Cautious Hope for Peaceful Middle East

Monday, December 24, 2007

Kaveh L. Afrasiabi 

Unlike 2007, a rather bloody year in the history of modern Middle East, 2008 should have a better prospect for peace than at any time since 2001, year zero in the American-declared "global war on terror", assuming that the lame-duck George W Bush administration does not somehow stifle that prospect.

There is, however, a reasonable expectation that, as with so many other US presidents who in their final year suddenly discover the protean value of a "peace legacy" and engage in belated peacemaking efforts, Bush will also refrain from any further foreign policy adventurism, especially in the Middle East.

A global donors' meeting in Paris has just pledged some US$7 billion for Palestinians and the Palestinians would be remiss not to make the necessary steps that would guarantee the delivery of that hefty sum which is needed for the reconstruction of their economic lives.

A political process of reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah is absolutely necessary to move the peace process restarted in Maryland last month, and that, in turn, requires a good deal of flexibility on Hamas' part.

Yet, in light of Israel's provocative assaults on Hamas-controlled Gaza, one wonders about Israel's intentions? Is Israel on its way to recycling the past attitude of torpedoing genuine peace processes by provoking the other side to more violent modalities of action? If that is Israel's intention, then we should not expect any real breakthrough in the Israel-Syria quagmire over the Golan Heights either.

Israel is now at the crossroads: either choose the principle of land for peace or continue with a hostile and alienated Arab and Muslim bloc that expresses its anger at Israel's superpower supporter, the US.

This brings us to Middle East terrorism, often portrayed in the Western media as a sole function of Arabs and Muslims, without much attention to Israel's terrorization of Palestinian people, aptly decried by former US president Jimmy Carter and other world leaders. The injustice to Palestinians breeds terrorism and this simple truth can no longer be disregarded by the US. Uprooting Arab terrorism without uprooting the underlying causes pertaining to the Arabs' perception of Israeli and Western injustice will be an impossible agenda, to state the obvious.

There were many anticipations of multiple conflicts in the Middle East in 2007 and, on balance, the year just ending frustrated a bulk of those expectations. Lebanon did not revert to civil war and was able to step back from the brink. Chances are good-to-excellent that in 2008 the process of political compromise and reconciliation will continue, as the country struggles to get back on its feet after the devastation it suffered in Israel's hands in the summer of 2006. At the same time, Lebanon is the hinge to regional peace that, if undone, can spread collateral damage on the wider region's peace prospects.

With respect to Iraq, save Turkey's dangerous gambles in northern Iraq, the country should move further on the path to stabilization and political consolidation. The fragile truth between the US military and the Shi'ite militias can break down at any given moment and the US should be careful not to rattle that cage, irrespective of the price it pays in terms of effective control of the "situation on the ground".

The big question is, of course, about Turkey and the potential disintegration of Iraq as a result of a full-scale invasion of northern Iraq by Turkey, which could precipitate the splitting away of Kurdish Iraq. The probability for that happening is rather low right now and, yet, due to the fluid nature of today's Iraq, we may be facing a drastically different situation a year from now. With al-Qaeda in Iraq in retreat, Sunni-Shi'ite strife may lessen even further in 2008 and the war-weary Iraqis may achieve what they have not so far in peace and tranquility.

For the moment, the de-escalation of tensions between the US and Iran potentiated by the new US intelligence findings, strengthening the hands of president Mahmud Ahmadinejad, who has been playing his own peace cards with his neighbors as well as the US, has a decent chance of continuing throughout 2008, barring unforeseen developments, such as accidental confrontation in the Persian Gulf between the US and Iranian navies, a US intelligence reversal on Iran's nuclear program prompting a more hawkish anti-Tehran posture by Washington, and the like.

Can 2008 be the year of peace between the US and Iran? The probability is still low, but in the Middle East, sudden and unexpected developments, evolutions or devolutions, are a given and that is precisely what makes apt predictions about the future of the region immensely difficult. The many players, national, sub-national, local and extra-local, with their kaleidoscopic varying interests complicate the picture with diverse and even contradictory possibilities. But I am inclined to argue that detente will have the upper hand in 2008.

There are grounds to be guardedly optimistic about the prospects for peace in the Middle East. The collective leadership of the Middle East has a duty to peace that can be preserved - not individually - but rather collectively as it requires a greater propensity for cooperative relations than previously observed in the region.

Smart leadership in today's Middle East means taking advantage of the new opportunities for advancement in the globalized context, instead of lagging further behind. Without doubt, the economic preconditions for peace in the Middle East need much strengthening in the year 2008. Should the economists' predictions of an economic slow-down or even recession in 2008 materialize, then there is no doubt it will aggravate the Middle East economic scene that is plagued with uneven development, growing gaps between the (oil) haves and have-nots, youth unemployment, gender discrimination, and so forth.

There are too many disgruntled voices from Egypt to Jordan to Yemen to Iran in the Middle East, lending themselves to predictions of greater labor unrest in the region. On the whole, however, the chances are that the various Middle East societies will hold together and their internal stabilities will not witness any volcanic eruptions.

Kaveh L Afrasiabi, PhD, is the author of After Khomeini: New Directions in Iran's Foreign Policy (Westview Press) and co-author of "Negotiating Iran's Nuclear Populism", Brown Journal of World Affairs, Volume XII, Issue 2, Summer 2005, with Mustafa Kibaroglu. He also wrote "Keeping Iran's nuclear potential latent", Harvard International Review, and is author of Iran's Nuclear Program: Debating Facts Versus Fiction.


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