Mideast in the Balance

A delicate four-state system in flux but not at the moment under any “clear and present danger” could, if its multiplicity of factions could come to some agreement, go far toward managing the Mideast in a mutually beneficial manner. This unusual situation will not, of its own accord, endure and may not be seen again in the Mideast for many years.

Four key Mideast states sit precariously at a political tipping point: militarism, discrimination, repression on the one hand or compromise, equality before the law, democracy on the other. None of these countries faces an urgent threat, each has powerful political constituencies on each side, all have the political space to choose freely the broad political direction in which to move for the long-term future. Iran, Israel, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia have this rather surprising degree of resemblence, and the future of the Mideast rests greatly in their hands.

If these four countries all simultaneously chose the same path, they would have at least from today until the entrance into office of the new U.S. president—16 months—to write their own ticket. How long could the Islamic State last without Turkish border access or Saudi funding, in the face of a united military offensive by the big four? Who would successfully resist a joint Syrian or Yemeni peace plan implemented by all four? Where would the Lebanese Hezbollah issue be once Israeli and Iran joined to ensure Lebanese security? How long would resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian issue take if Saudi money and Turkish peacekeepers backed a joint Israeli-Iranian settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute that gave security and independence to each side?

The assertion that the four regional powers have the freedom “to write their own ticket” between now and the upcoming U.S. presidential election is admittedly open to debate. It rests on the logical assumption that Obama will keep the U.S. on a moderate, conciliatory foreign policy toward the Mideast in order to cement into place the breakthrough in ties with Iran that he worked so hard to achieve. But note the work “breakthrough,” implying that he truly wants a new relationship, rather than just the avoidance of an Israeli-sponsored war. This implication is denied in a thought-provoking analysis arguing that the White House has a much nastier strategic plan, a plan that could cause a Mideast explosion via a renewed world power intervention.

Assuming that a major renewal of outside intervention does not occur, each of the big four Mideast states probably has the capability independently to wreck the near-term future of the Mideast, and almost certainly at least one, if not all four, will do so. That is the dismal fate of the Mideast. A new Mideast is possible, but it probably requires the unanimous cooperation of all four of the big and highly hostile four. In a more normal time, it would also require the cooperation of any number of outside powers always ready to interfere, but at the moment this seems unlikely absent a provocation from one of the big four regional states.

Israel made its point: no Muslim in the Mideast is allowed to have nukes. Fine, that’s settled. Now Israel has the negotiating room to toss onto the table some ideas about a vision of a non-nuclear Mideast with a first step of mutual transparency…Add recognition of Iran’s strategic interest in Lebanon, suggest joint discussions on how to ensure Lebanese security, separately propose a negotiated settlement with Palestinians, and it would cost Iran nothing to smile, agree in principle, and then ask the Saudis and Turks for suggestions on how to resolve ethnic conflict in Iraq. After all, it is just a discussion, and Saudi money to further the peaceful economic development of its fellow Sunnis in Iraq, considering the strategic nightmare Iran is having with the Islamic State…

Imagine a little café table somewhere in the Mideast, in the early evening glow, on a quiet side street, with four officials sipping coffee: one Turk, one Israeli, one Saudi, and one Iranian, all at the table because…well, because they read this essay, in which I said, “I dare you.”

Dead silence. Four men examining, fascinated, the bottoms of their cups. Then, an eyelid delicately rises above the rim, glances across the table, glances away. Throats clear. Chairs shift. Legs uncross. Feet brace. Who will speak first?


Sep 5: Riyadh has spoken first, with an aggressive military attack on the capital of Yemen that amounts to a direct slap at Tehran. By indicating that it is taking a military page out of the Israeli foreign policy handbook immediately after Tehran’s nuclear concession, Riyadh is daring the Iranians to respond in kind in Syria, which they now probably will. It will take great self-control for Tehran to overlook Riyadh’s slap in the face (for Riyadh goes out of its way to blame Iran for the Yemeni civil war, totally ignoring the historic repression of the “Houthi” minority). Obama’s tolerance for Saudi aggressiveness undermines the credibility of his efforts to play the peacemaker: a nuclear accord not placed in the framework of a broader attempt to coordinate Mideast affairs with Tehran will backfire.


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