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Middle East Peace Set to Break Out?

Despite some of the recent bluster and bloodshed over Iran and Syria, developments this month suggest that there may be light at the end of the tunnel.

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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.

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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.

Israel wants at all costs to protect its regional monopoly of nuclear weapons. It has a nuclear arsenal estimated by some at between 75 and 150 warheads, a range of sophisticated delivery systems, and a second strike capability based on long-range missiles mounted on German-supplied submarines. In contrast, there is as yet no convincing evidence that Iran intends to build a nuclear weapon. The United States’ own annual National Intelligence Estimate – the collective opinion of its 16 intelligence agencies – has repeatedly confirmed that Tehran hasn’t so far taken any such decision.

The reality is that talk of Israel facing an “existential threat” from Iran has no basis in fact. Rather it’s Israel’s neighbors who risk annihilation. As the former French President Jacques Chirac once said: “Where will it drop it, this bomb? On Israel? It would not have gone 200 meters into the atmosphere before Tehran would be razed.”

The issue is not, and has never been, about ensuring Israel’s survival, but rather about ensuring its regional military supremacy – a supremacy which, over the past several decades, has given it the freedom to strike its neighbors at will without being hit back. If Iran were ever to acquire a nuclear weapon – or merely the capability of building one – Israel fears this would restrict its freedom of action. It might even be a step towards creating a regional balance of power, which Israel is determined to prevent.

Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has said that if Iran were supplied with 20 percent enriched uranium for the Tehran Research Reactor and medical purposes, it would immediately stop enriching uranium to that level, restricting itself to 3.5 percent enrichment for electricity generation. (He repeated this pledge to Lally Weymouth of the Washington Post on September 13, 2011; to Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times on September 21, 2011; and to Reuters on September 22, 2011. To Iranian TV in October 2011, he declared: “If they give us the 20 percent fuel, we will immediately halt 20 percent.”) In return, however, he would no doubt expect a U.S. guarantee that it wouldn’t seek to overthrow the Iranian regime by subversion or force. The outline of a deal with Iran is, therefore, already on the table.

As for the Syrian conflict, neither Assad nor his opponents seem ready to compromise. Having flushed out the rebels from Homs, Bashar is now seeking to drive them out of their other strong-points before he will contemplate a negotiation. For their part, the rebels seem to believe that – with fresh fighters, weapons and funds flowing in to them – they must eventually triumph. Both sides are almost certainly mistaken. Annan’s task is to persuade them that there can be no military solution to the conflict, and that, sooner or later, they must sit down and negotiate a way out of a crisis which is destroying their country.

The time has surely come for President Obama to lend his full weight to the two initiatives of Catherine Ashton and Kofi Annan. He is fully aware of the urgent need to spare the region – and the U.S. itself – another catastrophe such as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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Patrick Seale is a British writer on the Middle East and author of 'The Struggle for Syria' and 'Asad of Syria: The Struggle for the Middle East'. He has reported for Reuters and The Observer among other publications.