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The Middle East: A Rainbow or a Tornado?

MIAMI, Feb 10 2012 (IPS) - A year ago the fall of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt was greeted with general satisfaction and considerable relief. Was it already possible to glimpse (for example, in the spectacle of the Egyptian leader being judged bedridden in a cage) the difficulties that lay ahead for North Africa and the Middle East fulfilling the promise of the “Arab Spring”?

The cruel end of Gaddafi, trapped and lynched on nearly live television, and his anonymous burial, was a foretaste of what lay ahead and would cause discomfort to the European powers and the United States, whose intelligence services had already warned of the precariousness of the process of change.

After a prolonged period of relative stability of the Israeli-Palestinian situation, thanks to the cooperation of Cairo, which received as much military aid as Tel Aviv, the alarms went off when the Palestinian government decided to go to the United Nations asking for admission.

The next blow came, as feared, from Iran, which confirmed its rejection of the inspectors’ demands and its refusal to stop its project to develop nuclear energy, which was suspected of being a cover for a nuclear weapons programme.

If London, Paris, and Washington do not succeed in changing Teheran’s path, Israel would be willing and ready to bomb the country’s nuclear sites. The U.S. and Iran find themselves at historical loggerheads. The regime of the ayatollahs cannot forgive Washington’s long support of the Shah, while Washington still smarts at the humiliation of the seizure of the U.S. embassy in Tehran, which contributed significantly to making Jimmy Carter a one-term president. Both sides reserve the right to revile and spar with the other.

Iranian president Ahmadinejad recently took advantage of an opportunistic alliance with Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez to annoy the United States in its own “backyard”, paying visits to Caracas, Quito, and Havana. But this did not greatly displease Washington, as it isn’t clear whether the Iranian president has a clear strategy or whether this is simply theatre for his bosses, to whom he must give the impression of being a global player.

This may be also the case with his threat to close the Gulf of Hormuz, which the US has stated it would react to with force. It is the only case in which Obama has gone this far, moreover, in a year in which he would be best served by stability before the elections next November.

Closing the straits would mean economic ruin for Teheran, which would lose the income from its oil exports. Moreover, Ahmadinejad’s threat provoked Saudi Arabia to warn that it would follow the U.S.’ lead in terms of using force. The terror that this Hormuz eventuality has provoked in Washington is striking.

In this complex scenario, there is another awkward contestant and a humanitarian situation that has seized world attention: Syria, which since the explosion last spring has shown all signs of being the next domino to fall, became a central object of concern when domestic protests sparked systematic repression by the Assad regime and the detonation of “asymmetric” civil war much along the lines of that in Libya.

The other factor was the predictable surge in Islamism as a political force both in the transition of certain countries already in the grips of change (Tunisia, Egypt) and others where predictions see Islam as an essential character on the political stage. What we have yet to see is whether this Islamism will be compatible with the U.S.’s and Europe’s expectations of democracy.

While the dramatic developments above do not necessarily have direct effects on neighbouring countries, it is clear that Turkey is a reference point and essential protagonist, passively and actively. Given the doubtfulness of its entry into the European Union, Ankara needs to explore other areas in which to assert itself as a regional player. Erdogan has presented the Turkish model -with possible adjustments to the ideology of his Islamically-inclined party along the lines of Europe’s Christian democratic parties – as a formula for regimes seeking their own political-religious compromise.

Though plagued by internal problems, including the eternal challenge of the Kurds and the still unresolved face-off with the military – who resist any change to the system put in place by Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey – Erdogan faces the dilemma of looking across his border and seeing a crisis build in Syria and having to decide whether or not to intervene.


(*) Joaquin Roy is ‘Jean Monnet’ Professor and Director of the European Union Centre of the University of Miami.

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