Fear­ing fall­out from Iran talks

Mideast al­lies are wor­ried the U. S. will turn its back on them to reach a nu­clear agree­ment with Tehran.

Los Angeles Times - - THE WORLD - By Paul Richter paul. richter@ latimes. com

WASHINGTON — In 2012, Pres­i­dent Obama made it plain in a let­ter to Ira­nian supreme leader Ay­a­tol­lah Ali Khamenei that any at­tempt to close the strate­gic Strait of Hor­muz would be met with Amer­i­can force.

Yet when Ira­nian Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Guard Corps gun­boats seized the Mar­shall Is­lands- f lagged con­tainer ship Maersk Ti­gris near the strait April 28, send­ing a shud­der through global mar­kets, U. S. of­fi­cials held their fire.

They con­demned the move, dis­patched naval es­corts for some U. S.- and Bri­tish- f lagged ves­sels, but didn’t chal­lenge the Ira­nian mil­i­tary dur­ing the nine days it held the ves­sel in what Iran called a le­gal dis­pute.

Ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials said their re­sponse was pru­dent. But crit­ics in the re­gion and the United States saw it as more ev­i­dence that the ad­min­is­tra­tion is sidestep­ping conf lict with its long­time ad­ver­sary in Tehran to avoid un­der­min­ing ne­go­ti­a­tions that U. S. of­fi­cials hope will pro­duce a land­mark nu­clear agree­ment with Iran at the end of this month.

“They want to ap­pease the Ira­nian regime,” said Ah­mad El As­saad, a prom­i­nent Le­banese po­lit­i­cal leader who op­poses the U. S. low­er­ing its guard against Iran or its prox­ies. “They’ve in­vested so much in this deal they want to do ev­ery­thing pos­si­ble to get it done, even if it means turn­ing their back on friends.”

The ad­min­is­tra­tion de­nies it is go­ing soft on Iran, or eas­ing sup­port for al­lies. Even crit­ics ac­knowl­edge they can’t be sure what mo­ti­vates spe­cific ad­min­is­tra­tion moves.

But the anx­i­ety among U. S. al­lies in the Mid­dle East is real, and it sug­gests strains on core U. S. al­liances are likely to re­main a chal­lenge for the ad­min­is­tra­tion if a nu­clear deal is com­pleted, as ex­pected.

“The per­cep­tion prob­lem is real,” said Daniel Kurtzer, a for­mer U. S. am­bas­sador to Is­rael and one­time Obama cam­paign ad­vi­sor.

Crit­i­cism from Arabs, Is­raelis and some in the United States has mounted dur­ing the 22 months of talks be­tween Iran and a diplo­matic bloc con­sist­ing of the United States and f ive other ma­jor pow­ers — France, Bri­tain, Ger­many, Rus­sia and China.

They are seek­ing an agree­ment that would block Iran’s abil­ity to build a nu­clear bomb in ex­change for eas­ing in­ter­na­tional eco­nomic sanc­tions.

One stum­bling block to an agree­ment emerged Sun­day when the Ira­nian par­lia­ment voted to ban in­ter­na­tional in­spec­tors from en­ter­ing mil­i­tary bases as part of the nu­clear deal. The mea­sure, if ap­proved by an over­sight body, could com­pli­cate the bar­gain­ing be­cause the six pow­ers say they need to get onto mil­i­tary bases to ver­ify that Iran isn’t seek­ing to build a bomb.

Many in the re­gion fear Obama is seek­ing not just a legacy- bur­nish­ing for­eign pol­icy vic­tory, but a new re­la­tion­ship with Tehran that might di­min­ish the sup­port their coun­tries get from Washington.

The crit­ics worry that the ad­min­is­tra­tion is scal­ing back ef­forts to con­front Iran’s mil­i­tary and armed prox­ies, slow­ing its sanc­tions ef­fort, and play­ing down Iran’s spon­sor­ship of ter­ror­ism. They fear the deal will go too far to strengthen Iran, in­clud­ing the re­lease of $ 150 bil­lion in now- frozen over­seas funds.

Crit­ics saw the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s cau­tion in its re- sponse to the seizure of the Maersk Ti­gris near the Strait of Hor­muz. Nearly a third of the world’s seaborne oil ship­ments use the nar­row Per­sian Gulf out­let.

Iran claimed it or­dered the ship into an Ira­nian port be­cause Maersk, a Dan­ish ship­ping gi­ant, had failed to de­liver about $ 4 mil­lion in goods to an Ira­nian f irm. The move fol­lowed days of Ira­nian ha­rass­ment of cargo ships in the strait, in­clud­ing an in­ci­dent in which gun­boats trailed a U. S.- f lagged ves­sel, the Maersk Kens­ing­ton.

The United States is obliged to pro­tect Mar­shall Is­lands- f lagged ships un­der a treaty with the tiny Pa­cific na­tion. Yet the ad­min­is­tra­tion kept its ef­forts low- key, de­spite ac­cu­sa­tions from House Speaker John A. Boehner ( R- Ohio) that it was tak­ing the threat too lightly.

