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    Middle East
     Dec 22, 2012

Middle East peace hinges on will
By Kaveh L Afrasiabi

CAMBRIDGE, Massachusetts - The cause of peace is predicated on the propensity of decision-makers to opt for peaceful resolution of conflicts. While there are nearly always a host of historical and political factors that trigger conflicts, the optimal necessity for bringing those conflicts to an end always revolves around the will towards peace, an important ingredient often missing in the Middle East.

By all indications, 2013 will be a pivotal year for war and peace in the Middle East. The questions of who will gain the upper hand and whether the region will experience positive or negative development are difficult if not impossible to predict, but trends are unmistakable and tabulating them individually helps to

decipher the evolving dynamics.

To begin with, we can safely assume that the tumults of state-building in post-Arab Spring countries will continue in Tunisia and Egypt, and that Bahrain and Jordan will likely experience a continuation of the political struggle for change. It seems clear that the Kurdish issue in Iraq will grow more prominent and that Baghdad will be more beset with problems of terrorism and political factionalism.

It can also be assumed that the Saudis will continue to struggle with issues of succession, and internal and regional instability; that regime change will rear as an issue in Syria; and that Israel's expansionism will be left unchecked by the US and other Western powers.

The Iran nuclear standoff will still likely dominate the foreign policy agenda of the second Obama administration, particularly if the "Israel Lobby" has its say.

But there are also doubts in the year. For example, what are the chances that the Syrian regime will survive in 2013? Or the Saudi-backed Bahraini regime, or Egypt's Mohamed Morsi administration? Is it feasible that the US, led by a new secretary of state, could start pressing Israel for a viable peace process, as well as for a peaceful resolution of the Iran nuclear standoff?

The fundamental ambiguity surrounding such questions stems from our inability to predict the nature of policies that will be adopted and pursued by the multiple actors, given the welter of policy options that individually or collective can tip the balance towards or away from war or peace.

Geopolitically, the struggle over Syria will be the dominant issue in the coming year, in light of the country's strategic significance. Should Damascus falls to the Western and Saudi-backed rebels, this would create a significant shift in the regional balance.

The trend is toward a re-enactment of the Libya scenario, where parts of Syria are declared a North Atlantic Treaty Organization-protected "no fly zone". However, any regime change process could be accelerated by the introduction of chemical warfare, considered the US's "red line".

A United Nations peacekeeping force may be stationed in a de facto partitioned Syria, but that would require a more durable rebel advance and an ability to retain zones of control, which may or may not happen in the coming months, given the conflict's fluidity.
For those seeking genuine peace in Syria, there is no doubt that in 2013 that much more attention must be given to the role of the UN special envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi, who insists on the need for a political dialogue between the embattled government and the opposition.

A new peace process
There is broad consensus in policy circles around the world that a push for a new Middle East peace process is urgently called for. The week-long Gaza war in October and the subsequent Israeli announcement of new settlement expansions - as well as Palestine's acension to observer status at the UN - have breathed new impetus into pursuing what is needed and yet continues to be ignored by Washington.

Obama will lose face in the world if he ignores this priority any further. He should appoint a new special envoy, direct his new secretary of state to pursue another Camp David meeting with the Israeli and Palestinian leaders, and send clear signals to Israel that it must halt land-grab actions that defy international law. Most likely, Israel will placate such US demands to some extent but only on the condition of a much tougher US approach toward Iran. The problem with this request, however, is that it militates against the improving conditions for fruitful nuclear talks.

If Iran is handed such a setback in Syria, this could derail talks over Tehran's nuclear program, as it would result in heightened national security concerns.

Syria has afforded both Russia and more recently Iran a Mediterranean foothold that is too valuable in the strategic realm to give up without a big fight, given the global spread of US and NATO power, so it is a given that Tehran and Moscow will do all they can to prevent Assad's demise.

On the other hand, should Iran take a proactive role in shaping an orderly post al-Assad Syria - akin to the part it played at the 2001 Bonn summit on Afghanistan - then this may ease Iran-US tensions.

What is clear, however, is that Iran is strongly opposed to foreign intervention in Syria and will likely increase its military assistance to Damascus in parallel with increased foreign meddling. A greater proxy war throughout the Middle East is thus anything but foreclosed, particularly if the US steps up its counter-Iran strategy. This brings us to a consideration of the chance for Iran nuclear talks succeeding in 2013.

Prospects for Iran nuclear talks
It is likely we will witness a major breakthrough in the Iran nuclear standoff in 2013. Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) are making decent progress to reach a new modality for cooperation (see Iran nuclear talks produce a litmus test, Asia Times Online, December 18, 2012 ) and this should set a positive tone for the multilateral talks between Iran and the "5 +1" nations (the United Nations Security Council's permanent five members plus Germany).

Guarded optimism is therefore not out of place, since Iran's nuclear program remains under the IAEA's supervision and Tehran has backed away from certain steps that could be deemed provocative, such as amassing a high volume of 20% enriched uranium. It has instead displayed concrete signs of its willingness to build confidence with the West, reaching out to sections of the Syrian opposition and playing a more active role in regional conflict management.

But will Israel and its powerful lobby in Washington succeed in torpedoing the potential for a breakthrough in the nuclear crisis? This crucial question hinges on the ability of the White House to devise a sound Middle East policy in 2013 that does not cater to Israel's warmongering.

Already, there are serious efforts by the Jewish Lobby under way to ensure that after the "fiscal cliff", the US's highest priority should be "preventing a nuclear Iran", to paraphrase a policy article in Wall Street Journal, dated December 17, penned by Charles Webb, Dennis Ross and Michael Makovsky.

A clue to the absurd nature of Iranophobic discourse in the US, this seminal article makes a strong pitch for Obama's prioritization of the Iran threat by describing the fictitious scenario of a "Saudi-Iran nuclear exchange". Unfortunately, no matter how absurd, the pro-Israel lobbyists are busy at work in Washington and it remains to be seen if Obama can withstand their pressure.

Lest we forget, the first Obama administration's Iran engagement policy was a dismal failure, due mainly to contradictory and half-hearted mini-steps poorly articulated at the strategic level, and not the least because of the influence of such ardent voices of Israel within the administration such as Dennis Ross.

Whether or not the second Obama administration can improve and diversify its Iran policy skills is an important question that will have significant implications for the broader US Middle Eastern policy. A new foreign policy team determined to reach out for genuine dialogue with Tehran is desperately needed in Washington, and in the coming weeks and months we will have a clearer picture that would shed lights on the answer to this question.

What is beyond doubt, however, is the US's domestic economic concerns and the impact another costly Middle Eastern war would have on these. This strong US disincentive for war with Iran should be a plus for diplomatic transactions in 2013. But this is premised on a Western rationality that, as in the disastrous invasion of Iraq, has been shown to be in deficit.

Kaveh L Afrasiabi, PhD, is the author of After Khomeini: New Directions in Iran's Foreign Policy (Westview Press). For his Wikipedia entry, click here. He is author of Reading In Iran Foreign Policy After September 11 (BookSurge Publishing , October 23, 2008) and Looking for rights at Harvard. His latest book is UN Management Reform: Selected Articles and Interviews on United Nations, CreateSpace (November 12, 2011).

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