The Israel Council on Foreign Relations (ICFR)
ICFR Israeli-European Young Diplomats Forum
“The Middle East Vortex:
Views from Washington, Moscow and Berlin”
Monday, October 21, 2013 at 3:00 p.m.
Good afternoon everyone. Thank you, Avi Primor, President of the Israel Council on Foreign Relations, for your kind introduction. Thank you to Dr. Weinbaum and your team for inviting me to speak to this group again. As you know, the US Embassy’s First and Second Tour officers association has a close relationship with the ICFR’s Young Diplomats Forum and I am continually impressed by the productive and professional partnerships that have grown out of it.
Today’s symposium has been titled “The Middle East Vortex.” I would suggest, however, that it been retitled “Middle East Vortices.” This is a region of multiple swirling, turning, and ever-changing challenges. And the United States, together with Israel and other allies, is working to manage those complex, constantly changing sets of challenges in today’s Middle East. The world needs to be clear-eyed about the limits of our influence in the midst of rolling Arab transitions, but we also need to firmly defend our key interests, including the security of Israel, countering threats posted by global jihadists and other terrorist organizations, preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, ensuring the free flow of energy from the region, and assisting the peoples of the region in making peaceful transitions to stable, democratic governance that reflects their legitimate aspirations and respects their universal rights.. I’d like to spend my time this afternoon addressing some of the most striking examples of the region’s challenges and opportunities: our collective efforts to end the civil war in Syria and prevent any further use of chemical weapons by the Asad regime, to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, and to arrive at a two-state solution through Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations.
Following the August 21 attack that left 1,400 dead, including 400 children, the U.S. determined that we would act to deter and degrade Syria’s ability to use chemical weapons. It was this credible military threat that led to Geneva and the possibility of removing Syria’s chemical weapons. The United States remains committed to enforcing international bans on chemical weapons and we are working closely with Russia, the UN and other countries and international agencies to ensure that Syria’s chemical weapons are brought under international control and are destroyed according to the Geneva agreement. As I’m sure you’ve seen, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons rightly just won the Nobel Peace Prize not only for its recent work in Syria but for over 15 years of work to eliminate weapons of mass destruction around the globe. The OPCW, along with the UN, in a matter of a few weeks, prepared and executed the first, critical steps toward eliminating Syria’s chemical weapons. Just last month, the Syrian regime was still denying its chemical weapons stores outright. We’ve made a lot of progress toward identifying and destroying those weapons since then. If we are successful, this will be the best possible outcome – removal of the threat from Asad’s or rebels’ hands.
The presence of inspectors on the ground to oversee those weapons’ destruction is a huge step forward, but there is still considerable work to be done and we are carefully watching to see that the Syrian regime abides by its obligations under UNSCR 2118 and the OPSW Executive Council Decision. Additionally, one should not confuse the progress being made against Asad’s chemical weapons with complacence in the ongoing conflict in Syria. The United States remains committed to the larger diplomatic effort to reach an end to the civil war and to Bashar al-Asad’s brutal dictatorship. We are continuing to work hard to bring the Syrian regime to the table with the legitimate opposition to negotiate a peaceful settlement that recognizes the rights of all of the Syrian people. Secretary Kerry meets this weekin London with key international partners and the Syrian Coalition leadership to review progress towards convening the Geneva Conference to bring about a transition of power. We continue to provide significant assistance to this opposition, to strengthen their hand against the Asad regime and against extremist opposition elements.
Along with Israel, we are concerned about the potential for violence in Syria to spill over into Israel and about the potential transfer of sophisticated weapons to Hezbollah or other terrorist groups. Israel and the United States agree that the transfer of those weapons would be unacceptably destabilizing and must be prevented. We will work closely with our Israeli partners to ensure this doesn’t happen, and will also continue to advocate for a strong UNDOF mission to preserve stability in the Golan Heights.
Let me state clearly the U.S. position on Iran. Iran cannot be allowed to acquire a nuclear weapon. Period. This is the highest national security priority for both the United States and Israel.
We are going to move cautiously and quickly within the P5+1 framework to test the Iranian willingness to find a peaceful solution that reassures the international community that Iran is in compliance with all its obligations. All options remain on the table, including the use of military force. But we have an obligation to test all alternatives.
In response to Iran’s repeated noncompliance with its international commitments, we and our partners put in place the toughest, most comprehensive sanctions against Iran to date. Those sanctions, which have had a major impact on the Iranian economy, are the reason the Iranians have come back to the negotiating table, and we are carefully evaluating whether they are now willing to work with us and the international community more substantively. We’ve been very clear with the Iranians about our position and we have had productive meetings at the UN and in Geneva. But we will not give up the leverage sanctions provide without meaningful, verifiable steps taken by Iran.
Last week’s discussions with our P5+1 counterparts and with Iran were at a detailed, technical level we have not had before. We are discussing concrete steps Iran can take to address the international community’s concerns about its nuclear program. We also had our first bilateral meeting at the political director level since 2009. However, Iran’s words must be matched by transparent and verifiable action and there is much more work to be done. We are clear-eyed about the process, and we are determined that any agreement must leave the world confident that Iran will not acquire a nuclear weapon.
The American/Israeli Partnership
Throughout all these challenges, the United States has continued to deepen its strategic partnership with Israel. Our countries’ partnership is built on shared values, democratic ideals and a strong belief that opportunity and freedom creates more just and prosperous societies and we have shared interests on every issue we face in this region. We have also developed the closest security-military relationship we’ve ever had. Our strategic cooperation includes a 3.1 billion dollar security assistance program; extensive joint military training and intelligence cooperation; provision of the Joint Strike Fighter, the world’s most sophisticated fighter aircraft; our well-publicized missile defense cooperation; and extended cooperation into new fields, such as cyber security.
We also believe that the path to a lasting, sustainable security and Israel’s future as a Jewish, democratic state is through peace with the Palestinians. The President and the Secretary are deeply committed to the current rigorous diplomatic effort to advance final status negotiations aimed at ending the conflict.
Despite what one sometimes reads in the press, there are reasons to be optimistic about these talks. While the changing regional environment seems daunting, it also adds incentive and opportunity for Israel and the Palestinians to seize this opportunity. Israel’s Arab neighbors have demonstrated increased interest in supporting such discussions as part of a broader peace initiative. Both Israelis and Palestinians have leaders who are serious about peace, who are in positions to create change, and who have already shown their courage by resuming negotiations and making tough, unpopular, but necessary decisions. President Abbas put aside efforts to short-cut the process by seeking statehood at the UN. Prime Minister Netanyahu has released Palestinian prisoners and reaffirmed his commitment to a Palestinian state.
We continue to believe in the vision of two states for two peoples, living side by side in peace and security as the best guarantor of Israeli, Palestinian, United States, and regional interests. And peace will be a powerful tool to defeat extremists throughout the region, and promote greater trade and commerce between Israelis and Arabs to the benefit of people throughout the region. Indeed, with the support of key partners – like the European Union – we are making significant efforts to improve economic conditions for Palestinians, as well as new linkages between Israelis and Palestinians, as a down payment on what can be achieved if negotiations succeed.
Again, thank you for providing me the opportunity to speak this afternoon.