The Optimist’s Year

Five reasons why 2015 is going to bring positive changes to the Middle East.

By , a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Iraqi Shiite militia fighters raise up their weapons as they celebrate pushing back Islamic State (IS) militants on September 3, 2014, on the road between Amerli and Tikrit . Amerli was besieged when IS-led militants launched a major offensive in June, overrunning chunks of five Iraqi provinces and sweeping security forces aside, though security forces have now begun to claw back some ground. AFP PHOTO/ AHMAD AL-RUBAYE (Photo credit should read AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images)

Tired of hearing about the Broken, Angry, Dysfunctional (BAD) Middle East? Exhausted by annoyingly negative analyses and news coverage generating the same old, same old, or worse? Persuaded that things can’t and won’t change for the better?

Tired of hearing about the Broken, Angry, Dysfunctional (BAD) Middle East? Exhausted by annoyingly negative analyses and news coverage generating the same old, same old, or worse? Persuaded that things can’t and won’t change for the better?

I can see why. The Carnegie Endowment recently asked its experts what region of the world would be home to the most “headline-making crises” in 2015? The answer? Seventy-five percent of those polled said the Middle East.

But read on. Optimists, believers, and the interminably upbeat: prepare yourselves. This coming year may actually be better than the past one. Indeed, 2015 could well be potentially — I said potentially — pivotal on several key fronts. A U.S.-Iranian nuclear deal could begin to rearrange the power balance in the region; a new government in Israel might open up possibilities for progress toward a two-state solution; and stabilizing the situation in Iraq might turn those temporary gains made by the Islamic State (IS) of late into more permanent setbacks. Are these just dreams of the perennially hopeful? Perhaps. But they’re all worth contemplating as the Middle East enters 2015.

An Iranian Nuclear Deal?

So far talks between the United States and Iran have surprised (the November 2013 Joint Plan of Action) and disappointed (the November 2014 extension). But 2015 will bring a critical credibility test. In short, this negotiating process is running out of time, political space, justifications and explanations for further delay and extensions. A political agreement by the March deadline on the big issues would buy time beyond July to conclude the many technical details that will still require resolution for a comprehensive accord. But make no mistake, 2015 will be the put up or shut down year for this diplomatic enterprise. Either the talks will produce an accord or the time for talking will end and other, less pleasant interactions will begin.

So, why the happy face? For starters, let’s assess the current situation. Clearly, the gaps on enrichment capacity and sanctions relief are large and the mistrust between Iran and the United States runs deep. Otherwise there would have been an accord already. And the Americans, now hemmed in by a Republican-controlled Congress, have likely reached the limits of their own flexibility.

But this could actually be a very good thing for the negotiating process because nothing concentrates the mind better than running out of time, and the prospect of facing cruel alternatives (the downside of which are quite grim). Coming out of 2015 with no deal on the table would almost certainly mean a drift toward tension, confrontation, and possible military action by Israel or the United States, depending on whether Iran accelerates its nuclear program. To avoid these consequences, a resolution is needed and soon.

This situation is nothing like the never-ending Israeli-Palestinian peace process that, in the immortal words of the late Robert Strauss, is “like trying to wipe your ass with a wagon wheel. It goes round and round and nothing happens.” In other words, unlike in Israel/Palestine where, when there’s no agreement, tensions rise periodically and violence ensues but without regional costs or consequences, in the case of Iran, no nuke agreement, would mean more sanctions, more economic pain — especially now that oil prices have collapsed and crushed the expectations of the business community — and, at the end of the day, maybe war. For the United States, it could mean a proxy war in the region with Iranian mischief making in Iraq, Afghanistan, or even another Israeli-Hezbollah war should Israel strike out against Tehran.

The fact is 2015 is likely the now or never year. Add to that the fact the Obama administration has all but conceded Iran’s right to enrich and the opportunity for Iran to produce in time an industrial scale enrichment capacity, and bingo — you have powerful arguments building for an Iranian “yes.” But will there be one? That the decision on any deal rests ultimately in the hands of a single individual — the Supreme Leader — means it’s impossible to say. But it also means that because the Supreme Poobah has the power and authority, he can actually authorize an agreement and deliver one, too.

Just for the record, should there be an agreement, it’s unlikely that some grand transformation in the U.S.-Iranian relationship will follow. Cuba will be a cakewalk by comparison. (And just wait to see how tortuously complex U.S.-Cuba normalization will be.) No, the U.S.-Iranian deal is more a business proposition, an unsentimental transactional arrangement designed to avoid a problem rather than one that creates an opportunity. But the funny thing is once you start such a process, there’s no telling where it might lead eventually over time. As Ian Malcolm, the chaos theoretician in the film Jurassic Park (played by the wonderful Jeff Goldblum) warned, “Life will not be contained. Life breaks free. It expands to new territories.”

