By TIME Staff
April 10, 2015

Welcome to the #AskTIME subscriber Q&A with TIME senior correspondent Massimo Calabresi, who has recently written about the proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabiaand this week’s profile of Senator Bob Corker, a key dealmaker in the Iran nuclear talks. His other stories can be found here.

You will need to be a TIME subscriber to read the Q & A. ($30 a year or 8 cents a day for the magazine and all digital content.) Once you’re signed up, you can log in to the site with a username and password

DonQuixotic asks, Massimo, Are there any measures Israel
can take – besides pushing members of Congress – to prevent this deal from Iran going through? If it goes though with their (Netanyahu’s) disapproval, is there anything Israel can do to sabotage it? Perhaps through the UN?

A military attack by Israel against Iran would likely derail talks and scupper the deal, but would likely start a war that would likely include overt and covert attacks on Israel by Iran. Further pressure by Israel on members of Congress to reject or subvert the deal could also prevent it from being finalized. After the recent parliamentary campaign in Israel, during which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appeared to abandon support for a two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the administration floated four policy changes it was entertaining to pressure Israel to reconsider. Those measures, and others, could be used by the administration to penalize Israel if it did derail a nuclear agreement with Iran.

deconstructive asks, MC, After appearing to ally with Corker and Menendez, would Chuck Schumer seriously try to sabotage the Iran deal? Would this cause any damage to his upcoming Senate leadership role?

Schumer’s support for the Corker bill is a significant endorsement of that approach, but doesn’t represent an attempt to sabotage the Iran deal. Schumer could abandon it if amendments he found objectionable were added either in committee Apr. 14 or on the floor of the Senate thereafter. If he actively sought to kill the deal, it could adversely affect his support in the Democratic caucus in the Senate.

nflfoghorn asks, MC, forget Corker for a moment – the junior senator from Arkansas (in office for a cup of coffee) seems to be the de facto head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. How did Tom Cotton rise to power so quickly and why do people, who see his obvious lack of experience, trust him on world issues – which goes squarely against Congress’ long-held belief that seniority = power?

Cotton has used the Iran issue to attract attention and support. He has been the most vocal proponent of a policy of direct confrontation with Iran, including possible military strikes on Iranian nuclear sites. His credibility in the Republican caucus comes from his service as a lieutenant in the 101st Airborne Division in Iraq and Afghanistan, his BA and JD from Harvard, and his success in ousting incumbent Democrat Mark Pryor in last year¹s election in Arkansas.

Robbert5 asks, Massimo, can you see the strategic outcome of GOP’s plan for Iran to end the talks, move back to stricter sanctions and most likely get into another war in the Middle East? What would the result be for this plan in contrast to the President’s, in your(humble) opinion?

There is a lot of uncertainty right now in the Middle East so it would be hard to predict a particular strategic outcome of the GOP preference for greater confrontation with Iran. Further, the GOP has a variety of different proposed approaches, from tougher details in the current deal to imposing new sanctions to bombing Iran¹s nuclear sites. But condensing GOP positions into a policy of rejecting the current deal and imposing new sanctions, we can speculate about a range of possible outcomes, from best to worst.

Iran could agree to extend the 2013 interim agreement that froze their nuclear program and continue talks, the international sanctions coalition could hold and, under increased economic pressure from new Congressional sanctions, Tehran could ultimately agree to abandon and destroy most of its nuclear infrastructure. However, this approach could easily lead to a military confrontation with Iran that would fracture the international sanctions coalition and remove many of the economic constraints on them, collapse diplomatic efforts, and prompt Iran to make a dash for a nuclear weapon, sparking a regional arms race or war.

deconstructive asks, MC, a what-if thought exercise to take a much-needed break from realpolitik – what if we (the US) never got involved in the Middle East? (Think Africa, but I digress.) This would include never aiding and recognizing Israel immediately at their beginning as Truman did, never meddling in Iran that led to the Shah, never allying with Saudi Arabia for so long, never dealing with Saddam Hussein, and so forth, just stayed neutral and stayed out? That may or may not could have meant we never would’ve bought so much oil from there – China buys a lot of ME oil but they’re not as openly entangled in ME politics like we are (for now) – or maybe we would’ve looked elsewhere to satisfy our energy appetite. What would’ve happened if we had stayed out of the region? Or was it never possible?

The primary context of the U.S. involvement in the Middle East and North Africa in the 20th century was the Cold War with the Soviet Union in the wake of World War II. Soviet allies at various points included among others Syria, Ethiopia and part of Yemen. Egypt under Nasser was neutral. I¹m not enough of an expert in the Cold War strategies of the region to say what might have happened if the U.S. had exempted the Middle East from its larger strategy of containment.

