While Chicago may have lost the Olympics and the health care fight is heading into crunch time, developments in the Middle East are moving rapidly and in unexpected directions. The Iranians sat down at a meeting with the P 5 + 1 (Permanent Members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany) and appeared actually ready to make some constructive moves. At the same time, despite some ominous rioting on the Temple Mount coinciding with Sukkot, Palestinians appear to be making curious conciliatory moves toward the Israelis. While the proof of the pudding is in the eating, there might be constructive movement in the Middle East for the first time in many years.
Within a period of 12 days, the West’s confrontation with Iran has taken a series of unpredictable turns. First, the United States, Britain, and France publicly exposed Iran’s second uranium enrichment facility in Qum. Second, as scheduled, the P 5 + 1 meeting still took place with Iranian representatives in Geneva. Third, the Iranians agreed to have the United Nations International Atomic Energy Agency inspect the facility at Qum. Fourth, Iranian President Ahmadinejad met with Mohamed ElBaradei, head of the IAEA in Tehran, to arrange for UN inspection of the Qum facility. Fifth, Russia agreed to accept 80 percent of Iranian enriched uranium for additional processing, to be overseen by the French.
On the Palestinian front there were two new developments. The first was the emotional release by Hamas of the DVD showing captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in return for the Israeli release of 20 Palestinian women prisoners. The other was the apparent decision by Mahmoud Abbas to urge the UN to defer, at least until March, action on the Goldstone Report on the Gaza war that could lead to charges against Israel in the International Criminal Court.
With respect to Shalit, it is unclear whether Hamas acted in concert with their patron in Tehran. The release of the video, however, suggests the possibility of Hamas’ desire to gain credibility among some of the more moderate voices in the Palestinian camp, especially on the West Bank. This might also be seen as part of Hamas’ public campaign in the run-up to the planned spring Palestinian elections.
As for the Goldstone Report, there appear to have been several motivating factors behind the Palestinian Authority’s go-slow approach. First, delaying action on the report is a favor to President Obama, who would have had to wage a major public campaign against the report, in the UN itself — a fight he probably would have lost. The decision is good for Abbas’ image, demonstrating his desire to make a confidence-building gesture toward Israel and gain a more positive image in Washington. He will weather the criticism in the Arab world, while the chits will be gained in Washington and Jerusalem.
Iran’s moves remain extremely suspect. From the perspective of the Obama administration and its Western allies, it would seem to be that everything needs to be on track by Christmas or else there might be a serious price to be paid by Iran — either economic or military. The Iranians are once again presenting themselves as cooperative and moderate — at least for the time being.
It is a well-timed turn for the Obama administration, which is struggling with its Afghanistan policy. The president can focus on one major pending foreign policy crisis at a time, continue to demonstrate his willingness to dialogue first, and give the world as well as the Iranians their first true insight into his decision-making process.
In politics, no one does anything for nothing. In the Middle East especially, no country or group is falling in love with its foe. These gestures are totally based on self-interest. In the case of Iran we will know very soon whether domestic unrest and a fear of internal dissent may have overcome the mullahs and Ahmadinejad’s more aggressive and hostile agenda, whether remaining in control necessitated some swings to the West.
For the Palestinians there remains the possibility of a third intifada, a highly contested spring election, and/or an agreement between the Palestinian groups as they opt to pursue what might well be their best peace option.
In the Middle East, unpredictability is the only given.