In 2005, a Mideast window of moderation

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

This past year the Middle East has seen a flurry of developments that will be realized in 2005. Yasser Arafat's passing gives rise to new Palestinian leadership. In Iraq, determination to hold elections, despite promises of violence, will be tested. Elsewhere, issues hardly less important are looming: Iran's nuclear ambitions, high oil prices, and terrorism.

Iraq: democracy tested

Violence surged in 2004, and if Iraq is going to move closer to peace this year there will have to be tangible successes. The latest polls show increasing numbers of Iraqis are pessimistic about the future. They expect improvements in security, the pace of reconstruction, and self-government. US and Iraqi officials are pinning their hopes on a democratic transition.

What to watch:

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• A Jan. 30 election will select an interim parliament that will write Iraq's constitution. But there are indications now that many Sunnis will not participate, either out of fear or disillusionment with a process that's expected to give Iraq's Shiites a political majority for the first time in the country's history. If Sunni turnout is low, it could set the stage for more conflict.

• A constitution is scheduled to be written and submitted to the public for ratification by Oct. 31. Elections for a full national assembly are supposed to be held before 2006. If the constitution provides for power sharing with minorities, says Marina Ottaway at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, there's hope that it will take some wind out of the politi- cal sails of the insurgency.

• Crucial to improving security will be the creation of self-sufficient Iraqi forces that can take some of the load off the US troops. If big reductions in US troop levels are concurrent with a drop in insurgent attacks in 2005, it's likely to be seen as a sign that security in Iraq is improving.

Israeli-Palestinian crossroads

On Jan. 9, Palestinian voters will go to the polls for a rare event in the Arab world: a peaceful and democratic leadership succession. But the fact that this sign of political maturity comes without a Palestinian state could mean that peace with Israel is out of reach. Still, Yasser Arafat's passing in 2004 has created more hope. Both Israel and the US considered him an unreliable partner for peace. They have a higher opinion of moderate Mahmoud Abbas, who will probably succeed Arafat.

But that is only a tiny piece of the puzzle. While Mr. Abbas says he wants Palestinians to abandon violence, factions like Hamas remain committed to violence. And on the Israeli side, settlers and hard-line politicians continue to resist land concessions.

What to watch:

• The Jan. 9 elections. While Abbas looks the likely winner, Hamas could throw a wrench into the works, especially if its candidates do well in municipal elections. "If Abbas gets a good result in the election it will help him internally [and] help him persuade the faction to give up the militarization of the intifada, but peace cannot be done by one side. If there is no cooperation on the other side, there will be no progress," says Palestinian analyst Abu Abarra.

• Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is hoping to withdraw from the Gaza Strip in phases this year, with all settlers and soldiers gone by September. But analysts say that the withdrawal process could strengthen the Israeli right, who are opposed to any land concessions. On the Palestinian side, Gaza's welter of armed Palestinian groups needs to be integrated into one orderly body to make this work.

Iran's nuclear ambitions

In 2004, the West became convinced that Iran was preparing to build a nuclear bomb. There was much diplomacy from the US, Europe, and the UN, but it's not clear that much trust was built. Some experts say Iran is likely to inch closer toward a nuclear bomb this year, unless key steps are taken.

What to watch:

• "The US needs to open direct negotiations with the Iranians on the nuclear issue," says Rob Malley, director of the International Crisis Group's Middle East Program. So far, European and UN mediation efforts have only partially succeeded because they can't give the Iranians what they want: Some reassurance that US relations will improve.

• Iran has vowed to continue enriching uranium until February. International veri-fication of whether it has stopped or not will be an indicator of whether Iran is willing to back off.

• Iran is holding presidential elections in May. Most analysts expect the religious and political conservatives - who deepened their control of Iran in 2004 - to continue to rule. Iran's conservatives could take any electoral success as a mandate to continue to defy Western efforts to deny them the bomb.

The elephant in the room

No Middle Eastern event in 2004 had an impact as wide-ranging and immediate as high oil prices. For the first time, a barrel sold for more than $50. By comparison, a barrel traded for about $25 in late 2002, and has averaged much higher as China's thirst for fuel has grown and Iraq's oil pipelines have come under attack.

What to watch:

• OPEC and non-OPEC nations have been talking about adding to production capacity to help ease prices, and oil traders will be looking for signals this year that major efforts are under way. If countries like Saudi Arabia and Russia start adding capacity, prices could drop.

New media emerging

One revolution that continued to gather steam in 2004 - and looks set to continue - is the emergence of new media outlets.

Satellite television like Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya reached millions of Arab viewers, and Internet usage continues to surge, giving Arabs access to uncensored Web logs and websites. About 4 million Arabs had access to the Internet in 2001. Toward the end of 2004, about 17 million Arabs were online, and current projections are for 50 million Internet users by 2008, according to Internet World Stats, an online service that tracks Internet usage.

While Islamist and jihadi websites have also proliferated, uncensored news in the Middle East is available as never before. Growth in satellite TV and Internet usage will play a key role in shaping Arab views over the year - and decade - ahead.

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