In the case of the United States and Iran, how far and fast this expansion might go is highly arguable. My colleague at the Wilson Center, the inestimable Haleh Esfandiari, argues convincingly that there are serious limits to normalization. But resolving the nuclear standoff will remove a big issue and at least open the theoretical possibility of beginning to unwind the long, dysfunctional and complex history of U.S.-Iranian relations. Any putative normalization will depend on the amelioration of U.S.-Iranian differences on a variety of regional issues such as Syria. And the Supreme Leader will be so wary of creating openings with America and the west that might lead to a loss of control that there should be few expectations on the normalization front.

Israeli Elections: Time for a Change?

It’s way too early to make electoral predictions that are worth very much. Two of Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu’s last three victories were facilitated by late-breaking events — in 1996, Hamas terror and Shimon Peres’s badly managed campaign; in 2008/2009, Ehud Olmert’s failure to defeat Hamas decisively in Operation Cast Lead and his prior conduct of the 2006 Lebanon war.

But there’s a growing sense in Israel that time is running out for the country’s second-longest-serving prime minister.

It’s only a sense right now — not yet a rising current, let alone a tide. The Israeli public isn’t really invested in the campaign yet; and unlike many Israeli pundits who see this election as a clear choice between Israel becoming a pariah state or remaining true to its Jewish and democratic values, most Israelis probably don’t see the future that starkly. What polls do suggest, however, is that a majority of Israelis (54 percent) feel that after six years of Netanyahu, the country is headed in the wrong direction and that Bibi shouldn’t continue as prime minister after the election (53 percent). And while Israel has moved to the right, these last six years, the political establishment has also moved away from Netanyahu. One of the beneficiaries is the former Likud Communications Minister Moshe Kahlon whose new party Kulanu is positioned to benefit big time. Whether the center left, now comprised of the Labor Party headed by Isaac “Bugie” Herzog and former Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, heading Hatunah, can present a credible alternative and actually create a functional coalition government is another matter. Polls show this center left bloc holding its own with Likud right now. But there are many unknowns, including how potential king makers on the right, such as Naftali Bennett and Avigdor Lieberman, will fare. But that’s precisely the point. Israeli politics right now are at sea, more open, fluid and uncertain. The strength of the right in Israel makes Netanyahu’s continuation as prime minister certainly possible but by no means probable, let alone foreordained. Indeed, right now, reelection to an historic fourth term would defy all the odds.

Israel/Palestine: A Serious Peace Process?

A new, more centrist, Israeli government would almost certainly open up a dead-end peace process. The key question is whether such a government would be able to make decisions on the big peace process issues, borders, security, and even Jerusalem. Right now even the left is talking tough against these kinds of compromises. Remember Nixon and China; Begin and Sinai; Rabin and Oslo, even Sharon dismantling settlements in Gaza? The history of peacemaking in Israel is really a story of transformed hawks — tough men with security credentials who had the trust and confidence of the public. A centrist coalition with a gentler face would be welcome. But it may not have the necessary coherence and discipline to deliver big moves in the negotiations. And will a new and largely untested prime minister have the steel cojones to deliver? Only twice in the past 22 years (in 1992 and 1999) have centrists with balls (Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Barak) trumped the right. And these were pragmatic hawks with deep security credentials. Labor Party head Herzog, the putative prime minister of the center left, doesn’t seem to have them.

And the peace process story of course isn’t just up to Israel. Can a divided Palestinian national movement produce leaders who can make decisions that can accommodate Israeli needs on borders and security too? And will the Palestinians be committed to negotiations with an Israeli government that is without a prime minister who is willing and able to meet the needs of a Palestinian narrative that comes very close to demanding get 100 percent of their needs on most of the core issues and that leaves little margin for flexibility?

One former Palestinian negotiator confided to me that Palestinians would actually prefer a hard right wing Israeli government rather than a soft one that can’t make big decisions. The former would facilitate the PA campaign to isolate Israel in the international arena, which would over time put pressure on Israelis. The latter might put the Palestinians on the defensive on the PR front without being able to deliver what Palestinians need on issues such as Jerusalem and borders. Indeed, an Israeli government with a friendly and moderate face might derail any serious plans Palestinians have for marshaling international pressure against Israel; and might actually succeed in turning pressure back on them

Whatever the complexities on the Israeli and Palestinian fronts, one thing is clear: A new Israeli government will mean the return of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and the peace team. Now, down to his (and the president’s final 18 months) Kerry will become a whirlwind of activity, pushing, prodding to see if he can achieve some deal whether the parties are ready or not. Kerry is a missionary on this one — a believer who has concluded the two-state solution is dead unless he can redeem it. It will be fascinating to see how Obama reacts to all of this. Never as enthusiastic as his chief diplomat on the peace issue, the question will be whether legacy will push him to be more risk-ready and hands on in the final phase of his presidency. Would he be open to another high stakes Camp David 3 summit or simply be content to leave behind a more detailed set of parameters to guide the negotiation, perhaps enshrined in a U.N. Security Council Resolution? And how will the 2016 presidential campaign with two candidates competing to see who will get the chance to man/woman the helm of Israel’s key ally will play into these efforts. In 2014, the so-called peace process seemed closed for the season. In 2015, at least the process part might be open for business.

