief agitant, Vivek Ramaswamy.
Haley raised the issue (without being asked about it) by fitting it into her usual stream of Domino Theory conciousness:
“The problem is, you have to see that all of these are related. If you look at the fact Russia was losing that war with Ukraine, Putin had hit rock bottom, they had raised the draft age to 65. He was getting drones and missiles — drones from Iran, missiles from North Korea. And so what happened when he hit rock bottom, all of a sudden his other friend, Iran, Hamas goes and invades Israel and butchers those people on Putin's birthday. There is no one happier right now than Putin because all of the attention America had on Ukraine suddenly went to Israel. And that's what they were hoping is going to happen. We need to make sure that we have full clarity, that there is a reason again that Taiwanese want to help Ukrainians because they know if Ukraine wins China won't invade Taiwan. There's a reason the Ukrainians want to help Israelis because they know that if Iran wins, Russia wins. These are all connected. But what wins all of that is a strong America, not a weak America. And that's what Joe Biden has given us.”
Vivek Ramaswamy responds:
“I want to say one thing about that tie to Ukraine. Foreign policy experience is not the same as foreign policy wisdom. I was the first person to say we need a reasonable peace deal in Ukraine. Now a lot of the neocons are quietly coming along to that position with the exceptions of Nikki Haley and Joe Biden, who still support this, what I believe, is pointless war in Ukraine. …One thing that Joe Biden and Nikki Haley have in common is that neither of them could even state for you three provinces in eastern Ukraine that they want to send our troops to actually fight for. … So reject this myth that they've been selling you that somebody had a cup of coffee stint at the UN and then makes eight million bucks after has real foreign policy experience. It takes an outsider to see this through.”
To which Chris Christie retorted:
“Let me just say something here, you know, his (Ramaswamy’s) reasonable peace deal in Ukraine. He made it clear. Give them all the land they've already stolen. Promise Putin you'll never put Ukraine in Russia, and then trust Putin not to have a relationship with China.” (Christie then essentially calls Ramaswamy a liar for suggesting he never said that.)
"These people are lying. These are the same people who told you about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq to justify that invasion didn't know the first thing about it if they send thousands of our sons and daughters to go die. The same people who told you the same in Afghanistan, where the Taliban is still in charge. Twenty years later, seven trillion of our national debt due to these toxic neocons. You can put lipstick on a Dick Cheney, it is still a fascist neocon today."
That was basically it. After $130 billion in U.S. taxpayer money since 2022, most of which we are being told has been spent in Ukraine. After hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians and Russians dead and maimed, Ukraine’s economy in such a state that the West has to prop it up, and NATO pledging more troops and weapons it doesn’t even seem to have, the issue was afforded a scant few minutes, and used only in the broadest of ways to pound each other. Gone was even the ghost of the old argument that the free world was at stake or that our obligation to Ukrainians was a moral imperative. It’s been reduced to a political cudgel, which is the first step to being memory holed in Washington. It happened to Iraq and Afghanistan in prior president debates 2012 and 2016.
The gist seems to be, maybe if we ignore it, it will just go away?