Tuesday, September 1, 2009

A Day in the Life of the Middle East

By Barry Rubin

I’ve never been so discouraged, a courageous Arab intellectual writes to me. Understandably so. There are three fronts really in the battle of the Middle East, and none of them are going so well.

What are these three fronts? First and most important are the actions of the countries, leaders, and forces in the region themselves.

Second, is the understanding of these actions and developments as conveyed to the minds of participants and observers both in the region and internationally. Here, the role of the media, academia, and other conveyer belts of information are critical in shaping policymaker and public opinion.

Third, there is the response of governments outside the region, which means primarily in the West.

If we take one day in the region, we can see the interaction of these factors. Briefly, dangerous and outrageous developments happen in the region; they are misinterpreted—important things ignored, marginal ones obsessed about; enemies made to seem moderate and threats defused only in theory. Western responses are also misconceived and inadequate.

Eventually the pressure builds up to the point of crises. But what’s worse, an outbreak of crisis or a slow erosion of interests and a deepening of tyranny? Clearly, from the Western government standpoint, the latter is preferable. With no violent major crisis in play it is easy to do little or nothing, to avoid risks, to portray policies as successful.

In this framework, the region’s countries and societies have three main states of existence when it comes to degree of freedom and quality of life for the people: to advance (which only happens in rare places), to stand still (which is a prevalent condition), or actually to move backward.

I will leave it to you to categorize different places in this regard. Right now, I think Iran, Lebanon, the Gaza Strip, and Turkey are moving backward. Generally, I’ll leave the categorization to you.

Ironically, the one country that is clearly moving forward is Israel. It is stable within and relatively secure (whatever prospects for the future may seem worrisome). The economy is doing well despite the international slump, and feelings of well-being are remarkably high. This is a point that should always be kept in mind. And yes this does relate to having a democratic system and a largely free enterprise but regulated economy.

But enough background, let’s go to the headlines:

--Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia, and the United States are meeting in Germany to offer Iran even more trade if it stops nuclear fuel production and stronger sanctions if it doesn’t. Sounds good. But two of those six—China and Russia—are going to fight against making sanctions much higher and will help Iran violate whatever sanctions are set.

And even then the sanctions will be insufficient to alter the Iranian regime’s course.

By the time the Western states have got around to being tougher, it’s too late. The Iranian government has become so extreme it won’t listen. What might have been effective two years ago is something of a joke now.

After all, the regime just got unanimous approval in parliament for appointing a wanted terrorist as the minister of defense who will control the nuclear weapons. Guess everyone’s too busy to notice this might be a significant statement. It is carrying on trials of oppositionists which are targeting not just those running the demonstrations but even regime loyalists like the two former presidents Muhammad Khatami and Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani.

Oh, and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose instinct is for the offensive just as that of his Western counterparts is for the defensive, is reportedly going to come to New York and speak at the UN General Assembly, September 25. He and the Iranian regime have learned—under the tutelage of European and U.S. leaders--that being aggressive always pays.

They also know, as they have recently bragged, that there are plenty of people willing to do business with them no matter what sanctions are applied.

But there are growing hints that Iran is signaling a readiness to negotiate with the West on nuclear issues. Tehran thinks, and it might be right, that by just talking it can buy months during which sanctions are postponed and it continues to advance on its nuclear program. After all, since Obama said he’d engage Iran how can he refuse if Tehran offers to chat? Will Ahmadinejad outsmart Obama? It is certainly possible. Watch this closely.

--The Obama administration is running an “optimism offensive” on Israel-Palestinian peace to suggest that it’s doing a great job and making wonderful progress. The more immediate purpose is, in its mind, to give it an “excuse” to raise sanctions against Iran with hopes of gaining more Arab support. Of course, it won’t get any material Arab support and there won’t be any progress toward peace. But in a situation this bad, I guess one needs a bit of feel-good rhetoric.

Now, what can I write my colleague to make him feel better about the regional situation? I’ll try to get back to you on that one as soon as possible.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books. To see or subscribe to his blog, Rubin Reports.

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