Time for a ‘Grand Bargain’ in the Middle East

Plagued by bitter unresolved conflicts -- both within and between states -- the Middle East is once again in a dangerous condition, which risks escalating into a wider war. External powers, long accustomed to meddling in Middle East affairs, are likely to be drawn in. Once again, the grim spectre of large-scale casualties and great material damage hangs over the region, as it did in 1948, 1967, 1973, 1982, 1991, 2003, 2006, 2008-9, and in the many other lesser skirmishes and explosions of violence over the past six decades.
It is surely time for the international community to seek to arrest this repeated descent into war. Festering conflicts urgently need to be addressed.
What instruments does the international community have for this task? The prime responsibility lies with the UN Security Council and its five permanent members -- the United States, Russia, China, Britain and France. Other influential countries, such as Germany, India and Brazil, could also be brought in to lend their additional weight. Acting together, these powers would be well placed to negotiate a ‘Grand Bargain’ between feuding Middle East opponents, and then use their combined muscle to ensure implementation of any agreement reached. Stick would, no doubt, be needed as well as carrot.
Why a ‘Grand Bargain’? The answer, in a word, is because the nature of Middle East conflicts requires a global rather than a piecemeal approach. A striking feature of these conflicts is their close inter-connection. The Syrian regime, for example, is today fighting a war on two fronts -- against an uprising at home and against a campaign of subversion, sanctions and boycotts by its enemies abroad. But the campaign against Syria is also connected to a similar, but even more intense, campaign against Syria’s strategic partner, Iran. Those who want to bring down the regime in Damascus have in mind to weaken Tehran, end its nuclear programme – and perhaps bring down its regime as well.
Targeting Iran is also intended to cripple it as a regional power and isolate and undermine Hizballah and Hamas, which Iran has backed in the struggle with Israel. These two resistance movements are an integral part of the wider, still smouldering Arab-Israeli conflict, which itself is influenced by America’s three decades-long feud with Tehran. The pattern, therefore, is one of inter-locking conflicts, each one impinging on the others.
The advantage of a ‘Grand Bargain’ is that it would allow concessions on one front to be traded against concessions on another -- thus improving the chance of overall success. For example, the attempt to persuade Iran to abandon its nuclear programme – or scale it down to the point of ruling out any bomb-making -- would undoubtedly have a far greater chance of success if it were linked to a deal allowing for the emergence of an independent Palestinian state, negotiated at an international conference under the stern eye of a unified block of Great Powers. This would puncture a boil which has poisoned political relationships in the Middle East for decades, repeatedly exploding into violence. To spare the Arabs and Israel further miseries, it must surely be resolved.
Tehran is deeply implicated in the Palestine question. Much of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s anti-Israeli rhetoric is inspired by outrage at the fate of the Palestinians under Israeli occupation or siege. If pressures and inducements by the Powers were to bring about an acceptable resolution of the Palestine question, it is more than likely that Iran would, in turn, be ready to yield on the nuclear issue. Israel’s fears of a potential ‘Holocaust’ would be dispelled, while Tehran would no longer live in fear of attack. Indeed, Israel and Iran might then be able to revive the close friendship they enjoyed not so long ago under the Shah.
A crucial aspect of the ‘Grand Bargain’ would, of course, have to be a constructive dialogue between Washington and Tehran, leading to a decision to put past grievances aside, to restore diplomatic relations, remove sanctions, and re-launch the relationship on a basis of mutual respect. Any such development would have a hugely beneficial effect right across the region. Most importantly, it could open the way for a strategic dialogue between Saudi Arabia and Iran, the two regional heavyweights, easing Sunni-Shi‘a tensions in the Gulf, as well as in Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen and elsewhere, and dispelling the spectre of another Gulf war. As partners rather than rivals, the Saudi Kingdom and the Islamic Republic would then recognise their joint responsibility, for the stability and security of their vital oil-rich region.
Once Iran was included in the security architecture of the Gulf, it would surely be possible to imagine the Saudi Monarch and Iran’s Supreme Guide together attending a future summit of the Gulf Cooperation Council in an atmosphere of peace, prosperity and reconciliation!
Is this no more than a utopian dream? Not necessarily. Catherine Ashton, the European Union’s foreign affairs chief, is trying to revive negotiations on the nuclear issue between Iran and the five permanent members of the Security Council, plus Germany (the so-called P5+1). At the same time, Kofi Annan, the former UN secretary-general, is trying to persuade both regime and opposition in Syria to agree to a ceasefire as a necessarily condition for a dialogue. In both cases, there is a growing realisation that there is no military solution to the current conflicts and that negotiations will become inevitable if normal life is to be restored.
Syria, in particular, will need the curative influence of something like a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to heal the deep wounds, physical as well as psychological, of recent months. The regime and its opponents must now work together to bring about the profound transformation of Syria’s political system which the country needs and the crisis demands. Once the guns fall silent, the time for real statesmanship and for mutual compromise will have arrived. Syria is too important an Arab country -- too important in Arab history and consciousness -- to be allowed to sink into the agonies of civil war.
All these problems, sectarian and political -- whether in Syria and Iran, but also in Israel, Gaza and the West Bank, in Iraq, the Gulf and in Washington itself -- would be more easily resolved within the context of a ‘Grand Bargain’, negotiated, pushed through and monitored by the Great Powers. The overriding objective would be to save the region from further blood-letting. The way to achieve this goal would be by trading concessions.
Whether in resolving family quarrels or international disputes, the principle of give-and-take has long been recognised as the key to peace. 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