Monday, May 22, 2006

Who's Really Afraid of Iran?

Lee Smith, Weekly Standard:
U.S. Middle East policy is undergoing an identity crisis. The giddy days of roll-back seem like a distant memory now, as a president who staked his historical legacy on Arab democracy grants Gamal Mubarak an audience at the White House while his father's government is beating and arresting protesters in the streets of Cairo. Is regional transformation rolling up its tent? Have all the sticks turned into carrots? And why is Washington so thrilled at reestablishing full diplomatic relations with Libya?

If it is to illustrate what benefits are in store for another prominent power in the region should it abandon its own nuclear program, then maybe there should also be a counterexample of what happens to dangerously intransigent Middle Eastern regimes. Because Iran is looking increasingly unimpressed by the posture of the Bush White House. READ MORE

The White House has pointedly explained that Iran's nuclear program is a threat to Israel, but Tehran is perhaps a more pressing problem for Gulf Cooperation Council members Oman, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, and especially Saudi Arabia. Speculations by Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad about post-Zionist geography are alarming, to say the least, but Israel has a nuclear deterrent. The Gulf countries, which in the past have shown neither the ability nor desire to protect themselves, depend entirely on the United States for their security.

And that's why Washington isn't talking much about Gulf state concerns: to avoid putting an important ally in an awkward position. The U.S. security umbrella has in the past caused blowback in the Gulf. Remember that the presence of American troops in the land of the two holy shrines compromised the legitimacy of the Saudi royal family and rallied supporters to Osama bin Laden's cause. Thus the Gulf states themselves have been almost silent on Iran's nuclear program. "Some people are praying that the United States can stop Iran but won't say so publicly," says Tareq al-Homayed, editor-in-chief of the pan-Arab London-based daily Asharq Al-Awsat. "They don't want to be seen as acting alongside the United States."

"Iran has conducted an effective 'public diplomacy' campaign," says Emile el-Hokayem, a Middle East analyst at the Henry L. Stimson Center in Washington, who has just returned from Tehran. "Arab populations are fertile ground for Iran's anti-U.S., anti-Israel propaganda [and accept] Iran's arguments about Israel, imperialism, U.S. hegemonic ambitions, and distaste for an Islamic nuclear power."

In other words, the nuclear program is just a part of Tehran's larger game. With Saddam gone, there is an opening for someone to wage the fight for the liberation of Jerusalem and hold high the burning banner of anti-Americanism. The fact that a Persian, Shiite state is doing the dirty work of mainstream Sunni Arabism is hugely discomforting to Arab regimes. Egypt's Hosni Mubarak was only the most recent Sunni Arab ruler to vent his grief in sectarian terms, when he told an Arab TV audience last month, "Most of the Shias are loyal to Iran, and not to the countries they are living in."

No doubt the rulers of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Kuwait consider their large number of Shia subjects a potential fifth column, but for the president of Egypt, where the Shia population is negligible, to believe as much indicates the high level of anxiety throughout the region. The longer-term strategic threat the Iranian nuclear program represents is that if the Islamic Republic gets the bomb, others will want one too, including perhaps Egypt. And if large black holes start to appear in a military budget that is mostly transparent thanks to an annual $1.3 billion in U.S. military aid, then a part of the Middle East that has been relatively peaceful for the last 30 years may heat up again.

"The Arab-Israeli zone is actually stable compared with the Gulf," says Martin Kramer, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "There is a Pax Americana around Israel that binds the state actors. But the United States is undermining the order it worked decades to create by advocating the empowerment of nonstate actors--the most prominent of which are Islamists."

First, Hezbollah became part of the Lebanese government, and then Hamas became the entire government of the Palestinian Authority. For the time being, then, the "peace process" is finished, a sea change in U.S. policy that would be hard to overstate. The peace process not only established the Pax Americana, it also neutralized a weapon, the Palestinian groups, that the radical regimes had used against the Gulf states and Jordan. Even if Syria had not recently been accused of arming Hamas militants to carry out operations against Jordan, the current situation would still look a lot like the pre-1973 Middle East.

The Iranians have essentially taken a page out of the modern Middle East political playbook, where the adventurist regimes try to undermine their rivals by espousing and funding radical causes. Ahmadinejad is the new Nasser, and there's no reason to think the Iranians can't bluff themselves into a disastrous war with Israel just as Nasser's Egypt did in 1967 (he also wanted to dominate the Gulf). Ahmadinejad's ascendance and rhetorical flourishes have effectively driven a wedge between the Gulf states, which are terrified of him, and the radicals of the Mashreq region--Syria, Lebanon, and the Palestinian Authority--where ordinary Arabs are delighting yet again in visions of an anti-Zionist apocalypse, even one that threatens their own existence. It is telling that many regional analysts think Hezbollah's arsenal of rockets constitutes a deterrent against any Israeli attack on Iran, apparently without recalling that the Egyptian air force was destroyed on the ground as the opening move of the 1967 war.

Pressure on Syria would be a logical move to counter Iran. Damascus, says Tony Badran, research fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, is not only "Iran's central client-proxy, but has also played the mediator between [Iran] and the Gulf states." The Syrian foreign minister recently visited Kuwait with reassurances from Tehran about "the peaceful nature of the Iranian nuclear program."

For the Syrians, such a role amounts to playing both sides of the street. The Gulf states may assume that in the end Syrian president Bashar Assad will have no choice but to return to the Sunni Arab fold: With a 70 percent Sunni Arab majority, the minority Alawite regime presumably cannot afford to stand with the Iranians at crunch time. Maybe that's true. Certainly it's true that the Saudis do not want another neighboring regime changed, and the consequent chaos spreading out from Damascus. However, what the Gulf Cooperation Council wants or believes is beside the point, because in the end it is Washington that is going to be held responsible by everyone.

The final U.N. investigation report into the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri is due next month, and if it implicates key figures in the Syrian regime, then the Syrians will heat things up across the region, which will suit Iran's aims as well; if it does not single out members of the ruling clique, it will show that there is no price to pay for malfeasance.

From the beginning of the investigation, there was no obvious mechanism for putting Syrian suspects behind bars, and there is none now. So Damascus may be right to believe it can safely wait out the Bush presidency, which is back on its heels anyway. It is Syria that all of the most radical elements in the region, especially the Iranians, are watching. More and more, they seem to be coming to the same conclusion as Ahmadinejad: So that is how you talk to the Americans. Defy them.

Lee Smith, a Hudson Institute visiting fellow based in Beirut, is writing a book on Arab culture.