It is commonly said that the United States has no Middle East strategy. That may not be true much longer. The United States has begun to establish the framework of a new coalition strategy in the Middle East that could rebuild tattered alliances, shift attention away from the Iraqi catastrophe, and provide a touchstone for policymaking that could appeal across party lines.
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. US allies in this endeavor are Israel and the traditional (and authoritarian) governments of predominantly Sunni Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan. One unique feature of this otherwise unremarkable set of long-standing friendly governments is the possibility that the Arab states may subordinate their hostility to Israel at least temporarily out of their even greater fear of Iranian/Shia dominance of the region.
One of the products of the U.S. armed intervention in the Middle East since 9/11 has been a shift in the fundamental balance of power. In the name of fighting terrorism, the United States empowered Iran. By removing the Taliban, Iran's greatest threat to the east, and then removing the government of Saddam Hussein, its deadly enemy to the west, and finally installing an Iran-friendly Shia government in Baghdad for the first time in history, the U.S. virtually assured that Iran — essentially without raising a finger — would emerge as a power center rivaled only by Israel. It is one of the great ironies that U.S. policy would inadvertently make it possible for these two non-Arab states on the eastern and western flank of the Arab Middle East to dominate the traditional Arab heartland. The process was further accelerated by U.S. democratization policies that put its traditional Arab allies on the defensive.
Although these were unintended consequences of U.S. policy, the effects dismayed friends and foes alike. From Iran's perspective, it was a strategic gift of unparalleled proportions, tarnished only by the fact that its two major enemies had been replaced by a pugnacious U.S. military giant looking for new worlds to conquer. That tarnish was gradually removed as the United States found itself increasingly bogged down in the Iraqi quagmire, with a public fast growing disillusioned with the ugly realities of empire building in a hostile and unforgiving environment. Erstwhile U.S. allies in the Persian Gulf, Jordan, Egypt and elsewhere privately viewed U.S. actions as a failure at best and a betrayal at worst. They were ripe for a change.
The origins of the new cooperative undertaking are murky, but they appear to have been galvanized by the Israel-Hezbollah war in Lebanon the summer of 2006. This event 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. Whether Iran in fact had any direct control over the decision by Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, to kidnap Israeli soldiers is far from clear; however, the perception of growing Iranian strength and reach — a fundamental shift in the Middle East balance of power — was unquestioned and hugely menacing to the traditional power brokers of the region. Initially they had to swallow their words of discontent as Hezbollah acquitted itself very creditably and entranced the Arab “street.” But once the war was over and Hezbollah began challenging the predominantly Sunni and Christian Lebanese government of Fouad Siniora, initial misgivings reemerged.
In the following months we have seen a number of indicators of a new coordinated policy approach. Senior Saudi officials met privately with equally senior Israeli officials, which was itself a remarkable new development. The content of the discussions has not been revealed, but one of the participants was rumored to be Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the former Saudi Ambassador to Washington and presently Secretary-General of the Saudi National Security Council, one of the architects of the U.S.-Saudi collaboration against the Soviets in Afghanistan, and a wheeler-dealer of legendary reputation. During the same time period, Bandar began a series of private visits to Washington, meeting with U.S. officials at the highest level. Apparently these meetings occurred without the knowledge of the present Saudi ambassador who abruptly resigned after the information became public.
The United States successfully shepherded a resolution through the United Nations Security Council denouncing Iran's nuclear program and imposing limited sanctions. It was adopted unanimously, and it gives Iran 60 days to change its policies or the issue will be revisited. In the speech by President Bush announcing a troop increase in Iraq, he focused a surprising amount of attention on Iran. The announced increase of U.S. naval presence in the Gulf region together with the supply of Patriot anti-missile batteries to the Gulf were widely interpreted as warning signals to Iran. The United States is taking an expansive view of the UNSC sanctions by prohibiting a major Iranian bank from operating in the U.S. and leading a campaign to persuade others to do the same. In the meantime, Israel has maintained a drumfire of criticism of Iran's nuclear program, including suggestions that if no one else is willing to act, Israel may be called upon to launch a strike against Iran on is own.
Some of these developments were spelled by Deborah Amos of NPR in a special report on January 17.
