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NYT columnist: U.S. looks to ‘walk and chew gum’ on Iran deal

By Asma Ajroudi and Ben Flanagan for Al Arabiya News —

The United States is able to strike a nuclear deal with Iran while at the same time upholding relations with its Gulf allies, prominent New York Times columnist Roger Cohen said on Wednesday.

The U.S. is looking to “walk and chew gum at the same time,” Cohen said during a panel discussion at the Arab Media Forum in Dubai.

“It can make a nuclear deal with Iran while at the same time reassuring the Gulf through defense pacts, through arms [and] through strengthening relations everywhere imaginable, that the United States is not turning its back on the countries here in the region.”

Several Gulf heads of state have said they will not attend the Camp David summit on Thursday, with some interpreting that as a snub to the United States over its stance on Iran.

The Unites States cannot strike a “transformational agreement” such as this one with Iran “without an element of risk,” acknowledged Cohen, who broadly supports the Obama administration’s position on the deal.

“I am aware of the great skepticism in this region, or the Gulf, over this potential deal with Iran. But we live in the real world. We shouldn’t allow the perfect to be the enemy of the good,” he said.

“Is this potential Iran deal ideal? No, it’s not. But the fact is Iran, whether we like it or not, has mastered the nuclear… cycle. The question then becomes how best do you ring-fence, monitor, control this knowledge that Iran has. You can’t bomb knowledge out of people’s heads,” Cohen continued.

“I consider Iran to be a hopeful society on balance. There is an intermittently very repressive regime. But there is a young Western-looking population that is eager for great contact with the outside world,” he added.

Moderating the session, Al Arabiya News’ editor-in-chief, Faisal J. Abbas, pointed out that Gulf countries do not have “any issue with the Iranian people” or “any issue with Shia Islam.”

The problem is that the “incredibly energetic, incredibly outward-looking Iranian people aren’t the ones in power,” Abbas said.

“What is in power… is a state that sponsors terrorism,” Abbas said. He referred to an exclusive Asharq al-Awsat interview with Obama, published this week, in which the U.S. President acknowledged that countries in the region have cause for concern about Iran’s activities.

“Iran clearly engages in dangerous and destabilizing behavior in different countries across the region. Iran is a state sponsor of terrorism. It helps prop up the Assad regime in Syria. It supports Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Gaza Strip. It aids the Houthi rebels in Yemen,” Obama told the Arabic-language newspaper.

Abbas then turned to Michèle Léridon, the global news director at Agence France Presse (AFP), who was also on the AMF panel.

She was asked about how many observers in the region believe that – among all world leaders – the French President François Hollande seems to be the one who understands the Middle East the most, when it comes to both Iran and Syria.

President Hollande was recently invited to attend a GCC meeting in Riyadh, with the Saudis and French apparently seeing eye-to-eye on the Iranian nuclear deal, in that it could create more threats to the region.

Léridon said that France was ‘more sceptical’ on the agreement than others.

“France is not opposed to an agreement… they are just more sceptical, and they push for more control,” said Léridon, who emphasized that she doesn’t represent the French government’s position.

Abbas pointed to the fact that France’s involvement in the Middle East had grown stronger – not weaker – in the wake of the attacks on the Charlie Hebdo magazine offices in Paris.

“If we don’t go to the Middle East, the Middle East will come to us,” Léridon said, citing the hundreds of French youth who have travelled to the Middle East to fight with ISIS-affiliated groups.

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