Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Boring Press Conference? No, Gold Mine for Understanding U.S. Middle East Policy

By Barry Rubin

What could be more boring, you might ask, then a press conference following the meeting between Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Qatar Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad Bin Jassim Bin Jabr al-Thani? Well, a little document like this is a gold mine of interesting stuff that either won’t be covered or won’t be understood in the mass media.

Qatar, though tiny, is a very interesting country. On one hand, it hosts al-Udayd air base which is vital for the U.S. presence in the Gulf. On the other hand, it hosts and owns al-Jazira television which incites anti-Americanism. To make matters worse, Qatar has been the Gulf Arab state closest to Iran, which hosted the anti-American and radical summit led by the Iran-Syria bloc.

So Qatar is hedging its bets rather well. In public, Hillary isn’t going to complain about this stuff. Did she do so in the private meeting? Perhaps, though the jollity of al-Thani, a member of the ruling family, seems to belie any tough words from the secretary of state. But this is going too far:

“Qatar is a friend and an ally of the United States, and the partnership between our two countries is a model of the new beginning based on mutual respect and mutual interest that President Obama called for in Cairo.”

A model? Well, is that signaling countries like Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia that they can be praised as a model partner if they were to bash the United States more and cozy up to Tehran?

One matter the two leaders discussed was Yemen, which has become a headquarters for anti-American jihad, notably the recent plane bombing attempt. Hillary said the United States is working with Qatar, also thanking Qatar or its “efforts to facilitate an end to the crisis in Darfur and to promote security and stability in the broader Middle East as well as Africa.” As Egyptian and other Arab leaders will tell you, they consider Qatar a major contributor to regional instability.

Hillary also praised Qatar for its help in Israel-Palestinian peace (more on this in a moment), Iraq, and Iran. And finally—it’s impressive Clinton could say this with a straight face:

“Let me express our appreciation to His Excellency and to His Majesty the Emir and his country for their actions in combating hunger and poverty and disease across the region and the world.” No I don’t think Qatar, given its massive wealth, has been one of the planet's main philanthropists.

One other thing Clinton said is rather disturbing. It is now in the Obama Administration talking points to say that the Palestinians "deserve" a state. This is quite a stupid formulation for it implies that it is theirs no matter what they do and nothing more is required of them.

In this approach, having a state isn't something to be earned by showing you are moderate, ending terrorism and incitement, truly accepting Israel's existence, providing strong security guarantees, and resettling your refugees in your own country. According ot the U.S. government, Palestinian statehood is an entitlement. So why shouldn't the Palestinians demand that they get all the compromises and concessions and give nothing themselves? The world owes them a state. By such policies the Obama Administration undermines its own leverage on the issue. One more nail in the already studded coffin of the peace process.

Now, what did Thani say in response to all of this. Yemen? Sure, what’s required there is a peaceful solution, not defeating the terrorists and the Iran-backed rebels. Remember, Qatar is more on Iran’s side than any other Arab states except for Syria. Palestinians? Here’s his suggestion:

“But the most important things is how we can do a unity governments [sic] between the Palestinians so they can concentrate how to deal in the peace process….”

What’s this mean? Why that the Palestinian Authority should go into a coalition with Hamas, a step that would ensure no progress could possibly be made since the latter is dedicated to Israel’s destruction and the creation of a radical Islamist state allied to Iran.

This doesn’t mean Qatar simply took a hard line on the issue. It advocated negotiations and while bashing Israel a bit Thani also said something very important: “and it’s an opportunity with this Administration to bring us together to a long-lasting peace between us and Israel.” By Arab standards that’s a significantly dovish thing to say (I wonder I that phrase will be quoted on al-Jazira, which is not allowed to criticize the Qatari government. Somehow I doubt it.)

Finally, an intriguing hint from Thani about Arab countries having given Clinton some kind of “letter o guarantees” relating to the peace process back around October and waiting or a U.S. response. What’s that about?

What does Thani say about Iran? The solution to the nuclear weapons’ drive must come through dialogue. Nothing he said would bother Tehran.

As for Clinton, her remark that the United States was “disappointed” by Tehran’s rejection of the U.S. proposal and “deeply disturbed” by repression makes it sound like the United States is still more involved in engagement than with pressure.

She, too, said something astonishing, regarding Iran:

“Now, we’ve avoided using the term `deadline’ ourselves. That’s not a term that we have used because we want to keep the door to dialogue open.”

What? The Obama Administration has repeatedly stated that it was setting a deadline by the end of 2009 in which sanctions would be raised unless Iran changed its approach. This statement can only be read in Tehran as a backing down by Washington.

Her saying, “We have already begun discussions with our partners and with likeminded nations about pressure and sanctions,” doesn’t sound like this is a high-priority activity. We’re in no hurry and we’ve just started talking. We’ll get back to you some time.

I wrote this predicting that the Iranian regime would pick up on this remark and sure enough in less than a day it came back in pleased triumph. Ramin Mehmanparast, an Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman responded:

"We share the same idea with her. Deadlines are meaningless. We hope other countries return to their natural path, too."

In other words, we're glad the United States is giving us all the time in the world to develop nuclear weapons.

Clinton also confirmed my worst fears about the kind of limited sanctions the administration envisions: “Our goal is to pressure the Iranian Government, particularly the Revolutionary Guard elements, without contributing to the suffering of the ordinary Iranians who deserve better than what they currently are receiving.”

In other words, Clinton is saying, we’re going to make sure the sanctions don’t really damage the Iranian economy and at most limit the income by a tiny percentage of those getting rich within Iran itself.

I'm going to predict--and I've analyzed this in more detail here--that any sanctions on Iran from the Obama administration are going to be slow in coming and incredibly ineffective, even in comparison to what was expected a few months ago. For more on this issue, see my detailed analysis.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books. To see or subscribe to his blog, Rubin Reports.

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