(CNSNews.com) – The coming year holds three critical foreign policy deadlines in western Asia for the Obama administration, which hopes that by the time 2014 ends some of the region’s most intractable disputes will be well on their way to being settled.
Late April marks the first deadline – the end of a nine-month period that began last July when Secretary of State John Kerry launched new negotiations aiming to reach a “final status agreement” to end the decades-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
A succession of U.S., Israeli and Palestinian administrations have come and gone since the 1993 Oslo Accords set the ball in motion. Two decades later the thorny “final status” issues identified then remain as real today, but Kerry hopes to succeed where five predecessors had failed.
Kerry has been a frequent visitor to Israel and the Palestinian Authority (P.A.)-administered territories this year, and will head there again on the very first day of 2014.
The parties have pledged to keep the details of the negotiations confidential, but an element of the process that is public is the release of Palestinian prisoners convicted of terrorist offenses – a deeply sensitive political issue in Israel, especially as those freed are invariably celebrated by Palestinians as national heroes.Israel committed itself in July to four rounds of such releases, the third of which occurred in the early hours of Tuesday morning, after Israel’s High Court rejected a petition brought on behalf of families of victims of terror attacks.
One component of the negotiations that has spilled into the open despite confidentiality pledges relates to future security arrangements between Israel and the envisaged independent Palestinian state, and particularly the question of the Jordan Valley.
The P.A. wants its state to share an international border with Jordan, while Israel says maintaining a military buffer in the valley west of the border is essential for the nation’s future security. Jordan’s current government is not viewed as hostile, but in a country with a Palestinian majority and strong Muslim Brotherhood opposition that could change; also, beyond Jordan lie Syria and Iraq, both highly unstable, as well as Iran, a bitter foe.
Palestinian negotiators have warned that any proposal that denies them the Jordan Valley will collapse the talks. Yet other unresolved “final status” issues will likely be even more difficult to resolve. They include the status of Jerusalem, Jewish settlements in disputed areas, and the “right of return” of Palestinian refugees who fled during earlier conflicts and their descendants – numbering more than five million today, according to the U.N.
Kerry’s declared deadline, now just four months away, is looking more and more unrealistic.
The secretary’s visit this week aims to prod movement towards agreement on what is being called a “proposed framework” – not an interim agreement, State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf stressed Monday, but rather something that would “address all the core issues” and “serve as guidelines for the permanent status negotiations.”
Harf said Kerry was still operating under the nine-month timeframe, and would not comment on reports suggesting that an extension would be sought beyond the end of April.
Nuclear hopes and fears
The next foreign policy deadline in the region was an outcome of multilateral negotiations with Iran over its nuclear activities, which many governments suspect are a cover for obtaining a nuclear weapons capability.
More than a decade after Iran’s nuclear actions were first exposed by opponents of the regime, triggering a lengthy international standoff, a deal struck in Geneva in November offers Iran limited sanctions relief in exchange for limited curbs on its program.
During a six-month interim stage Iran and the six world powers known as the P5+1 will try to reach a comprehensive deal on the long-term status of the nuclear program.
Exactly when those six months run down is uncertain, however, because of delays in getting the period started. Talks were held during December aimed at fine-tuning the Geneva agreement and Iranian officials now say they expect agreement on the sticking-points to be reached by the end of January.
If that occurs, then the six-month period would presumably kick off in February, ending around the end of July. The six-month period may also be extended, by mutual consent of the parties.
While proponents of engagement with Tehran are hopeful that the nuclear talks could pave the way to rapprochement between the U.S. and Iran after 35 years of enmity, many U.S. lawmakers from both parties are deeply skeptical of the Geneva deal and distrustful of the nature and motivation of the Iranian regime.
New legislation introduced in the Senate earlier this month would impose tougher sanctions on Iran if it either violates the interim deal; violates a comprehensive final agreement negotiated in line with the six-month timetable; or allows the interim agreement to expire before a final-status one is put in place.
The White House strongly opposes the measure and says the president will veto it if passed.
Obama has presented the issue as a choice between diplomacy and war.
“It is very important for us to test whether [a negotiated deal] is possible, not because it’s guaranteed, but because the alternative is possibly us having to engage in some sort of conflict to resolve the problem, with all kinds of unintended consequences,” he told reporters on Dec. 20, at his last press conference of the year.
Ending the war
The third deadline in the region in 2014 comes one year from today – the Dec. 31 end of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force mission in Afghanistan.
The administration wants to keep training and counterterrorism force of as many as 10,000 troops deployed beyond that date, and over many months of difficult negotiations hammered out a bilateral security agreement (BSA) governing that ongoing troop presence.
Although a gathering of tribal elders approved the BSA last month President Hamid Karzai has so far refused to sign it, saying he wants signing delayed until after presidential elections next April, when he will no longer be in office.
U.S. officials initially insisted that the agreement be signed by the end of this year, but earlier this month began backing away from a strict deadline.
White House deputy press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters on December 11 that while the BSA should be signed by the end of the year it would “probably not” be a big problem if that was delayed into January
The same day, U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, James Dobbins told lawmakers the administration had not “at this point set a date beyond which we’re no longer prepared to wait.”
Twelve years after U.S. forces first entered Afghanistan to topple the Taliban regime after its al-Qaeda ally attacked America, there are fears that a Taliban resurgence could follow the withdrawal of foreign forces.
A CNN poll released on Monday found that only 17 percent of the American people now support the mission in Afghanistan, while 82 percent oppose it, and that most want U.S. troops withdrawn before the end of 2014
Some 2,300 American troops, along with another 1,100 from other contributing nations, have been killed in Afghanistan since the war began in October 2001.