Seizing opportunities to promote stability in the Middle East

Nations involved in the region should take advantage of the diplomatic thaw.

Am I dreaming, or did I hear a little bit of diplomatic ice cracking in the Middle East? Iraq and Afghanistan are still riven by irrational violence. But despite this violence – perhaps even because of it – there were in the past several days a few hints of rational overtures by key players who have been at loggerheads.

Intriguing were the words of appreciation to Syria from the United States last week. Relations between the two countries have been so chilly that the US has withdrawn its ambassador. But Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice praised Syria for thwarting a terrorist attack against the American Embassy in Damascus. Said Dr. Rice: "The Syrians reacted to this attack in a way that helped to secure our people, and we very much appreciate that." None of this suggests that Syria and the US are on the brink of a love-fest. Indeed, Syria responded with a tart comment that "US policies in the Middle East have fueled extremism, terrorism." But in the sometimes murky language of diplomacy, there may have been a signal that the US is prepared to do business with Syria.

Meanwhile Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas declared he had a power-sharing deal with the militant Islamic organization Hamas, which was the victor in January legislative elections in Gaza. Though many observers are skeptical that such a coalition government could work, if successful it could circumvent the problem of Hamas's refusal to recognize Israel, and Israel's refusal to deal with a terrorist entity. Israel's Prime Minister Ehud Olmert would thus be able to deal with the Palestinians in Gaza through President Abbas, avoiding direct negotiations with Hamas.

Another intriguing development was an admission by Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of the militant Islamic organization Hizbullah in Lebanon. Hizbullah triggered fighting with Israel when it crossed into Israeli territory and captured two Israeli soldiers. The Israelis responded with force, wreaking havoc on Lebanese areas thought to be Hizbullah strongholds. Sheikh Nasrallah told Lebanese television recently that "If I had known on July 11 that the operation would lead to such a war, would I do it? I say no, absolutely not." It was an extraordinary expression of regret by a militant Arab leader, and an apology to the Lebanese people who suffered.

Most fascinating of all, however, is the pas de deux – or the hint of one pending – between Iran and the US over Iran's nuclear ambitions. Till now, Iran has been unyielding in its position that it would not cease enrichment of uranium, a process that could lead to development of nuclear weapons. But somewhat resembling a bargaining session in a Persian bazaar, Iran's top nuclear negotiator, Ali Latijani, was quoted last week as saying that Iran would be willing to consider a two-month moratorium on its uranium- enrichment program, while other Iranian officials promptly denied this.

As David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security, responded:

"In any negotiation with Iran, offers appear and disappear." However, in an analysis of Iran's formal response to the United Nations Security Council's demand that Iran suspend its nuclear enrichment program, he found some grounds for hope. "The Iranian response is not hollow and there is room for optimism," Mr. Albright said in an interview with former New York Times diplomatic correspondent Bernard Gwertzman for the Council on Foreign Relations. Albright also suggested that Iran has had a slowdown in developing a nuclear program, and a suspension for a few months "is not that big of a step."

Meanwhile on the American side, Rice, in an apparent softening of the US position, said last week that the US might suspend efforts to impose sanctions against Iran if it suspended uranium enrichment for two months.

With military action against Iran not seen as a realistic option, the US is concentrating its effort on a diplomatic solution to the Iran problem. The question, however, is whether Iran is seriously interested in a diplomatic agreement or is simply stalling for time while pursuing uranium enrichment in a clandestine manner.

The UN Security Council has threatened sanctions against Iran if negotiations fail. But Russia and China, two of the five permanent Security Council members, have substantial economic relations with Iran and are likely to balk at implementing sanctions.

The ongoing turmoil in Iraq, and the returning turmoil in Afghanistan, threaten stability in the entire Middle East region. Nations involved should seize the slightest of these opportunities that might start them down the road to stability.

John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, is editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret Morning News.

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