Iran’s coming in from the cold would have an enormous impact around the region. Bellwether countries such as Syria would follow suit. Support for violent, rejectionist Islamist extremism in Iraq and Palestine would correspondingly decline.
It is easy enough to construct a scenario in which the Middle East explodes into flames in 2010, dragging the rest of the world into a churning crisis of widening military confrontation, terrorist attacks in western cities, and a global economic recession spawned by chronic oil shortages.
An Israeli aerial attack on Iran’s suspect nuclear facilities is the most obvious trigger. Any such action would be likely to provoke retaliatory attacks on Israel by Iran’s Lebanese proxy, Hezbollah, and against U.S. targets in Bahrain and the Gulf.
The Obama administration’s official line is that there are “no good options” on Iran, and that a military strike would have only a short-term impact. But nuclear negotiations are at a standstill, sanctions do not appear to be working and the unofficial U.S. deadline for Iran to start cooperating expired on Thursday (Dec. 31). The U.S. may not be able to restrain Israel’s headstrong prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu. And it would inevitably be drawn in on Israel’s side. If, as seems probable, Iran responded by blockading or mining the Straits of Hormuz, Mr. Obama would be in direct confrontation with Tehran.
Truly, it’s a dreadful prospect. But it is just as easy to offer a more positive interpretation. In one sense, the difference between a deal and a rupture with Iran boils down to two hardline individuals: Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Should either be removed from power, by political opponents, by an internal coup, or for reasons of health, the picture could be transformed. Iran is a young country with a mainly pro-western outlook. Its educated classes bemoan the gulf with the west that has grown up since the 1979 revolution. The majority favours rapprochement. And if a policy of re-engagement were to take hold, as happened in eastern Europe 20 years ago, it could prove impossible to stop.
Iran’s coming in from the cold would have an enormous impact around the region. Bellwether countries such as Syria would follow suit. Support for violent, rejectionist Islamist extremism in Iraq and Palestine would correspondingly decline. This in turn could create an exceptional opportunity to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict.
The key elements of a peace deal are all well known, laid out in the Arab League’s initiative and the U.S.-backed road map. The likely shape a final settlement might take, including borders, Jerusalem, compensation for refugees, and mutual diplomatic recognition, is no mystery. The more problematic question in recent years has been how to create enough trust and momentum to get from here to there. If Israel’s leadership, freed from its Iran fixation and preferably headed by a replacement for Netanyahu, truly wanted it; if Hamas, faced by dwindling external support, and Fatah patched up their differences and came to the negotiating table; and if Mr.Obama was there, too, ready to guarantee a deal militarily and financially, there’s no objective reason why 2010 might not be the harbinger of lasting peace in the Middle East.
The knock-on effect of such a historic grand bargain could be spectacular, for example by removing much of the ideological raison d’etre for Al Qaeda-style terrorism. The boost to efforts to halt proliferation of weapons of mass destruction might be equally stunning. In prospect might be an end to the “clash of civilisations,” as urged by Mr. Obama in his Cairo speech.
Of course, this can easily be dismissed as wishful thinking. People get comfortable with failure; we are accustomed to things not working out. The odds favour gloom. Believe the worst, as they say, and it will probably happen. But hope for the best, and who knows?
With a bit of faith and a dash of luck, 2010 might just bring some pleasant surprises. — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2009