Overall, the containment policy, first advocated by George Kennan in an anonymous article in Foreign Affairs based on his “long telegram” from Moscow, is viewed as successful, albeit with many costly failures along the way, including the parts of the west¹s approach to post-colonial Africa and South East Asia.

deconstructive asks, MC, if the Yemen situation blows up even more, or something else happens in the region, can you see Saudi Arabia and Iran going to war directly instead of proxy / Yemen? If we’re supposed to be Saudi Arabia’s ally, do we have any obligations to take their side, or would Obama choose to keep us out (I think that would be the wise move)? Or no matter how bad things get and how much they hate each other, neither side will go that
far no matter what?

Direct war between Iran and Saudi Arabia is a possibility. The U.S. has no treaty obligation to defend Saudi Arabia, but Obama has restated the four long-standing U.S. policy priorities in the region which include the defense of U.S. allies from external aggression. What form U.S. assistance would take in support of Saudi Arabia would likely depend on the circumstances leading up to the conflict and the nature of the war.

deconstructive asks, MC, after the recent events from
Israel’s election (and Obama’s reactions) to the Iran deal, might the chance of an independent Palestine improve, such as going through the UN, or other means, even if Netanyahu sounds clearly against this? Or is Netanyahu’s tough rhetoric just more bluster and he might really back down if Obama allows the US to vote in favor or abstain in the UN next time a Security Council vote comes up?

Palestinian statehood exists in some senses already, given the semi-functional government in the West Bank and its recognition by a majority of the UN member countries. Official recognition of a Palestinian State at the United Nations is possible but would come only after a major breach between the U.S. and Israel, which is unlikely even if relations between Netanyahu and the White House deteriorate further.

Israeli recognition of a Palestinian state, and the partial or total
withdrawal of Israeli forces and settlers from Palestinian territory, will only come if there is a peace agreement that includes recognition of Israel¹s right to exist and accommodations for its security interests.

DonQuixotic asks, We keep hearing predominantly of what
Israel and Saudi Arabia think of the deal with Iran, but do you have any impressions of what the Palestinian response to the deal has been?

Iran’s involvement in Israeli-Palestinian matters is complicated, and involves a range of influences from diplomatic support to financial backing to arming and training militants and terrorists. Generally speaking, the voice of Palestinians has been among the least influential in external matters in the Middle East.

deconstructive asks, MC, thanks for Corker article. Although he immerses himself in many deal situations and thus might appear to be a dealmaker among the GOP unlike many of his peers who only wsih to prevent deals and stop Obama, isn’t Corker really in the end just another obstructionist in broker’s clothing? While he supported the New Start treaty, he’s currently a skeptic on the Iran deal, he voted against his own efforts to force auto-bailout sacrifices, and voted against his own efforts on Dodd-Frank. And if Corker is among the best deal brokers among the R’s, what does that say about the rest of his GOP colleagues in Congress?

The Democrats we spoke with who have worked with Corker believe he has been an honest interlocutor in negotiations and point to the adoption by Democrats of the principles and details he agreed to on issues like the auto bailout and title II of Dodd Frank. When support for a final bill has broken down along party lines, sometimes driven by the GOP, sometimes by the Democrats, Corker has remained with the GOP, citing Democratic additions to the bills that he objects to. Even without those policy differences, doing otherwise would call into question his party affiliation which could in turn affect committee assignments and electoral support.

PaulDirks asks, The current controversy over the Iran negotiations suggest to me that there are large swaths of this country who want nothing more than for the US to be in a permanent state of warfare. Since the alternative to the agreement is for Iran to have NO limits on it’s nuclear program, it’s quite clear that people simply don’t feel complete unless the USA is actively killing someone. Am I describing the situation accurately or do people really believe that there’s another way that BETWEEN the current agreement being negotiated and another multi-billion dollar war?

There is a contingent in the GOP that supports a fairly low threshold for military strikes against Iran’s nuclear sites. But there is not broad American support for a wider war against Iran or in the region. Indeed, most politicians feel fairly keenly the American electorate¹s opposition, after Iraq and Afghanistan, to further military deployments in the region. None of those advocating early bombing Iran support a U.S. boots-on-the-ground invasion of the country; those who oppose early bombing say it would inevitably lead to such a war.

deconstructive asks, MC, no doubt oil has given the Middle
East region its power, but its centuries of still-unresolved tribal and religious infighting has given it its instability that affects everyone, including us. In a historical kind of exercise, what do you think most led to the Middle East’s oily rise to power? My guess is the choice by early 20th-c. automobile makers to go with gasoline engines for their cars, especially the Detroit makers (and European too). Electric and steam cars existed back then, but Henry Ford and Bill Durant (GM’s founder) chose to go with gasoline cars, as did their leading engineers like Charles Kettering. If Detroit had focused on steam or electric cars, today’s landscape might be radically different – and the Middle East might have been quite different too – or maybe not, only without their petrodollars and prestige. Thoughts?

See above on the Cold War context. For the history of the development of the oil industry, see Daniel Yergin’s The Prize, which is considered the best treatment of the issue.

 

 

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