Six pieces of good news from the Middle East this week (really!)


Iran's new President Hasan Rouhani waves after his swearing-in at the parliament, in Tehran. (Ebrahim Noroozi/AP)

Even for the Middle East, it's been a bad few weeks. There was the alleged chemical weapons attack in Syria, the police violence and tightening military rule in Egypt, bombings in Beirut, bombings in Iraq and a rapid increase in settlement approvals in the West Bank.

It can be easy to get the sense that everything in the region is turmoil and suffering right now. As the Onion put it in a slightly too true headline on the violent crackdown in Cairo, "Egypt Plunges Into State Of Middle East."

But there's also been good news out of the Middle East recently. Yes, it's really true, promise. Some of the news is only modestly good relative to the region's low expectations, but some is actually quite promising. Here are six highlights:

1. Iran's new president making more gestures toward peace

Hassan Rouhani was sworn in this month and, since then, has sent one signal after another that he is interested in compromising with the United States to find a mutually acceptable deal to resolve their differences after decades of tension and conflict. That's easier said than done, but Rouhani's comments are a big step in the right direction and, as Iran-watcher Barbara Slavin wrote, a bright spot in an otherwise bleak Middle East.

2. Libya inching toward stability and political transition

For all Libya's very real problems, we're going to put those aside for a moment to appreciate the country's recent approval of an election law. That's a small but important step in the ongoing process toward national elections that officials hope to hold in December. The elections would take Libya a little further away from the Moammar Gaddafi era and toward a stabler, perhaps even democratic political system.

3. Palestinians make a concession for peace with Israel

Hopes are not particularly high for the ongoing round of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, but Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas offered a not-insignificant concession Thursday, saying that the Palestinian Authority would "not demand in the future to return to Jaffa, Acre or Haifa" in the event of a final peace deal.

This was taken, according to the Times of Israel, as a disavowal of a long-held demand for a right of return for refugees and their descendants.

4. The main Kurdish groups will meet for the first time

Kurdish people primarily live in four different countries -- Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran -- and are thus represented by separate groups that have separate priorities and sometimes very different politics. That's one of several reasons why, even though there are a lot of Kurds, they tend to have little political power and are not always treated well.

So it was a good sign for Kurds when 40 different Kurdish groups announced Tuesday that they would all meet for a major summit in September. A Syrian Kurdish leader told Radio Free Europe that the conference, to be held in the Iraqi city of Irbil, was a "dream of all Kurds everywhere and is going to bring us closer as parties across the region."

5. The United Arab Emirates experiments with sustainability

Energy-rich nations in the Middle East have some of the worst environmental sustainability records on the planet. That's mostly because they consume huge amounts of oil and natural gas, which are heavily subsidized by their governments, which is bad for the environment, bad for the global energy market and bad for the region's long-term stability, since those resources will eventually drain.

But the United Arab Emirates appears to be taking some small steps toward improving sustainability in the region, according to a Thursday story in the Abu Dhabi-based newspaper, the National. Those steps actually have to do with agriculture, not energy -- a U.A.E.-based center has spent about $6 million training 750 farmers across the Middle East to improve their yields and to minimize long-term environmental impacts. It's not a lot, but it may help nudge the region toward a much-needed cultural shift on sustainability.

6. Winks toward Internet freedom in Iran

Iran has some of the tightest Internet censorship in the world, in some significant part a response to the 2009 protests and an effort to clamp down on political speech. That censorship has many facets, but one of the most famous is the country's ban on Facebook, among other social networks. It's a bit hypocritical because many Iranians still use Facebook anyway, through special tools called VPNs; there's even a page that claims to represent Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

It was not for nothing, then, when new Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif acknowledged publicly that he and his family maintain a public Facebook page. According to Radio Free Europe reporter Golnaz Esfandiari, this has given some Iranians hope that the new Rouhani administration might unblock Facebook. Others are skeptical (and with good reason), but if nothing else, it's a sign that the new government at least takes a softer view of the Web and Iranians' ability to freely access it.

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Max Fisher · August 23, 2013