The Middle East Needs Dialogue not War

“Dialogue is the strategy of the brave.” This is the striking phrase I heard from the mouth of Norway’s Foreign Minister, Jonas Gahr Store, one of the wisest of European statesmen, when I attended the Oslo Forum last month, an annual gathering of would-be mediators of the world’s conflicts. Rarely has dialogue been more necessary than in today’s deeply disturbed Middle East.
In Syria, the present fierce struggle is unlikely to yield a decisive outcome. Even if funds and weapons continue to pour in to the rebels, the latter will not be able to defeat the Syrian army on their own. The opposition prays for an external military intervention, but this is not likely to happen. The mood in the United States and Europe is to withdraw from Middle East conflicts not to get sucked into yet another one. In any event, so long as the Syrian opposition remains deeply divided it will have no hope of achieving its goals.
What then are we left with? More of the present bloody stalemate in which many more people will die or be displaced from their homes. Syria will be destroyed to the delight of its enemies -- Israel first among them.
Even if President Bashar al-Assad were to quit the scene, the opposition would still have to reach a negotiated compromise with Syria’s powerful officer corps and security services -- the backbone of the regime -- as well as with representatives of the various minorities, which are an ancient and essential part of Syrian’s social fabric.
Only a dialogue, preceded by a ceasefire honoured by both sides, could save Syria from the catastrophe of a sectarian civil war, in which there would be no winners, only losers. This is what Kofi Annan, the UN-mandated mediator, is trying to achieve. He should be supported not undermined. The deal now being negotiated in Egypt between the Muslim Brothers and the armed forces could provide a model for Syria.
Dangerous tensions in the Gulf could also be fruitfully contained through dialogue. It is reported that Egypt’s President Muhammad Morsi is soon to pay an official visit to the Saudi monarch, King Abdallah, and has also accepted an invitation to visit Iran’s President Ahmadinejad. Imagine what a formidable diplomatic coup it would be for Egypt if President Morsi were to initiate a tripartite strategic dialogue between Cairo, Riyadh and Tehran. Acting together, these three major capitals could resolve many of the region’s conflicts, and put an end to destabilising interventions by outside powers.
Egypt and Saudi Arabia, could, through dialogue and cooperation, draw Iran into the security architecture of the region. That would be a far better recipe for stability and peace than a policy of threats, sanctions and intimidation.
In spite of the propaganda emanating from Israel and Washington, there is no evidence that Iran wishes to acquire atomic weapons. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ai Khamenei declared last February that the possession of such weapons would be “pointless, dangerous and a great sin from an intellectual and religious point of view.” He should be taken at his word. Western intelligence agencies have themselves confirmed that, while Iran wishes to master the uranium fuel cycle, it has not embarked on a military nuclear programme.
Nor is there any real evidence that the Gulf region faces a threat from Iran’s alleged “hegemonic ambitions.” I believe too much is made of Iran’s alleged role in stirring up Shia communities in the Gulf and in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province. The Islamic Republic is at present in no shape to threaten or dominate anyone. It is simply seeking to survive in the face of a campaign of cyber attacks, assassination and sabotage by the United States and Israel, which is just short of outright war. Crippling sanctions have reduced its oil exports by a million barrels a day; its currency has collapsed; and its hard-pressed population is struggling to cope with 30 percent inflation. Under such intense pressure, Iran may well lash out in frustration, triggering a regional hot war, which would definitely not be to the advantage of the vulnerable Gulf Arabs.
Instead of helping to resolve conflicts by promoting dialogue between the states of the region, the United States is reinforcing its armed forces in the Gulf region. It is reported to be bringing additional F-22 and F/A-18 warplanes to local bases, and is doubling its minesweepers from four to eight. A senior U.S. Defence Department official has explained that this deployment of American power is intended to provide “tangible proof to all of our allies and partners and friends that even as the U.S. pivots towards Asia, we remain vigilant across the Middle East.”
Is this really what the region wants to hear? The militarisation of American foreign policy started during the Cold War in response to what was perceived as a threat from the Soviet Union. Militarisation was then greatly expanded under George W. Bush’s administration. The result was two catastrophic wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, which have devastated these countries, bankrupted America and gravely damaged its reputation. The American historian William Polk has calculated that the United States has spent at least $2.59 trillion on ‘defence’ in the last five years, a large part of it on weapons, and is planning to spend 5% more in the next five years.
Israel and its neo-con allies in the United States are pushing the Obama administration to bring Iran to its knees, in much the same way as they pushed the Bush Administration to destroy Iraq. The Arabs should not lend their backing to this campaign. The conflicts of the region -- and especially the dangerous tensions regarding Iran’s nuclear facilities -- would best be settled by dialogue and compromise rather than by military force.
No doubt some Gulf countries fear they would be threatened by Iran if the American protective umbrella were removed. But even if the United States were to withdraw its bases from the region, as some U.S. strategic thinkers advocate, it would retain an ‘over-the-horizon’ naval presence which would surely provide adequate protection.
I have long argued in this column that it is not an Arab interest to make an enemy of Iran. The Gulf States and Iran have many commercial and strategic interests in common, not least the security of their vital region. The clear lesson of the present crises is that local powers should be able to protect themselves or reach a satisfactory accommodation with their non-Arab neighbours by means of dialogue and cooperation.
It is Israel that needs to be persuaded that its current policy of seizing Palestinian territory while seeking to weaken and destabilise its neighbours, is not the best way to ensure its own security. On the contrary, Israel’s long-term survival can only be assured if it normalises its relations with the Arabs, as well as with Iran, by allowing the emergence of a Palestinian state. Only a sincere and sustained dialogue can bring this about. That should be the urgent focus of the international community. Patrick Seale is a leading British writer on the Middle East. His latest book is The Struggle for Arab Independence: Riad el-Solh and the Makers of the Modern Middle East (Cambridge University Press). Copyright © 2012 Patrick Seale – distributed by Agence Global