Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Oil, Iran, Israel, Egypt and the Middle East

As the price of oil rises, what does this mean for Iran's nuclear posturing? According to Bloomberg, "Crude oil rose for an eighth day, trading above $80 a barrel for the first time in 7 weeks." The odd thing is that despite the fact that Iran is in fact oil rich -- it oversees 7 percent of the world’s oil reserves -- it is vulnerable to sanctions because its economy is stagnant (though, in a show of strength, Ahmadinejad just hailed the launch of a new gas pipeline with Turkmenistan). The Christian Science Monitor notes: "Refining capacity in Iran, which has the lowest gasoline price in the Middle East, stands at roughly 1.6 million barrels a day and doesn't meet the country's domestic fuel demand." It is the coldest winter in years, and oil prices are edging higher. If President Obama wants to make a deal with Iran, he'd better do it quickly.

To sanction or not to sanction, that is the question. Then there is the question of the Green Movement. It is still going strong -- reignited by last month's death of Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, the spiritual father of Iran's reform movement --- thus weakening Ahmadinejad's position. His position could get weaker come January 16th, which marks 31 years since the Shah of Iran fled his country, and a flashpoint date for some form of mass protest. The national elections were rigged in the eyes of all objective outside observers. How can Ahmadinejad possibly negotiate with from a strong position with such internal disturbance? A possible Univeristy strike is in the works. The US Senate is set to review proposed sanctions sometime later this month. It is also widely assumed that in February the US will sponsor another resolution in the Security Council sanctioning Iran (Will Russia sign on? If so, will China, alone, raise objections). But how does the United States sanction Iran in such a way as to not harm the Green Movement? Andrew Sullivan asks:

"The Green Movement has strongly resisted all sanctions against Iran, and even more passionately opposes any military strikes. If Israel strikes, it will effectively kill the Iranian opposition movement, and set off a global wave of Jihadism which will kill many American soldiers and civilians. So how to respond to the Revolutionary Guards' continuing and mounting brutality?"

There is a feeling of a quickening in the Middle East region. A speeding up of time (Although Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman is doing his best to stand athwart History yelling Stop; the Jerusalem Municipal Planning and Construction Committee as well). "2010 will likely be the year when any Israeli military strike would occur; my own hope is that it will not happen, and that instead we will continue to harness international indignation with Tehran to put pressure on its leaders," writes Michael O'Hanlon, director of research in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution. And Iran moves ever closer to the Bomb. And Israel refuses to let that happen.

In an act of spectacular idealism, the United States is proposing a Palestinian state in two years. How many other administrations have envisioned as much and left the region with nothing? The U.S. is pushing a fresh diplomatic initiative to renew Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. Egypt has been playing a key role. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has met with both Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in the past week. This may also explain the Obama administration's accelerated timetable on Israel/Palestinian talks. And Egyptian officials are scheduled to visit Washington later this week. Even as Mubarak meets with the Palestinian Authority, Saudi Arabia has been speaking to HAMAS, and reporting to the Egyptian President so that everyone is on the same page. Says Reuters, smartly: "Egypt has been hosting talks between Hamas and Fatah to try to push the two parties toward a deal, but Sunday's visit was the first known meeting between Saudi and Hamas officials since Saudi Arabia brokered the Mecca Agreement in 2007."

Finally, what about Jordan. Jordan is a partner in the negotiations. Jordan's King Abdallah flew into Egypt to discuss the matter with Mubarak. But it was a Jordanian suicide bomber, Humam Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi, who killed seven CIA agents and a Jordanian intelligence officer when he detonated himself at the Khost base in Afghanistan last week. It is unclear to what degree this event has set back the cooperative relationship between Jordanian and American intelligence agencies.

Of the negotiations, Kurt Hoyer, a US embassy press attaché in Israel, told the Christian Science Monitor, "Its more like jazz music than like chess."

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