Sunday, June 20, 2021

The Game is Afoot

The recent diplomatic activity in the Middle East is dizzying. Round-the-clock meetings are being held between arch enemies, close allies and a host of unclassified others who are congregating at a breakneck pace. The cast includes official State representatives as well as covert emissaries. Still, nothing of substance has transpired.

The Vienna meetings are underway between the two main protagonists. On the one hand, the over-eager US delegation and on the other, the slow-paced Iranian team. On substance, the US is cautious while Iran is constantly leaking cheery news. What we know for sure is that the re-engagement narrative sounds promising, but talks remain inconclusive at best. 

A senior US delegation is touring the region to gauge reactions towards a possible return to the JCPOA. Saudis and Iranians are meeting in Iraq, thanks to the auspices of the Iraqi PM, to try and reach a modus vivendi, one hopes. Meanwhile the Houthis are continuing their killer-drone diplomacy over the skies of the Kingdom. Reportedly, the Saudi head of intelligence has visited Syria this past week, while his Israeli counterpart paid a visit to the White House few days before. Spooks do not make public statements, but disclosure of the visits is very telling. 

King Salman and Erdogan had two phone conversations during Ramadan after a long period of silence and frosty rapports. The killing of Khashoggi at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul was not on the Ramadan menu, one supposes.  Turkey and Egypt, two long-time foes, have revived diplomatic exchanges at the highest levels. The fate of the Muslim Brotherhood was not debated one speculates but then, maybe it was.

Even Lebanon benefited from a visit by David Hale of the State Department to jump start the negotiations over the maritime border dispute between Israel and Lebanon. French president Macron and his minister of foreign affairs have repeatedly visited the beleaguered country to check on the moribund process of forming a government. We hear of progress then, not. We hear of French sanctions on Lebanese corrupt politicians, then the rumors fizzle out. 

We can decipher very little from this diplomatic blizzard, but something is going on. 

One thing for sure, the Iranian nuclear arsenal is at the heart of any discussion and so are Iran’s ballistic missiles program and the destabilizing regional activities of its proxies. Iran’s relations with the West, meaning principally the US and, with the Rest (Israel and the Arab world), are at the center of any such parleys whether of overt or covert natures. Can Iran deliver anything meaningful in the midst of a presidential election? Zero flexibility by Iran would thwart the possibility of lifting US sanctions but conceding too much might jeopardize the regime’s continuity especially, with an ailing Khamenei at the helm and a vicious succession battle already playing out in the open.

Finally, what are the plans of the new ‘Tough Kid on the Block’, Russia? Could it be behind the Turkish-Egyptian rapprochement as a means of building a diplomatic ‘Sunni Alliance’ that counterweighs a militarized ‘Shi’a Crescent’? In that same vein is Russia, which has forged a special relation with Saudi through OPEC, influencing the latter’s posture towards Syria? At the opposite spectrum, Teheran is in Moscow’s debt for having saved both the Assad regime and its proxies from near annihilation in the early years of Syria’s civil war. As a result, how much leverage can Moscow yield on that front? In parallel, this does not seem to hold Russia from tolerating Israel’s repeated attacks on Hezbollah when smuggling precision-guided missiles from Iran to Lebanon via Syria. Despite all the heat that Russia is taking from the Biden administration on account of its reported meddling in US elections and its military forays in Crimea, Russia still holds many powerful cards that are critical for striking any grand bargain.

As it stands, the field is well defined, the players are well known, the whistles are blown, and the game is afoot. Win, lose or draw, sooner or later, something’s gotta give. As Thierry Henry the French football player puts it more eloquently: “Sometimes in football you have to score goals”. 

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