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Plain Speaking Says a Lot For a Changing Middle East

Jul 16 2012 (IPS) - With ever increasing sanctions against Iran, escalating violence in Syria and the continuing political struggles in Egypt, a new dynamic has been added to the long-standing policy challenges in the Middle East.

“The Middle East is a place where the weak minorities are wiped out… Peace is viable so long as no one is stronger than us,” said Ephraim Sneh, Chair of the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Strategic Dialogue at Netyanya College, Israel.

He spoke at a one day workshop in New York on Wednesday, hosted by Freidrich-Ebert-Stiftung New York and the EastWest Institute, which brought together speakers from Turkey, Iran, Israel and Egypt, as well as Russia, the United States and Europe.

“Small nations can rely only on themselves and we will never deposit our future in the hands of anyone,” said Sneh. “Israel will not abandon its military balance.”

The mounting international pressure on Iran was also a key topic of discussion, with many concerns raised for the efficacy of the imposed sanctions. “The [Iranian] population is suffering tremendously from the sanctions that have been imposed,” said Trita Parsi, President of the National Iranian American Council.”

Parsi said that the majority of sanctions posed put a great deal of pressure on the economy, which was felt foremost by the Iranian people, not the intended target of the government.

Dmitry Dolmatov, the Second Secretary for the Russian Mission Federation to the UN, told IPS, “Speaking about the Russian policy, we are almost always against sanctions because those who suffer more are ordinary civilians, not the government. The government will always have the money.”

Rolf Mützenich, Member of the German Bundestag and Parliamentary Foreign Affairs Spokesperson for the Social Democratic Party, told IPS, “Sanctions can have an effect to change the behaviour of some governments and we see it with the experience of South Africa or some other countries where sanctions work but not very fast.”

Mützenich acknowledge that “sanctions hit societies,” but said that sanctions were being used “because we want to hit the government, otherwise to change their behaviour.”  Parsi criticised the way in which the United States conducted negotiations with Iran, claiming the upcoming Presidential elections in the United States had a strong influence on their outcome.

“Mindful of the way that the negotiations have been conducted… sanctions relief was not on the table, and that makes it very difficult for the government to agree to any compromises if the key thing that is of value to the population, that could enable them to support a deal, is not part of the deal,” said Parsi.

Parsi questioned whether a diplomatic process would still be alive by the time the elections had concluded, drawing attention to the fact that new sanctions were soon to be imposed and new escalatory steps were to be announced.  “Europe now has a tremendous opportunity to be extremely relevant precisely because it is not constrained by the same political limitations that Obama is in election year,” Parsi said.

Mützenich told IPS, “Europe can play a role but on the other hand I have to make quite clear that today the Euro crisis and the process of integration is in a very bad mood.” Social change was also an important topic on the agenda, specifically in the context of the Arab Spring and the formation of foreign policy.

Abdul-Monem Al-Mashat, the Dean of the Faculty of Economics and Political Science at Future University in Egypt, doubted whether or not President Morsi will have absolute freedom in designing and implementing foreign policy and other acts of state given the current political climate in Egypt. However, he judged the outcomes of the revolution to mostly positive.

“It’s true that the Egyptian revolution is an unfinished job… but it is a revolution where at least one major outcome has been achieved and that’s the drop of the fear of state apparatus,” said Al-Mashat. The final outcome of the revolution would have a very strong influence on the direction of the region.

Sneh also spoke about the potential for social protest in Israel, saying “Last summer, we had our Tahir square. 400 000 Israelis took to the streets in a protest against the social policy of the government.”

Salman Shaikh, Director of Brookings Doha Center and Fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy, acknowledged that “The dynamic is the people themselves, throughout the region, which is what makes it so interesting, exciting and unpredictable.”

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