WASHINGTON — Encouraged by Libya’s surprise decision to abandon its pursuit of weapons of mass destruction, the Bush administration has instructed its Middle East experts to seek ways of pressing for similar changes in Syria and Iran.
Staffers at the State and Defense departments have been told to step up efforts to elicit change in the policies of the two countries and to induce them to curtail their pursuit of nonconventional weapons and support of terrorism, administration officials said. Washington has also tapped its European allies to join the effort.
Libyan leader Muammar Gadhafi announced in late December, following nine months of secret negotiations with Britain and the United States, that he intends to sign a so-called additional protocol to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The protocol allows inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency to make intrusive checks into Libyan nuclear facilities to ensure Tripoli fulfills its promise to scrap its weapons program. U.N. inspectors made their first site visits this week and reported that Libya was in the “early stages” of a nuclear program and “years” from building a weapon.
The Libyan move has sent shock waves through Middle East diplomatic circles and appeared likely to increase pressure on Syria and Iran to moderate their policies.
Nowhere was the shock greater than in Israel, where officials admitted they had been caught completely off-guard and grumbled privately over Washington’s failure to alert Israel to the talks. Senior officials in the Sharon government were largely dismissive in their reactions to the Libyan move, noting that Israel was still surrounded by hostile states seeking advanced weaponry, including Syria and Iran.
However, Israel’s military chief of staff, Lieutenant General Moshe Ya’alon, in what some observers called an implied rebuke of the government, told the daily Yediot Aharonot in an interview last weekend that the Libyan move was “serious. It’s serious.” Asked why Washington had not kept Israel informed, he said that “some of the things they have disclosed to us in the past, we leaked.”
Ya’alon said the Libyan move was part of a “domino effect” following the U.S. invasion of Iraq, and that combined with Iran’s agreement last month to submit to nuclear inspections, it had created the beginnings of a changed regional landscape and lowered the strategic threats facing Israel.
Secretary of State Colin Powell last week called on Iran, Syria and North Korea to “get smart” and follow Libya’s example. Powell said Syria has improved its cooperation with the United States on controlling its border with Iraq, but needs to do more in other areas. “Syria still doesn’t get it that they have to abandon support of terrorist activity,” Powell said. “They’ve got to return any Iraqi monies that they might have in their bank, and they’ve started to take some minor actions in that regard.”
Powell told the Washington Post this week that America “should keep open the possibility of dialogue with Iran. Speculation was rife, particularly in Europe, that the U.S. humanitarian response to the earthquake in Iran might lead to a thaw, though Iran appeared to rule that out.
Administration officials and independent scholars warned in interviews that Syria and Iran pose a tougher challenge than did Libya.
“In many regards, Libya has always been the easiest case,” said David Mack, a former deputy chief of the State Department’s Near Eastern bureau, now vice-president of the Middle East Institute, a think tank. “It is both because Libya’s WMD program is very rudimentary and because it has never posed a direct, immediate strategic threat” to the United States and its allies.
The administration is attempting to use Libya’s case as a “paradigm” for Syria and Iran, Mack said. “They tried to get the absolute maximum cooperation from the Libyans in all regards, so they can say to the Syrians and Iranians: ‘Look, that’s what you’ve got to do. You’ve got to undress before the U.N. nuclear inspectors, you have to completely get out of the terrorist business, and if you don’t we still have the Damocles sword hanging over your heads in regard to what we did in Iraq and Afghanistan.’”
Most experts said the chances of a “grand deal” with either Syria or Iran are unlikely, and incremental progress seems the best hope.
Unlike Libya, “Iran is not the kind of country where a leader wakes up in the morning and says ‘Let’s make a policy U-turn,’ ” said Ray Takeyh, an Iran expert at Washington’s National Defense University. Policy-making in Iran requires consensus, he said, but current politics ensure gridlock rather than transformation.
Iran has been trying to open back-channel negotiations with Washington and, according to some reports, may recently have established a dialogue, said Iran expert Gary Sick, who directs the Middle East Institute at Columbia University. It is evident, he said, that there have been U.S.-Iran discussions, beginning with U.S. policy in Iraq but possibly ranging more broadly.
Iran signed the additional protocol to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty on December 18, following months of intense international pressure. Many observers question Iran’s sincerity, and point out that this action has not been accompanied by significant gestures in other fields, particularly in sponsorship of terrorism.
Some sources in Washington say Iran has already reached out to America with feelers about reducing its support for terrorists. According to one source, Iranian government representatives recently met informally with “U.S. nationals” and told them that Tehran would suspend ties with the Palestinian organizations Hamas and Islamic Jihad in return for official negotiations with Washington. The administration rejected the proposal, U.S. sources said.
Matthew Levitt, a terrorism expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and former FBI analyst, said he would be surprised if such an Iranian proposal had been authorized at the top. “The Palestinian Islamic Jihad is their baby; they won’t give it up so easily,” he said.
Ya’alon told Yediot that Iran’s agreement to U.N. inspections was “very serious” and that while the Iranians might still “try to hide” weapons programs, the inspections would at least “delay” Iran’s development of nuclear weapons by several years, which he called “positive” from Israel’s standpoint.
As for the Syrians, Mack said they “have a huge card they can play” to resist giving up their chemical and biological weapons programs. “This card is that they are ready to resume dialogue with Israel. It is the Israeli government that is not ready.” If Syria can blame Israel for the deadlock, he said, it can claim it needs its arsenal for defense.
Syrian President Bashar Assad recently renewed his call for restarting peace negotiations with Israel, telling the New York Times that talks should resume from the point his father’s regime reached with the government of Ehud Barak in January 2000 in Shepherdstown, W.Va.
But Israel’s prime minister dismissed Assad’s quasi-overture as pandering to the Americans. Sharon told his Cabinet Sunday that “in the event of talks between Israel and Syria, they will start from scratch,” not from the point they left off in 2000. That appeared to rule out any restart of earlier talks.
Increasing pressure on Israel, Syria reacted to the Libyan weapons shift by calling for a nuclear weapons-free Middle East. Syria introduced it as a resolution to the U.N. Security Council this week.
U.S. officials assured Israel that the administration does not accept the equation between Israel on one hand and Iran, Libya and Syria on the other. But Sharon’s dismissive reaction to Assad also left Washington with limited leverage to end what one Washington observer called Israel’s state of “convenient belligerence” with Syria.