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Middle East Power Shifts Put Region In State Of Flux

Posted on 22 April 2011 by hashimilion

‘Melodrama” and ”Middle East” are words that sit comfortably in the same sentence. But who would have thought, as the world thrilled to the peaceful revolt by millions of ordinary Tunisians in January, that just three months later two of the region’s bad-cop regimes – Riyadh and Tehran – might be seen to be verging towards war?

They are on snarling terms already. Amid the clamour for rights and reform across the Middle East and North Africa, the irony of these heavyweights coming to blows is that each is as repressive as the other – but none of that will stop the rest of the region, and the world, lining up to take sides.

For now it’s a cold war, fought by proxies elsewhere. In Lebanon, the Saudi-backed Sunnis have lost significant ground to the Iranian- and Syrian-backed Hezbollah, which now controls the levers of power in Beirut.

In the current crises, Riyadh and Tehran face-off in Bahrain – Tehran is backing the majority Shiites; Riyadh had thrown its lot in with the minority Sunni monarchy, as it attempts to smash the protest movement. And Yemen, on the Saudis’ southern border, is the most likely next point of friction between the two.

Historically, they have pulled in opposite directions. Saudi Arabia is Arab and Sunni; Iran is Persian and Shiite. Both invest hugely in spreading their beliefs to the farthest corners of the Muslim world. Iran lines up with the so-called Arab rejectionists – Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas. The Saudis line up with Egypt, Morocco, the Gulf statelets and the Palestinian Fatah faction. Riyadh pulls with Washington; Tehran against.

”The cold war is a reality,” a senior Saudi official told The Wall Street Journal. ”Iran is looking to expand its influence. The instability over the last few months means that we don’t have the luxury of sitting back and watching events unfold.”

How that plays out will be intriguing in what has become a ”yes, but …” geopolitical, global crossroads. The permutations tantalise. If the Damascus regime of Bashar al-Assad collapses, what are the implications if the Syrian alliance with Tehran fractures? What becomes of Syria’s joint sponsorship, with Iran, of Hezbollah in neighbouring Lebanon and of Hamas in the Palestinian Occupied Territories?

All these are ”yes, but …” issues, as much for Damascus as for Tehran. Given that Syria remains, technically at least, at war with Israel, can we assume that any new order in Syria would rush to throw over Hezbollah and Hamas? Even Israel, as much as it loathes the Tehran-Damascus-Hezbollah-Hamas quartet, is wary of who and what might replace Assad in the Syrian capital, because just as the interim regime in Cairo is shifting away from the ousted regime’s alliance with Israel, there is no guarantee that a new Syrian leadership will be any friendlier to Tel Aviv.

What if Syria dumped Iran as an ally – but was to pick up expansionist Turkey as a new best friend in the region? Likewise, how might the regional balance be altered if Tehran was to lose Damascus as an ally, but in turn was to pick up Shiite-controlled Iraq and liberated Egypt, which this week revealed that it was resuming diplomatic relations with Tehran?

The official spokesman for the Egyptian Foreign Ministry told reporters: ”We are prepared to take a different view of Iran; the former regime used to see Iran as an enemy, but we don’t.” Similarly, the ministry confirmed that new Foreign Minister, Nabil Elaraby, was considering a visit to the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip. As a return on the Americans’ huge blood-and-treasure investment in deposing Saddam Hussein and thereby delivering Iraq from minority Sunni control to a majority Shiite government that is becoming increasingly relaxed and comfortable in its dealings with Tehran, the US has handed the Iranian regime a rare gift. Yes, the ayatollahs might lose Syria as their Arab champion, but here is Arab Baghdad and Washington’s lock-step ally Cairo beckoning Tehran with open arms.

The Saudis are furious with Washington over the loss of Sunni control of Iraq and over Barack Obama selling out the Egyptian leader, Hosni Mubarak. Such is the chill between the two countries that Riyadh recently refused official visits by the US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, and by the Defence Secretary, Robert Gates. A measure of Saudi determination – maybe that should be ”desperation” – is that when Riyadh saw a need to quell the unrest in Bahrain, it ignored pleas from Washington and sent its own troops over the causeway that links Bahrain to the kingdom.

This is a regime that ordinarily pays others to fight its battles – see its funding of Iraq in its 1980s war with Iran; or has relied on allies – see American wars against Saddam Hussein in 1991 and in 2003.
Ramping it all into a religious conflict, a senior Saudi official was quoted: ”King Abdullah has been clear that Saudi Arabia will never allow Shia rule in Bahrain – never.” In turn, Iran’s President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has warned the House of Saud that it ”should learn from Saddam’s fate”.

