Saving Annapolis by Shifting its Focus to … Iran

With only hours to spare, the US organizers of the Middle East conference opening in Annapolis Tuesday decided to make the best of a forlorn event by switching its leitmotif from the intractable Israeli-Palestinian dispute to Iran – and its multiple threats to the Middle East.
The big star-studded show – the first Middle East conference in seven years – which US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had designed to produce a stunning breakthrough in the intractable Israel-Palestinian conflict – was turning into a flop. There would be no joint Israeli-Palestinian declaration to cap the conference.
President George W. Bush therefore downgraded the original agenda and switched his sights to a goal in which many of the 40 plus delegations from a cross-cut of the Arab and Sunni Muslim world shared a common interest
1. He hoped to form a united Arab front against Iran. This will be a daunting task in view of at least two obstacles: King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia no longer recognizes the US as the single dominant political and military force in the Persian Gulf; and Syrian participation – albeit at the low level of deputy foreign minister. With hindsight, many administration officials consider the invitation to Syria was a mistake, debkafile‘s Washington sources report.
2. Since Sunday night, administration and Israeli officials have stressed that the conversation Bush has scheduled with Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert for Wednesday, the day after the conference, will focus on Iran rather than the Palestinians.
3. The Israeli-Palestinian issue will not be abandoned entirely. The conference is planned to end with a pledge by both parties to use the occasion as starting-point for serious negotiations that should lead to the two-state solution, although President Bush has begun to accept that his vision will not come true before he leaves office.
4. This pledge depends on Olmert remaining in power at the head of the Israeli government. So too does the understanding Washington and Jerusalem have reached on how to handle the Iranian issue. The administration fears that his potential replacements, such as defense minister Ehud Barak or Likud’s Binyamin Netanyahu, may run off in pursuit of independent military action to knock out Iran’s nuclear weapons program, whereas Olmert is trusted to stand by his commitment to adjust Israel’s steps to those of the US.
A number of White House gestures to single Olmert out for special favors are to be expected for the sake of burnishing the unpopular prime minister flagging prestige at home. In contrast, there has been no official reference to the defense minister’s presence at Annapolis.
Both Arabs and the Israelis were looking forward to the president’s opening speech: The former expected Bush to announce he was abandoning his pro-Israel policy and would lean hard on Jerusalem for unprecedented concessions – not only to the Palestinians but also Syria. The latter hoped he would back Israeli stipulations on security issues ahead of borders, refugees and Jerusalem, to reward the Olmert government for its willingness to endorse the president’s aspiration for a Palestinian state.
In the event, debkafile‘s Washington sources expect Bush’s opening speech to skirt around these questions and devote more words to Iranian threats. This would find an echo with the Arab governments represented at Annapolis, especially Saudi Arabia.
Aside from Tehran’s military nuclear aspirations, messages have reached the White House in the last few days in which Iran’s Arab neighbors voice extreme anxiety about Iran’s bullying tactics and their inability to cope with the shifting balance of strength in the region. Iran’s belligerent stance in the face of Washington’s passivity is intimidating the region as a whole and forcing the Arab governments to fall back.
Israel’s foreign policy-makers mostly ignore the Gulf. Therefore, they are not alert to the effect of creeping Iranian expansion. The inroads Tehran has begun making in Bahrain, Oman and Abu Dhabi, are cutting deep into American influence in the region.
Some symptoms of this trend are visible.
First, Tehran has bluntly warned Persian Gulf states of reprisals if they assist a US attack on Iran.
Second, Saudi defense minister, Crown Prince Sultan, was in Moscow this week (a visit which the Israeli media ignored) to sign a large arms transaction with Russia and tighten bilateral relations. Sultan’s statements during the visit were a straw in the wind. For the first time, a senior Saudi official called for cooperation between Riyadh and Moscow to halt to what he called the “crazy, illogical and disproportionate” slaughter in Iraq.
These were the strongest words condemning US actions in the Middle East since King Abdullah referred to America’s “occupation” of Iraq at the Riyadh conference of March 2007.
Third, December 3, five days after the Annapolis conference, five Persian Gulf oil states are due to meet to discuss critical points in their relations with Washington. One is whether to continue to peg oil prices to the fast-sinking US dollar or adopt a currency basket.
Although the last OPEC conference dismissed Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s demand to detach oil prices from the US dollar, debkafile‘s Gulf sources report that Kuwait has already taken that route without waiting for a Gulf or OPEC consensus, while Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates will be next.
All these are signs of waning American influence in the Gulf region. Bush has decided at this late stage to take advantage of the broad Arab presence at Annapolis for an improvised attempt to turn the tide and cut US losses against Iran in the region. But matters may be sliding too fast for a radical remedy to come out of Maryland on Tuesday.

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