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
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
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
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
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
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
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)