Mideast looks for a 'Switzerland'

As Israel and Iran square off over nuclear talks and war rages in Iraq and Syria, some Middle East nations seek a role as an island of neutrality and peacemaking, with Switzerland as a model.

AP Photo
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry walks to a March 3 meeting in Montreux, Switzerland, with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif for a new round of nuclear negotiations.

Four centuries ago, after a defeat to the French, Switzerland planted a seed in Europe. It declared itself neutral. Despite frequent wars on the Continent, it has largely succeeded. Today the Alpine nation is a model and a venue for peacemaking. The model is so successful in fact that many nations in the troubled Middle East have for years tried to become “the Switzerland” of the region.

With war now raging in Syria and Iraq, and with Israel at odds with Iran and nearby terrorist groups, is there a Middle East nation that can act as a nonaligned island of peace and a friendly intermediary in negotiations, like Switzerland?

Lebanon was once that model. Its democracy, financial prosperity, and seaside hotels, and the peaceful coexistence of religions and ethnicities there had made it a tranquil center for diplomacy. But a 1975-90 civil war, the rise of Hezbollah militants, and lately an influx of Syrian refugees has eroded that role.

In 2003, in an attempt to reorder the Middle East, then-President George W. Bush hoped to turn Iraq into a Switzerland of the Middle East – by force. So far, that mission remains unaccomplished.

In recent decades, Jordan has tried to be peacemaker or declared itself neutral in a conflict. Yet it, too, finds it difficult not to take sides, such as against Syria or Iran. Turkey, despite being a member of NATO, once believed it could be friendly to all its neighbors. But the Syrian war has dampened its ambition.

The tiny Gulf sultanate of Qatar, with its oil wealth and newly minted cities, has at times provided neutral ground for regional players. But its ties to the Muslim Brotherhood and other actions have tarnished its reputation.

If any nation currently deserves the title of neutral player, it is Oman. Its monarch, Sultan Qaboos bin Said, played a pivotal role in arranging talks between the United States and Iran over the latter’s nuclear program. Oman’s location near Saudi Arabia and Iran on the coast of the Arabian Peninsula has forced it to adopt a moderate foreign policy. Its brand of Islam, something other than Shiite and Sunni, has helped it be seen as neutral in the region’s sectarian tensions. And with some oil wealth and achievements in development, it is widely admired.

The search for a Switzerland of the Middle East remains important because so much of the region is seen as either a perpetual source of conflict or in need of a stable balancing of powers, such as between Iran and Israel.

A prominent school of diplomacy views nations as constantly seeking to extend their powers or consider only their own interests. Switzerland, while certainly preserving its interests, has served to counter that view of all nations being in frequent contention. As Europe’s calm center, it may have contributed to the idea of the European Union as a bulwark against war.

Perhaps if enough nations in the Middle East want to imitate it, someday that might just happen.

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