A tale of two expectations

A tale of two expectations

There are two conflicting “stock exchanges” in the “futures” market on the nature of the current juncture in the Middle East. Each exchange has a limited amount of stock in the form of the declared positions and attitudes of regional and international parties, or in the form of various trend indicators or other evidence to substantiate its predictions.

Politicians, opinion pundits and observers dealing in the first exchange hold that the polarisation and tensions that have set off diverse conflicts across the Middle East and that have characterised the region since the US occupation of Iraq in 2003 are receding in favour of a new climate conducive to the restoration of calm, negotiating opportunities and the search for peaceful solutions to conflicts. Their optimism is founded on two premises: the change in US policy with the election of President Obama and the favourable response this has met among all regional parties, regardless of their degree of friendship with or hostility towards the American superpower, which has generated a form of collective drive to defuse the volatile situations in the Palestinian territories, Lebanon, Iraq, Iran and the Gulf. The public diplomacy and the declared agenda of the new Democratic administration have created the impression that Washington is serious about prioritising the Middle East in its foreign policy and that it is determined to push for negotiations between the Palestinians and Israel and to withdraw as quickly and as safely as possible from Iraq. Washington also showed a more level headed and open-minded approach to other important and related issues. In particular, it signalled a willingness to enter into extended talks with Iranian leaders over Iran”s nuclear project and regional role, and it indicated a readiness to promote a thaw in its relations with Syria in the hope of neutralising Damascus”s hostility towards the US vision for the region on various fronts.

Obama”s initial actions, such as his appointment of George Mitchell as his special envoy on the Middle East peace process, lent some credence to the optimism. This appointment was followed through by visits to the region by influential moderates close to the president, such as Senator John Kerry”s visit to Syria, Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories. Also significant was the relative marginalisation of Dennis Ross (closely connected to the Israeli lobby) from the process of shaping Washington”s policy towards Iran. Contrary to the rumours circulating in recent weeks, Ross has just been appointed advisor to the secretary of state on affairs of the Gulf and Iran, instead of being elevated to the post of presidential envoy. Some Middle East powers such as Iran and Syria have responded favourably to the Obama administration”s signals, indicating their desire to improve relations with Washington, while other powers seized upon the signs of change in US foreign policy to speak of the need for efforts to promote calm and reconciliation in the region and to transcend tensions brought on by the imposition of a moderate versus rejectionist dyad.

We could say, therefore, that the operators on the positive outlook stock exchange have painted a picture of a Middle East on the verge of a phase of peacemaking. In so doing, they have relied solely on preludes to the Obama administration”s peaceful overtures and the superficial presumption that all parties in the region are moving in the same direction, without considering the possible effects of divergent interests let alone the actual causes of conflicts between the various parties.

To adherents of the opposing stock exchange, the anticipated change in US policy will not be able to defuse the hotspots of a volatile Middle East. Indeed, they maintain that developments within various theatres are propelling towards inevitable and perhaps uncontainable escalation. They point, in particular, to the new right-wing Netanyahu government in Israel, which rejects any meaningful peace process that would lead to the creation of a Palestinian state, and to the failure of attempts to broker reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas, and the consequent perpetuation of separate tracks for the West Bank and Gaza and debilitation of Palestinian negotiating power. At the same time, many politicians and observers in the region maintain that some major regional powers have no real interest in pursuing negotiating openings or working to create a climate conducive to the restoration of calm. They are certain, for example, that the effective rulers of Tehran, namely Supreme Guide Khamenei and the leaders of the Revolutionary Guards, are extremely wary of dialogue with the US, the repercussions of which they fear would loosen their grip inside Iran and diminish Iran”s influence in Iraq, Lebanon and Gaza. They are also convinced that, in spite of the importance Syria attaches to improved relations with Washington and the opportunities this could open for reactivating the negotiating process with Israel, Damascus will not be able to pay the price the US asks, which is to alter the pattern of its strategic alliances. They argue that it would be extremely difficult for Damascus to relinquish its alliances with Iran, Hizbullah and Hamas, especially now when threats are looming from the international investigation into the assassination of Al-Hariri and from recent concerns raised by the International Atomic Energy Agency of possible nuclear activity in the military site in Syria destroyed by Israeli war planes last year.

But apart from such certitudes that condense the issues into black-and-white stances and zero-sum games, the more potent argument cited by the proponents of the pessimistic outlook is that the Obama administration”s declared desire to change US policy on the Middle East still lacks signs of a new strategic reading of realities in the region and how to handle them. If the US is to succeed in reviving negotiations between the Palestinians and Israelis it will have to reconsider its exclusionary stance towards Hamas and examine how prepared it is to exert pressure on the Netanyahu government. If it hopes to make progress in a dialogue with Iran, it will have to resolve what exactly it will offer Iran in exchange for abandoning its nuclear programme, the boundaries of its relationship with Tehran, and whether it is prepared to legitimise an Iranian sphere of influence in the Arab world, a prospect that makes many of Washington”s conventional allies in the Gulf and the Levant shudder. It will also have to determine what sanctions it would resort to in the event that Iran snubs American incentives, and what position it will take towards anticipatable Israeli pressures to resort to military force to halt the Iranian nuclear programme. In sum, pundits of the negative outlook base their prediction that nothing will change for the better in the Middle East on the missing elements in US foreign policy today, only a few weeks into Obama”s presidency, and on suppositions regarding the continued impetus of the factors of belligerency in the region.

The relatively limited stock in both these “exchanges” is sorely deficient in the chronological depth needed to analyse the actual positions of the Obama administration and in tangible evidence to substantiate the degree to which regional powers will work with or against Washington”s drives. In short, neither outlook holds much water. I believe that the Middle East, whose agenda this year is filled with major elections in Iran, Lebanon, Iraq and, perhaps, Palestine, all of which could alter the balances of power in these countries at the heart of the various arenas of conflict, will pass through a series of jolts in 2009. Perhaps by the end of the year the terrain will become clearer and the various parties will have a clearer sight of their strategic options and their courses of action, at which point we can be more accurate in our judgement on the nature of the current phase.

* The writer is senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.