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January 26, 2007

Mideast Strategy Increasingly Targets Iran

by Jim Lobe

Six months after last summer's war between Israel and Lebanon's Hezbollah, Iran has become the George W. Bush administration's "Public Enemy Number One," against which its Middle East strategy is increasingly focused, according to one of the US's leading experts on the Gulf.

That strategy, which aims at forging an informal tripartite alliance consisting of the US, 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 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's chief advisor on Iran.

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

In a recently circulated memo, Sick argued that Washington's new strategy stems primarily from the dramatic shift in the regional balance of power in Iran's favor following the removal – by the US, no less – of Tehran's two neighboring nemeses, the Taliban in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein in Iraq.

That shift – to the detriment of Washington's traditional Sunni-led allies, especially Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan – has since been exacerbated both by the administration's 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 US military has become hopelessly bogged down in the Iraq quagmire.

The new strategy appears to have been galvanized by last summer's 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 labor 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 democratization 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 –"recognizing that even limited visible progress will provide diplomatic cover to the Arab states if they are to co-operate more with Israel," says Sick.

In addition, the administration has tried to increase diplomatic pressure on Iran both in the UN Security Council over its nuclear program 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 US 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 Shi’ite militias or risk replacement by a "more Sunni-friendly" regime.

"Washington may also be trying to organize dissident movements in Iran, primarily among ethnic groups along the periphery and other targets of opportunity, to distract and potentially even destabilize the Tehran government," warned 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 and "to woo (or threaten) Syria away from its alliance with Iran." Also, they promise to provide facilities and funding to support US 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's contribution is to provide intelligence support to US and, possibly, Arab anti-Hezbollah efforts in Lebanon; keep highlighting the alleged "existential" threat Iran's nuclear capability would pose to it; use its long-standing contacts, especially among Iran's 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." Sick also noted that given the antipathy and distrust in US attitudes toward Iran created by the 1979-81 hostage crisis, it is relatively easy to rally bipartisan opinion against the Islamic Republic.

But perhaps most important, like the Cold War, the new strategy provides a "single, agreed enemy that can serve as the organizing point of reference" and "be used to explain and rationalize a wide range of policies that otherwise might be quite unpopular," noted Sick.

"The Holy Grail of US 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 wrote.

But while Arab states generally found it hard to accept that Moscow was the greater threat during the Cold War, "Iran as a large, neighboring, non-Arab, radical 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's 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."

(Inter Press Service)

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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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