The World Depends on the Future of Greece and Iran

What a tense and chilling time internationally!

Economically and financially, markets and bourses remain fixated on what happens, or doesn’t, in relatively tiny Greece. For the moment, bulls may be eclipsing bears in resolving the Greek debt crisis — but only for the moment.

In the world of geopolitics and foreign policy, the so-called Arab awakening is filled with nightmarish prospects. Libya has relapsed into tribal rivalries and conflict. If Egypt’s dire economic condition cannot be reversed and some semblance of real government put in place the chances for radicalization dramatically soar.

Syria is in a state of civil war with huge consequences for the region. While much of the outside world is united in limiting the carnage, powerful constraints reduce or prevent the application of potentially effective policies and policy tools.

Arming the opposition will escalate the violence without a clear cut path to a successful outcome. External intervention by the West is a bridge too far. And if the Arab league did intervene in Syria, is it unclear whether its forces could defeat the Syrian army.

Syria’s neighbors, near and far, all have skin in this game. Saudi Arabia sees the opportunity of restraining Iranian ambitions. Iran perceives a different and possibly hostile regime in Damascus as threatening to its leverage in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq. Iraq’s border has become transparent to the flow of arms into Syria. Jordan and Israel remain vigilant and worried about where Syria is headed. And NATO and the United States after the Libyan incursion are suffering from war fatigue.

In Iraq, while Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki won the latest political battle in Baghdad, violence is growing and the possibility of outright civil war cannot be dismissed. Iraq could disintegrate among Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish divisions. The three major Shiite radical groups in the eastern part of the country remain at large. And the not-so-invisible hand of Iran strengthens as American influence with its withdrawal ebbs considerably.

Further to the east, progress in Afghanistan to bring a combination of better (or any) governance, economic improvement and security is slow at best and in the first two categories regressing. Very recent reports about Afghan security forces question their ability to assume full responsibility in the takeover from the International Security Assistance Force in 2013. Expulsion of Afghan security forces from the ranks with families living in Pakistan for presumably the risk of blackmail or extortion isn’t a good sign.

The center of strategic gravity and the fuse that will ignite a conflagration is Iran. An attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities would be catastrophic.

For those who argue that the only thing worse than Iran without a bomb is Iran with the bomb, they need to understand the consequences of a strike that at best would only delay and never prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. Pro-Iranian forces in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon would react with vengeance and violence. Egypt would be confronted with the impossible dilemma of complying with or abrogating the long-standing peace treaty with Israel. The mere consideration of reassessing that treaty would have profound effect as Israel could no longer assume its western borders were secure.

And who knows how oil markets would react to even the threat of blocking the Strait of Hormuz?

From this perspective, the national security interests of the United States are crystal clear. Sadly it’s an election year and that clarity is obscured by the presidential and congressional November vote.

What happens globally depends on two and only two issues: the future of Greece and Iran.

The No. 1 priority for the Obama administration should be safe navigation through this 21st-century version of Scylla and Charybdis. Neither issue appears to be a real as opposed to a rhetorical priority.

Urgent focus must be placed on resolving the Greek debt crisis either through fiscal intervention or separating Greece from the eurozone until such time as its economic house is put in better order. The consequence of inaction is a potential global financial meltdown. Another 1929 isn’t acceptable.

At the same time, the crisis over Iran and its nuclear intentions must be defused. While the possibility of negotiations has been reopened and must be pursued, back channel diplomacy provides another avenue. In this regard, the United States must find a partner credible to Tehran and discreet enough to serve as an entirely silent and invisible go-between to broker a solution.

Similarly, this past week, Washington has strongly cautioned Israel against unilaterally attacking Iran’s nuclear capacity. But even stronger warnings such as George H.W. Bush delivered during the first Gulf War implying the cut-off of aid may be necessary. The risk: an armed strike that will provoke war with consequences possibly as dire as any over the past 100 years.

Harlan Ullman is senior advisor at the Atlantic Council, and chairman of the Killowen Group that advises leaders of government and business. This article was syndicated by UPI.

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