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Behind Mideast summit – the Iran factor

The Annapolis talks on Tuesday are shadowed by a nation not there.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 26, 2007


When the Bush administration holds a meeting this week to formally relaunch the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, one uninvited guest will be looming large over everyone's shoulder: Iran.

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Tuesday's meeting in Annapolis, Md., was once envisioned as a three-day conference to kick off the negotiation of final-status issues. It's now an incredibly shrinking 24-hour gathering, but its occurrence at all is in no small measure a result of the rise of Iran and its brand of radical Islam in the Middle East.

Consider how Iran plays into the picture for the following players:

•If President Bush has finally bought into a process he eschewed for seven years, it is not so much because he really believes now is a propitious moment for progress on peace. Instead, analysts say, Mr. Bush sees the need to contain Iran. He also sees how bringing Arab moderates to the table with Israel could work toward that goal.

•Saudi Arabia said it would attend a conference only if it addresses the core issues for establishing a Palestinian state. That won't happen, but still Riyadh will attend – in large part because the Saudis see as desirable any action that ties the United States into the region and challenges Iran's rise.

•And the attendance of Syria – something that both the Bush administration and Israel hoped for – reflects how Damascus is seeking to hedge its bets after having aligned itself increasingly with the regime in Tehran.

For the US, moderate Arab states, Israel, and the Palestinian supporters of Mahmoud Abbas, "finding a way to counter the threat from Tehran … is fueling this peace meeting more than any other factor," says Martin Indyk, a former US negotiator on the Middle East who is now director of the Brookings Institution's Saban Center on the Middle East in Washington.

Expectations for the Annapolis meeting, to be held at the US Naval Academy in Maryland's capital, are "lower than the Dead Sea," says David Makovsky, director of the project on the Middle East Peace Process at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Neither Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert nor the Palestinian president, Mr. Abbas, is coming from a position of domestic political strength that would allow for compromise.

The best to be expected from the gathering may be a "road map-plus" formula, Mr. Makovsky says. Under such a scenario, the parties would formally agree to undertake steps – security measures on the Palestinian side, a settlement freeze and steps easing Palestinian living conditions for the Israelis – while launching final-status negotiations on issues like refugees and Jerusalem.

Still, the meeting will draw participants anxious for anything that might stall Iran's hegemonic rise in the region, Makovsky says.

The reputation of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has risen in the Palestinian territories and the region as he has advocated violence over accommodation to address the Palestinians' plight. He has also skewered moderate Arab leaders for agreeing to work with Israel on peace.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who has focused much of her attention this year on Iran containment, hopes to use the Annapolis meeting to "pull Syria out of Tehran's orbit," Makovsky says. As one Arab diplomat told Makovsky, the real purpose of Annapolis is to "take the Palestinian card out of Ahmadinejad's hand," he notes.

But not everyone is so sure the Annapolis meeting will have the desired geopolitical impact, while some even caution that it could end up playing into Tehran's hands.

"This is rigged for Iran to win," says David Wurmser, a former Middle East adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney.