After all the bellicose bluster of recent weeks, there is a faint chance that the tide of war may be receding in the Middle East — especially in the two hot spots of Iran and Syria. The latest developments in these countries suggest the possible opening of a new phase of dialogue rather than of conflict.

This month has seen the launch of two important initiatives by Catherine Ashton, the EU’s foreign affairs chief, and Kofi Annan, the former UN secretary-general. If successful, they could trump the hawks and silence the drums of war. It remains to be seen, however, whether the parties themselves will have the sense to seize the opportunities now being presented to them.

Gaza is the major exception to this somewhat more promising picture. Israel’s air strikes — conducted in the name of its pitiless and provocative policy of ‘targeted killings’ or extra-judicial assassinations — have this past week taken the lives of some 25 Palestinians (until the Egyptian-brokered truce last Monday) and wounded close to a 100 more. Palestinian factions struck back with rockets, wounding a dozen Israelis. But these painful events should not distract attention from the bigger picture.

Just when Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s Prime Minister, was at his most histrionic and bellicose at the recent American Israeli Public Affairs Committee (Aipac) convention in Washington — shamelessly comparing Iran to Auschwitz — Baroness Ashton took the wind out of his sails by offering to resume talks with Tehran on the nuclear issue. Her initiative took the form of a letter to Tehran on March 9 offering renewed talks with the P5+1 (the US, Russia, China, France, Britain and Germany) ‘within the coming weeks at a mutually convenient venue.’ The goal of the talks, she stressed, remained ‘a comprehensive negotiated long-term solution which restores international confidence in the exclusively peaceful nature’ of Iran’s nuclear programme. Her letter was in response to one last September by Saeed Jalili, Secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, expressing Iran’s readiness for talks.

Meanwhile, just when Syria seemed to be sinking into the hell of a sectarian civil war, Annan, mandated by both the UN and the Arab League, embarked on a mission aimed at stopping the killing and creating the conditions for a negotiated settlement. After calling on the Arab League secretary-general in Cairo, he held two long meetings with President Bashar Al Assad in Damascus on March 10-11, before travelling to Doha for talks with the Emir Shaikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Al Thani (the Qataris have been vociferous in wanting to arm the Syrian rebels) and then on to Turkey for meetings with the Syrian National Council.

Do the initiatives of Ashton and Annan have a chance of success? They at least have the advantage of setting the international agenda for a while. They could, however, be easily sabotaged. The hawks will not easily give up.

Israel detests the idea of the great powers negotiating a settlement with Tehran, since it knows that talks must inevitably result in recognising Iran’s right to enrich uranium, if only to modest levels for purely civilian purposes. Netanyahu wants Iran’s entire nuclear programme shut down — his goal is ‘zero enrichment’ — a demand which no Iranian regime, whatever its colouring, could possibly accept.

On his recent visit to Washington, Netanyahu tried to secure a pledge from President Barack Obama to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities or to lend American support to an Israeli strike. He failed to get the pledge he wanted. Although Obama reaffirmed his determination to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, he also made very clear to Netanyahu that sanctions and diplomacy must first be given a chance to work.

For all Netanyahu’s tough talk, it is highly unlikely that Israel will dare attack Iran on its own. Its strategy has been to get the US to do the job for it — in much the same way as pro-Israeli neo-conservatives, like Paul Wolfowitz and Douglas Feith, manipulated intelligence to push the US into war against Iraq in 2003 on Israel’s behalf.

Israel wants at all costs to protect its regional monopoly of nuclear weapons. It has a nuclear arsenal estimated at between 75 and 150 warheads, a range of sophisticated delivery systems, and a second strike capability based on long-range missiles mounted on German-supplied submarines. In contrast, there is as yet no convincing evidence that Iran intends to build a nuclear weapon. America’s annual National Intelligence Estimate — the collective opinion of its 16 intelligence agencies — has repeatedly confirmed that Tehran has not so far taken any such decision. Talk of Israel facing an ‘existential threat’ from Iran has no basis in fact. Rather it is Israel’s neighbours who risk annihilation. As the former French president Jacques Chirac once said: If Iran were ever to contemplate launching a suspect missile towards Israel, Tehran would be immediately obliterated.

The issue is not, and has never been, about ensuring Israel’s survival, but rather about ensuring its regional military supremacy — a supremacy which, over the past several decades, has given it the freedom to strike its neighbours at will without being hit back. If Iran were ever to acquire a nuclear weapon — or merely the capability of building one — Israel fears this would restrict its freedom of action. It might even be a step towards creating a regional balance of power, which Israel is determined to prevent. Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has said that if Iran were supplied with 20 per cent enriched uranium for the Tehran Research Reactor and medical purposes, it would immediately stop enriching uranium to that level, restricting itself to 3.5 per cent enrichment for electricity generation. (He repeated this pledge to Lally Weymouth of the Washington Post on September 13, 2011; to Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times on September 21, 2011; and to Reuters on September 22, 2011. To Iranian TV in October 2011, he declared: ‘If they give us the 20 per cent fuel, we will immediately halt 20 per cent.’) In return, however, he would no doubt expect a US guarantee that it would not seek to overthrow the Iranian regime by subversion or force. The outline of a deal with Iran is, therefore, already on the table.

As for the Syrian conflict, neither Al Assad nor his opponents seem yet ready to compromise. Having flushed out the rebels from Homs, Bashar is now seeking to drive them out of their other strong-points before contemplating a negotiation. For their part, the rebels seem to believe that — with fresh fighters, weapons and funds flowing in to them — they must eventually triumph. Both sides are almost certainly mistaken. Annan’s task is to persuade them that there can be no military solution to the conflict, and that, sooner or later, they must sit down and negotiate a way out of a crisis which is destroying their country. The time has surely come for Obama to lend his full weight to the two initiatives of Ashton and Annan. He is fully aware of the urgent need to spare the region — and the US itself — another catastrophe such as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

 Patrick Seale is a commentator and author of several books on Middle East affairs.

–Gulf News