The Fatah-Hamas deal brokered by the Saudis
signaled the limits on U.S. influence in the region
In my latest on TIME.com , I argue that the Baghdad talks involving the U.S., Iran, Syria and other Iraq neighbors are a further negation of the idea that the Bush Administration is somehow rallying the regimes of the Middle East to isolate Tehran. Extract:
Late last year, following the Hizballah-Israel clash in Lebanon and mounting tensions over Iran’s nuclear program, the Administration appeared to retire the claim that its Middle East policy was about spreading democracy, and instead emphasized a split in the region between moderate, “responsible” regimes such as Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, and “extremists” led by Iran and Syria, along with movements such as Hezbollah and Hamas. The U.S. would overlook the authoritarian nature of the “responsible” regimes to focus on the more immediate goal of rallying their support against Iran.
This narrative hailed the sudden diplomatic exertions of the usually reticent Saudi regime, which was growing alarmed at the increasing Iranian influence in Lebanon, Iraq and the Palestinian territories (where Hamas had responded to U.S.-led efforts to isolate it by drawing closer to Tehran). But what has become abundantly clear is that the Saudis’ ideas on how to respond to Iran are quite different from those of the Bush Administration. Even as they offer financial support to those standing up to Iran and its allies, the Saudis have also been actively engaging with Tehran, recognizing that its influence is a reality that cannot simply be eliminated.
So, while Washington has called for Iran to be isolated and has refused to talk to Tehran, the Saudis have been holding discussions with Iran for months. The first clear fruit of those talks is visible in Lebanon, where Iran and Saudi Arabia appear to have walked their allies there back from the brink of civil war, and put them on the path towards finding new terms for coexistence. On the Palestinian front, while Washington has demanded that its allies keep Hamas isolated — and pressed Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas to resist calls to join the Islamists in a unity government — the Saudis brought the two Palestinian factions together in Mecca and brokered just such a coalition government. due to be formalized this week.
Those examples suggest that the diplomatic process now underway over Iraq is unlikely to further the U.S. goal of isolating Iran.
What they also underscore is just how little influence the U.S. has over the political process in the region. For all the talking up of Arab unity against an “Iranian threat,” the reality is that the only Middle East country supportive of a U.S. attack on Iran is Israel. If Iran is engaged in cooperative security arrangements with the Iraqi government and is engaged with the Saudis on Lebanon and elsewhere — and leaving them to take charge of the Palestinian file, which I suspect the Iranian leadership has no genuine interest in pursuing — it strikes me that the regional political context is currently trending away from a military confrontation.
The United States should be awarded a Cosmic Prize for Chutzpah and Chicanery for charging Iran with meddling in Iraq and threatening American lives when the United States invaded Iraq, removed the former state structure, killed tens of thousands of people, unleashed ethnic-religious discord there, and allowed Iran to emerge effortlessly as the dominant regional power. What does the Bush administration take us for, simpletons and idiots? Are all the people of this region supposed only to silently applaud American military aggression, diplomatic adventurism, and Frankenstein-like national experiments with Arab dummies? No wonder that huge majorities of Middle Easterners criticize American policies, and even feel threatened by them.
If we are asked to assault Iran mainly in order to comply with American and Israeli hysteria, the likely response from most quarters in the Arab world, Iran, Turkey and others nearby will be to resist and defy the United States and Israel, and also to fight them when possible, politically or militarily. This is the stage we are at now, as much of public opinion in the region rejects the American-Israeli position, while many Arab governments seek protection under Washington’s wing.
The Israeli dimension remains dangerous, however. I’ve previously argued that the domestic political grandstanding of Israel’s incompetent political frontrunners could spark a confrontation, and the same point is emphasized in the Guardian today by Simon Tisdall, who notes that either Olmert, who is on the ropes politically, or Bibi Netanyahu, who is currently leading the race to succeed him — and who is scaring Israelis to death with his preposterous portrayal of Iran as the equivalent of Nazi Germany in 1938, could be tempted to launch a strike.
Tisdall’s most important observation, supported by Yossi Mekelburg who authored an important report on the prospects for Israeli action against Iran for Britain’s Royal Institute for International Affairs, is that the demagoguery of the likes of Netanyahu has virtually silenced serious debate in Israel over the scale of the threat and the consequences of a military response — and that this silence makes a military confrontation more likely.
Faced by an Israeli aerial bombardment of its nuclear and military sites, Iran could – in theory – fire missiles at Israeli cities, block oil routes through the Straits of Hormuz (40% of global oil supply passes that way), destabilise Iraq and Saudi Arabia, inspire a renewed Hizbullah and/or Palestinian onslaught, or undertake acts of international terrorism, the report says.
All of this would be harmful to Israel’s security and deeply inimical to its national interest and international standing, it warns. But Israelis are not thinking about consequences, only about threats.
“The likelihood of military action by Israel against Iran’s nuclear installations is increasing daily,” said Yossi Mekelberg, the report’s author.
“The lack of internal public debate and critical discussion of military action makes a strike more likely and is a deeply worrying trend within Israeli democracy. Israelis are focused on the potential danger from Iran but are indifferent to the potential fallout from military action.”
And, of course, Israel’s partisans in Washington will also continue to shape the discussion towards a confrontational line. Although AIPAC appeared during its congress this week to emphasize mostly sanctions as a response to Iran, just today, House Democrats, in response to AIPAC lobbying, removed language from their Iraq war bill that restricted President Bush’s ability to order a strike against Iran without Congressional approval.