Iraq: Holding Its/Our Own?

This past year was a pretty frightening one in Iraq. Earlier this summer it looked as if IS was on its way to taking over the world — or at least a large part of Iraq. There was concern that Baghdad was threatened, and with a frozen political situation resulting from former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Shiite agenda, it appeared as if the Kurds and Sunnis were going their own way.

Has Iraq turned the corner? Unless you really do believe in the tooth fairy, the answer is most assuredly no. Iraq may never function as a truly coherent state with control over its borders and a political and economic power sharing agreement, let alone with a defined and shared sense of Iraqi national identity.

But let’s not make the perfect the enemy of the good either. For Iraq, 2014 ended much better than it began. Maliki’s gone. The new prime minister seems actually committed to at least a measure of inclusion. The central government’s recent agreement with the Kurds; newfound interest in and support of key Sunni states; a semi-functioning government in Baghdad; the fact that IS’s march seems to have been temporarily blunted; and the fact that Iraq is once again back on America’s radar screen are all hopeful signs. And despite the challenges, including empowering Sunni tribes against IS, fostering a real power sharing among Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds, and training and standing up Iraq’s military, there is a U.S. strategy that will hopefully succeed in consolidating the gains and perhaps beginning to turn back IS in the new year.

Tunisia and the Arab World: More Functional Than We Think?

The news of 2014 might also lead you to believe that the entire Arab world was one giant crisis. Actually, only about 20 percent of the Arab states are now in some form of active melt down — Libya, Syria, and Yemen. Even if you tossed in a fraught Iraq, the putative state of Palestine that looks like Noah’s Ark (between Fatah and Hamas you have two of everything: constitutions, security services, patrons, etc.), and the non-state of Lebanon, you’re still left with a majority of the Arab world that’s still functioning.

Tunisia, of course, is the bright spot and has now passed through two post-transition elections. It has adopted a constitution that gives women full rights, protects the right to believe or not believe, and commits to a peaceful rotation of power — all without precedent in the Arab world. The success of this experiment will be in the doing. But Tunisia is unique and settled enough that it just might be on its way to building something in the Arab world that we’d be able to actually describe — with a straight face — as a stable and functioning emerging democratic polity.

The Kings and Emirs (Saudi, Qatar, UAE, Morocco, Jordan, Oman, Bahrain, and Kuwait) all have significant challenges, including, for the petro powers, lower oil prices in 2015. But a combination of factors that variously apply — such as oil money, Islamic legitimacy, modest reforms, effective security services, leaders who are still respected, and the fear of being visited by the Arab Spring — have kept them all stable and functional in a turbulent region. That Egypt isn’t being run by the Muslim Brotherhood or hasn’t descended into some anarchic state is good news for 2015. But the military’s inability to resolve Egypt’s political and economic problems will almost guarantee a highly problematic future.

The fact is given how disastrous and threatening the so-called Arab Spring has been, we should be ringing in the new year thankful that the Arab world isn’t in worse shape and that America still has partners (authoritarians all) with which it can cooperate and do business.

Happy New Year?

Is this list just a tad too annoyingly positive for you? Not to worry. I’m certainly not prepared to go over to the dark side of the perennially upbeat. The Middle East is likely to remain BAD for some time to come. I’ve spared you a list of ongoing catastrophes, including the rise and durability of IS, Syria’s bloody wars, Egypt’s dysfunction, Libya’s descent into chaos, Yemen’s failing future, and the thousand other forms of dysfunction, bad governance, lack of gender equality, and absence of respect for human rights and freedom of conscience that have made these unhappy lands the region of the world least likely to succeed in 2015 and the years beyond.

But enough gloom and doom — at least for now. Raise your glasses and be merry. Things could always be worse. And let’s make a heartfelt wish in honor of the New Year that they won’t be.


Aaron David Miller is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former U.S. State Department Middle East analyst and negotiator in Republican and Democratic administrations. He is the author of The End of Greatness: Why America Can’t Have (and Doesn’t Want) Another Great President. Twitter: @aarondmiller2

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