In 1977 (for those of you fogies old enough to
remember), a rocker named Marvin Lee Aday, aka Meatloaf, recorded his hit
Out of Three Ain't Bad."
The conceit of the tune was pretty simple: Don't get your hopes up, but things
aren't necessarily that bad either. And it contained two great lines from our
collective rock-and-roll past: "I want you, I need you but I ain't ever gonna
love you" (the wonderful corollary being the title of the song), as well as my
personal favorite, "There ain't no Coupe
de Ville hiding at the bottom of a Cracker Jack box."
As I've watched events in the Middle East over the
past several weeks, particularly the media tick-tock over whether President
Barack Obama and Iran's Hasan Rouhani will shake hands at the U.N. General
Assembly, I've thought about Meatloaf's song. Among the three major challenges
the Obama administration faces in the region -- dealing with Iran's nuclear
ambitions, the Syrian civil war, and the Israeli-Palestinian issue -- "jaw
jaw not war war," to paraphrase Winston Churchill, seems to be ascendant, at least for the moment. Talk of
deals with Syria and Iran are in the air. The Israelis and Palestinians are
still talking, and there's no sense that they're going to stop. Indeed, the
ground on which Obama is treading seems to have gone suddenly from hopeless
traps and pitfalls -- what I've called migraine headaches and root canals -- to
Are the gods of diplomacy simply toying with the
president and his national security team? Or is there something serious afoot,
offering up the possibility of breakthroughs? Could the administration, which
has looked at times like a cross between the Keystone Cops and the Marx
Brothers, actually pull off some kind diplomatic trifecta? Or, in Meatloaf's
terms, what are the odds of going one, two, or three -- out of three?
If you're looking for Hollywood endings, go to the
movies. But if you're willing to not make the perfect the enemy of the good,
you've come to the right place. Here are four key considerations that will
shape the immediate future of the most pressing issues in the Middle East.
This region usually doesn't offer up master keys to
unlock doors. But right now, Iran is as close as it comes to one. Of the
administration's three Middle East challenges, the Iranian nuclear issue is the
only one that could really trigger a serious war in the region, disrupt the
global economy, and jeopardize U.S economic recovery. And it's the only
existing Middle Eastern issue that would resonate domestically if the United
States or Israel were to take military action. That's why a deal would be such
a big development -- because of all that it could prevent.
Moreover, without going overboard, a credible deal
with Iran would positively affect the other two issues in question. It would
certainly make managing the Syrian crisis easier. Tehran would hardly ease up
on supporting President Bashar al-Assad, but it would be inclined to press him
to make good on the U.S.-Russian deal on chemical weapons. If it could be sold
to the Israelis (a very tough sell under any circumstances, short of Iran's
capitulation), a deal would also increase U.S. capacity to focus attention on
the Israel-Palestine issue -- and remove an argument for why the Israelis
shouldn't do the same.
And if you think U.S. credibility will be undermined
by our failure to put Syrian chemical weapons under international control or by
not attacking Syria if Assad doesn't comply with that plan, you ain't seen the
credibility movie on Iran. Three administrations have now committed themselves
to preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. President Obama has
repeatedly reaffirmed his personal commitment to achieving this end. Were Obama
to depart Washington with Iran having weaponized or being on the verge of doing
so, it would be the biggest foreign policy failure of his administration and,
more importantly, a major failure for the United States. Should Iran get a bomb
or come close to one, why would any American ally or adversary take U.S.
(2) But are
we up to really deal with Tehran?
Having said that, one has to consider a few things.
First, of course, is whether Iran is really serious about a negotiated
settlement that would essentially set back by several years the putative
military aspects of its nuclear program, agree to the kind of transparency and
accountability that would permit verification, and end the hostile words and
deeds that account for why we worry about the mullahs pursuing nuclear weapons
capacity in the first place. Nobody really knows the answer to this question.
But what, too, about the United States? Is it
serious about what it takes to do a deal? And is there a Kissinger or
Baker-like figure with the will, skill, and confidence to make one happen?
Tehran plays three-dimensional chess; sometimes I get feeling we play checkers,
and not all that well.
There's no doubt we talk and even act a very good
game. This administration has been the driving force in sustaining and
toughening a sanctions regime that has seriously hurt Iran's economy and likely
brought it to the negotiating table. And it's been willing to explore
diplomacy, too. But we are only now at the beginning of what could be a fairly
That means that, sooner or later, both sides will
need to create a sense of urgency if there's to be progress, let alone an
agreement. And urgency requires both prospects of gain and pain -- incentives
and disincentives carefully balanced. Both need to be credible. In short, Iran
needs to lay out now what it wants and what it will give, and the United
States needs to do the same as well, making clear what will happen if Iran
accelerates and militarizes its nuclear program.
