OPINION

A cue for action on a burning stage

The worsening conflict in Syria, the incomplete Arab revolutions and Israel’s threat to attack Iran raise the danger of a broader conflict in our region. This would leave no country unaffected. The confusion offers Greece an opportunity to break out of the inertia stemming from its economic impasse and from its role as an international scapegoat. In the regional turmoil, our country could turn its current weakness to its advantage: It could argue for greater support from our partners in the European Union and NATO, so as to remain stable in an unstable neighborhood; even though it is a member of both these organizations, its weakness obliges it to have good relations with countries that are in the other camp, allowing Greece to offer its good services in any effort to defuse the crisis.

The way that the geostrategic situation is developing affects many key countries and presents a number of dangers that a broader conflict would entail. The yearlong clash in Syria provides a battleground for the two main axes in the Arab and Muslim world. President Bashar Assad and his regime are the main allies of Iran, which presents itself as the protector of the Middle East’s Shiite Muslims and also takes the lead in anti-Israel activities. In the other camp are the Sunni Muslim states and populations, with Saudi Arabia at their head. Next to the latter stands Turkey, which has played a leading role in supporting the Syrian insurgents. Sooner or later, Turkey and Iran (both non-Arab states) will find themselves in a direct race to influence the shape of the Muslim world with their very different models of a Muslim republic — the one secular, the other theocratic.

Iran, though, is not in a confrontation with Saudi Arabia only in Syria but also in Iraq and the Persian Gulf states, where Tehran supports Shiite populations in countries under Saudi Arabia’s sway. Even though the Iraqi government of Prime Minister Nouri Maliki (a Shiite) has the closest ties with Iran, on February 20 Saudi Arabia appointed its first (nonresident) ambassador to Baghdad since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, in an apparent effort to strengthen its position in the country ahead of the Arab League summit scheduled there for late March.

Beyond the age-old rivalry between Shiites and Sunnis, between Iran and Saudi Arabia, the situation is further complicated by the international community’s handling of Iran’s nuclear program. The Iranians claim that the program has a purely peaceful purpose, arguing that their religion forbids the creation of weapons of mass destruction; yet at the same time they seem to want to give the impression that they are capable of acquiring nuclear weapons if the need arises. Because Iranian officials have declared that they would like to see Israel wiped off the map, the Israeli government is itching for military action to block Tehran’s nuclear program before it reaches the point of being able to build a weapon.

On Monday in Washington, President Barack Obama discussed the issue of Iran with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and stressed that he wanted to give sanctions and diplomacy more time. The US has not ruled out military action but is obviously afraid of destabilizing the whole region and also of provoking a further rise in the price of oil. The situation is worsened by the fact that the Republicans vying with each other to run against Obama in November’s elections are pushing a hard line against Iran. With all this, we’re headed for the terrifying situation where oil prices will keep rising rather than falling even though economies throughout the world will be in recession.

The situation is dangerous and unpredictable. Greece is greatly dependent on Iranian oil (as it is the only country that is still offering it at credit and at good prices) and desperate for an economic recovery. Also, because of historic and more recent relations, Greece is a special case for Tehran. Our weakness highlights how difficult it would be for Europe to go ahead with its threat of substantial sanctions against Iran (with the EU having voted to hold off an oil embargo on Iran until July 1). Our need for a solution should prompt us to make use of the channels of communication that we have both with Iran and Israel and, of course, with our partners in the EU and NATO.

Greece needs peace in the region and is also in a position to be a credible negotiator with Iran. We may not be lead players in the region but we can play a crucial role. And this could get us to end our isolation and our inertia.