Countering Iran in Gaza and Beyond

By Jim Hoagland
Sunday, January 4, 2009

A strange brew of wishful thinking and studied inaction passed for George W. Bush's Middle East peace policy for eight years. But in his final days, this president must act to contain the consequences of a regional conflict he has allowed to fester.

Israel's brutal assault on Hamas rocketeers -- and the Palestinian civilians among whom they hide in the Gaza Strip -- is not just another tactical round of mutual, if unequal, bloodletting by ancient adversaries. Israel's campaign was skillfully conceived with strategic aims that involve Iran, the American political calendar and perhaps the nature of pan-Arabism today.

Bush must respond at that strategic level -- within his time-limited means. It is pointless to expect him suddenly to exert pressure on Israel for lasting concessions to the Palestinians. He did not just give Israel a green light to inflict as much damage as possible on Hamas once that radical movement foolishly renounced a six-month-old truce. Bush knocked down the traffic light post and waved the Israelis through the intersection.

His unwavering support will not have amazed Israeli leaders. However outwardly positive Barack Obama was about Israel during the campaign, the president-elect is an unknown quantity for them. To Israel it must have made sense to slam Hamas as hard as it could under Bush and start with a theoretically clean slate with Obama on Jan. 20.

In the interim, U.S. policy must concentrate on limiting any political gains the spasm of violence in Gaza could bring for Iran and Syria, which are both happy to fight Israel to the last Palestinian. Israel launched the Gaza operation to disrupt the enervating proxy warfare that Iran wages through Hamas and to demonstrate to Iran that Israel is not a toothless tiger that can be ignored.

Today only Israel poses any threat of military action to halt Iran's drive to enrich enough uranium to build a nuclear bomb. Bush's departure and Obama's promises to engage Iran will limit U.S. action in 2009 to diplomacy.

Fortunately there is a policy instrument immediately available to strengthen Washington's diplomatic position on Iran, while simultaneously demonstrating American support for moderate Arab governments that have been put on the spot by Israel's Gaza onslaught. It is an arrangement known as a 123 Agreement (after Section 123 of the Atomic Energy Act), which would enable the United States to sell nuclear technology and equipment to the United Arab Emirates for a civilian nuclear energy program.

The agreement is entirely valid and desirable on its own terms, which I will detail in a subsequent column. The short version for now is that the UAE, a small but influential Persian Gulf state dominated by Abu Dhabi, has convincingly demonstrated through the international agreements it has already signed that it will not pose a proliferation threat. The commitments to inspections it will undertake in the new accord with the United States would strengthen outside controls.

Most important, the UAE has explicitly renounced ever acquiring its own uranium enrichment or reprocessing systems and will require vendor nations to take back all spent nuclear fuel.

Iran's refusal to consider those safeguard arrangements has blocked progress in international negotiations and convinced analysts that it secretly is working on a bomb. The UAE approach provides a model that not only Iran but also other nations interested in developing nuclear energy should follow. And support by the United States would establish that Washington is not against other countries acquiring peaceful nuclear programs, as Iran charges.

U.S. and UAE officials have discussed the possibility of a mid-January signing of the 123 Agreement, which would then be sent to Congress. The Democratic majority should wave the deal through.

Seizing the chance to highlight U.S. cooperation with Abu Dhabi -- which has sent troops to Afghanistan and taken other steps to fight terrorism -- would finally give content to U.S. verbal commitments to Gulf Arabs, who fear Iran and its proxies, Hamas and Lebanon's Hezbollah.

Tariq Alhomayed, a courageous columnist for Saudi Arabia's London-based Asharq al-Awsat newspaper, noted last week that Iran's Arab spokesmen in the region have attacked Egypt much more savagely than Israel for the Gaza tragedy. This shows, he continued, that "Iran is a real threat to Arab security, as today it launched a war against Egypt, tomorrow against Saudi Arabia . . . ." American policy did not produce the strategic changes occurring in the Middle East. But Washington should work to understand and use them to reengage decisively in a problem too long neglected.

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