There have not been (and probably will not be) any formal announcements, but the accumulating evidence suggests that a major new strategy is being pursued. What are its moving parts? It is still early days, but here is my own interpretation of the division of labor that seems to be emerging:
— Drop any further talk about democratization in the Middle East;
— Use its influence in the United Nations Security Council to keep the pressure on Iran (and to a lesser extent Syria) with sanctions and coordinated international disapproval;
— Provide military cover for the Arab Gulf states as they take a more confrontational position vis a vis Iran (Patriot missiles, additional naval aircraft, etc.);
— Undertake a more vigorous diplomatic effort to find a settlement of the Arab-Israeli dispute, recognizing that even limited visible progress will provide diplomatic cover for the Arab states if they are to cooperate more closely with Israel;
— In Lebanon, provide covert support for efforts to support the Siniora government and to thwart Hezbollah, probably in close cooperation with Israeli intelligence;
— Organize dissident movements in Iran, primarily among ethnic groups along the periphery or other targets of opportunity, to distract and potentially even destabilize the Tehran government;
— In Iraq: (1) keep attention focused on Iran, including raids and general harassment of its representatives; (2) keep U.S. forces in country to prevent the situation from descending into full scale civil war or a breakup of the country (or, as Henry Kissinger presents it in a recent article, combining both points: “They [U.S. troops] are there as an expression of the American national interest to prevent the Iranian combination of imperialism and fundamentalist ideology from dominating a region on which the energy supplies of the industrial democracies depend”); and (3) consider engineering a more Sunni-friendly government, especially if Prime Minister Maliki is unwilling or unable to control the Shia militias;
Arab States (the six Gulf Cooperation Council states plus Jordan and Egypt (6+2):
— Provide major funding and political support to the Siniora government in Lebanon and work to undercut Hezbollah's influence and image;
— Attempt to woo (or threaten) Syria away from its alliance with Iran with promises of money and support of Syrian efforts to regain the Golan Heights;
— Provide facilities and funding to assist the various U.S. initiatives above;
— Attempt to bring down the price of oil, which will remove some political pressures on Washington and make life more difficult for Iran.
— Provide intelligence support to U.S. (and potentially Arab) anti-Hezbollah efforts in Lebanon;
— Keep international attention focused on the Iranian threat as a uniquely dangerous situation that may even demand Israeli military intervention;
— Use long-standing Israeli contacts, especially with the Kurds in Iraq and Iran, to foment opposition to the Tehran government;
— Be prepared to make sufficient concessions on the Palestinian issue and the Golan to provide at least the perception of significant forward motion toward a comprehensive settlement.
A tripartite strategy of this sort has a number of appealing qualities. By keeping attention focused as fully as possible on Iran as the true threat in the region, it tends to change the subject and distract public attention from the Iraqi disaster. It provides something of real value to each of the participants, but most of the distasteful parts of the plan are plausibly deniable so they will not have to be explained or justified in great detail to skeptical observers in any of the countries involved. In the United States, the antipathy to Iran as a result of the hostage crisis in 1979-81, inter alia, is so strong that such a strategy is likely to have widespread appeal to Democrats and Republicans alike, with enthusiastic endorsement from pro-Israel lobbying groups.
Perhaps most important of all, it provides a single, agreed enemy that can serve as the organizing point of reference for policies throughout the region. Like the cold war, this can be used to explain and rationalize a wide range of policies that otherwise might be quite unpopular. The Holy Grail of U.S. 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. Trying to get the Arabs to conclude that the Soviet Union was a more immediate threat than Israel was always a losing proposition, though it did not prevent several U.S. administrations from trying. But Iran, as a large, neighboring, non-Arab, radical Shia state, may fulfill that role more convincingly.
The advent of Mr Ahmadinejad in Iran, with his extravagant rhetoric and populist posturing, makes that a much easier sell than it was under President Khatami. More than anyone else, Ahmadinejad is responsible for the appeal of this strategy. He has done immense — and perhaps irreparable — damage to Iran's image in the world and its genuine foreign policy objectives. The fact that Iranian parliamentarians are banding together in opposition to him and his policies is evidence that this has not gone unobserved in Tehran, but it may be too late.
Will the strategy work? Well, it does NOT necessarily mean an immediate recourse to military conflict, as some are predicting. The underlying fundamentals have not changed: none of the tripartite protagonists stand to gain by an actual war. Especially after the Iraqi experience, it is widely understood in Washington that a war with a country as large and as nationalistic as Iran would be immensely costly and almost certainly futile. Moreover, there is no halfway house. You can't do a quick air strike and realistically expect it to end there. The situation would inevitably escalate and ultimately require boots on the ground. That is a bridge too far for the United States at this juncture. However, the strategy is deliberately provocative and risks prompting a belligerent Iranian response (or perhaps it is deliberately looking for a belligerent response} that could quickly escalate into an armed exchange. So the threat of military action is not insignificant.
Will the new policy persuade Iran to change its policies? Probably not, although knowledgeable Iranian political observers say Iran is actually ripe for a deal that would deal with both the nuclear and the Iraqi issues. Iran will have a celebration in a few weeks about its initial success in running a linked series of centrifuge cascades. That would be the moment when they could accept at least a temporary suspension of enrichment activities without renouncing their national “right to enrich.” If the Europeans (and Americans) are interested in moving to a settlement of the nuclear issue, that would be the moment to revisit and/or creatively reformulate the array of proposals — Iranian and European — that are already on the table.
The new tripartite strategy, however, is not really about Iran but about the three protagonists. It brings them together, gives them a common purpose, offers an alternative to the current misery of reporting about Iraq, and provides a focus for future planning that might gain a wide measure of support. Unfortunately, that suggests that actually finding a negotiated solution with Iran is very much a secondary priority.
Professor Gary Sick served on the National Security Council under Presidents Ford, Carter, and Reagan. He is a senior research scholar at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA). He is the author of All Fall Down: America's Tragic Encounter With Iran (Random House 1985) and October Surprise: America's Hostages in Iran and the Election of Ronald Reagan (Random House 1991).