Soli Özel – “America and the Middle East ” - Alternatives Internationale
Even in its failure though the war changed, indeed transformed, the political and strategic landscape of the region. With the fall of the Baathi regime in Iraq, the majority Shi’a came to rule this critical Arab country. Shi’a elsewhere began to ask more aggressively for their citizenship rights and Hizbullah in Lebanon with the support of Syria and Iran challenged both the domestic political structure of Lebanon and the military might of Israel. Through Hizbullah, Iran the unintended main beneficiary in strategic terms of the American war against Saddam Hussein’s regime and gained much advantage in the Gulf region, also acquired a presence in Eastern Mediterranean.
By destroying the Iraqi regime and throwing the country into turmoil the United States also took the balancer to Iran in the Gulf out of the equilibrium. Given the fact that the rulers of Iraq today, the Da’wa Party or Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (formerly SCIRI) are Iran’s allies also meant that the strategic rise of Iran has also been compounded by significant influence in Iraq until the country settles down.
Such an advantageous strategic condition for Iran scared the Sunni Arab Gulf regimes and turned them into the low profile but keen allies of Israel. Tel Aviv loudly expresses its discomfort with Iran’s rising power, its nuclear program and the strategic challenge Tehran poses to Israel both by its own posturing and through the activities of its allies in the region, notably Hizbullah and to a lesser extent, Hamas. In Syria the Ba’thi regime that was once considered to be at razor’s edge after the assassination of Rafiq Hariri that brought Damascus the ire of Saudi Arabia and isolation in the Arab world and beyond is more relaxed. Despite the open animosity of Washington against the regime of Beshar al Asad, the Syrians hold their own and are bargaining hard to return to Lebanon in their own terms as they open second-track negotiations with Israel through the good offices of the Turkish government.
The next American administration will need to deal with this strategic landscape in the Middle East while the precariousness of the Afghan war and the fragility of Pakistan’s politics still continue. Arguably the most important decision to be made by the upcoming administration will be how to handle relations with Iran once that country elects its new President as well in 2009. Thirty years after the Iranian Revolution, Tehran and Washington face the need to decide between themselves the division of hegemony in the Persian Gulf.
The latest events in Lebanon whereby Hizbullah forcefully challenged the Lebanese government that is backed by most Arab regimes and the United States underscored the inability of the United States to single-handedly determine the pace and direction of events. That Hizbullah ultimately acted with restraint and accepted the position of the army as an arbiter showed that the final goal is not one of dominance but a new power sharing arrangement. Undoubtedly this was also a message on the part of Iran that it did not wish to totally disrupt the Arab order.
Can this be another instance of Iranian-American cooperation like the tacit cooperation that goes on in Baghdad alongside the strategic rivalry between Washington and Tehran as some commentators argue? It is quite obvious by now that without the assistance of Iran the United States will not be able to provide stability by itself including in Afghanistan. The fact that Washington is unable or unwilling to pull all its weight to broker an agreement between Israel and the Palestinians that would include all parties and be considered fair undermines its own position as the ultimate arbiter of a settlement in the whole of the Middle East.
The next American administration then will have to prepare its positions with these realities in mind. Many observers suspect or fear, depending on their stance, a military attack against Iran’s nuclear facilities before the Bush administration is removed from the stage. As much as the vice President’s office, Sunni Arab states and Israel may wish this to happen, the mood in the country including the elite and the military is not favorable to such an option unless Iran provokes it. As Andrew Bachevich notes “The United States today finds itself with too much war and too few warriors”. Furthermore the limits of military power to attain strategic objectives were made all to clear by the Iraq debacle.
Therefore the next American President is more likely to try non-military means to solve strategic problems and advance American strategic interests in the Middle East and beyond. The issue of withdrawing the troops from Iraq will be the most complex and difficult that the next administration will face. The United States will still want to control access to the world’s energy resources and its presence in the region will continue for the relevant future. Still, the domestic public opinion has turned against the costly war and the military wishes to avoid further straining its institutional health.
The decision to withdraw is a risky one since this would indeed leave a void in Iraq that is likely to unleash conditions for full-scale civil war. The Iraqi state is not yet strong enough to provide security and order as the disintegration of the military during the recent battles in Basra amply demonstrated. Violent instability in Iraq will have repercussions throughout the region. At the limit should Iraq disintegrate, all states in the region will face similar pressures. This is one of the reasons why the dynamics of the region itself will not favor or allow such an eventuality.
As I suggested earlier the United States has the option of accommodation or confrontation with Iran. The latter option, if taken, will further destabilize the region. So, the logical course to take would be accommodation. In this case Iran’s own behavior and whether or not it, too, will be carried away by hubris may determine the outcome. As for the United States the war in Iraq may have taught the American system to know the limits of its enormous power.
IN today’s Middle East it is almost impossible to attain strategic goals without taking into account the interests and the relative power of different players. This imposes upon the United States to seek cooperation and privileges diplomacy and negotiation over military might to pursue her goals. In fact, a regime as weak as the Syrian one successfully defied Washington. It managed to maintain its positions as well as undermine the American efforts in Lebanon.
Although the strategic center of gravity of the region has shifted decisively to the Gulf, the irresolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict still presents an obstacle to the realization of any great design. For that reason as big a challenge as the relations with Iran and how to find a balance with Tehran is, ending the conflict in the Holy Land may prove to be still as difficult a nut to crack as any.