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Source: The Hill

Jan 31, 2024

Democrats must push for both a Palestinian state and an Iran nuclear deal


Many predicted early on that Hamas’ vicious attack of Oct. 7 and Israel’s subsequent brutal retaliation in Gaza would herald a broader Middle East conflagration with the Iranian Shia-allied world. It appears the regional unraveling has arrived. 

Most recently, Yemen’s Houthi rebels allied with Iran have attacked international shipping routes, with America and Great Britain responding with aerial bombardments on Yemeni soil. American military bases in Iraq, Syria and Jordan have come under now lethal attack by Shia militias, while Israeli leaders have indicated that a full-fledged assault is likely to begin against Iran’s ally Hezbollah in Lebanon. Even more concerning, Iranian nuclear enrichment passed a dangerous proliferation threshold over the Christmas holiday. 

Despite, or perhaps because of these events, Iran has recently signaled a renewed openness to relaunching negotiations with the West to curb its nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief. The U.S. must immediately open a  diplomatic channel to Tehran, accompanied by more immediate de-escalatory measures in Gaza and the region. In the long term, achieving a renewed nuclear accord with Iran must accompany resolute American action on negotiations leading to Palestinian statehood. For one does not work without the other.  

Such an approach has precedent. It would mean reorienting American foreign policy in the Middle East away from the Cold War logic of the Abraham Accords to the strategies pursued by the Obama administration. President Obama prioritized both Palestinian statehood and a nuclear deal with Iran simultaneously.

This approach was neither the product of naiveté nor the diplomatic equivalent of a hail Mary to see which would ultimately stick. It resisted the “Cold War” thinking which would later characterize the Abraham Accords, which uses normalization between Israel and Sunni Gulf States as a bulwark against Iran and its Shia allies in Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen.   

Obama’s Middle East policy acknowledged the strategic imperatives for all the respective actors at play (both enemies and friends alike) in the region. He did not actively take sides in the sectarian Sunni-Shia divide. Following the 2012 election, then-Secretary of State John Kerry was dispatched to the region to advance progress on Israeli-Palestinian peace, while President Biden’s national security advisor Jake Sullivan was dispatched to Oman to begin secret talks on the Iran nuclear front with the Ahmadinejad administration. 

Indeed, the intersectional crux of two broad conflicts lies at the foundation of what would become the current crisis in the Middle East. One, the Iranian nuclear threat with its attendant absence of diplomatic dialogue between the U.S. and Iran, and two, the absence of Palestinian statehood. These two issues lay at the base of Iran’s destabilizing projection of power in the broader Middle East, the latter of which transcends its power base with Shia allies.

Both are overlapping fault lines, and taken together, they undermine peace and stability in the region. These conflicts threaten the economic security of global energy reserves and commercial shipping. They challenge the U.S.’s concern for balancing the promotion of democratic values abroad with the hard-learned limits of military intervention following the Iraq War.  

Events in the region post Oct. 7 have unmasked the faulty reasoning behind the Biden and Trump administrations’ embrace of the Abraham Accords as the cornerstone of Middle East security. The U.S. and Israel assumed that Hezbollah, Iran’s ally in Lebanon, was not an immediate threat given Lebanon’s economic woes combined with Israel’s deterrence.

Serious attacks on regional shipping lanes along with Gulf oil installations were similarly written off. Most significantly, the Accords enabled Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s now pilloried policy of strengthening Hamas at the expense of the Palestinian Authority, thus preventing the potential for a unified Palestinian leadership to engage in peace negotiations. The administration’s dogged efforts to expand the Accords to include Saudi Arabia, which include the potential establishment of a civilian nuclear program in that country, appear equally misguided in this light. 

Yet despite the obstacles, insisting on diplomatic frameworks supporting Palestinian statehood and combatting Iranian nuclear proliferation should remain America’s guiding light on Middle East policy. Pursuing such a dual approach would relieve Israel and Iran of their politically intertwined and most existentially malign activities: preventing Palestinian self-determination for the former and potentially weaponizing high levels of nuclear enrichment for the latter. The U.S. could secure its interests and values in the region durably. 

America’s re-imposition of sanctions under Trump, along with Biden’s decision to refrain at the beginning of his administration from immediately reentering the nuclear deal utterly eviscerated Iranian reformist strength vis-à-vis both the Revolutionary Guard and the Iranian people. 

But as the Johns Hopkins’ SAIS’s Rethinking Iran Project has demonstrated via years of rigorous social science research on the ground in Iran, the Iranian people view the immiserating economic sanctions as Western human rights abuses no less devastating than the repression of their government. The “maximum pressure” campaign, which has engendered no meaningful change in Iran’s behavior both on the nuclear front and regionally, has only pushed the Iranian people into the hands of a regime upon which they are made increasingly economically reliant. 

A nuclear non-proliferation agreement between the international community and Iran, the removal of crushing sanctions, and a direct diplomatic channel between America and Iran do not constitute a betrayal of the Iranian people’s heroic efforts to achieve a free society.  Despite the regime’s brutal suppression of the Green movement’s democratic protests in 2009-2010, the majority of Iranians supported negotiations with the United States. Those Iranian attitudes remain largely unchanged today. 

The Biden administration should also not turn its back on the regional approach to Middle East peacemaking. In 2002, Saudi Arabia presented its regional Arab Peace Initiative in Beirut at the height of the Second Intifada for solving Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians. The initiative was reaffirmed in 2017 by 21 other states, a far broader coalition than the signatories of the Abraham Accords. Facilitated by China and Iraq, the Saudis and Gulf states also came to understandings with Iran regarding regional de-escalation in 2023.   

Nevertheless, despite any regional agreements regarding Palestinian statehood, Israeli-Palestinian peace must meet a minimum standard of justice and security acceptable by both sides. This can be achieved only  through negotiations by the two parties mediated by proactive American leadership. An agreement with Iran that ensures regional stability must also include the United States and address Iranian nuclear non-proliferation and sanctions relief.  

Therefore, calls by Democratic congressional leaders for a pivot in Gaza strategy and an American vision for Palestinian statehood must be accompanied by calls to resume direct dialogue with Tehran on nuclear non-proliferation. Such a diplomatic channel could possibly engender progress on other fronts in Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen.

The consequences of not undoing the “Cold War” logic of the Abraham Accords are dire. Not only will the Middle East be engulfed in further chaos, but an American electorate will likely blame the chaos on the Democratic nominee come November.  

Ezra Tzfadya, PhD, is a Senior Fellow at the Indiana University-Bloomington Center for the Study of the Middle East (CSME). He convenes the “Shia Islamic and Jewish Legal Reasoning in Dialogue” initiative. 

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