Don't rule out a breakthrough
When in politics a scene appears stalled, one can safely wager that change is brewing below the surface. The only question is, in what direction, writes Hassan Nafaa*
In the entanglement that is today's Middle East politics, no one knows what tomorrow will bring. The region is in a state of flux, where players can only aspire for a faint sense of direction amid the uncertainly. As time goes by, however, some may take action to end the uncertainty, perhaps by provoking others, perhaps by nudging another player over the edge -- anything to get a firmer grasp on a game that for now seems dangerously stalled.
In the not too far distant future we are likely to see new alliances forming and old allegiances fizzling out. I will try in this article to explore the outlines of the coming era while assessing the options of the main players involved. For now, it doesn't seem that the US can single-handedly determine the course of events in the region. Consequently, the new US administration is likely to reconsider the priorities of its foreign policy, while consulting with regional and international parties, including those Washington hasn't been in the habit of consulting. The US may before long start talking in earnest to former foes.
Now that Obama has been in power for six months, US foreign policy priorities are becoming clearer. What the current US administration seems to want is: manage the fallout from the world financial and economic crisis; withdraw troops from Iraq according to a specific timetable; and step up pressure on Al-Qaeda and the Taliban until complete victory is achieved on both.
One may say that the US desire to pull out of Iraq and also to defeat Al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan are behind the tolerant mood Washington is maintaining towards both Iran and Syria. But how far are the Americans ready to remain tolerant? And how would future dialogue with Syria and Iran proceed? For now, it is hard to tell. And yet it is clear that the Obama administration knows that to succeed in Iraq and Afghanistan it has to find a peaceful settlement to the Arab-Israeli conflict.
This realisation is what prompted Obama, since the first moment in the White House, to take firm decisions, such as the appointment of George Mitchell as his personal envoy to the region, and the insistence that Israel halts completely its settlement activities in the occupied Arab territories, including what Israel calls "natural growth". While reorganising its foreign policy priorities, Washington seems to be groping for a formula to reconcile two apparently conflicting objectives. One is the US desire to open lines of communication with adversarial regional powers, including Syria and Iran. The other is to keep a certain distance from its allies in the region, such as Israel, if only to defend the credibility of its new foreign policy agenda.
None of the changes in US foreign policy since Obama took office has affected the essence or content of US policy. Instead, most have been confined to the tools and tactics of foreign policy. For example, the US has abandoned its unilateralism in favour of closer coordination with strategic allies, especially within NATO. Also, the US is no longer interested in pre-emptive war, but in the use of soft power (especially economic assistance and political pressure), which doesn't necessarily rule out the possibility of secret and proxy wars. So far, however, the new administration has refrained from any action that may implicate its army in direct wars.
The change in foreign policy priorities, even if confined to tactics, has given rise to scepticism abroad. Regional players, friends as well as former foes, are eager to test Washington's change of heart. And many have been following with great interest the elections in Lebanon and Iran, using both occasions as a harbinger of things to come in US foreign policy.
The new US administration, everyone knows, rooted for the March 14 camp in Lebanon and the reformist followers of Mir-Hussein Mousavi in Iran. And it did everything it could, covertly and overtly, to boost their fortunes. But Washington's approach to Lebanon was different from its approach to Iran.
In Lebanon, Obama sent Joe Biden to Beirut a few days before elections there, just to make the point that the US backs the March 14 group and wants everyone to know so. The Americans were sending the message that only the victory of March 14 would ensure closer cooperation with Washington. It is hard to assess with any degree of precision the impact of Biden's visit at this juncture. The big surprise, however, was not in the outcome of the elections, but in the reconciliatory tone that the US has maintained. Washington has over the past few weeks encouraged regional reconciliation, and seemed pleased with the progress of talks between Syria and Saudi Arabia. Regional reconciliation, it has been argued, is a necessary condition for a settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict, perhaps even a prelude for a larger regional deal that is still in the pipeline.
As for Iran, the US made it clear that anyone is better than Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Washington did all it could to deprive the incumbent president of winning another term. If there was a surprise in Iran, it wasn't the scale of protests that followed Ahmadinejad's victory, but the way Obama reacted to the crisis. The US president seemed less eager to pick up a fight with Iran than Europe in general and the UK in particular. Obama has resisted domestic and foreign pressure to step up confrontation with Iran. He simply didn't want to close the door to future talks with Tehran.
We don't know yet how Obama would react should the Iranian protests spread further. We don't know whether the US would encourage the protests in the hope of weakening or perhaps dismissing Ahmadinejad. So far, Obama has been extra cautious. And he seems to understand that sanctions haven't worked in the past and may make things worse.
It is hard to predict the future while so many players remain undecided on their preferred course of action. Israel is perhaps the only exception, for Netanyahu seems in no doubt about what he wants to do. The Israeli prime minister didn't wait for the outcome of the Lebanese or Iranian elections to react to the Obama speech in Cairo. And he made it clear that he rejected any freeze on settlement activities. To avoid a head-on confrontation with Obama, Netanyahu made reconciliatory noises about the two-state solution, but only on his own terms. No one, not even Obama, was fooled. It is common knowledge that the Israeli prime minister has no intention of making the concessions needed for serious talks with the Palestinians.
Netanyahu will undoubtedly try to capitalise on current events in Iran. Most likely, he would maintain that Iran is the real threat to the region and that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict would be easily resolved once Ahmadinejad is out of office. He may even try to take advantage of the increasing criticism Obama is facing at home for his manner of handling the Iranian crisis. Netanyahu will try to counter the pressure the Obama administration is putting on him by trying to discredit Obama's policies inside the US.
The apparent split in the ranks of the Iranian elite makes it harder to predict Ahmadinejad's future moves. Ahmadinejad has won with such a big margin that it is hard to question his victory, and yet Mousavi refuses to concede defeat. But as both Khatami and Rafsanjani seem to challenge the authority of the supreme guide, Iran may be at crossroads. No one can predict the impact of current events on Iran's foreign policy with any degree of accuracy. And it is hard to tell whether dialogue with the US is still feasible. There is certainly a chance that Ahmadinejad will become even more hard line, which is just what Israel wants -- an excuse to strike at Iran. Still, the supreme guide may succeed in containing the conflict through reconciliation and a call for moderation.
The question now is, will Netanyahu succeed in avoiding the concessions needed for peace with the Arabs? His best bet is perhaps to trigger a confrontation with Iran and wait for the US to get entangled in it. It is my sincere wish that Ahmadinejad understands this risk and gives Netanyahu no chance to do so. And I hope that the Arabs won't start making more concessions to the Israelis just to appease Netanyahu.
Damascus is still a wild card. It has the ability to tip the balance in the ongoing regional conflict. If a breakthrough were to happen in the coming weeks and months, Syria would be the one to initiate it.
* The writer is professor of political science at Cairo University.