Mideast peace unlikely without Iran and Syria
Michael Kraig
The Des Moines Register
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's upcoming Middle East peace conference in Annapolis, Md., should be a moment of hope. We would all love to see even modest steps toward peace. If some kind of agreement is reached, however, there is good reason to believe that it will not hold.

That's because the underlying premise of the conference is to side with certain Middle East countries and one segment of the deeply divided Palestinian population - the supporters of President Mahmoud Abbas - and against another Palestinian group - Hamas - and the states of Syria and Iran.

In theory, it is possible to get peace by creating even deeper divisions between the various actors in the Middle East. But it's not a good bet. Simply put, a region in which Syria and Iran are completely isolated, and in which their regimes' very existence is repeatedly threatened by the United States, is not a regional security equation that will allow for enduring peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

In an environment where they continue to be isolated, Syria and Iran will be motivated to not only strengthen ties to anti-Israeli groups in the Occupied Territories, but to strengthen these groups' worst aspects: their more militant, military side. It's their way of creating some form of regional influence, strength, independence and even a kind of bargaining chip if bilateral negotiations with the United States ever come about.

In other words, Syria and Iran have an incentive to turn up their own form of pressure on a regional U.S. ally - Israel - as an indirect way of combating U.S. efforts to change their regimes over time. The incentive of these extreme Palestinian groups will be to continue accepting such aid in lieu of an actual seat at the bargaining table with Israel. The string of terrorist attacks and low-intensity war between the two sides will therefore continue unabated.

To succeed, the United States should try flipping its current approach. Instead of expending diplomatic efforts to further isolate Syria and Iran, why not try to engage Syria and Iran to create a beneficial regional environment, one in which there is a better chance of success between Israelis and Palestinians?

A new round of engagement with Syria and Iran should not begin by unilaterally demanding major pre-negotiation concessions. Thus far, the United States has essentially been asking both states to give up all their bargaining chips before talks even take place. Instead, we should use a carrot-and-sticks strategy that holds out the promise of real progress on all outstanding issues with the existing regimes, not with different regimes that exist only in Washington's imagination.

Meanwhile, the United States should continue to apply targeted pressures to stop and punish the most egregious behaviors. The message would be clear: We hate your current policies, but we will talk unconditionally with your regimes and promise concessions if meaningful policy change comes about.

If a strategy of U.S. high-level talks without preconditions toward Syria and Iran were adopted, then the Israeli-Palestinian peace process might just have a chance of moving forward. U.S. concessions would, of course, be predicated on a measured but decisive end to Syrian and Iranian military aid to the most extreme anti-Israeli groups (limiting their interactions to providing social goods and services), thereby setting the wider regional context for successful peace talks.

We can hope for heroic efforts and possible miracles, but if we continue to pursue the course we are on, the Annapolis initiative is most likely to end with a fizzle, one of many examples of piecemeal, partial and failed efforts.

MICHAEL KRAIG is the director of policy analysis and dialogue at the nonpartisan, Muscatine-based Stanley Foundation, which focuses primarily on peace and security issues and advocates multilateralism.

This page is part of Rising Powers: The New Global Reality, a project from the Stanley Foundation.