September 30, 2013 3:34 pm

How things could go right in Middle East

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A region given to crushing optimism might be showing its brighter side
Ingram Pinn illustration

The Middle East has a way of provoking wild mood swings. The Arab spring of early 2011 was greeted with euphoria in the US and Europe. A month ago, after the coup in Egypt and the chemical weapons attack in Syria, the mood was despairing. Now, hopes are surging again, after a historic phone call between Barack Obama and Hassan Rouhani, the US and Iranian presidents.

Bitter experience suggests that pessimism is usually the safer bet in the Middle East. It is certainly easy to describe all the ways in which things could still go wrong. A gloomy scenario for the region, over the coming year, would run something like this.

In Syria, neither side is able to prevail and outside intervention is ineffective. The conflict, which has already cost more than 100,000 lives, grinds on. Syria splits into lawless enclaves, some of which provide bases for a resurgent al-Qaeda. Political violence also surges in Iraq, where the numbers killed by terrorism this year are already approaching the deadly levels of 2008. Refugees from Syria destabilise both Jordan and Lebanon. In Egypt, repression of the Muslim Brotherhood leads to a resurgence of political violence. Neighbouring Libya collapses into near anarchy. Amid all this, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia dies, provoking a power struggle within the royal family. Instability and sectarian conflict spreads to Saudi Arabia – unsettling the world economy. Peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians fail for the umpteenth time. And efforts to reach a nuclear deal between the US and Iran also collapse as domestic political pressures prevent the countries’ leaderships from compromising. At this point the Israelis lose patience and launch a bombing raid on Iranian nuclear facilities.

Even if only a few of these things happen, the current bleak situation in the Middle East would look far darker. Yet while journalists can simply sketch out the doomsday scenario and go home for dinner, policy makers have to try a bit harder. It is their job to shape this unpromising material into something that looks better.

And, for once, it is actually possible to see how things might go right – as well as wrong – in the Middle East. The starting point for the case for optimism is Iran. The phone call between the presidents was brief but historic – the highest- level contacts between the two nations since the Iranian revolution of 1979. This breakthrough reflects the fact that both sides have a powerful incentive to make a deal. Despite the wobble over Syria, the Obama administration is desperate to avoid new wars in the Middle East. A deal with Iran would provide the president with a signature foreign policy achievement that would also strengthen him at home. Meanwhile, Iran also has strong reasons to move. Economic sanctions are choking its economy – and supporting Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria is a huge burden. One US official describes, the Syrian war as “Iran’s Vietnam”.

A nuclear deal, as well as making a war between the US and Iran much less likely, would also improve the chances of a common international approach to Syria. Events there have already sharpened the incentives for big external players to find a diplomatic solution. While there was a real prospect that the Assad regime – or its opponents – might win a decisive victory and thus control a united Syria, there was a strong temptation for Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the US to back their proxies to the hilt. However, all of these countries fear the prospect of a fractured and lawless Syria that provides a haven for al-Qaeda. The UN resolution on removing chemical weapons in Syria, passed last week, provides a promising template for further international co-operation when Syrian peace talks resume in Geneva later this year.

It is usually safe to assume that Israeli-Palestinian negotiations will end in failure – but here, too, the odds may be changing. The fall of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt has severely weakened Hamas in Gaza, making it easier for the Palestinian Authority of Mahmoud Abbas to make compromises with Israel. Israel’s incentives to strike a deal are less obvious, given the turmoil in the region and the rightward drift of Israeli politics. But the government of Benjamin Netanyahu cannot simply rebuff a determined US diplomatic push. Dennis Ross, who for many years was the lead American diplomat on the Middle East peace process, sees signs that Israel is shifting, noting that: “Bibi keeps saying that he does not want a binational state, and he has released Palestinian prisoners, which was hard for him.”

The situation in Egypt could also improve, if the economy picks up and tourists return. That, in turn, might create the confidence for the military to adopt a less authoritarian approach. In Tunisia, the chances of an Egypt-style coup seem to have lessened with the Islamist government’s decision, last weekend, to step aside.

The Middle East has a way of making optimists look foolish. But two months ago, anybody predicting that the US and Iranian presidents would be exchanging greetings on the phone – and that Syria would agree to give up chemical weapons – would have sounded absurdly positive. These pieces of good news provide some basis on which to try to staunch the chaos and bloodshed that has engulfed the Arab spring.

gideon.rachman@ft.com

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