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Damping the powder-keg: Paul Ingram responds to 'Playing with fire in the Middle East'

In the context of worsening relations between Iran, Syria and the west, Saeed Rahnema gave a bleak assessment of the likelihood of impending conflict. Though serious, Paul Ingram argues there are reasons to remain optimistic.
Paul Ingram
16 December 2011

It is no secret that the Middle East is a complex powder-keg of conflicts many of which go back hundreds of years. In such an environment, with political forces jockeying for power and keen to demonstrate strength in the face of impotence, the possibilities for negotiated solutions let alone unilateral acts of compromise are very difficult to imagine realistically. There are any number of pessimistic conflict scenarios that fall out directly in this situation, many which draw upon undeniable political dynamics. It is very unfashionable to be optimistic.

Nevertheless, for those with the inclination to look, there are shoots of hope out there. Even when the cards appear stacked so heavily, nothing is inevitable, and all the factors at play in the region have several contradictory sides to them. In Israel today there is a strong debate raging over just how much to play the card of military action against Iran. Threats of military action form part of this debate, as well as a psychological operation against Iran. However, the threat has to be credible to have the desired impact on Iran, but to many it does not appear to be so. Israel may have invested a great deal of capital and blood in cultivating a reputation within the region for irrational violent responses, but that has been insufficient to deter even the relatively weak forces of Hamas and Hezbollah, let alone Iran. Israeli decision-makers realise they do not have the capacity to go it alone without sparking off a serious response from Iran, and causing the Iranians to unite against a common threat. Of course, they may be banking on a strategy that draws in the Americans, but as the US has (largely) withdrawn from Iraq, US forces are less vulnerable to Iranian attack than they previously were. And even the Israelis cannot absolutely guarantee US intervention on their side – another reason for pause.

Weakileaks told us that the Saudi leadership is strongly in favour of military action, but they do not represent the whole Arab world, not even the Gulf states, in the way implied. Other Gulf states have demonstrated a more cautious approach, even in private, and have significant trade with Iran. Unsure of where the wind might blow in future, and keen to stay on side with their neighbour (who is not going to go away), they have an approach closely related to the policy of neutrality pursued by Finland and Austria in the Cold War. As such, whilst they are deeply suspicious of Iran, they represent important sources of mediation in the region that should not be ignored. Turkey is in a similar position, but with more influence in its own right.

The recent conflict around the IAEA report, the tightening of sanctions (led by the UK), the latest unhelpful legislation from US Congress, the storming of the UK Embassy and the tit-for-tat response expelling Iranian diplomats from London – all are signs of increasing pressure and tension that work in the opposite direction to the engagement that will be essential to our escaping the conflict. But, ironically, this may have the effect of reducing the chances of military action in the near term. After all, those in the US, Israel and Europe have got what they wanted for now – a tightening of the screw – and will be more willing to allow the strategy time to mature over the next year or so before taking it to the next level. And whilst the IAEA Report presented in one place the evidence of the case for pressure on Iran, there was little new in it. It will take a great deal more than this to pull together the international community.

And then there is the initiative for the 2012 Conference on a Zone Free of WMD arising from the final document of the 2010 NPT Review Conference. Here I am perhaps being particularly heroic in my optimism, but there are good signs that all parties, including the Iranians and the Israelis, will turn up when it happens in Finland late next year. Even if only to avoid the diplomatic blame game. Each country has its own additional incentive to engage, even if the parties concerned often hide those incentives. All have an interest in preventing the proliferation of WMD, particularly nuclear weapons, around the region. And the Iranians in particular have the possibility of seeing the regional treatment of the issue that they have been craving for so long.

The general prognosis for regional security does not look good. There are plenty of reasons to fear for the future. Systems of control by the West and its proxies are breaking up, and it is likely that elements of unpredictable dangerous anarchy will break out. But do not despair. Hope is there for those who choose to see and act upon it. And the possibility of a fairer, more genuinely stable region must not be completely discounted.

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