Washington – President George W. Bush and his peripatetic secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, may believe that they have broken with 60 years of U.S. policy in order to “transform” the Middle East, but to long-time regional observers, their latest initiatives look painfully familiar.
Not only does Washington’s current courtship of Sunni-led authoritarian states — most notably, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt — raise new and very troubling questions about its self-proclaimed commitment to democratising the region.
But its new effort to forge a de facto alliance between those states and Israel against a supposedly common external threat — currently Iran — also eerily recalls the Cold-War period in general, and the first year and a half, in particular, of the administration of President Ronald Reagan a quarter century ago.
Back then — as during the “Baghdad Pact” era of the 1950’s — the aim was to achieve a “strategic consensus” between Israel and its “moderate” Arab neighbours, including Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states, in opposition to Soviet “trouble-making”, particularly through its main regional ally, Syria.
A secondary aim of such a consensus was to contain a revolutionary Iran and an Iran-Iraq war that, in the words of the most prominent advocate of “strategic consensus”, then-Secretary of State Alexander Haig, had exposed “deeply rooted rivalries and historic animosities”.
He was referring, in particular, to what the New York Times then called “the dangers of the Iran-Iraq war’s broadening into a clash between Shiite Moslems in Iran, Syria and parts of Iraq and Sunni Moslems who rule Iraq, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf states.”
The assumption behind “strategic consensus” was that Arab states, including even Iraq, would be more concerned about the supposed threats posed by Moscow or Tehran than by Israel’s refusal to recognise Palestinian rights and return to its 1967 borders.
In words that sound uncannily familiar today, New York Times columnist William Safire observed in May 1982, when Iran appeared to have turned the tide in the war, that “(t)he very Arab states who snickered loudest at our urging to set aside Arab-Israeli hatred in the face of a Soviet threat are now panic-stricken at the Iranian threat, especially since they know that the ayatollahs are dangerously close to alliance with the Soviets.”
“They fear that a Soviet-Iranian-Syrian axis could grab Kuwait, topple the King of Jordan and encourage subversion in the Saudi oil fields,” he wrote.
Like his neo-conservative descendants today, Safire argued that Arab fears of Iran should be used as leverage to get them to either put aside or compromise their demands for the U.S. to put serious pressure on Israel to withdraw from the occupied territories.
That argument proved ill-founded, especially after Israel launched a full-scale invasion of Lebanon the following month and, backed by the Reagan administration, subsequently rejected out of hand the so-called Fahd Plan. A Saudi initiative endorsed by the Arab League in September 1982, the plan offered Israel peace with its Arab neighbours in exchange for its dismantling of Jewish settlements, its return to 1967 borders, and the recognition of Palestinian national rights.
“The holy grail of U.S. policy in the region has always been to get the Arabs to forget about the Arab-Israeli conflict and to focus instead on some other threat,” noted Gary Sick, an expert on Iran and the Gulf states at Columbia University. “If you don’t think you can or are not prepared to deal with the Arab-Israel dispute, then trying to convince the Arabs that they should subordinate it to other strategic concerns is really a very attractive thought.”
Nonetheless, that appears to be precisely the current administration’s thought today, as Rice tours the capitals of “moderate” Arab states to rally support for its demands that Iran unconditionally freeze its nuclear programme which, according to Washington, poses a serious threat not only to Israel, but to the Arab states themselves.
While speaking vaguely about a renewed U.S. effort to restart peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, Rice and the administration apparently believe that the Arabs are sufficiently frightened of Iran and the emergence of a so-called “Shia Crescent” that they will not press their demands — most recently packaged in another Saudi initative adopted by the Arab League at the 2002 Beirut summit — for Washington to exert serious pressure on Israel on the Palestinian front.
U.S. officials point to the denunciation by Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Egypt of Lebanon’s Hezbollah in the early days of this summer’s war between Israel and the Iran-backed Shia group, as well as reports of unprecedented meetings between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and at least one top Saudi official, as indications that an anti-Iranian “strategic consensus” embracing Israel and Arab “moderates” is at hand.
While it appears clear that the Arabs are indeed concerned about Iran’s increased influence in the region, most experts here believe that Washington is exaggerating their willingness to confront Iran, particularly in conjunction with the U.S. and Israel.
“They know they have to live with Iran; it’s not going to go away,” said Robert Hunter, a Middle East expert at the RAND Corporation. “It’s not like the early 1980s when the mullahs tried and failed to spread their revolution; the concern is more geopolitical than ideological. Aside from (their backing of) Hezbollah and a few minor scrapes here and there, Iran has not been particularly assertive toward these countries.”
While Iran’s revolutionary ambitions may have moderated since the early 1980s, one thing that hasn’t changed is Washington’s underestimation of the importance the Arab leaders attach to real progress on the Israeli-Palestinian front, particularly in the wake of last summer’s conflict in Lebanon, according to other analysts.
“There’s no doubt that there are people in the Gulf, especially, who are very worried about Iran, but the idea that they would be enlisted in an alliance with the U.S. and Israel is just not a politically inviting prospect,” said Michael Hudson, a Middle East specialist at Georgetown University, who added that the administration’s current policy, like “strategic consensus” 25 years ago, was “misbegotten” and evidence of a “serious disconnect with the political realities of the region itself.”
“Until the U.S. starts getting actively and even-handedly involved in bringing the Palestinian-Israeli conflict to an end,” he noted, “it’s really politically impossible for the so-called moderate Arab leaders to sign on to the (anti-Iran) project,” Hudson said.
Indeed, that appears to be the message that Rice has been getting from Arab leaders on her most recent visit, according to published reports that stressed that her hosts have repeatedly emphasised the centrality of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and, in the words of the Washington Post’s well-connected Middle East specialist, Robin Wright, “expressed frustration that the United States seems far more focused on the issue of Iran’s programme.”
“Palestine has been the deal-breaker in forming a ‘strategic consensus’ from the Baghdad Pact period of the 1950s through the 70s, 80s, 90s and now into the 21st century,” noted Joe Stork, a Middle East foreign policy specialist who works at Human Rights Watch.
“Unless Washington decides to get serious about that, the Arab states they want to enlist in these efforts — whether against the Soviet Union in the early 1980’s or the Iranians today — can’t and won’t go along. As authoritarian as they are, they still have domestic constituencies, and they’ve been burned on this for too many years.”