The US must find a new way towards peace in the region

Instead of finding a constructive way forward, the US has fallen back on its past failed policies, fuelling conflict and increasing insecurity

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The US reaction to Iran’s retaliatory drone and missile launches last month against Israel was both predictable and unhelpful: more sanctions against Iran, more weapons to Israel, while at the same time calling for de-escalation. This was, at best, contradictory and at worst, it could have the effect of exacerbating existing tensions.

Reading commentary from the Israeli and Arab press and remarks from US and western policymakers and “analysts” was even more distressing. Some Arabs celebrated Iran’s display of might as a show of strength and deterrence.

Israelis meanwhile were touting the effectiveness of the defence arsenal they and their allies used to neutralise Iran’s well-telegraphed attack. There was a similarly congratulatory tone in responses from western hawks, from the right and left, who first elevated and then denigrated the Iranian attack, while suggesting that the only effective response was for Israel to do more to “neutralise” the Iranian threat.

I appeared on a news programme following a retired British general who pointedly said that Israel must now massively retaliate against Iran because that was the only way to defeat it. A limited response, he argued, would only embolden Iran to attack again.

Such notions are shortsighted and dangerous. It’s time to deal with the reality that, despite the desires of some, neither Israel nor Iran will be defeated. Such a fool’s errand would devastate the entire region. Both countries possess considerable arsenal and allies – globally and regionally – that can wreak havoc not only by way of countless lives that would be lost but also in the economic devastation that would ensue in the Levant and in the Arab Gulf states.

After decades of misguided US and Western policies, the region now faces several separate but connected conflicts

The broader Middle East needs peace and stability, not more conflict. This will not come through more arms and more hostile posturing. If we’ve learnt anything from history, it is that the region’s antagonists will not be defeated. Conflict either emboldens them or results in a metastasising of their conflicts’ root causes into new and more virulent forms.

During the past century, the US and its western allies played an extremely negative role. From the Sykes-Picot betrayal in 1916 and dismemberment of the region, to the fatal partition of Palestine and UN’s failure to insist on Israel honouring the terms of its conditional admission in 1948, the West repeatedly turned a blind eye to Israel’s aggressive behaviours and its egregious violations of Palestinian rights. This only served to make a bad situation worse. As a result, the region has had to endure repeated wars involving Israel, the Palestinians, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Egypt.

US policies have been no better with regard to Iran. America supported the repressive regime of its Shah and worked to overthrow Iran’s effort to form a democracy in the 1950s – a wound Iranians never forgot. This hostility came into clear focus after the Shah’s pro-western regime grew more repressive and was overthrown in a popular revolt in 1979. That promising revolution quickly devolved into the aggressive Islamic Republic of Iran with its decidedly anti-western bent.

During the decade-long war of the 1980s between revolutionary Iran and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, the US supplied munitions (including chemical and biological components) to Iraq, while covertly (and illegally) funneling weapons to Iran.

The results were devastating to both nations. Then came a decade of crippling US-imposed sanctions on both countries and finally the disastrous US invasion and occupation of Iraq, which led to Iran gaining a foothold in Iraq among its long-oppressed Shiite majority. Iran was now emboldened to pursue its regional ambitions with its allies in Lebanon, Syria and Yemen, all of whom had their own grievances within their countries and with the West.

After decades of misguided US and western policies, the region now faces several separate but connected conflicts. Separate because they are rooted in circumstances particular to each country, and connected because in each case, the pot is stirred by the same set of external actors: Iran and its allies, or the US/Israel axis and its allies.

Because the US has persisted on its path of unquestioning support for Israel and refusal to challenge Israel or constructively engage Iran, we are where we are today: genocide in Gaza, Israel and Hezbollah on the brink of war, Syria still reeling from civil war, and Iran now involved in multiple conflicts, including most recently, in Libya and Sudan.

In response to the US lack of coherence in policies, its weakened stature in global affairs, the rise of China and a China-Russia axis, and the persistent regional threats Arab countries continue to face, several Arab governments have had to act on their own to protect their interests by seeking peace and stability in their region.

They are developing their own ties with Iran, working with China and Russia, while continuing ties with the US and making overtures to Israel. And now there is this devastating war in Gaza and the danger of conflict between Israel and Iran. Instead of finding a constructive way forward, the US has fallen back on its past failed policies.

More than a decade ago, when the Obama administration was using sanctions and its diplomatic capital to negotiate a nuclear arms deal with Iran, I argued for a different course. Instead of expending these assets to stop Iran from securing a bomb they did not have, why not address Iran’s regional meddling by working with the same P5+1 members (that is, US, UK, China, France, Russia; plus Germany) of the UN to convene a regional security framework modelled after the precursor to the Organisation for Security and Co-operation (OSCE) that stabilised Europe, East and West, during the Cold War.

The idea wasn’t original, having first been broached by the 2006 Iraq Study Group. It called for the formation of an International Support Group, bringing together Iraq’s neighbours with the five permanent Security Council members to address the regional fallout of the mess created by the Iraq war.

The idea wasn’t heeded then but should now be considered. Critical issues affecting regional stability and world peace must be addressed: Israel’s occupation of Palestinian lands, the sine qua non for any future progress, and Israel’s continuing aggressive role in the region; Iran’s meddling in the affairs of several Arab countries; the need for political and economic reforms everywhere; a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East; security guarantees and a non-aggression pact; and promoting the benefits that can accrue from regional investment and trade.

Like the Madrid Peace Conference, a Middle East OSCE would bring together Arab countries, Iran, Turkey and Israel, under the sponsorship of the five permanent members of the Security Council. It won’t be easy. Some countries will need to be pressured to participate. Concessions will need to be made and incentives offered. Unlike Madrid, pressure shouldn’t end when the parties convene. It must continue until agreements are reached.

I’m told by US policymakers that such an idea won’t fly. They point to this or that country that won’t agree to participate. The same was said about Madrid. Such a response is lazy and lacking in imagination. It is also foolish, and dangerous, because the alternative is to continue on the path of perpetual war.

Instead of fuelling conflict and increasing insecurity, a new way must be found. Nations in the Middle East need peace and stability. And they need to be in the position of benefitting from regional co-operation. But to get there, the US needs to change direction and work within the framework of the UN to create a regional security framework for peace and stability.

Published: May 06, 2024, 2:00 PM