- The Washington Times - Monday, March 17, 2008

Vice President Cheney yesterday departed on a Middle East trip that will take him to Israel, the West Bank, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Oman. His agenda will almost certainly include oil prices; Iraq; Iran; and the Middle East peace process, and he will get a fair number of questions about the departure of Adm. William Fallon as the top U.S. military commander in the Middle East. But in all likelihood, the top issue the vice president will face is Iran, which has come to dominate virtually everything else in the region.

Much of this stems from the confusion created by the National Intelligence Estimate released in December, which downplayed the seriousness of Iran’s efforts to obtain nuclear weapons. Further confusion was created by the abrupt resignation of Adm. Fallon in the wake of a lengthy and at times fawning profile in Vanity Fair depicting him as the number one obstacle to the Bush administration’s efforts to go to war against Tehran. Mr. Cheney is very likely to be pressed by the Saudis and Omanis about U.S. policy towards Iran.

Oman and Saudi Arabia want assurances that Washington will not take a confrontational approach towards Iran, only to back away and leave them alone to face an angry, emboldened regional predator who has targeted them before. For his part, Mr. Cheney will press Riyadh (which boasts of being ”one of the largest, if not the largest”) contributors to the Palestinian Authority to make good on this promise by substantially increasing the meager $92 million a year it gives the PA. With oil prices currently at more than $110 per barrel, the vice president may ask the Saudis to pump substantially more oil, but it remains to be seen whether he will have any more success than President Bush and Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman, whose recent appeals to the Saudis on oil supplies achieved negligible results.

Given this reality, Mr. Cheney will likely try to focus on other things. He will meet with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in an effort to gauge whether it would be useful for Mr. Bush to press for progress in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations during his next visit to the region in May. Here again, Iran casts a pall over virtually everything else. Tehran’s allies in Hamas staged a coup in Gaza nine months ago that drove Mr. Abbas and his Fatah organization out of Gaza, where Hamas and its terrorist allies have been putting together a rocket and missile arsenal capable of targeting more than a quarter of a million residents of southern Israel. “Tehran may increasingly be turning its sites to inflaming the situation in the Gaza Strip,” Mr. Cheney said in a March 11 speech. “In Gaza, crude, home-made weapons meant to terrorize Israeli civilians are being augmented by more advanced, longer-range weapons that are clearly smuggled in from the outside.”

While that is taking place, the Iranian-backed Hezbollah has become much more visible in the West Bank, and both Israeli and Palestinian officials believe the group had a hand in the March 6 massacre of eight Israelis at a Jerusalem yeshiva. Mr. Abbas makes statements suggesting that “armed struggle” against Israel might be acceptable. And while his security forces have made some progress in combatting criminal activity in the West Bank, they have yet to demonstrate that they are up to the task of counterinsurgency warfare against the likes of Hamas or Hezbollah. All of the above are just a tiny fraction of the challenges facing any serious effort to make progress on the Israeli-Palestinian front.

In Turkey, Mr. Cheney will discuss Ankara’s war against the terrorist Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has found sanctuary in northern Iraq. U.S. operational support for Turkey’s fight against the PKK has helped bolster frayed U.S. ties with this NATO ally. Look for Mr. Cheney to urge Turkey to take political steps to ameliorate the situation for Kurds living in southeastern Turkey.