- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 1, 2007

With help from the Iraqi government, the United States is launching a new diplomatic campaign aimed at bringing Iran and Syria to a “meeting of neighbors” with intent of bringing stability to Iraq. This surprise initiative was announced Tuesday by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

The unexpected development represents an important reversal of policy for the Bush administration, which until now shunned all advice urging the president to initiate a dialogue with Syria and Iran. Washington has thus far refused to open talks with Damascus and Tehran on the grounds that Syria and Iran support groups considered by the U.S. to engage in terrorist activities.

Miss Rice said there was hope these governments would “seize this opportunity to improve their relations with Iraq and to work for peace and stability in the region.”

Call this a last ditch effort to try and avoid a general conflagration in the Middle East. Given the current state of the region, one spark could set off unprecedented violence. This is only a nightmare scenario — for the moment — but consider the following hot spots: Iraq, where the civil war lite can turn into a major regional conflict involving Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Syria.

In Lebanon, a dormant civil war could erupt at a moment’s notice. Just as civil war can break out in the Palestinian territories and drag Israel and Syria into the conflict.

With all sides flexing their military muscles, it would not take very much for that spark to ignite. Indeed, there is much at stake in this “meeting of neighbors.” Failure to reach a peace agreement in the past typically led to years of political stagnation. There will be no such luck this time. Failure to reach at least an understanding may result in all-out war.

To begin with, the United States has dispatched a second aircraft carrier task force to the Gulf. This gives Washington more firepower than it had in the region since the war in Iraq began in 2003. Not to be outdone, the Iranian military is carrying out some of its largest exercises ever, involving live ammunition, including missiles.

In Iran, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said last week his country’s disputed nuclear program was like a train without brakes or a reverse gear. To which Miss Rice shot back that Iran needs “a stop button.” She hinted the U.S. could volunteer to “install” that button. Meanwhile, the Islamic republic has test-launched a suborbital rocket it said was for scientific research only.

Moving to the other part of the Middle East on the Mediterranean coast, tension is not any less. According to an International Media Intelligence Analysis report, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told the country’s defense establishment on Sunday to prepare for the possibility of an all-out war with Syria. Israel’s various intelligence agencies, the Mossad, the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency), military Intelligence, the National Security Council and the Foreign Ministry briefed the Israeli Cabinet on pending threats. Military Intelligence chief Maj. Gen. Amos Yadlin opened the briefing and told the ministers that “Israel is surrounded by negative processes… that create more instability in the Middle East than in the past.”

And another report from the International Media Intelligence Analysis group said the Iranian-sponsored Hezbollah instructed agents operating in the Palestinian territories to launch mass casualty attacks on Israel. This is a bizarre report given Hezbollah does not control agents inside the Palestinian territories, a matter confirmed by Afif Safieh, the Palestine Liberation Organization representative in Washington.

“This is a blatant attempt at disinformation and it reminds me of one of the worst periods of ‘agit-prop’ [agitation/propaganda] techniques [formerly used by the Soviet Union] that have plagued international relations,” said Mr. Safieh.

The report from IMIA says Israeli security forces believe Hezbollah has been financing more than 20 plots to conduct suicide bombings inside the Jewish state.

Meanwhile, the commander of the U.S. 5th Fleet deployed in the Gulf warned that Iran poses a greater security threat to the strategic Gulf region than does al Qaeda.

“We consider this moment in time unprecedented in terms of the amount of insecurity and instability that is in the region,” Vice Adm. Patrick Walsh said at a press conference in Bahrain earlier this month.

“Our presence in the Arabian Gulf is for defensive and not offensive purposes,” said Adm. Walsh. But, he added, “The U.S. will take military action if ships are attacked or if countries in the region are targeted or U.S. troops come under direct attack.”

If the “meeting of neighbors” fails to produce positive results, it could end up being as infamous as the 1938 “Peace in Our Time” summit held in Munich between British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and Adolf Hitler.

Claude Salhani is international editor for United Press International.

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