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New Approaches to Old Problems – the Impact of Iranian Policy (3 of 4)

Written by Amb. (ret.) Doru Costea, Ph.D

 

What follows is the third of four chapters which are to be published in the next days. The full paper will be published on June 18, exclusively on the TrueStoryProject website in the TrueStoryPapers section.

This paper develops remarks made by H.E. Amb. Doru Costea at the 3rd edition of the Atlantic – Black Sea Security Forum that was organized by Aspen Institute Romania and the Bucharest Office of the German Marshall Fund in Bucharest, Romania, on June 1, 2021.

 

Iran’s role and impact on the Middle East defy attempts at encapsulating them in the size of this paper, lest merely stating its continuous destabilizing interferences on already fragile situations.  An inspiring interpretation of Iran’s strategic behavior sees the country as a ‘“center of the periphery” [that] can be defined as those geopolitically excluded from the region. These are groups that are disaffected by the Middle Eastern political and security order that was created as a consequence of the post-World War I period and the Sykes-Picot agreement […]. The second part of the center of the periphery is the issue of Shi’ism. Shi’ism is generally understood as the periphery of predominant Sunni Islam. So, Iran is the center of the periphery today, both for the excluded of the region and as a protector, or a power, for Shi’a Muslims.’[1]

As mentioned in a previous footnote, the Islamic revolution was one of the epoch-making events that marked the growing part of domestic developments in the shaping of foreign relations and policies even beyond the Middle East, after having been a part of President Nixon’s ‘Twin Pillars’ strategy, together with Saudi Arabia. At the same time, Iran’s case is a text-book example of the ever-tighter interaction between domestic and foreign factors in devising policies, particularly in this region, as the clear danger of nuclear proliferation is strongly supported by the deeply entrenched mistrust in the strategic goals of the authorities, which are rather visibly supported by concrete actions and inflammatory discourses targeting other countries in the area.

For the purpose of this paper, a change in Iran’s place on the canvas of the Middle East might be labeled as both predictable and unknown. On one hand, realities within Iran’s society have greatly evolved with the emerging of post-revolutionary generations, which have known solely the questionable performance of the religious authorities’ governance in implementing generally beneficial policies. In previously hard-to-imagine protests against the government following the controversial presidential elections in 2009 (‘the Green Movement’) the youth, which some called ‘the children of the Islamic revolution’, were the overwhelming majority. Under present-day circumstances resulting from the continuous sanctions, which also severely affected measures against the Covid-19 pandemic, the prospects of economic recovery are rather dim and favor further social unrest.

On the other hand, the decision of the new US Administration to revive the implementation of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), albeit with updated contents, might be a step in the direction of defusing both internal and regional tensions.

However, the presidential elections scheduled for 18 June 2021 seem to be rather ominous as far as the result may be, if one were to consider the candidates running for this position; at the same time, analysts highlight Iran’s strategic and long-term interest in agreeing on a ‘JCPOA 2.0’ that would have lifting of sanctions as the main result – and would consequently diminish the country’s dependence on Russian and Chinese economies[2]. The whole picture is further complicated by the apprehension, if not outright opposition, of regional players, like Israel and Saudi Arabia, concerning the efficiency of the implementation of any agreement in this matter.

New old problems…

International conflicts, similarly to domestic ones, develop on quite well-defined trajectories: some would be settled, while others would be managed lest they lead to more violent, even catastrophic consequences, without heading towards a durable solution; and there are the notorious cases of mistakenly-called ‘frozen conflicts’, which are anything but, since they merely actually aggravate crises, political, societal and security wise. The Middle East has provided a long list of conflicts that fall somehow in a category or another; besides, said conflicts easily cross the ‘demarcation lines’ between those categories, and may trigger changes, sometimes radical, or at least far-reaching, in their course.

The most relevant case in point is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that, besides being chronic, also meets the ‘criteria’ to be examined as an embodiment of the ‘shape- and contents-shifting’ example of conflict, as apparently proved by the recent HAMAS-Israel ’11‑days war’.

While air-attacks from Gaza are not new in the record of the armed conflicts, the latest ones stand apart because of several factors that were noticed by observers in the area and abroad[3]. Some of these factors include the average of 500 missiles a day that were fired against Israel in the first week, bringing the total to some 4,300 missiles, as against around 4,500 that were fired during the 7-weeks long conflict in 2014; their range was longer, reaching Tel Aviv; many were ‘local-products’, while others were made in Iran; their accuracy was enhanced and the sheer number and frequency of launches (‘swarms’) put the Iron Dome under unprecedented pressure.

Besides these novelties in the quantifiable range, there were several developments that cast a new light on the overall picture: the inter-communal clashes between Israelis and Arabs living in Israel proper, while there were not West Bank-based operations, nor significant attacks originating from Hizballah-controlled territories in Lebanon. An Israeli analysis noted the wider context of the attacks as marked by ‘The Deal of the Century’; annexation intentions announced by the Israeli government; the Abraham Accords; and the health and economic crisis aggravated by the pandemic.

Another category of factors pertain to internal political developments in both sides: the outbreak coincided with the increasing probability of an Arab Israeli party joining an alliance to support a new government – hence, the probability of improving the quality of life of the Arab constituency and lessening somewhat HAMAS relevance; and the so-called the so-called ‘never ending 4-year term’ of President Abbas (elected in 2005), which raised the internal disputes to new levels after the latest cancellation of Palestinian elections.

