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THREE TASKS FOR INTERNATIONAL DIPLOMACY: Unfinished revolutions, civil war and nuclear proliferation
EIGHTEEN months into the beginning of the Arab revolts, the Middle East finds itself in a complex process of change that is overlaid by geopolitical competition and fears of war. The international community cannot engineer any part of this process, but it has some influence that it needs to use wisely.
The second round of Egypt's presidential elections this weekend epitomises, in a sense, the state of affairs in the transforming Arab countries: Egyptians have the chance, for the first time, to freely elect their head of state. But the first round of these elections has left them only the choice between a man from the military and an Islamist. Both present themselves as committed to democracy and freedom. But neither the one nor the other represents those men and women who triggered the revolution 18 months ago.
The popular revolts in the Arab world have mainly been the work of a generation, of those between 20 and 35 years of age. So far, the fall of the regimes in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen, and the cautious reform under way in Morocco, have not improved their economic and social situation. And wherever free elections have since taken place, the activists who made them possible have not been among the winners.
Some already speak of "stolen revolutions" -- stolen by conservative Islamist groups who certainly have a broad constituency but lack democratic credentials, or by representatives of the old elite who promise to bring back stability but also represent authoritarian tendencies.
The European Union, Japan, the United States and other democracies have a stake in the promotion of democratic change and better governance in the Middle East. But they cannot determine outcomes and must avoid any impression that they wanted to. The only credible way to deal with this process of change is to offer cooperation and support to any new government that emerges from democratic elections, regardless of its political colouring.
Syria, meanwhile, finds itself at the brink of a full-scale civil war. The Assad regime is not implementing Kofi Annan's peace plan, but stepping up its brutal repression. The originally peaceful uprising is becoming increasingly militarised.
With every new massacre, calls for an international military intervention are becoming louder. Such military options as have been discussed so far will not end the bloodshed. The international community will, therefore, still need to increase both its pressure on the regime and its diplomatic efforts. The former should involve a full political and economic embargo on Syria; the latter means that those who can still talk to Assad need to do so and work for some form of a negotiated transition of power.
The regime will not survive anyway, but the way it ends will determine whether Syria can reconstitute itself as a viable political entity or sink into a long-drawn confessional civil war.
Russia has a central role here: only if Assad hears from Moscow that the game is over will he really feel isolated and probably accept an exit that guarantees security to him and his entourage.
Diplomatic skill is even more demanded with regard to Iran and its nuclear programme. Iran needs to reassure the rest of the world that it will not use its nuclear pro-gramme to build a bomb.
The most significant step into that direction would be to stop its 20 per cent enrichment and ship at least part of its enriched uranium abroad. Teheran might be prepared for that. It expects, though, some of the most hurting sanctions to be lifted in response. Success of the talks is not guaranteed. But a breakdown would significantly raise the risk of military conflict.