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Opinion: McCain, Zarif and Saudi Arabia | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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US Secretary of State John Kerry (L) listens while US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel speaks during the Munich Security Conference, at the Bayerischer Hof Hotel, February 1, 2014. (REUTERS/Brendan Smialowski/Pool)

During a joint discussion session held recently by John Kerry and Chuck Hagel, the US secretaries of state and defense respectively, the American officials defended the Obama administration from claims that the US was in retreat, which was a subject of discussion at the Munich Security Conference.

John Kerry said, “All we did was withdraw from Iraq and Afghanistan according to prior agreements . . . We’re involved with the Emirates, with the Saudi Arabians, and others working with respect to Egypt and Egypt’s transition.”

Hagel went further when he said, “The United States is more present doing more things in more places today than maybe ever before. How we’re doing it is differently, and it’s what I talked about, what John talked about—capacity-building for our partners, working closer with our partners, being able to do more as we are more creative with these initiatives.”

The summary of the comments of the two secretaries is that Obama’s administration relies less on military force and more on diplomacy.

Is this argument convincing? Senator John McCain is not convinced; he even rejects the explanation. “We are retreating,” he said. According to McCain, the US have let down its allies in the region, and let them go their own way. “Thank God for our friends,” he said, referring to the Saudis and Emiratis, who helped the Syrian opposition at a time when the Geneva talks failed.

McCain feels that the Obama administration is overly optimistic about Iran’s commitment to any serious nuclear agreement, and that it is enough to look at the history of the regime, which is full of deceit, to realize that fact.

But McCain’s warnings fell on deaf ears. Watching the fringe meetings between Kerry and the Iranian foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, one realizes that the administration is not only too optimistic, it also has a reason for that optimism. One of the popular explanations is that President Obama wants to achieve a diplomatic breakthrough akin to what Richard Nixon did with China in 1972, especially with the decline of the United States in more than one foreign arena, and the low confidence Americans have in his foreign policy.

Of course, those who believe this view stress that Obama realizes that the Iranian nuclear program can only be stopped by force—an unlikely option because of the popular objection to new wars. That is why Obama hopes the openness to Iran will contribute to freezing the nuclear program at the point where it has mastered uranium enrichment technology. Iran’s reward then would be acceptance into the nuclear club. As the Nixon administration tried to recognize Taiwan as part of China, the current administration is hoping for the relationship of enmity to change through implicit recognition by the US of Iran’s right to nuclear technology, regardless of the aims of their nuclear program.

There is another explanation for this rush towards Iran, which is that Obama wants to push the Iranian issue back to after midterm Congressional elections in November, as there is no desire among the Democrats to raise the nuclear issue at this stage. There is also a belief that foreign affairs have drained the administration’s energy in recent years, when their focus should have been on internal issues such as the economy. The continuation of the confrontation with Iran, for example on the Syrian front, may force the Americans into the region’s quagmires again.

Whatever the reasons, the Iranians are happy with what is happening. It is enough to talk to Foreign Minister Zarif and his delegation to realize this openness has provided them with breathing space for the first time since the start of the banking sanctions less than two years ago, and it has restored confidence in Iranian diplomacy after the adoption of UN Security Council Resolution 1803, which restricted the travel of Iranian officials linked to the nuclear program. The Iranian negotiator today feels he is in a strong position, especially as the openness and suspension of some of the sanctions has not come through any public concessions on the part of Iran, while they were prepared to take such steps during the negotiations.

Zarif looked confident in his dialogue about Iran’s full implementation of its obligations in the first phase, and told the audience that he had met Kerry to discuss the next steps. He may have had reason for that confidence, as beside him sat the Swedish foreign minister and US Senator Christopher Murphy, a Democrat who supports Obama’s policy towards Iran. Zarif did not miss the opportunity to point to regional and Gulf states that have started to change their stances, and he said he was looking forward to visiting Saudi Arabia.

I asked the Iranian minister what he wanted to take to Saudi Arabia. He said: “I expressed my desire to visit Saudi Arabia a few months ago, and I still look forward to doing that. We have many interests we can discuss. We do not want to compete with Saudi Arabia. We want dialogue between the two countries to restore security in the region.”

It is clear that what is preventing the minister’s visit is not the lack of Saudi agreement—his initiative was welcomed—but the lack of readiness on the Iranian side to discuss the real reasons for their differences, at least so far.