The Region: The new Mideast alignment

The Arab states fear growing Iranian influence, yet are pushing Iraq into the arms of Iran.

barry rubin 88 (photo credit: )
barry rubin 88
(photo credit: )
The Middle East has undergone a dramatic shift in alignments, perhaps more significant than anything that has happened since the 1950s. On one side are the HISH powers - Hizbullah, Iran, Syria, Hamas - and on the other virtually every other Arab state. The latter, less radical group is also placed in a situation where its interests parallel those of Israel and the United States. They are very much aware of this fact. There is, however, the rather big question of what, if anything, the relative moderates are going to do about that fact. In this context, there are four big issues with different factors affecting each one.
  • Iran's nuclear drive. All the Arab states except Syria oppose Iran getting nuclear weapons. For years they complained that Israel had atomic arms, yet there was almost never any real or immediate fear relating to that fact. They generally understood that Israel was not going to use these weapons, even for political leverage. The prospect of Teheran having them, however, is making many Arab leaders quake. But the quaking is largely restricted to private expressions. They whisper to the United States that it should do something, yet rarely speak out. At least, if they so chose, Arab leaders could go behind the scenes to the Europeans, China and Russia in order to get them to take a tougher line on sanctions. Even this may prove too much. If they don't complain now, it undercuts their right to yell for help later.
  • Iraq. The place where Arab states are willing to oppose HISH, or at least part of it, is in Iraq. This, however, rather complicates things. The relative moderates don't want to see an Iraq dominated by Iran. Their mistake has been to take the same view of an Iraq led by Shi'ite Muslims. By pushing away the current government in Baghdad and even supporting the insurgency against it, the Arab states are pushing Iraq into the arms of Iran. Consider the strange situation. The relative moderates want the US to succeed in creating a stable Iraq free of strong Iranian influence at the same time as they are subverting this very goal. For Washington, papering over this contradiction in words is easy, by insisting that the Iraqi government make concessions toward the Sunni Muslim minority and trying to integrate it into the new system. Yet even if the Iraqi regime is willing to do so, the insurgents reject this outcome and even kill the more moderate Sunnis who try to make such a deal. In a normal region, the relative moderates would put tremendous pressure on the insurgents to be reasonable. But, of course, this is the Middle East, so forget it.
  • Lebanon. In some ways, this is the easiest problem for the anti-HISH forces to work together. They all support the current Lebanese government and back the presence of UN forces in the south. Everyone can make some contribution toward holding back Hizbullah from taking over the country. For instance, Saudi Arabia was a sponsor of the Taif accord ending the Lebanese civil war, the adopted country of former prime minister Rafik Hariri (slain by Syria), and has a lot of money to support anti-Hizbullah forces.
  • Arab-Israeli issues. This is the most interesting. One must have modest expectations, of course. Forget about serious negotiations, or a peace agreement. But can the situation be improved? Tough, but worth a try if it is done without any illusions. There are at least three tracks going on. First, the public-relations sector. Lots of people, including Arab (especially Saudi and Jordanian), Israeli, and US officials are running around tossing out plans and proposing meetings. Nothing much will happen, but at least it provides an atmosphere of lessening regional tensions. Second, bridging gaps between relatively moderate Arab states and Israel: Here one of the most talked-about ideas is reviving the 2002 Saudi initiative. The original plan was to guarantee Israel would receive recognition by almost all Arab states if it made a peace deal with the Palestinians. By the time the Syrians got through revising the plan, it was too tough to be useful. The more flexible original idea could be something on which a consensus can be built. Third, the relations between relatively moderate Arab states and Palestinians: With Hamas in the HISH camp, relatively moderate Arab states should be boycotting it. The Saudis and others still give money but they are actively talking to Fatah, urging it to get its act together, stand up, and retake power. Unfortunately, one cannot make a wet noodle strong. Palestinian Authority chief executive Mahmoud Abbas is and will always be someone who lacks the power to do anything. Moreover, despite lots of chatter about new elections, Fatah has done absolutely zero to revitalize or unite itself. What is emerging, however, are two different orientations from the most likely future leaders. On one side is Muhammad Dahlan in Gaza, who is now standing up as the leader around whom those Fatah people who want to fight Hamas can unite. On the other is Marwan Barghouti, who is in an Israeli prison but whose base is in the West Bank. He is still hoping for some kind of Fatah-Hamas cooperation, a coalition that will settle the current anarchy. But these two groups want power, not partnership. HISH cannot take over the region, but it can seize parts of it and set the agenda for the rest. The broad task is to figure out policies which will let those who oppose HISH and a return to a half-century more of bloodshed and backwardness in the region work together - or at least, at a minimum, prevent further advances by the extremists. The writer is director of the Global Research in International Affairs Center at IDC Herzliya and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs.