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POLITICS-US: Mideast Strategy Increasingly Targets Iran

Analysis by Jim Lobe

WASHINGTON, Jan 25 2007 (IPS) - Six months after last summer&#39s war between Israel and Lebanon&#39s Hezbollah, Iran has become the George W. Bush administration&#39s "Public Enemy Number One", against which its Middle East strategy is increasingly focused, according to one of the U.S.&#39s leading experts on the Gulf.

That strategy, which aims at forging an informal tripartite alliance consisting of the U.S., Sunni-led Arab states and Israel, is already being played out in Lebanon and the Palestinian territories. Along with Iraq, the last two have become the main battlegrounds in what so far has been confined to a proxy war designed to challenge and roll back perceived Iranian influence, according to Gary Sick, a Columbia University professor who served as former President Jimmy Carter&#39s chief advisor on Iran.

"The organising principle of the new strategy is confrontation with and containment of Shia influence – and specifically Iranian influence – wherever it appears in the region," Sick says.

In a recently circulated memo, Sick argued that Washington&#39s new strategy stems primarily from the dramatic shift in the regional balance of power in Iran&#39s favour following the removal – by the U.S., no less – of Tehran&#39s two neighbouring nemeses, the Taliban in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein in Iraq.

That shift – to the detriment of Washington&#39s traditional Sunni-led allies, especially Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan – has since been exacerbated both by the administration&#39s pro-democracy policies in the region, which had the paradoxical but predictable result of strengthening anti-western and Islamist forces, and the perception that the vaunted U.S. military has become hopelessly bogged down in the Iraq quagmire.

The new strategy appears to have been galvanised by last summer&#39s Israel-Lebanon war, which, according to Sick, "was perceived by Israel, the United States and the Sunni Arab governments in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan as an Iranian attempt to extend its power into the Levant by challenging both Israel and the Sunni Arab leadership."

In the months that have followed, a division of labour among the three principal components of the anti-Iranian front has emerged based on a series of presumed mutual understandings.

For its part, the Bush administration has essentially dropped its democratisation campaign in the region; beefed up its naval power in the Gulf while providing Patriot missiles to the Arab Gulf states to encourage them to adopt a more confrontational posture toward Iran; stepped up military and other support to the Sunni-led, Saudi-backed Lebanese government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora; and renewed its involvement in promoting a peace process between Israel and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, "recognising that even limited visible progress will provide diplomatic cover to the Arab states if they are to co-operate more with Israel," according to Sick.

In addition, the administration has tried to increase diplomatic pressure on Iran both in the U.N. Security Council over its nuclear programme and in Iraq by charging Tehran with arming sectarian militias and harassing Iranian officials there.

At the same time, Bush has assured the Saudis, in particular, that he will maintain U.S. forces in Iraq to prevent a full-scale civil war that could be catastrophic for the Sunni population and press the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to control the Shia militias or risk replacement by a "more Sunni-friendly" regime.

"Washington may also be trying to organise dissident movements in Iran, primarily among ethnic groups along the periphery and other targets of opportunity, to distract and potentially even destabilise the Tehran government," according to Sick.

For their part, according to Sick, the Sunni-led Arab states, which include all members of the Gulf Cooperation Council, Egypt and Jordan, have agreed to provide major funding and political support to the Siniora government in Lebanon; "to woo (or threaten) Syria away from its alliance with Iran…"; provide facilities and funding to support U.S. efforts in the region and against Iran; and to try to bring down the price of oil, both to relieve political pressure on Bush and "make life more difficult for Iran."

Israel&#39s contribution is to provide intelligence support to U.S. and possibly Arab anti-Hezbollah efforts in Lebanon; keep highlighting the alleged "existential" threat Iran&#39s nuclear capability would pose to it; use its long-standing contacts, especially among Iran&#39s Kurds, to foment opposition to Tehran; and "be prepared to make sufficient concessions on the Palestinian issue and the Golan (Heights) to provide at least the perception of significant forward motion toward a comprehensive settlement."

This strategy is attractive to Bush for a variety of reasons, not least that focusing greater attention on Iran may serve to "distract public attention from the Iraqi disaster." Moreover, given the antipathy and distrust in U.S. attitudes toward Iran created by the 1979-81 hostage crisis, it is relatively easy to rally bipartisan opinion against the Islamic Republic, Sick noted.

But perhaps most important, like Washington&#39s global contest with the Soviet Union during the Cold War, the new strategy provides a "single, agreed enemy that can serve as the organising point of reference… (which) can be used to explain and rationalise a wide range of policies that otherwise might be quite unpopular," he wrote.

"The Holy Grail of U.S. Middle East policy has always been the hope of persuading both Arab and Israeli allies to agree on a common enemy and thereby relegate their mutual hostilities to a subordinate role," Sick noted.

But while Arab states generally found it hard to accept that Moscow was the greater threat during the Cold War, "Iran as a large, neighbouring, non-Arab, racial Shia state may fulfill that role more convincingly," according to Sick, who noted that the "extravagant rhetoric and populist posturing" of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad add to the strategy&#39s appeal.

While this strategy is not necessarily designed to provoke or lay the foundations for a military conflict – and may be in fact be aimed more at "containing" Iran and persuading it to change its policies – Sick also believes that it is "deliberately provocative and risks prompting a belligerent Iranian response… that could quickly escalate into an armed exchange."

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