The ship and its 24 crew mem­bers were re­leased with­out harm May 7.

Ev­ery U. S. ad­min­is­tra­tion since the 1979 Ira­nian Revo­lu­tion has sought to pre­vent Iran from destabi- liz­ing its neigh­bors and to iso­late it diplo­mat­i­cally. In its f irst f ive years, the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion sanc­tioned hun­dreds of Ira­nian groups and in­di­vid­u­als in hopes of build­ing pres­sure that would force Iran to ne­go­ti­ate lim­its on its nu­clear pro­gram.

Some ad­min­is­tra­tion crit­ics con­tend sanc­tions en­force­ment has eased in the last two years. U. S. of­fi­cials in­sist they’re keep­ing up the pres­sure, and have sanc­tioned 100 Ira­nian in­di­vid­u­als and groups since nu­clear ne­go­ti­a­tions be­gan in Novem­ber 2013.

Coun­tries also have f iled fewer re­ports since then that Iran is vi­o­lat­ing sanc­tions by buy­ing banned arms- re­lated goods, ac­cord­ing to a re­port this month by the United Na­tions’ com­mit­tee on Iran sanc­tions. But it’s un­clear whether Iran has sought to buy less il­licit hard­ware, or if coun­tries have shown “re­straint” in re­port­ing vi­o­la­tions “so as not to af­fect the ne­go­ti­a­tions process,” the re­port says.

U. S. of­fi­cials long have de­scribed Iran as the world’s chief state spon­sor of ter­ror­ism. But when Di­rec­tor of Na­tional In­tel­li­gence James R. Clap­per is­sued an an­nual re­port to Congress on world­wide threats in Fe­bru­ary, Iran’s role in pro­mot­ing ter­ror­ism re­ceived no men­tion at all, draw­ing protests from some sen­a­tors.

Arab states have wor­ried for years that the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s re­fusal to ex­pand mil­i­tary oper­a­tions against the Ira­nian- backed Syr­ian gov­ern­ment ref lected its de­sire to seal the nu­clear deal and im­prove its ties to Tehran. Now they fear they see the same in Washington’s tacit co­op­er­a­tion with Irani- an- backed Shi­ite Mus­lim mili­tias in Iraq against the mil­i­tant group Is­lamic State.

U. S. of­fi­cials in­sist they con­tinue to ag­gres­sively en­force sanc­tions, and to con­front Iran in the re­gion.

The ad­min­is­tra­tion is pro­vid­ing lo­gis­tic and in­tel­li­gence sup­port to the Saudiled air cam­paign against Ira­nian- backed Houthi rebels in Ye­men, for in­stance, and has de­ployed war­ships to pre­vent Iran from ship­ping weapons to the Ye­meni in­sur­gents.

“There’s no pulling our punches, even dur­ing these ne­go­ti­a­tions,” Sa­man­tha Power, the U. S. am­bas­sador to the U. N., told a House sub­com­mit­tee last week.

Even so, un­easy al­lies “see a lack of energy from the U. S. com­pared to what it used to do to counter Iran’s be­hav­ior,” said Michael Singh, man­ag­ing di­rec­tor of the Washington In­sti­tute for Near East Pol­icy.

Also wor­ry­ing to the crit­ics are the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s vary­ing state­ments about its goals for the deal. Obama and other U. S. of­fi­cials have long in­sisted that the nu­clear deal is aimed at pre­vent­ing Iran from get­ting a bomb, and not de­signed to open a new re­la­tion­ship with Tehran.

But at other times Obama has said an ac­cord could open the way to a more mod­er­ate Iran with stronger ties to the out­side world and bet­ter re­la­tions with the United States.

A suc­cess­ful deal would al­low Iran to be­come “a very suc­cess­ful re­gional power that was also abid­ing by in­ter­na­tional norms and in­ter­na­tional rules,” Obama said in De­cem­ber. “And that would be good for ev­ery­body.”

Robert Danin, a for­mer U. S. diplo­mat in the Mid­dle East who is now with the Coun­cil on For­eign Re­la­tions, said “you’re hear­ing more of­ten that the agree­ment might be a step­ping stone to a dif­fer­ent kind of re­la­tion­ship with Iran. Through­out the re­gion there’s a worry the pres­i­dent doesn’t get” how ner­vous that makes some al­lies.

‘ There’s no pulling our punches, even dur­ing these ne­go­ti­a­tions.’ — Sa­man­tha Power, U. S. am­bas­sador to the U. N., speak­ing to a House sub­com­mit­tee last week

Kam­ran Je­breili As­so­ci­ated Press

THE STRAIT OF HOR­MUZ, pic­tured in 2012. Crit­ics say the U. S. fail­ure to use force over Iran’s seizure of a con­tain­er­ship in the strait is more ev­i­dence that the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion is sidestep­ping conf lict with Tehran to avoid un­der­min­ing nu­clear ne­go­ti­a­tions.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.