Iranian threat may be boon for Mideast peace talks
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.