John F. Burns
New York Times
Two days ago, England lifted a four-year dialogue ban with the US-named terrorist organization Hezbollah. At the request of President Bush, Britain cut its ties with the Iranian organization known for initiating violent actions against Israel. England and Iran have a checkered past, with England regularly blamed for atrocious acts against the Islamic Republic and English involvement in the overthrow of Iranian leaders. This surprise shift in diplomatic relations indicates a new willingness of Britain to reach out to the Middle East. It also labels the old style of isolating noncompliant countries ineffective. The rationale for opening relations was pointed out in a New York Times article summarizing Foreign Officer Bill Marteson's comments that, "Britain aimed at moving Hezbollah toward becoming a nonviolent political party with policies focused on Lebanon, and not on undermining Israel."
Earlier this week, Gordon Brown visited the White House. Since the Obama administration took hold of Washington DC, the US has sought to better relations with Muslim countries and the Middle East. This outpouring of support has occurred in two branches with Obama speaking on Al Hurrah television and Congressional visits to Palestine. The rest of the world watched the hegemon and waited for the cue. Yesterday, one of the most influential countries opened its doors to discussions with one of the largest labeled terrorist organizations.
The extent of the US influence on Britain's change can only be speculated. I predict that Obama requested that Britain serve as an intermediary between Hezbollah and the United States. Since the US could not exactly reopen talks with an open and militant opponent of Israel, the US looked to its closest ally for assistance. How Hezbollah will be used is still up for deliberations, is the goal Iran, Israel or Lebanon? If Iran is the true goal, this could be the time to initiate change. With the re-election of Ahmadinejad, who is criticized for his inability to control inflation and strict oil rationing policies, he may be forced to foster a congenial relationship to face the prospect of re-election. If Israel is the focus of the attention, the temporary but fragile peace with Palestine could force many players to the table. Maybe the direction is shifting towards Lebanon, and the British want to make the new state effective.
While the political intent of the change is open to debate, Britain recognizing Hezbollah gives the country a new look. It shows an openness and willingness to collaborate that has not been seen since 2001.
Additionally, this change in England's practices reflects a changing Western view. The US is not seen as "going alone" at opening relations with the Middle East but rather at seeking the support and acceptance of the international community. Maybe the US will see itself accept a more multilateral approach to foreign relations. That is a big maybe.
Lastly, I wonder how Israel will respond to England's policy change. For the past eight years, Israel has seen unprecedented support for its often controversial practices by the United States. Now that Obama and Brown have opened their countries to talks with the Middle East, Israel will feel insecure. How will Israel brand itself in the next four years?