Middle East in denial as solutions prove elusive

Middle East in denial as solutions prove elusive

Middle East in denial as solutions prove elusive
American military convoy rides during a joint exercise with Syrian Democratic Forces at the countryside of Deir Ezzor in northeastern Syria, Wednesday, Dec. 8, 2021. (AP)
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A spokesperson for the US-led international coalition against Daesh last week denied that there had been an attack on the Al-Tanf military base in Syria. Lt. Col. Joel Harper said a reported explosion was down to exercises the military was conducting. Similarly, the Iranians denied they had been attacked after an explosion shook the area near its Natanz nuclear facility on Dec. 4.

Are we now in a period of denial, with the different parties raising the stakes and increasing their leverage while avoiding a full-fledged confrontation? This is a period where each party is attempting to boost its negotiating position ahead of a potential new nuclear deal. However, as much as everyone favors a deal, a confrontation may erupt that would be catastrophic for everyone.

This period of denial is also a time of simultaneous appeasement and provocation. One party will provoke another and then resort to appeasement when it feels like they are getting close to a confrontation. While Israel is threatening unilateral strikes and keeps on hitting Iranian targets in Syria, the US is appeasing Iran. CIA head William Burns announced last week that there was no evidence Iran had decided to weaponize its nuclear program. This offers a kind of reassurance to Israel, but at the same time it is a way of keeping the door open to negotiations with Iran, as the prospects of a deal may be becoming bleaker.

We are in a period of denial where there is no real solution or equilibrium, but the different parties are trying to ignore their problems to get some quiet.

The UAE’s top security official went to Iran last week and was received by his counterpart in a step that was hailed by the pro-Tehran media. It was described by state media as a “turning point” in relations. The official statement released following the meeting did not specify which issues were discussed and instead talked about solving long-time disputes. The thorny issues were probably avoided in order to focus on trade and points of mutual interest.

Similarly, the UAE also made an overture to Turkey. Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al-Nahyan last month discussed with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan trade and broader issues, while the main point of contention — relations with the Muslim Brotherhood — was probably not on the table.

We are in a period where people are denying the real problems and instead seeking to hedge their bets — hence their attitude of agreeing to disagree.

We now have different dynamics governing the Middle East. This region is in a period of uncertainty. The US is leaving, for sure, but what follows? Who will replace the US? However, regardless of its shrinking role, Washington has not lost interest entirely. The US is confused and it is getting everyone else confused too. This is why the different parties need to hedge their bets. In order to do that, they need to ignore any concerns they have and focus on the positives.

We are in a period where people are denying the real problems and instead seeking to hedge their bets — hence their attitude of agreeing to disagree.

Dania Koleilat Khatib

However, the US is the main actor that is living in this state of denial. Israel is anxious and is targeting Iran in Syria with Russia’s blessing. Iran sees US hesitation under the Biden administration and is hoping to drive it out of Syria and Iraq. The US does not want to make any decisions and prefers to focus instead on the nuclear deal. Therefore, whenever it can, it denies any attacks by Iran in order to not have to respond. Any response would kill any prospect of a renewed nuclear deal, which is top of the list when it comes to President Joe Biden’s foreign policy agenda, as it was one of his main campaign promises.

At the same time, Iran also tries to find excuses whenever it suffers what seems like an attack on its nuclear facilities. Bluntly saying that Israel was attacking its mainland would push it to respond. Meanwhile, Israel keeps on threatening Iran, while itself dreading a strike. Tel Aviv knows that, if it strikes Iran, Arab countries — even those with which it has normalized ties and become friends — will stay on the sidelines.

The US position is vague. Will America go to war with Iran for the sake of Israel, especially if it was Israel that started the fight? The consecutive threats of a strike from Israel are another form of denial. If we go back to the 1980s, when Israel did hit an Iraqi nuclear reactor, they just did it. There was no threat, just direct and decisive action. Today, Israel does not have the decisiveness it had back then. It is fragmented and polarized internally. The region is different, the US is different and Israel is different.

In this period, where state actors choose not to act and prefer to hedge their bets and wait, denial is the best strategy, or at least the most convenient course to follow. Everyone is waiting for something to happen to change the current dynamics — an event that might lead toward a solution. This event could be a deal or it could be a confrontation, which everyone is dreading. However, the situation is becoming more and more fluid.

The US no longer has the power to control the tempo of events and the other actors cannot find a solution, despite various initiatives, such as the Saudi-Iranian talks in Iraq and the UAE’s diplomatic outreach. No one can come up with a solution that is comprehensive and sustainable. In the meantime, the best all the actors can do is agree to disagree, which requires a certain level of denial of their problems and concerns.

• Dr. Dania Koleilat Khatib is a specialist in US-Arab relations with a focus on lobbying. She is co-founder of the Research Center for Cooperation and Peace Building, a Lebanese nongovernmental organization focused on Track II. She is also an affiliate scholar with the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut.

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