When Tony Blair was appointed Middle East envoy, it meant leading the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. That brief still applies, but now he must tend to democratic transformations and civil wars, too. The Quartet — consisting of the U.N., EU, U.S. and Russia — speaks on behalf of the international community.
Blair, the charismatic modernizer of Britain’s Labour Party, was elected prime minister in 1997. But leading Britain through 10 years of wide-ranging reform was a cakewalk compared to Tony Blair’s current job.
Which Middle Eastern country is your top priority right now?
The Israel-Palestine peace process is still my main task, but I’ll inevitably get involved in the situation in the Middle East as a whole. It’s extraordinary, exhilarating, but of course it has also got real challenges.
What’s the main challenge?
The big question in any revolution is not where it begins but where it ends. The question now is, will the forces of modernization use this push to democracy and take it to a place where it allows a functioning democracy to develop in their respective country, or will various elements, for example, Islamists, take the situation in a reactionary direction? The biggest risk in the current situation is that countries get destabilized through the revolution and don’t take the right economic decisions to create jobs and prosperity for people. Then you end up with the revolution going in a reactionary direction.
The Arab Spring is a result of citizens’ frustrations with their dictators, but the dictators were friends with the West. Was it a mistake for the West to be friendly with Middle Eastern dictators?
[Former Egyptian President Hosni] Mubarak, for example, is very different from [Libyan leader Muammar] Gaddafi. But in the case of each leader, there’s a reason we were dealing with them. In the case of Mubarak, he was a force for stability in the Middle East. Thanks to the West’s engagement, Gaddafi gave up his country’s nuclear weapons program and stopped sponsoring international terrorism. Does that justify internal repression? No, but it poses us — the West — with a problem, since we’re dealing with the respective leader from the outside. The reality of politics is that you can’t simply say, “The only countries we’re going to deal with are the countries that emulate our political system.” So, you’re always in a situation where you’re making difficult compromises.
On the other hand, Gaddafi and Mubarak kept their countries stable, as have Hugo Chavez and the Castro brothers. Is stability sometimes better than democracy?
The most important thing now is to recognize the fact that the countries that are dictatorial are often not going to remain stable. One of the things we’ve learned from the Arab Spring is that even though an authoritarian country looks stable and sustainable, it’s going to collapse.
Generally speaking, you can engage and work with an authoritarian ruler while at the same time urging them to make changes. This was a constant refrain I had with the Gaddafi regime. I told them, “You’ve got to change. You’ve changed your external policy; change your internal policy, too.” In the end, they didn’t want to.
The sanctions against Iran haven’t had much impact. Is it time to engage with Iran?
The sanctions do have an effect. And it’s not that people haven’t tried to engage with the Iranian leaders to get them to stop doing what they’re doing. The objection to what Iran is doing is very simple: It’s trying to develop nuclear weapons, which would be very dangerous and destabilize the whole region.
What’s the solution?
To keep pushing. If you withdraw sanctions, they’ll think they can do whatever they want.
Doesn’t Iran have a point when it says it’s being unfairly targeted, considering that
Israel is not being punished for its nuclear program?
Iran knows what the difference is. Iran developing nuclear weapons would completely change the balance in the region. If Iran got nuclear weapons, its neighbors would try to do the same.