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David Ignatius: Backstage brawl over a deal with Iran

BY DAVID IGNATIUS Published: November 25, 2013
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If there's a fog of war, there can also be a fog of peace — in which even the negotiators aren't sure of the consequences of what they've done. Some of that murkiness surrounds the bargaining in Geneva to limit Iran's nuclear program. There's sharp disagreement among observers about the potential risks and benefits of this seeming breakthrough between Iran and the West after 34 years of hostility.

As the Iran deal has taken shape, a backstage brawl is developing with Israel and Saudi Arabia, two countries crucially affected by the deal. The unrelenting attacks on the agreement by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, which are the culmination of four years of mistrust between him and President Obama, are rumbling the bedrock of the U.S.-Israeli relationship — a consequence neither country wants.

But there's an intriguing upside: The Israeli-Saudi mutual dislike of the Iran nuclear deal, and their de facto alliance against it, may weirdly prove one of the “silver linings” of this negotiation. Indeed, if the Israelis become a protector and defender of the Sunni Muslim countries, that could have lasting security benefits for Israel and might even open the way for progress on the Palestinian issue — without the usual American mediation.

It's worth remembering, in this regard, that one reason Egypt's Anwar Sadat and Israel's Menachem Begin found common ground in 1977 was a mutual fear that the U.S. might try to impose a comprehensive peace agreement over their heads.

The U.S. opening to Iran will also affect the Sunni-Shiite sectarian schism that is causing so much bloodshed in the Middle East. But it's hard to predict just how this will play out: Saudi Arabia and other Sunni powers have been waging a proxy war against Iran across the region in Syria, Iraq, Bahrain and Lebanon. If the U.S. isn't careful in how it manages its engagement with Shiite Iran, it could tilt this sectarian conflict even more toward extremist Sunni jihadists and extremist Shiite Hezbollah fighters who increasingly dominate the fight in Syria and elsewhere.

Obama is right to step away from the Sunni-Shiite schism. But an unintended danger would result if the United States were seen to be trading its longtime Sunni allies for new Shiite partners. That would be the equivalent of kicking over the hornet's nest, making the region even more dangerous.

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