The stakes for the US are huge – a third of its imported oil comes from Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain hosts the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet, which patrols vital sea lanes through which a fifth of the world’s oil supplies are shipped. Equally, Riyadh and other capitals in the region have openly speculated on pursuing their own nuclear programs, if Tehran is allowed to persist with its program.

The story of the Washington response to all of this is circuitous.

The Western military intervention in Libya is dressed up as a humanitarian act, but don’t be fooled, writes Robert Kaplan of the Centre for a New American Security in The Wall Street Journal. Arguing that in foreign policy all moral questions are really questions of power, Kaplan observes: ”We intervened twice in the Balkans in the 1990s, only because Yugoslav dictator Slobodan Milosevic had no nuclear weapons and could not retaliate against us; unlike the Russians, whose destruction of Chechnya prompted no thought of intervention on our part.”

Was that then the rationale for Washington’s decision to throw its superpower weight behind the Libyan intervention? Not entirely – orchestrated leaks from the Obama White House reveal that a critical element in the decision to join the attacks on Libya’s leader, Muammar Gaddafi, was the message such an action would send to Tehran.

As reported by The New York Times, failure to act against Libya would be seen by Tehran as a failure by Obama to follow through on his claim that Gaddafi had ”lost the legitimacy to lead”, as a confirming sign of weakness that Obama also would not follow through on his vow that he would never allow Iran to build a nuclear weapon.

Benjamin Rhodes, a senior aide present for the talks, was quoted: ”The ability to apply this kind of force in the region this quickly – even as we deal with other military deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan – combined with the nature of this broad coalition, sends a very strong message to Iran about our capabilities, militarily and diplomatically.”

In a broadcast translated into Persian and beamed into Iran to mark last month’s Persian new year, Obama told Iranians: ”So far, the Iranian government has responded by demonstrating that it cares more about preserving its own power than respecting the rights of the Iranian people. These choices do not demonstrate strength, they show fear.”

In this context Libya is presented as a sideshow. The real contest is with Tehran, which the Americans want to see stopped in its nuclear tracks – and whose tilt for the balance of power in the entire region they have blocked.

But the Arab uprisings were something of a get-out-of-jail-free card for Iran. In January, Washington was happy in the belief that it was boxing Tehran in with economic sanctions; a deal with Russia to halt weapons deliveries to Tehran; and a computer virus called Stuxnet, which was eating its way through the centrifuge machines in the Iranian uranium enrichment program.

Fast-forward to the present, and Washington’s Arab allies are more preoccupied with their own longevity and – ka-ching, ka-ching – Iran is doing better than the sanctions might have allowed, thanks to the crises in the region driving oil to $US100-plus a barrel.

In all of this, Washington’s key ally in the region was to be Riyadh. But the contempt for the US coming out of the Saudi capital is visceral – in the view of the princes, the Bush administration botched by toppling Saddam, thereby delivering Iraq to Tehran; and the Obama administration is condemned equally for selling out Mubarak, and allowing the grubby rank-and-file Egyptians to have a meaningful vote.

In these twin efforts, Washington is seen to have dislodged two great stones in what was a Sunni wall that effectively thwarted Iranian ambition. Likewise, in refusing to go along with Saudi efforts to resolve the Palestinian crisis, Riyadh saw Washington prolonging the issue that Iran used to great effect in stirring the Arab street.

Washington, it must be noted, does not have a mortgage on hypocrisy in the region. The Americans look morally bankrupt – leading the charge against Gaddafi and dumping long-standing allies Mubarak in Cairo and Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Tunis, while at the same time allowing the leaders of Bahrain, Yemen and Syria to get away with murder in confronting protesters.

But, like the US, the Iranian ayatollahs are into picking winners and losers. Initially they simply ignored the growing unrest in allied Syria, but when that became unsustainable, they took to casting the demonstrations against Assad as the work of Israeli-trained provocateurs.

The revolts in Tunisia and Egypt, according to the Tehran spin, were belatedly inspired by Iran’s 1979 revolution. And while it champions the ”Islamic awakening” rights of the demonstrators who are being brutalised by the regime in neighbouring Bahrain, it whitewashes out of the equation its own brutal suppression of Iranians who have attempted to revive the mass protests that erupted in the wake of Iran’s disputed presidential election in 2009.

For the mullahs, the region’s uprisings are a day-by-day proposition. They might posture endlessly about the holy Shiite suffering in Bahrain, but they know – and they know that their people know – the revolts in Tunisia and in Egypt were a secular lunge for a kind of democracy which, if successful, will make their theocracy a sad venture by comparison.

