Former U.S. Ambassador to Oman and current President and CEO of the Keystone Center, Gary Grappo, spoke with the World Affairs Council of Charlotte uptown at the Duke Energy Building on Wednesday, June 13. Having served in the Middle East with the State Department in various diplomatic capacities, Grappo focused his talk on three areas: the Arab Spring, the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, and Iran.

Emotions drove the demonstrations during the Arab Spring. A fruit vendor who immolated himself in Tunisia sparked uprisings not just in his home country, but many other Arab nations. These outbursts of emotions elucidated one thing, that the people wanted change, to be a part of change. However, the people faced, and still face, a challenge. According to Grappo, these are change-averse countries. Transformations and alterations to government and society do not come about often. The people have yet to be indoctrinated in the ways of change. What will these people have to overcome?

Change relies on institutions and organizations. There are very few institutions for the people to rely on. Islam is the most enduring form of an institution, with the military following second. Monarchies have largely been accepted in Arab society. The media has been heavily controlled by the government, only beginning to change in the last fifteen years. Other organs of a common civil society don’t exist. Businesses share close ties with the government. Entrepreneurship is stymied as business requires connections to the government, creating a network of oligarchs. The judiciary arm of government has long been controlled by the executive branch. Education has been under government control in order to marginalize society.

Even with the lack of a Mandela or a Dr. King, there is no reason why democracy can’t flourish in these countries – eventually. These nations will undergo series of movements, some distasteful. For example, the Muslim Brotherhood recently won elections in Egypt, despite further military control until the end of the month. Having been banned by the Mubarak regime, the Brotherhood was forced underground. One of the successes of the party has been its ability to organize. It assumed roles of civil society to gain popularity. This experience led it to win the elections. Many evolutions will happen in these nations as they undergo change, different leaders, different governments, but change has happened and will continue to happen.

Sixty years in the making and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict still is not resolved. Israel will never be at peace until the conflict is resolved, according to Grappo. Minorities are becoming more populous in Israel and therefore pushing politics more conservatively, making it harder to negotiate with Palestine. Only the US or the EU has the capabilities to be proactive and resolve the conflict. The main issues between the two nations regard borders, refugees, national security and Jerusalem. All of the issues are emotional for Israel and Palestine, neither wanting to compromise. He believes that two leaders would need to step up together and resolve the conflict through serious compromises from both parties. Those individuals would be hailed internationally and condemned nationally for such a compromise, but this process is necessary to put an end to the ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestine.

The final topic of discussion focused on Iran. Grappo has a slightly different perspective on Iran than most Americans. Iranian leadership is not a new enemy to the U.S. In fact, America has held differences with Iran since World War II. According to Grappo, Iran would prefer to avoid war, especially a nuclear war. In addition, they would rather not engage in military combat with the United States. The leadership wants nuclear capabilities for political reasons, however, the people or Iran have no affinity towards the nukes. The government has tried to tie nationalism with the development of nuclear weapons, believing that the road to being a global power lies in nuclear capabilities. This is an erroneous and wrong path to global prominence as evidenced by comparing the development of South Africa and Pakistan, one focusing on civil society and the other on nukes.

The US must decide what kind of relationship it wants with Iran. Although condemned by the West, Iran is a very prominent country in the Middle East. It is one the most educated and culturally advanced country in the region, but it can’t continue practicing measures that lead to isolationist tendencies. Grappo believes that Iran is fearful for its survival but it will not reach out to the US to conduct a relationship. As such,  a proactive policy by the US to foster a diplomatic relationship with Iran is needed. A positive movement by the US towards Iran could have immeasurable benefits for the US, not just in Iran, but all over the Middle East.

Summary by Wilson Hallett, Washington & Lee University