The Middle East is caught in a seemingly endless spiral of instability. The likely American military intervention in Syria, together with the deteriorating situation in Egypt since President Mohammad Morsi’s ouster, which was organized by the Egyptian army, has placed the region on a razor’s edge. Moreover, despite the changes in Iran since the country held a presidential election in June, international negotiations over its nuclear ambitions remain a dead letter.Paradoxes abound, as the United States’ traditional Middle East allies (Saudi Arabia, Israel, Turkey, Egypt and the other Gulf states) have taken opposing – and sometimes seemingly contradictory – stances on regional conflicts. And in all of today’s hotspots, the assertion of interests by neighboring or nearby countries has complicated matters further.
Saudi Arabia, fearing severe domestic consequences from the Muslim Brotherhood’s empowerment in Egypt, does not want to see an Islamist movement legitimized democratically there. So it has taken a consistently harsh position against the Brotherhood, despite the fact that the latter tends to be more moderate than the brand of Islam advocated by the Saudis.
Israel, for its part, is exerting pressure in two ways. First, it has supported Morsi’s ouster and international recognition of the military regime, thereby ensuring – it hopes – greater stability along the Egyptian-Israeli border in the Sinai. Second, it is making progress in its negotiations with the Palestinians – negotiations that are dependent on events in Egypt and elsewhere in the region, such as Iran. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has invested considerable political capital in the revival of the Palestinian-Israeli peace negotiations, and Israel can use that to its advantage as well.
The civil war in Syria, meanwhile, has inflamed the Sunni-Shiite fault line that traverses the entire region, and that defines, for example, the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran. In fact, while Saudi Arabia has opposed elected Islamists in Egypt, it has supported insurgent Islamists in Syria, owing entirely to Iran’s support for Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime.
Morsi’s ouster has already proven to have been a mistake. The military seems to be reverting to the governing methods – and even the feared security institutions – of former President Hosni Mubarak’s regime, which lasted for some 30 years. Even Mubarak himself has now been released from prison into house arrest.
The army’s repression of the Muslim Brotherhood is more a question of competition for power than a matter of religion. As the only organized force in the country that could seriously challenge the military, the Brotherhood is the greatest threat that the army faces, as demonstrated by Morsi’s victory in the election that made him president a year before he was overthrown.
And, on top of it all, the problem posed by Iran’s nuclear program remains unresolved. That may not be surprising, given the violence and turmoil elsewhere in the region. But since Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, took office at the beginning of August, the West, to put it bluntly, has not demonstrated sufficient will to explore possible openings.
That is a grave mistake, because progress in the negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program would create a more propitious climate for resolving the region’s other problems. Moreover, the negotiations will now be under the jurisdiction of Iran’s presidential administration, which gives Rouhani greater room for maneuver. The new foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, is well known and respected by the leaders of all of the countries participating in the negotiations, and he will assume important responsibilities in any talks that take place.
While caution is certainly in order, the importance of Rouhani’s election must be recognized. If a window of opportunity has opened, the West should do everything possible to take advantage of it.
Rouhani, it should be remembered, won a surprising victory in an election with roughly 75 percent voter turnout, despite expectations of widespread apathy. He mobilized Iranians by offering a clear program for economic renewal, which hinges on Iran’s engagement with the international community – and thus on progress in nuclear negotiations.
Since taking office, Rouhani has responded quickly to the Iranian public’s demands. His Cabinet, in terms of its members’ positions on economic reform and international ties, is one few observers believed he would be capable of assembling.
Thus, two important steps have been taken: one by the people of Iran, who have shown that they understand the challenges they face, and the other by their new president, who has assembled the best team available to undertake an enormously difficult program.
There is an expression in Iran that applies to the international community: “You can wake only someone who is sleeping, not someone who is pretending to be asleep.” Whether Iran’s international interlocutors act on the importance of Rouhani’s election is a matter of choice, not of ignorance.
In a Middle East so full of uncertainty, a more predictable Iran – one that behaves like a regionally important state, not a destabilizing Shiite movement whose ambitions exceed what international law permits – would be in everyone’s interest. There can be no path from the Middle East’s agony without the participation, commitment and determination of all parties.
Javier Solana was EU high representative for foreign and security policy, secretary-general of NATO, and foreign minister of Spain. He is currently president of the ESADE Center for Global Economy and Geopolitics and distinguished fellow at the Brookings Institution. THE DAILY STAR publishes this commentary in collaboration with Project Syndicate © (www.project-syndicate.org).