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January 12, 2008

US Seen in Middle East Policy Retreat

by Jim Lobe

CAIRO - Recent months have witnessed several notable political reorientations in the Middle East, involving Iran, the Gulf states, Egypt and Lebanon. Several experts say the changes reflect a shift in Washington's regional strategy following recent US policy setbacks.

"US policies in the region are either in retreat or undergoing reexamination," Ayman Abelaziz Salaama, international law professor at Cairo University told IPS. "Washington's project for a new Middle East – launched in 2001 with the aim of redrawing the region to suit US interests – has failed."

The most notable manifestation of this retreat is considered to be Washington's apparent change of tack on Iran.

A widely-publicized US intelligence report in early December devastated claims by both the Bush administration and Tel Aviv that Tehran was developing nuclear weapons. Since then, US statements suggest that – while Washington will continue to press for economic sanctions against Tehran – the notion of a US-led attack on the Islamic republic has been shelved.

What's more, the US State Department has shown a new willingness to engage Tehran diplomatically in an effort to garner Iranian cooperation in Iraq.

"The US has obviously changed course on Iran," Essam al-Arian, a leading member of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood opposition movement and head of the group's political department, told IPS. "The intelligence report has ensured that a US-led war on Iran is off the table."

The apparent US stand-down has been accompanied by several signs of diplomatic rapprochement between Washington's Arab allies and Tehran.

In early December, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad was invited to attend a Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) summit – a first for an Iranian head of state – held in Qatar. "It seems a new chapter has been opened in relations between the Persian and the Gulf States," Ahmedinejad reportedly told the conference.

Days later, at a regional security summit held in Bahrain, representatives from a number of Arab countries bluntly declared their opposition to a would-be military strike against Iran. "We want the military factor to be eliminated," GCC Secretary-General Abdul-Rahman al-Attiya said at the conference, which was also attended by US Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

According to Salaama, the Gulf States – like most of Washington's Arab allies in the region – are all too relieved to be rid of the specter of a US-Iran showdown.

"The last thing the GCC states want is to have Iran – just across the gulf – as an enemy," he said. "Also, with significant Shi'ite populations, they are more susceptible to Iranian influence than other countries in the region."

In a Jan. 6 interview, Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa defended the right of Arab capitals to set their own policies vis-à-vis Tehran. "As long as it has no nuclear program…why should we isolate Iran?" he was quoted as saying in a reference to the recent US intelligence assessment.

Egypt, too, which has not had diplomatic relations with Iran since 1979, appears to be flirting with the idea of rapprochement.

Late last month, Ali Larijani, head of Iran's National Security Council, visited Cairo where he met with a number of prominent government officials. The visit, which came in the wake of other high-profile exchanges, has prompted considerable speculation that diplomatic normalization between Cairo and Tehran is on the horizon.

Along with the apparent shift on Iran comes political reorientations by US allies in Lebanon.

Lebanon remains the scene of a drawn-out power struggle between the western-backed government in Beirut and the opposition led by Shi'ite resistance group Hezbollah. The conflict has lately culminated in a full-blown presidential crisis, with both sides intent on deciding the choice of the country's next president.

In a notable shift last month, the anti-Syrian government majority announced its willingness to accept army commander Michel Suleiman as a potential presidential candidate. Previously, government figures had voiced opposition to Suleiman's candidacy in light of the army chief's amicable relationship with Hezbollah.

Notably, the about-face came despite earlier statements by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in which she urged the government not to compromise on the issue of the presidency.

"The US didn't want Suleiman as president because of his good working relationship with Hezbollah," Abdel-Halim Kandil, political analyst and former editor-in-chief of opposition weekly al-Karama, told IPS. "But Washington was unable to impose this demand on its allies in the government."

According to Salaama, the shift must be seen within the context of Israel's inability – despite unqualified US support – to disarm Hezbollah during its 2006 summer with Lebanon.

"Israel, and by extension the US, failed to disarm Hezbollah by force," he said. "This changed the regional balance of power and had a profound impact on US policy in the Middle East."

In light of these developments, he added, the notion of disarming the Shi'ite resistance group – an ally of Iran and Syria – now seems farther away than ever.

"There may be UN Security Council resolutions calling for disarmament of Hezbollah, but they are far from being implemented," said Salaama.

Another factor in the seeming US policy retreat, say observers, is the US military's poor showing after almost five years in Iraq.

"The US went from launching a quick war for regime change to maintaining a long-term occupation of Iraq," said Salaama. "Now, despite new counterinsurgency strategies, the American military remains bogged down with mounting military and economic losses."

According to Kandil, the US failure to win decisively in Iraq has forced Arab capitals to reassess the vaunted US military might. "Given the situation in Iraq, the Arab regimes now realize that US power isn't absolute – and can even be resisted," he said.

Military strategy aside, local observers also point to Washington's shattered credibility as an arbitrator in the Israel-Palestine conflict, particularly after the US-sponsored Annapolis summit in November.

Ostensibly held to restart the moribund Arab-Israeli peace process, the event was attended by representatives from Israel, the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority and 16 Arab nations. But while the conference was heavy on Tel Aviv's security concerns, longstanding Arab demands – chief among them the establishment of a Palestinian state – were conspicuously absent.

"The Arabs went to Annapolis despite serious reservations, based on Washington's promises that Israel would show flexibility," said Kandil. "But the US totally failed to deliver, embarrassing the Arab regimes in front of their respective publics."

Arian echoed this theme, saying, "Even Arab governments allied with the US were deeply embarrassed by the lack of results."

Many Arab commentators also point to the US failure to advance the twin causes of democracy and human rights in the region – both of which had been major components of Washington's post-9/11 vision for a "New Middle East."

"The US can't call for democracy and human rights while simultaneously committing war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan," said Salaama. "America was once seen as a champion of freedom – now it's perceived as a human rights violator."

According to Kandil, these accumulated US failures – both military and moral – have led the region's capitals to reexamine their priorities.

"Until now, the Arab regimes have blindly followed the US, thinking they needed it to keep them in power," he said. "But recent development are prompting them to reassesses this assumption.

"The era of US hegemony is ending," Kandil added. "And a new era of cooperation between regional actors – looking for new means to achieve their ends – has begun."

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  • Jim Lobe, works as Inter Press Service's correspondent in the Washington, D.C., bureau. He has followed the ups and downs of neo-conservatives since well before their rise in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks.

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