After all the bellicose bluster of recent weeks, there’s a faint chance that the tide of war may be receding in the Middle East – especially in the two hot spots of Iran and Syria. The latest developments in these countries suggest the possible opening of a new phase of dialogue rather than of conflict.
This month has seen the launch of two important initiatives by Catherine Ashton, the EU’s foreign affairs chief, and Kofi Annan, the former U.N. Secretary General. If successful, they could trump the hawks and silence the drums of war. It remains to be seen, however, whether the parties themselves will have the sense to seize the opportunities now being presented to them.
Gaza is the major exception to this somewhat more promising picture. Israel’s air strikes – conducted in the name of its provocative policy of “targeted killings” or extra-judicial assassinations – have this past week taken the lives of some 25 Palestinians, and wounded close to a hundred more. Palestinian factions struck back with rockets, wounding a dozen Israelis. But these painful events shouldn’t distract attention from the bigger picture
Just when Benyamin Netanyahu, Israel’s Prime Minister, was at his most histrionic and bellicose at the recent AIPAC convention in Washington – shamelessly comparing Iran to Auschwitz – Baroness Ashton took the wind out of his sails by offering to resume talks with Tehran on the nuclear issue. Her initiative took the form of a letter to Tehran on March 9 offering renewed talks with the P5+1 (the United States, Russia, China, France, Britain and Germany) “within the coming weeks at a mutually convenient venue.” The goal of the talks, she stressed, remained “a comprehensive negotiated long-term solution which restores international confidence in the exclusively peaceful nature” of Iran’s nuclear program. Her letter was in response to one last September by Saeed Jalili, Secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, expressing Iran’s readiness for talks.
Meanwhile, just when Syria seemed to be sinking into the hell of a sectarian civil war, Kofi Annan, mandated by both the United Nations and the Arab League, embarked on a mission aimed at stopping the killing and creating the conditions for a negotiated settlement. After calling on the Arab League secretary general in Cairo, he held two long meetings with President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus on March 10-11, before travelling to Doha for talks with the Emir (the Qataris have been vociferous in wanting to arm the Syrian rebels) and then on to Turkey for meetings with the Syrian National Council.
Do the initiatives of Ashton and Annan have a chance of success? They at least have the advantage of setting the international agenda for a while. They could, however, be easily sabotaged. The hawks won’t easily give up.
Israel detests the idea of the great powers negotiating a settlement with Tehran, since it knows that talks must inevitably result in recognizing Iran’s right to enrich uranium, if only to modest levels for purely civilian purposes. Netanyahu wants Iran’s entire nuclear program shut down – his goal is “zero enrichment” – a demand which no Iranian regime, whatever its coloring, could possibly accept.
On his recent visit to Washington, Netanyahu appeared to try to secure a pledge from President Barack Obama to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities or at least to lend American support to an Israeli strike. He failed to get the pledge he wanted. Although Obama reaffirmed his determination to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, he also made very clear to Netanyahu that sanctions and diplomacy must first be given a chance to work. For all Netanyahu’s tough talk, it is highly unlikely that Israel will dare attack Iran on its own. Its strategy has been to get the U.S. to do the job for it.