WASHINGTON — In the Middle East, everything is connected. It's hard to you solve a problem in one country without solving a similar problem in the country next door.
That's why the futures of Iran, Turkey, Israel and the Palestinian territories are so important to consider.
The people of Iran, Turkey and the Palestinian territories are at different stages of democracy. Each faces different challenges in becoming a full democracy. These three strategic Muslim nations and areas can either fall back into full autocracy or move forward toward a more open, mature government. And make no mistake: whatever change happens to one is likely to be echoed in surrounding countries.
Iran's political regime seems unlikely to change soon, now that the price of oil is so high. The state runs lucrative business projects and keeps opponents from participating. But young Iranians, two-thirds of the population, are educated and are likely to grab power from a theocratic government that is spiritual on the surface, but materialistic underneath.
Ashin Molavi speculates in the November 2004 issue of "Foreign Affairs," that "Given the long-term facts of Iran's demography, dramatic changes are inevitable at some point in the not too distant future, despite the present public apathy." He also adds that the current regime maintains 'legitimacy' through bribery and coopting of local politicians with oil money.
Iran is key to any spread of democracy in the Middle East because it commands respect in the region. Iran's current president and the previous parliament were elected in a free electoral process. But the makeup of the present parliament has been heavily influenced by the religious authorities, who, under an Islamic constitution, wield enormous power.
Observers note that the overwhelming majority of Iranians desire political modernity. Realizing the potential for political change, France, Germany, and Britain have patiently established rapport with Iran. The Europeans anticipate the time when the theocracy will go bankrupt morally and politically. Partnership with Europe is likely to infuse Iranian society with ideological change, such as equality for women and cultural freedoms.
What may be missing for a peaceful revolution to occur is a charismatic leader who would galvanize the people to inist on reform. A peaceful revolution that will discredit the ruling mullahs in Iran would have tremendous regional impact. It would be a demonstration of positive evolution in Islamic democracy.
To succeed, the new regime would have to be culturally sensitive to Iranian traditional values, but not literal, robotic, or fanatic. Even today, Iran has strong influence on Iraq through the Shiite community. Iran also influences Syria, Lebanon, and some Gulf emirates with Shiite minorities.
Turkey's record on democracy is deeper than Iran's.
Ataturk, the father of modern Turkey in the early decades of the 20th century, changed the basic fabric of society by prodding it toward modernity. As a result, a century later, Turkey's government is freely elected. Although the leading party won the election on an Islamic platform, the ruling regime is moderate, sensible, and aspires to join the European Union.
While planning to join the EU, Turkey is undergoing reform. Turkey is gradually relaxing its constitutional rules to allow for freedom of thought, freedom of the market, and respect for minorities, including the Kurdish community. Turkey must work much harder when it comes to dealing with Kurds in Turkish territory. If done right, it could set a regional example of respect for other minorities.
Turkey's occupation of Cyprus affects the politics of the divided island of Cyprus. In recent months, Turkish influence on unity discussions in Cyprus has been constructive.
Turkey is also ethnically connected with the five countries of Central Asia (Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Kyrgyzstan), which are somewhat secular. Turkey may set a model for democratization for Central Asia and the Balkan political entities in Europe.
It may take years to negotiate and qualify Turkey to join the EU, but the fact that the EU is setting up a framework for Turkey to qualify as a prospective partner in Europe is an act of realistic democracy building.
Our third case for likely and hopeful change in the Muslim world is the Middle East. The Palestinians seem to have learned that the recent intifada has worsened their occupation, deepened their isolation, and blemished their reputation.
With the passing of Arafat, they are reorganizing. Mahmoud Abbas has emerged as a new leader. A recent opinion survey shows that Palestinians prefer a secular leadership. Additionally, there seems to be a growing feeling among the Palestinians that civil resistance is their best strategy for peace and independence.
Faith in civil resistance, rather than armed struggle or suicidal killing, is a shift in thinking that is not yet well articulated. The more this shift gains momentum, the more there is hope for a peace between the Palestinians and Israel, which could lead to a similar peace arrangement with Syria.
In turn, a relaxed Syria would offer Lebanon political freedom. The eastern Mediterranean will never be the same once Israel becomes a secure state and Palestine is on the map.
Europe and the US would do well to plan their Middle East foreign policy to further these favorable domestic changes in Iran, Turkey, and the Palestinian territories. Whereas Europe is following soft diplomacy, the US is applying diplomacy of the carrot and stick, often with the stick more visible. This difference is particularly true with respect to Iraq, Iran, and Palestine. However, the US has supported Turkey's candidacy for the EU. So, on Turkey, the US and Europe see eye-to-eye.
The US and Europe, however, can no longer ignore coordination of policies on the Middle East and the Muslim world. Iran, Turkey, and the conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians are inter-connected, and each has regional and international impact. An example of where this coordinated approach is working is recent events in Israel and the Palestinian territories, where the US and Europe have been working much more closely with each other since the death of former Palestinian president Yasser Arafat. A coordinated approach of the US and Europe to the Middle East may shorten this entire region's era of transition.