Israeli assessments converge on finding that HAMAS lost many assets following the campaign, but it is the big winner to the “Arab street, which allegedly means that whatever progress it would had wanted to achieve in those cancelled elections, it succeeded in attaining in its recent aggression; going further on this line of thought, the question is whether the Palestinian Authority could even regain its status as leader of the Palestinian issue and in what ways.

…and old new approaches

There is hardly any other major conflict that has ever been subject to as many attempts to find a durable solution as the one between Israelis and Palestinians and the literature on the subject is immense, thus matching its very complexity. Another considerably important point is the impact history has on this matter: in William Faulkner’s words, ‘the past is never dead – it’s not even past’, as Aaron David Miller, a well-known Middle East expert, told Jared Kushner[4].

The ’11-days war’ brutally brought this conflict back to the limelight, although previous initiatives had been put forward in the recent past – again, ‘The Deal of the Century’ comes to mind. Russia tries to resuscitate the Middle East Quartet and might claim to contribute to the settling of intra-Palestinian tensions, since it hosted intra-Palestinian conferences of major factions in 2011, 2017 and 2019, and in October 2020. It also proposed a 4+4+2+1 mechanism, which would include the Quartet; the four Arab countries that normalized their relations with Israel; Israel and Palestine; and Saudi Arabia, the author of the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative. As mentioned before, China put forward a Five-Point Initiative and, similarly to Russia, voiced its readiness to host Israeli and Palestinian representatives for direct talks.

On this matter, the most relevant change is the increasing lack of clarity of what the result of the negotiations would look like – and the statement is less outrageous than it might seem: an opinion poll carried out by the Palestinian Centre for Policy and Survey Research in March 2021, found that support for the concept of the two-state solution stands at 40% (in 2016, the score was 51%) and opposition stands at 57%; further, ‘a majority of 55% believes that the two-state solution is no longer practical or feasible due to the expansion of Israeli settlements, while 38% believe that the solution remains practical. Moreover, 77% believe that the chances for the creation of a Palestinian state alongside the state of Israel in the next five years are slim or nonexistence while 20% believe the chances to be medium or high’[5]. Under these circumstances, there seems to be no vision on either side – and that leads to the putatively impossible option of the one-state solution, with some Israelis and Palestinians talking of a ‘confederation that would split the difference; both communities could fulfil their national aspirations, but with shared institutions’ and a sort of an EU-like porous border[6].

This conundrum might lead to a reconsideration of the whole process in terms of changing the approach, so that realities on the ground favour visible improvements in the lives of Palestinians – mainly economic and social– and Israelis – from the security point of view; a term that would cover this process is called ‘deoccupation’ and relates basically to some 650,000 settlers living on the West Bank[7].

Another approach to solving this conflict is seen to be re-including it in a wider regional pattern, through which ‘a resolution […] may be reached, but it will be one that is imposed on Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza by regional states and accepted by a new Palestinian leadership supported by those same states’. This option supposes that settling the conflict ‘rather than starting with a top-down process, […] can only be arrived at through mutual commitment to participation in an incremental process driven by regional actors themselves. Breaking apart regional conflicts, with the focused, multilateral participation of relevant actors, can build trust from the ground up and promote smaller-scale solutions.[8]

Addressing the entire inventory of the ‘old-new’ problems of the Middle East in such a complex enterprise seems a daunting task – but definitely not as frightening as the consequences of renewed, upscaled and expanded armed conflicts and despair would cause in the region and beyond. Responsibilities are shared among local, regional and global actors alike, in both government and non-government segments for embarking on sustained and meaningful dialogues with a view to overcoming the temptation of clinging to conflict-management only, in order to reach the conflict-settlement stage.

 

Previous chapters: Changes and “Mega-changes” in the Middle East (1 of 4) & Russia and China on Middle East (2 of 4)

 

Bibliography

[1] Payam Mohseni, Engaging Sectarian De-Escalation, proceedings of the Symposium on Islam and Sectarian De-Escalation at Harvard Kennedy School, The Iran Project, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, August 2019, p. 33, www.belfercenter.org

[2] Jamsheed K. Choksy, Carol E. B. Choksy, Iran Needs the Nuclear Deal to Keep Russia and China at Bay, Foreign Affairs, 25 May 2021, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/iran/2021-05-25/iran-needs-nuclear-deal-keep-russia-and-china-bay

[3] Various sources published, inter alia, by The Institute for National Security Studies, Tel-Aviv; The Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies; The Egyptian Center for Strategic Studies (in Arabic); The Economist; Foreign Affairs; European Council on Foreign Relations; the American Enterprise Institute.

[4] Aaron David Miller, What I Told Jared Kushner About His Middle East Peace Plan, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 7 February 2020,  https://carnegieendowment.org/2020/02/07/what-i-told-jared-kushner-about-his-middle-east-peace-plan-pub-81010

[5] Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, Public Opinion Poll No. 79, 31 March 2021, http://pcpsr.org/en/node/839.

[6] *** A process in pieces: How the Israeli-Palestinian peace process is failing The Economist, 29 May 2021, https://www.economist.com/middle-east-and-africa/2021/05/27/how-the-israeli-palestinian-peace-process-is-failing. Zack Beauchamp, In defense of the two-state solution, Vox, 21 May 2021, https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/22442052/israel-palestine-two-state-solution-gaza-hamas-one

[7] Zack Beauchamp, op. cit.

[8] Sanam Vakil, Neil Quilliam, Steps to enable a Middle East regional security process, Research paper, Chatham House, 14 April 2021, https://www.chathamhouse.org/2021/04/steps-enable-middle-east-regional-security-process/10-recommendations-way-forward

 

Photo source: Atalayar

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