December 18, 2007

Geopolitical Diary: Bush's Mideast Trip

December 19, 2007 03 00 GMT

U.S. President George W. Bush will head to the Middle East on Jan. 8, 2008, for a nine-day trip that includes visits to Israel, the West Bank, Kuwait, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. (Though it is not on the official itinerary for security reasons, the president also likely will make a stopover in Iraq.) The trip is a continuation of Bush's Annapolis, Md., initiative to breathe life back into the Arab-Israeli peace negotiations and redefine his administration's legacy in the Mideast before his presidency comes to an end.

But a lot has changed since Annapolis. The declassification of the U.S. National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) -- which says Iran halted work on its nuclear weapons program in 2003 -- blindsided Israel, which does not want to see the world's dominant power and principal Iranian adversary downplaying the nuclear threat. For the Israelis, enriching uranium alone constitutes a weapons program, regardless of the number of other technologically challenging components needed to make the leap from enrichment to weaponization. And with Iran a whole lot closer to home, Israel is extremely uncomfortable with Washington handing over any nuclear-related concessions.

Israel's protest of the NIE will be most visible in the Israeli-Palestinian arena, where the country holds a number of levers to sabotage Bush's Annapolis agenda. It's no coincidence that the recent hubbub over West Bank settlement expansion came after the publication of the NIE. Israel also is displeased with recent indications that Hamas is backing down from its power trip in the Gaza Strip and working toward yet another power-sharing arrangement with Fatah. The Israelis want to institutionalize the Hamas-Fatah split created by Hamas' takeover of Gaza in June. Doing so would disallow the creation of a viable Palestinian state, despite rhetoric to the contrary. According to Fatah sources, Israel already has told Palestinian President and Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas that the negotiations will be called off if Hamas is brought back into the mix -- making it clear that Israel is not interested in any semblance of a consolidated Palestinian negotiating front.

Bush's trip to Israel and the West Bank will not be smooth sailing, to say the least. But the bigger issue for him during this voyage lies farther east. Iran and the future of Iraq will be the focus of Bush's meetings in the Persian Gulf states, which will expect assurances from Washington that its dealings with Iran will not compromise Sunni Arab interests. The U.S.-Iranian negotiations took a giant leap forward following the release of the NIE, which essentially dispelled the rationale for any future U.S. military action against Iran. With violence levels in Iraq down and a pin stuck in the Iranian nuclear issue, the path has been cleared for a U.S.-Iranian meeting of minds.

But these negotiations are never without their fair share of complications. Iran received a major confidence boost from the NIE and Russia's recent delivery of nuclear fuel to its nuclear power plant in Bushehr. While the Bush administration is forcing a smile and saying that the fuel is a good thing because the Iranians will no longer need to enrich, Tehran is doing everything it can to inflate its nuclear agenda, including insisting on continuing enrichment at Natanz, surveying new uranium deposits and announcing plans to build another nuclear plant on its own at Darkhovin. These developments are all designed to push the envelope with Washington as both sides prepare for another round of Iraq negotiations. The question, though, remains: How high is Washington's tolerance for these nuclear shenanigans? After all, if the United States wants to reintroduce the military threat against Iran, it can easily revise its definition of an Iranian weapons program, justified by new intelligence from the Israelis.

But the Bush administration is being patient for the time being, and the negotiations over Iraq still hold real promise. If the atmosphere in early January is right, we might even see a surprise meeting between Bush and the Iranians during his Mideast tour. It's up to Iran now to set the mood.

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