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Washington’s World: March 30th, 2015 – April 5th, 2015

While US policy in the Middle East is focused on a number of important issues, the outcome of the Iran nuclear negotiations is taking center stage. With the parties engaged in the final days of the talks, the outcome hangs in the balance. US officials warn that, while an agreement is close, the deal is not yet sealed. Contacts in touch with Administration thinking suggest that Secretary of State Kerry is highly motivated to clinch agreement. One official commented to us: “This is not only to notch up a personal victory, but both he and President Obama believe that a deal with Tehran will transform the Middle East landscape in highly positive ways.” It is safe to say that many in Washington – to say nothing of doubters in Jerusalem and Riyadh – emphatically disagree. What this does is to underline the political and diplomatic stakes for the Administration. As another contact mentioned to us: “Failure in Lausanne means that we will have to start again at zero in the Middle East. It will be very uncomfortable.” Nowhere is the US dilemma more acute that in the evolving developments in Yemen.  Here the Saudi intervention has stimulated concern in Washington. While the Saudis consulted closely with the US before taking action and US targeting intelligence has been essential in allowing the Saudi operations to be effective, Administration analysts are fearful that a full scale civil war in Yemen will set the stage for wider sectarian strife in the region. High US officials have convinced their Saudi counterparts to moderate their objectives to bring the Houthi insurgents to the negotiating table, not to try to drive them totally from power. To this end the Pentagon is enhancing military assistance to make the Arab coalition’s air war more effective, thus staving off the need for a land invasion.  For the moment US observers feel this is working.  A further concern is that events in Yemen will complicate operations against ISIS in Iraq where progress in recapturing Tikrit has stalled. Whether an agreement with Tehran can transform some if these conflicts remains highly disputed in Washington, but there is little doubt that failure to reach agreement will constitute a significant setback. With eyes concentrated on the Middle East, the ideas for supplying weapons to Ukraine that were current a month ago have languished. This is not to say that attitudes toward President Putin have softened, but the White House is happy to allow the German-led exchanges with Moscow time to succeed or fail.

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