By Scott Wilson
Wednesday, September 1, 2010; 2:22 PM
As President Obama convenes the first direct Middle East peace talks in 20 months, the question many observers here and in the region are asking is what, if anything, makes this round any more hopeful than the last.
One reason for optimism may be the shared regional fear of Iran, which has only grown since talks broke off between Israelis and Palestinians in December 2008.
Obama began a series of bilateral meetings Wednesday morning with the four leaders involved in the talks. Each has his own interest in seeing them succeed, but Iran's threat is a common concern to all of them.
To be sure, success is a long shot, thanks to a divided Palestinian national movement, a right-leaning Israeli public and the energetic extremes on both sides that are interested in seeing peace talks die before any compromises can be reached.
Iran's ambitions, which have cast a long shadow over the greater Middle East, may serve as a common bond keeping a frail peace process intact despite threats that have arisen even before the negotiations open Thursday at the State Department.
Iran's nuclear program and spreading political influence through a swath of Sunni Arab countries have alarmed the region's kings and elected autocrats for years.
As the clock ticks down on predominantly Shiite Iran's nuclear program, though, it becomes more urgent for Israel and its Arab neighbors to achieve peace and face together the shared threat to their security and political stability.
The dynamic brings an "enemy of my enemy" calculation to this round of talks, binding the Jewish state's security interests to those of its Sunni Arab neighbors more tightly than in the past.
The negotiations' chaperones in Jordan and Egypt are also more threatened by Iran, through its proxies and widening political influence, than they were 20 months ago, giving their leaders a greater incentive to keep Israelis and Palestinians at the table until a deal is reached.
"I can say, with respect to this conflict, [Iran] is an important issue," George J. Mitchell, Obama's special envoy to the Middle East, told reporters this week.
In 2001, at the start of the second Palestinian uprising, Mitchell led a commission at the request of then-President George W. Bush to examine ways of ending the violence and achieving long-term Israeli-Palestinian peace.
Mitchell said he re-read his report when he took up his new job and was struck by the fact that it did not contain a single mention of Iran.
"And yet on my first visit and subsequent visits, during which I met with leaders of, I believe, 14 or 15 countries in the region, without exception Iran was included in the conversation," Mitchell said. "And in most of them, it was the first or second item mentioned. So clearly it is an important issue and one which has an impact on this process."
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who met first with Obama in the Oval Office on Wednesday, may be more willing than he was to turn against his far-right coalition partners on issues such as extending a settlement freeze past its Sept. 26 deadline and their opposition to any compromise on East Jerusalem. The Palestinians claim the city as their future capital.
Netanyahu will need Obama's support if he decides to undertake a military strike against Iran, either before or after he carries it out. His willingness to stick with peace talks, which Obama has called a priority, would win him goodwill in what has so far been a stormy relationship between the two men.
Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas also has reason to fear Iran, which has crossed sectarian lines to support Hamas, the armed Islamist group, with money and military training. Abbas's secular Fatah movement fought a virtual civil war with Hamas, which now runs the Gaza Strip, over several months in 2007.
Reconciliation between the two main Palestinian political movements is not near, and on the eve of new direct talks, Hamas's armed wing killed four Israeli settlers in the West Bank in what observers there believe was a proxy strike against the peace process itself.
"There are going to be extremists and rejectionists who, rather than seeking peace, are going to be seeking destruction," Obama said Wednesday after his meeting with Netanyahu. "And the tragedy that we saw yesterday, where people were gunned down on the street by terrorists who are purposely trying to undermine these talks, is an example of what we're up against."
Depending on the terms, a peace agreement with Israel would almost certainly strengthen the aging Abbas's hand against Hamas, both in Gaza and the West Bank. Abbas was scheduled to meet with Obama early Wednesday afternoon.
Obama is then scheduled to see two Sunni Arab leaders frightened by Iran, King Abdullah II of Jordan and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. They lead the only two Arab countries at peace with Israel, under treaties that have proved a near-constant source of tension with the nations' pro-Palestinian publics.
Abdullah, who will follow Abbas into the Oval Office, warned of an expanding "Shiite Crescent" extending from Iran through northeastern Saudi Arabia and into southern Lebanon and Syria soon after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.
His little kingdom is squeezed between the West Bank and Iraq, where he said Iran could take advantage of post-invasion chaos to ensure that a Shiite majority would eventually lead the country.
Abdullah's fears grew following the brutal sectarian violence that flared in Iraq in 2006 and during the war between Israel and Hezbollah, an Iranian proxy in Lebanon, that same year. The region's episodic violence inflames his country's Palestinian majority, threatening his pro-Western stance and empowering Jordan's own Islamist movement.
Mubarak also has reason to fear Iran's influence with Hamas, whose leadership has acknowledged receiving assistance from the Islamic Republic.
Gaza, now run by Hamas, has been a constant source of instability on the Egyptian border. The Israeli blockade of the strip has angered Egyptians and brought public demands that Mubarak allow more Palestinians to enter the country in order to escape the siege.
But he is reluctant to do so because Hamas is an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, a powerful Islamist movement in Egypt and a serious threat to Mubarak's evolving plans to have his son succeed him in office.
A strong Hamas is a problem for Mubarak - and Iran is interested in just that. And peace between Israel and the Palestinians is perhaps the best way for Mubarak - and Jordan, Israel, the Palestinians and the United States - to counter those ambitions.