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The Washington-Jerusalem-Tehran Triangle

Who is the Middle Eastern power of the future?

February 10, 2005

Who is the Middle Eastern power of the future?

Two years ago, in the build-up to the invasion of Iraq, we were assured by various members of the Bush Administration that "the road to peace in the Middle East leads through Baghdad."

In recent months, we have been equally assured — by former National Security Adviser Zbigniew Bzrezinski and by former U.S. Commander in Chief for the region General Anthony Zinni among others — that the reverse is the case. They agreed that the road to stability in Baghdad lies through peace in the Middle East.

But the new Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is about to learn, in her current trip through Europe and the Middle East, that the road to peace and stability in both Baghdad and Jerusalem now lies through Tehran.

We now have three interconnected crises in the Middle East. So, for example, if Israel were to decide to launch a pre-emptive military strike against Iran's nuclear weapons development sites, one of the likely ways for Iran to retaliate would be to unleash the Hizbollah forces in Lebanon against Israel.

Organized, trained, armed and financed by Iran, Hizbollah currently has some 8,000 Katyusha-style rockets in Southern Lebanon, many of which can easily reach Israel's industrial heartland of Haifa. They could inflict serious damage.

Similarly, were the Iranians to assume that the United States lay behind such an Israeli attack, they would be tempted to retaliate by sending commando teams across the border into Iraq (many are suspected of being there already).

These commando teams could attack U.S. forces directly — or complicate life for the U.S.-protected government that may emerge from Iraq's recent election.

One cannot help but think that the Middle East is starting to resemble that childhood game in which paper wraps stone, scissors cut paper — and stone blunts scissors.

Make a move in Jerusalem and the effects are felt in Tehran. Make a move in Tehran and the impact is felt in Baghdad.

This is a bizarre state of affairs and it reflects the degree to which the Arab has suffered a systemic collapse over the past decade. There are three major powers currently involved in the Middle East: Israel, Iran and the United States. Not one is an Arab nation.

After the fall of Saddam Hussein's Iraq and the long quiescence and economic stagnation of Egypt, there is no longer any Arab great power. There certainly is none that can wield any kind of veto or authority over events in the region in the way that the Egypt of Anwar Sadat or Gamel Abdel Nasser could.

Israel has such a veto power in the region. So does Iran — and so does the United States. The European Union may, through judicious exercise of its financial and market power, have a powerful role — and so might Turkey.

One thing is clear — as and when Turkey becomes a full member of the European Union, the EU with Turkey will be a very major power — and perhaps even the big player in the Middle East. But that is not yet the case.

For the moment, the big decisions throughout the Middle East will be taken in Tehran, Jerusalem and Washington — if they are to be taken at all. And that is the question.

The Iranians are not talking to the Americans, nor to the Israelis — they are talking only to the Europeans.

And even the patient and gullible foreign ministers of Britain, France and Germany are starting to suspect that they are being given the Iranian run-around — and that any deal reached with the Foreign Ministry of the 'elected' government are worthless unless the Governing Council and the Ayatollahs have also approved it.

At the same time, the Europeans have been deeply frustrated to learn from Secretary Rice over the weekend that the Bush Administration will not join in the EU-Iranian negotiations.

The Iranians say they can trust no deal that is not endorsed by the Americans. And the Europeans alone have neither the carrots nor the sticks that could tempt Tehran to sign a final deal that would freeze or end or defang the nuclear weapons program (which Tehran still denies having).

No Americans, no deal, is Tehran's motto. No nukes is the only deal, say the Americans. And the Arabs ask, what about us?

The only answer to that is a shrug. If the new government of Baghdad can deliver stability and defeat the sabotage campaign against the pipelines, start to rebuild the Iraqi economy by exporting oil again and avoid a sectarian civil war between Sunni and Shia, then maybe Iraq can become a serious Arab power again.

If Egypt can carry through on its current ambitious program of economic liberalization, and if President Mubarak can overcome his fears of the Muslim Brotherhood to ease the political reins, then maybe the Arab world's traditional leader can resume its accustomed role.

If the Saudis can win their internal security campaign against their own militants (and the most dangerous of these despise al-Qaeda almost as much as the Americans do) and calm the simmering restiveness among their own Shi'ite minority, they might regain the kind of influence their renewed oil wealth ought to bestow.

But for the moment, the Arabs are distracted, introspective, self-doubting and cowed. Every creed they have tried — from Nasser's pan-Arab nationalism to modernization through socialism to secular capitalism to pan-Islamism — has crumbled in their hands.

They fear they are the heirs to a failing civilization and appear condemned to be objects rather than subjects in their own narrative, doomed to allow the crucial decisions for their future to be taken by others.

The Americans in Baghdad, the Israelis in Jerusalem and the Iranians in Tehran are now the arbiters of the Arab future. The respective rulers are now mutually dependent in this moment of stasis before a decision is reached.

If the Israelis and/or the Americans try to destroy Iran's nuclear potential, the Middle East will erupt. If they do not, then an accommodation will have to be made with Iran and the Shia as a — if not THE — major Middle Eastern power for the future.
And after all, as everyone in the region knows, the Americans are only visiting — the Persians live here, always have and always will.