The United States is using authoritarian Arab
leaders, who fear that Iran could export its revolutionary political model to
their disgruntled populations and are concerned about Washington's reprisal
against them à la Saddam Hussein in Iraq, as a buffer between the Iran-backed
Hezbollah and Israel, Washington's protégé in the Middle East,
analysts here say.
"Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan fear the momentum behind Iran's regional
ambitions, which largely explains their surprisingly public criticism of Hezbollah,
and by implication Iran," said George Perkovich, vice president for studies
at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, referring to
how the three nations sided with their former arch-enemy Israel in its attacks
"The anti-Israel declamations of Iranian President Ahmadinejad and Iran's
continued support of actors that refuse to recognize Israel's existence has
paradoxically elevated Iran's standing in the Arab street and alarmed Sunni
Arab rulers who have either recognized Israel or moved toward it," Perkovich
Longtime rulers in Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Egypt have all met their toughest
internal opposition from Islamist political groups, like the Muslim Brotherhood
in Egypt and the Islamic Action Front in Jordan.
Some of these groups have even taken up arms against the ruling regimes, as
is the case with al-Qaeda in Saudi Arabia and al-Jihad in Egypt. The regimes,
with U.S. backing, have been fighting these movements for years and are concerned
that such groups could draw inspiration if Hezbollah comes out stronger from
its current confrontation with Israel.
"Hezbollah is also an Islamist movement with ties to similar organizations
in other Arab countries. Both the Egyptian and Jordanian governments have grown
fearful of the rise of Islamist movements after the Muslim Brotherhood's electoral
gains in Egypt and Hamas' election victory in Palestine," said Amr Hamzawy
of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
"Their strategic interest in containing Hezbollah, and for that matter
Hamas, feeds on the ongoing domestic conflict with the Muslim Brotherhood and
the Islamic Action Front, respectively."
Those motives coincide perfectly with Washington's aim, and that of Israel,
to disarm Hezbollah and push it north of the Israel-Lebanon border.
This is the mission for the visit by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice
to Rome on Wednesday, where a core group of international players that includes
Arab states will meet to chart the future of the region in the wake of the ongoing
Israeli attacks on Lebanon.
Rice's visit has the declared purpose of creating "a new Middle East"
where the Lebanese armed group Hezbollah no longer has potency in its confrontations
with Israel and where the Arab governments will play a central role.
Analysts here agree that the basic theory that Secretary Rice is taking to
the Middle East, where she arrived Sunday, is to get Arab regimes that are hugely
unpopular with those they rule to work as guard dogs on the Israeli borders
against rocket attacks from deeply rooted organizations like Hezbollah in Lebanon
or the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas) in the Palestinian territories.
Rice's job, says Juan Williams, a senior correspondent with National Public
Radio (NPR), "is to get the Arab states to act as a buffer between Hezbollah
and the Lebanese government and Israel and the United States."
And the Arab regimes are already on it.
The White House received Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal and Prince Bandar
bin Sultan, chief of the Saudi National Security Council, over the weekend,
while Egypt's intelligence chief Omar Suliman and Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul
Gheit had met earlier with Rice and President George W. Bush's National Security
Adviser Stephen Hadley.
The first target of U.S. instructions to the Arab regime appears to be Syria.
Explaining the U.S. tactics, Paul Gigot, the conservative editor of the Wall
Street Journal's editorial page, said: "They're working on Egypt and
Saudi Arabia to try to pressure Syria to stop arming Hezbollah
important thing is to give Israel the time it needs to really make progress
against Hezbollah, and I think that is the opening, and I think they're now
Washington has ostracized Damascus over the past two years and withdrawn its
ambassador, leaving U.S.-backed Arab rulers like Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and
King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz of Saudi Arabia as the main channel to take the
message to Syrian President Bashar Assad.
"[The administration] is trying to say to Syria
are better served in the Sunni Arab camp and the camp that's pretty much on
our side than with the Iranians," Mara Liasson, the national political
correspondent for NPR, told Fox News Sunday.
"I do know that the United States is clearly looking to Syria, not Iran,
as the target of diplomacy here. Syria is the weaker power, and while they don't
provide the hundreds of millions of dollars a year that Iran does to support
Hezbollah, they are the conduit for all the weapons that come from Iran into
Lebanon and to Hezbollah," she said.
The second step prescribed for the Arab regimes is to give both political and
military backing for the secularist anti-Syrian and anti-Hezbollah government
of Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora.
Joshua Bolten, White House chief of staff, said on Sunday that Rice's mission
to the region is to "empower the Lebanese government" and to rally
the Lebanon Core Group, which includes the Washington-backed Arab trio Jordan,
Egypt, and Saudi Arabia, in helping the Lebanese government "control its
own territory" and stand between Israel and Hezbollah.
The plan is to create an international force that may include Arab elements
to help the Lebanese government and its feeble army replace Hezbollah as guards
for Israel's northern borders.
"I think the strategy for the U.S. is to try to put together, with our
allies, Arab and around the world, an international force that would go into
southern Lebanon, as Israeli combat operations cease, accompany the Lebanese
army into the south and provide, finally, a strong buffer," said David
Ignatius, a columnist with the Washington Post.
"That's a very, very difficult proposition. But that's what we're trying