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Who scares you most: Putin, ISIS or Iran?

But the former assistant foreign secretary is not too confident these military successes will enable the Iraqi army to beat ISIS. “This is a large group of people wildly determined to fight and die, unlike the Iraqi army which has only recently shown some commitment to fight and not run away. So I think it will take a very long time to eradicate ISIS from Iraq.

“That brings us to the other place where ISIS now fights and where it all started, which is Syria. If I had known four or five years ago when the war started that it was going to last five years and would kill 200,000 people, and the world was going to do nothing about it, I certainly would have been surprised.

For Rubin, the success of Assad to re-establish himself as a political player on the stage symbolises the failure of the American policy on Syria. “Now the US has even come to the point we are prepared to talk to Assad again, while in the early stages the world made very clear Assad had to be removed from office. That is a fairly dramatic development.

Relations with Iran: key for American diplomacy

“The third topic I want to discuss is the Israeli Prime Minister coming to Congress and doing something really remarkable. It is unprecedented that a foreigner attacks the US President speaking in the Congress. The part about his speech that few people have appreciated though is that not only Netanyahu feels quite strongly about this, but the same goes for Barack Obama. He believes an Iran agreement and all that would come with it is so important to him and the US that it is worth having such an argument with Netanyahu.

“So what is it about this agreement that Obama finds so important? The first thing is that it is not obvious there is another way to get rid of the prospect of Iran acquiring a nuclear bomb than a negotiated settlement. This program has been going on for very long, and what I’m about to say now is hard for people to appreciate but it is true: if Iran wanted to build a nuclear bomb they would have done that already. They have shown they have the capability to enrich uranium to 90%, which is the threshold the Israeli’s used to regard as a justification for war. So for whatever reason the Iranians don’t want to develop a nuclear weapon. Possibly their religious leaders have said it is a violation of religious law. It is also a possibility that they think they don’t need the bomb to get some of the benefits of being perceived a nuclear state. Or they don’t want to go through the complications of declaring themselves a nuclear power because of the threat of further sanctions and war if they were to do so. 

On the other hand, it is often overlooked that Israel, despite of its repeated threats to do so, can’t really take any military action against Iran, says Rubin. “Israel can’t just go out there and bomb Iran. This would be one country attacking another country out of the blue. It would be very hard to justify and the world would look at the attacking country as the aggressor. This is the reason nobody has so far made the decision to use force against Iran. So President Obama believes a negotiated course is better.

“In the Middle-East you see essentially a war between the Sunni world and the Shi’ite world. The US can influence that only through their Sunni allies. What if they could forge a relationship with Iran, which is the source of much of this conflict? That would mean the US would be able to influence the region without sending in ground troops each time. That would be a geopolitical shift of dramatic proportions, analogous to the way Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon dealt with the Chinese, thus finding another way to pressure the Soviet Union. So for Obama this is a really big thing too. Netanyahu believes more pressure and more sanctions is the right course, while Obama and most of the Europeans think it is negotiation. An improvement of relations between America and the Shi’ites would absolutely change the politics of the region.

Part of the Mark Allen Group.