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Why North Korea and Not the Middle East

One more article, full of common sense, from the redoubtable Rami Khouri.


Why North Korea and Not the Middle East?
*by Rami G. KhouriReleased: 18 Feb 2007

BEIRUT -- The very sensible six-nation agreement reached with North
Korea earlier this week to end its nuclear armaments program came at a
time when more details were being circulated about an Iranian offer to
the United States in Spring 2003, which addressed all bilateral issues
that have chilled relations between Tehran and Washington. The contrast
between the American-brokered deal reached with North Korea and the
continuing saber-rattling going on with Iran is stark, and perhaps

The North Korean agreement was a sign of sensible American diplomacy,
which contrasts sharply with the nonsensical approach that Washington
has often used on major foreign policy issues. Too often, especially in
the Middle East -- most especially when exaggerated pro-Israeli
interests influence its policy -- Washington has tended to rely more on
sanctions, threats and military force than on the reasonable deal-making
that has been a routine, even core, element of diplomacy among nations
for thousands of years.

The North Korean agreement -- essentially ending North Korea’s nuclear
arms program in return for energy, food, financial aid, and normalized
relations -- indicates that the United States is indeed capable of
sensible decision-making on the basis of mutually beneficial and
reasonable compromises. It confirms that useful results can emerge from
diplomatically engaging and negotiating with a country and leadership
that one dislikes, disdains or fears. It affirms again that such an
outcome is more likely to occur when concerned neighbors are part of the
process, as were South Korea, Japan, China and others in this case.

The North Korean precedent is very relevant to the Middle East because
the United States is involved in a direct, perhaps escalating,
confrontation with several important players in this region, namely
Iran, Syria, Hizbullah, Hamas and a series of other Islamist movements
that reflect huge segments of public opinion. These are unsavory
characters in Washington’s view, and should not be approached other than
with ultimatums, threats, sanctions, military moves and the like.

Yet the policy of confrontation, encirclement and attack that the United
States has pursued in much of the Middle East seems only to have made
this region a more violent and unstable place. Where Washington does
offer to engage and talk, it usually does so on the back of severe
preconditions -- such as Iran suspending its uranium enrichment program,
or Hamas unilaterally recognizing Israel without any reciprocal Israeli
gesture to the Palestinians. Such offers to talk, engage and negotiate
are not serious, because they cannot possibly be accepted by those to
whom they are made. They require the a priori acceptance of
American-Israeli demands by Arabs or Iranians, instead of getting to
such acceptance through the diplomatic process.

The Iranians, Palestinians, Syrians and others have a range of both
sensible and unreasonable positions on a variety of issues, as does
every party to any dispute anywhere in the world. Yet when one side in a
dispute offers to talk without preconditions, and to explore how
differences could be narrowed and agreement achieved, it would seem
useful to call its bluff and explore what can be achieved through
peaceful talks.

This is immediately relevant because/ powerful/ Iranians are once again
making gestures towards the United States, this time in the person of
former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who was quoted Wednesday as
saying that Tehran would remove obstacles blocking negotiations with
Washington were the latter to show good will towards Iran -- i.e., stop
threatening to change its regime or attack it. Iran, under former
President Mohammad Khatami, made a similar though more formal gesture to
the United States in Spring 2003, in the form of a letter sent through
the Swiss ambassador in Tehran to the Bush administration. IIran then
specified its willingness to discuss issues including its nuclear
program, support for militant Palestinians, and other regional issues of
concern to the United States and the countries of the region. The Bush
White House ignored that overture, as it has done with the latest
Rafsanjani offer, at least in public.

The fascinating question is: Why is the United States capable of
rational compromises and large doses of healthy humility in a situation
like North Korea, but not in the Middle East? No single issue can
explain this. It is probably due to several factors, including powerful
Israeli influences on US policy, oil and energy issues, the centrality
of American-induced transformation of the Middle East in the
neo-conservative agenda that drives Washington -- as well as continued
reactions to the trauma of 9/11 and persistent terror fears.

The irony, it would seem, is that the United States could achieve
meaningful, lasting progress on all these fronts, and a few others that
interest it, if it used an approach similar to the one that has achieved
a breakthrough with North Korea. It has nothing to lose, and much to
gain. So why does it not do so?

/Rami G. Khouri is an internationally syndicated columnist, the director
of the Issam Fares Institute at the American University of Beirut,
editor-at-large of the Beirut-based/ Daily Star/, and co-laureate of the
2006 Pax Christi International Peace Award./

Copyright ©2007 Rami G. Khouri / Agence Global
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