When it comes to the Middle East, things can always get worse and often do.
But as 2014 limps to an end, there are reasons to question this mantra.
On several fronts, there are glimmers of optimism about easing decades-long confrontations in ways that would strengthen the coalition against the group that calls itself the Islamic State.
The first front involves Iran. While it is disappointing that negotiations have not yet achieved a comprehensive nuclear agreement, the United States and Iran are talking again bilaterally this week, seeking progress toward a framework accord as early as March. Gaps remain over the size of Iran’s uranium enrichment capacity and the schedule for sanctions relief, but both sides appear motivated to reach a deal.
For President Barack Obama, an agreement that prevents Iran from developing nuclear weapons for at least another decade would be a signature achievement. Iran has been a top priority for Obama since he took office and the negotiations have consumed more time for more administration officials than any other foreign policy issue.
Incentives for Iran are clear
For Iranian officials, a deal offers risks as well as rewards, but the latter outweigh the former.
Iranian society is yearning for an end to pariah status that blocks its citizens from assuming a role commensurate with their country’s size and sophistication. President Hassan Rouhani has repeatedly promised to deliver sanctions relief and the only way he can do this is by accepting verifiable curbs on Iran’s nuclear activities.
Speaking at the Atlantic Council in Washington recently, Cornelius Adebahr, a scholar of Iran at the Carnegie Endowment, said the Iranian government would like to “close the deal earlier” than the end of June – the deadline for the latest extension of the interim nuclear agreement. Abebahr said the real target was the beginning of March.
A framework accord by then would give Iranians a tremendous psychological boost before the Iranian New Year holiday begins on March 21, he said.
Another reason to strike an agreement in the next few months is that key opponents of a deal are distracted.
The Republican-led Congress that comes into office in January needs time to get organized. Meanwhile, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – a vocal opponent of the Obama administration’s approach to Iran negotiations – is preoccupied with campaigning for parliamentary elections March 17.
After three terms in office, two of them consecutive, Netanyahu is seeing his domestic popularity plummet and the Israeli political kaleidoscope is shifting toward a possible victory by the center-left.
Polls now favor a new coalition led by Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog and former foreign minister Tzipi Livni. Both have been outspoken in criticizing Netanyahu for his poor relationship with President Obama, refusal to engage in serious peace talks with the Palestinians, and failure to take advantage of support for peace from important Arab states including Saudi Arabia and Egypt.
With a theoretical Palestinian state gaining recognition in new quarters, momentum is building behind a U.N. Security Council Resolution calling for resumption of negotiations with the aim of establishing an independent Palestine by 2016.
Secretary of State John Kerry is holding urgent consultations with Netanyahu and Palestinian officials this week in Europe to try to come up with a resolution that the U.S. can support. Kerry’s task would be much easier if Israel had a government that was truly willing to trade land for peace.
Confronting IS militants
Movement on Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would facilitate progress in the third big confrontation roiling the Middle East: the fight to contain and ultimately defeat the Islamic State (IS).
A coalition of some 60 nations has blunted IS advances in Iraq but it is hard to judge how successful the campaign has been given the limited information provided by the Pentagon.
Progress on the Israel-Palestine front would make it easier for Arab members of the anti-IS coalition to be seen cooperating militarily with the United States in combatting Muslim extremists.
Resolving the Iran nuclear dispute, meanwhile, would open the door to more open cooperation with Tehran against IS and to diplomacy that addresses the root causes of the group’s rise in Iraq and Syria.
Already Iran has helped remove Iraq’s divisive former prime minister and supported an agreement that resolves, at least temporarily, a chronic budget dispute between the Baghdad government and the Kurds.
The next steps involve engaging Iraq’s disaffected Sunnis and coming up with a strategy for a political transition in Syria.
For these efforts to succeed, a number of countries need to contribute, including Russia, Turkey and the Persian Gulf States. The most important consultations would be between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Speaking in Washington last week, Gregory Gause, an expert on the Persian Gulf at Texas A&M University, said the Saudis “are open to talking to the Iranians” and are no longer putting “100 percent priority on [opposing] Iran like it used to be.”
But the Saudis are still “betwixt and between,” Gause said. “They don’t feel they have to choose” between opposing Iran’s regional ambitions and trying to roll back IS.
Still, threats to the region from the rise of IS, the breakup of Iraq and Syria and the tsunami of refugees flooding Jordan and Lebanon are pressuring Riyadh to get off the fence.
One indication of a changing Saudi posture is talk of a meeting between Saudi-backed Lebanese Sunnis and Hezbollah, Iran’s Lebanese Shiite partner. Another sign would be if Saudi Arabia finally opens an embassy in Baghdad, which would be seen as an endorsement of the more inclusive government of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi.
No one has yet devised a viable strategy for Syria, but there is an emerging consensus about the goal: a transitional government that includes moderate opposition figures, retains as much as possible of the Syrian state and obliges President Bashar al-Assad to step aside at some point in the future. This new government would then be able to count on international support to expunge IS from the Syrian countryside.
Rather than give in to despair, politicians need to keep seeking solutions to these conflicts. The Middle East is not doomed to perpetual violence if its leaders can rise above personal animosities and zero-sum thinking.