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Is the Arab Spring Coming to an End?

09/25/2013 05:48 EDT | Updated 11/24/2013 05:12 EST

For the past few months, as the Syrian civil war raged on, the human toll continued to climb -- now over 100,000 dead, and more than two million refugees -- and Western powers wrung their hands over how to respond, the Iran issue got pushed to the periphery. But with the United States and Russia now apparently settled on a course of action to ensure Bashar Assad won't use chemical weapons on his own people again (even if he'll be able to go on using his vastly superior military power), focus has quickly shifted back to Tehran and its iffy nuclear ambitions.

Or perhaps the renewed attention paid to Iran is inextricably tied to Syria -- and to Egypt, Libya, Turkey and Tunisia. Indeed, it's beginning to look like Iran could be the culmination of the Arab Spring, the moment when it all comes together, where the lessons learned -- by Arabs and by the West -- from this fascinating, frustrating, bloody battle are finally put to positive, lasting use.

In their speeches at the United Nations on Tuesday, both U.S. President Barack Obama and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani expressed interest in the idea of reconciliation. There are a million reasons to be skeptical on the Iranian side -- to name three: the Ayatollahs, the history of nuclear run-around and, last but not least, the fundamental hatred of America (the CIA's 1959 coup that deposed Mohammad Mosaddegh, which Obama, in a nice gesture, acknowledged in his speech, is a large part of that). Monumental effort will be required if peace is to be achieved, make no mistake, but this was a big step forward. And U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry's scheduled meeting with his Iranian counterpart later this week indicates further movement could come rapidly.

Both sides need this more than ever. Obama is fresh off a major failure in Syria -- even if he and Kerry eventually did stumble on the most appropriate response to Assad's chemical attack, it's clear he had, and still has, a more punitive approach in mind (unless this was his plan all along It was not). There's little hope of achieving an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal before he leaves office. He needs to make a bold move if his presidency, and no less than America's standing, are to be saved.

Meanwhile, the Ayatollahs are being crippled by sanctions -- well, not them personally, but you know what I mean. The next citizen uprising won't be as easily squashed as the post-2009 (fixed) election protests were. And the people seem to like President Rouhani, which could be a bad thing for the Ayatollahs, who didn't have to worry about that sort of thing with president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

If peace comes, it will be a miracle, but also the turning point of the Arab Spring, a movement soon to turn three years old. There remain monumental and ongoing failures in the Arab uprising: Syria, is a human tragedy in the making; and Egypt tried democracy and didn't like it. But one gets the sense we are all learning what is going to work in the Arab world of the 21st century, and what won't. Clearly, there is a yearning for change, but it's not going to be much like the democracy we recognize. Heck, it may not even be democracy at all. And Obama has realized no one wants him to be a major player in the Arab Spring -- and that the idea of a nuclear, but controlled, Iran doesn't seem like too bad a compromise to make.

There were rumours Obama and Rouhani would meet at the UN on Tuesday. Perhaps that would have been too much to ask for, but in any case it didn't happen -- it was "too complicated" for the Iranians.

Touché. The good news is if both sides are truly aiming for peace, things are going to get a lot less complicated for everyone.

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