Diplomacy can certainly serve as a deterrence to
war. In this case, diplomacy backed up by the threat of force is essential,
too. Moreover, our goal cannot be complete Iranian capitulation. If it is, we won't succeed because
the mullahs just won't agree to a deal that has only one winner.
Here I worry. Assuming the Iranians are really
serious, Obama will have to risk some unpopular concession, or concessions, to
Tehran and leave himself open to charges he's been diddled and suckered. Is he
willing and able to resist those in Congress, in the pro-Israel community, and
in Israel who will press for a much tougher, zero-sum game outcome where we win
and Iran clearly loses? Is he willing to threaten or even use force against
Iran should no deal materialize and the mullahs accelerate their nuclear
program? As the 2014 mid-term elections approach and as Obama seeks to promote
his domestic agenda and his legacy, his margin for risk-taking abroad will
narrow. And that is a real concern for deal-making.
outcomes, not solutions.
This region rarely witnesses transformations, and
when they occur, they're messy and almost always impossible to manage (see: the
Iranian revolution and the Arab Spring). The region also hates big ideas,
particularly when they're imposed from abroad (see: Iraq, 2003). We really do
need to get over our infatuation with Middle East fantasy endings and focus on
transactions, not transformations. These are smaller deals -- business
arrangements, really -- freed from the illusions of grand designs and bargains
with all their idealized and sentimental aspects.
I lived with the peace process for two decades. It
wasn't perfect and was often frustrating. But if process is another way of
describing how to manage a volatile issue you can't fix today, then I'm all for
it. And that's what we have now. The Syrian civil war may burn itself out or
morph into something else over time. The point is it's not going to end anytime
soon. So it makes sense to start a process, beginning with a possible deal on
chemical weapons, perhaps with a follow-up meeting in Geneva. This sure beats
the alternative of getting the United States involved as a combatant in a civil
war in which, out of 100,000 dead, an estimated 60,000 are combatants from one
side or the other.
The same realistic expectations can be applied to a
deal with the mullahs in Iran. The nuclear issue is one of many outstanding
points of friction in a dysfunctional U.S.-Iranian relationship marked by deep
mistrust and powerful emotions. If it's repaired, it will be done
incrementally, though not necessarily inconsequentially, over time through a
road map of sequenced and self-reinforcing and confidence-building interim
steps leading to some clearly agreed-upon outcome. There are just too many
diverging interests, too much suspicion, too many domestic politics, and not
enough trust to wrap up a grand bargain.
The same goes for the Israeli-Palestinian issue.
Although an interim, incremental process has clearly failed, if a deal is still
possible, it will likely be one that focuses on borders and security first,
with a set of general principles on Jerusalem and refugees perhaps negotiated
Behold the transactors: Putin, Rouhani
(Khamenei), Assad, Bibi, and Abbas.
One of the reasons we're playing small ball and have
to keep our expectations under control is because of the cast of characters who
are currently in the game. None of these leaders are trusting souls, nor can
they afford to be. Most are looking over their shoulders (especially Assad and
Rouhani). Some of them have relationships based on very limited faith (like
Vladimir Putin and Obama). In other cases, they are fundamentally at odds with
one another (Benjamin Netanyahu and the Iranians). With the exception of Obama,
all are less interested in transformations and much more focused on survival.
And even in the best-case relationship among the group (Netanyahu and Mahmoud
Abbas) the pull of domestic politics constrains their choices and limit their
The good news is that, at least two leaders (Ali
Khamenei and Putin) are probably strong enough to deliver their constituencies
should the need arise. In fact, if there's a chance of a U.S.-Iranian deal and
one on Syria's chemical weapons, too, it's because these two -- the strongest
leaders in the bunch -- will decide to support it.
SO WHERE DO these considerations leave us? More than
likely, we will face a great many intriguing possibilities but not a whole lot
of certainty. Outcomes will fall into one of three categories: good, bad, or
(most likely) incomplete. By year's end, I expect Syria will still be a mess,
though a chemical weapons deal will be in the process of imperfect
implementation. Israelis and Palestinians will still be talking, perhaps even
productively. And the United States and Iran may be near an agreement.
Given the odds against success, these are decent
outcomes. We'd be deluding ourselves to expect more. Indeed, we'd do well to
keep that old rock-and-roll mantra in mind: Two out of three really ain't that
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