In a matter of just a few days several important developments have taken place in the Middle East, all likely to have negative repercussions on the already tense situation in the region.
The first development was the awkward prisoner exchange between Israel and Hezbollah. Then there were the unprecedented decisions by the American administration to take part directly in negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program, and reportedly to resume some level of diplomatic ties with the country. Finally, we had the White House agreeing to set a “time horizon” for troop withdrawal from Iraq.
Such decisions may be viewed by many in the West as steps in the right direction since they offer more room for diplomacy in resolving outstanding issues in the Middle East. And in Iraq, this “time horizon” may be seen by the public as a reassertion of progress towards restoring full sovereignty, and by Maliki as an easy PR gain in election season.
But the regime in Tehran and its surrogates in the region view them very differently: as concessions by the enemy and as an episode of successful employment of salami tactics. Even some of the powers and politicians who are against Iran and its allies will probably read the news in the same way Iran did.
When I saw Lebanon’s president and the parliamentary majority leaders (among whom are the most outspoken rivals of Hezbollah and the staunchest figure of opposition to Iranian and Syrian influence) welcome convicted murderer Samir Quntar home, I was certain it was fear from the effect of these concessions on the balance of power that made them do that, rather than actual respect for Hezbollah.
I particularly hope that these developments will not affect the nascent move for peace talks with Israel that Syria has recently shown. Although I don’t trust the Syrian regime, I think they are now closer than ever to starting serious peace talks. And there are indicators that Assad is now considering jumping off the Iranian wagon. Assad is, after all, a young president who isn’t excited about ending up like Saddam Hussein, and doesn’t share the apocalyptic visions of Ahmadinejad and the elderly clerics of Qom. I think two factors made Assad consider taking a path different from that of Iran. First, he may have realized that Iran will be doomed if it insists on going nuclear. Also, the persistence of the international court in investigating Syria’s role in assassinations in Lebanon may have played a role. Dialogue and diplomacy can be successful with a scared young Assad. I only hope the recent sequence of “victories” does not send Syria back to Iran’s lap.
What I want to say here is that the Middle East has a different understanding of diplomacy than the West. Acceptance of demands or opening up to dialogue can very well be mistaken for weakness. On one hand, it will frighten America’s allies and those sitting on the fence. On the other hand, it will embolden Iran and will most likely lead to further more ambitious demands.
Dialogue and giving diplomacy a chance is not a bad idea, but understanding the mentality of the people sitting across the table is an important prerequisite.