We still have not learned the art of Middle Eastern Diplomacy

BBC NEWS | World | Middle East | Iranians release British sailors

During the Iraq war, amid all the tragi-comedy of Comical Ali and the daily briefings which got further and further from any sense of reality, most of us overlooked something which should have been the key to our Middle Eastern future. It was something very simple: every day Saddam Hussein could take his pick of any one of his ministers able to give a briefing in English. Neither Britain nor the USA was able to put up a single minister or military leader who could brief Al Jazeera or any part of the Arab press in Arabic.

Language ability, of course, is not in itself sufficient. Otherwise Saddam would have fared better by virtue of his linguists. But, for as long as our leaders attempt to negotiate in English, they will have failed to take the most basic step towards understanding the Arab world.

Everyone can and should applaud the release of the Iranian hostages. But we must not forget the underlying diplomatic issues. First, the fact that Iran wanted to embarass and punish the British navy. Second, that they knew that Britain was without intermediaries in the Middle East willing to negotiate on our behalf. This would have been the appropriate, Middle-Eastern, diplomatic solution. Instead, and third, that Britain went to the United Nations to censure Iran. There is no doubt that Iran was at fault in a legal sense. However, since the UN has been entirely incapable of holding back the Iranian nuclear programme, its ability to intervene in this crisis was purely symbolic. And it was a symbol guaranteed to incense the Iranians further — which it did.

The crisis was solved because Iran elected to draw back from the brink. Other solutions were possible. But the solution which did emerge is the one that showed Iran — to other Middle Eastern nations — as a magnanimous giver, with Britain in the role of the supplicant.

Britain and the US have entirely neglected the need to relate to Arab roles, customs and relationships.

It is too late for this generation of government to learn from these mistakes.

The next generation, which will come post-Brown, must do better.

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