But for now, Iranian security forces have arrested opposition leaders and tightened media censorship and control of the internet and social media. In the region, the Iranian leadership observes a greater level of difficulty for Washington in achieving the three elements of its regional policy – a region from which the oil flows freely; in which Israel is protected; and in which citizens enjoy basic human rights, or at least to the extent that they do not attack US interests, as expressed by Thanassis Cambanis, of Columbia University. Or, to quote the Hillary Clinton lexicon – ”stability”.

As they happily crack the heads of the few who dare to take to the streets in Iranian cities, the mullahs cannot believe the Sunni Saudis were mug enough to send forces into Bahrain to put down an uprising by Shiites.

Despite endless complaints from Riyadh, there has been little to substantiate its claims that Iran is deliberately manipulating events in Bahrain – even US diplomats have reported no signs of Iranian intervention in the Bahraini protests.

It was only after the Bahraini regime unleashed its brutal attacks on demonstrators that posters of the Hezbollah leader, Hassan Nasrallah, appeared in the crowds and that calls were made for the ousting of the royal family. Iran did beam broadcasts of Nasrallah’s speeches into Bahrain, but foreign diplomats back the protest leaders’ denial of claims by the regime that they have received money and weapons from Tehran.

For the Saudis, the uprisings are a horrific moment. Abutted by all of Jordan, Yemen, Iraq and Bahrain, Riyadh views the varying degrees of unrest in all four as a threat to its own stability. Others agree.
Kaplan grinds all this into a single, core question for Washington: ”Which regime [will last] longer: Saudi Arabia’s or Iran’s? If the Saudi monarchy turns out to have more staying power, we will wrest a great strategic victory from this process of unrest; if Iran’s theocracy prevails, it will signal a fundamental eclipse of American influence in the Middle East.”

Answers to that question thrown up by some analysts, make the call in Tehran’s favour.

In a joint-paper, Ruth Hanau Santini, of the Brookings Centre on the US and Europe, and Emiliano Alessandri, of the German Marshal Fund, see the balance of power in the Persian Gulf shifting in Iran’s favour, ”just as it did in 2003, with the US-led war in Iraq”.

They write: ”Regional power shifts, rising oil prices and progress in its nuclear program all seem to have combined to boost Iran’s external ambitions.

”The authority of Saudi Arabia, which has long served as a counterbalance to Iran, the bastion of regional stability, and the guarantor of Israel’s survival, has been severely weakened by the ongoing turmoil.”

Reviewing Washington’s options, the paper concludes: ”Iran’s calculus that the current level of unrest will turn to Tehran’s advantage, without it having to lift a finger, makes it an especially difficult interlocutor.”

By Paul McGeogh

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Libya’s Only a Part of Mideast Equation

Posted on 18 April 2011 by hashimilion

What’s more important than Libya? At least four other countries.

The outcome of the unfinished revolution in Egypt will affect the prospects for democracy across the region. The outcome in Yemen, where Al Qaeda’s most dangerous branch is headquartered, is important to the struggle against terrorism. A change in Syria, Iran’s closest ally in the Arab world, would upend the balance of power on Israel’s northern borders.

And then there’s the Persian Gulf kingdom of Bahrain, where troops from Saudi Arabia and other Sunni Muslim countries have intervened to quell a Shiite Muslim uprising. It might seem odd to include a power struggle in a quasi-country of half a million citizens on a list of major strategic issues, but the crisis in Bahrain qualifies.

About two-thirds of Bahrainis are Shiite, but Sunni Muslims hold almost all the power. After Shiite groups staged increasingly violent demonstrations to demand more democracy, the government cracked down — and when the Bahraini police faltered, Saudi Arabia and other neighboring countries stepped in with troops.

Opposition groups say more than 400 activists have been arrested; the Bahraini government has refused to disclose the number of arrests. Human Rights Watch has charged that at least seven detainees have died in custody and that some may have been tortured.

Last week, the government announced that it was outlawing the largest — and most moderate — Shiite political party, but then backpedaled after an international outcry.

Why does all this matter? Because Bahrain isn’t the only Arab state on the gulf with a sizable Shiite population. Iraq has a Shiite majority and a Shiite-dominated government. Saudi Arabia is ruled by Sunnis, but it has a significant Shiite minority in its oil-rich eastern province. In all three countries, Shiite Muslims have historically been treated as an oppressed underclass — but now, watching other Arabs win more rights, they’re demanding equality too.

Bahrain matters, as well, because Saudi Arabia treats it as a virtual protectorate. The Saudi royal family doesn’t like to see Shiite Muslim demonstrators demand the head of any monarch; it’s too close to home.

Besides, in the view of many Sunnis, Bahrain’s Shiite protesters look like puppets in the hands of Iran, the Shiite Muslim behemoth across the gulf that has long tried to assert itself as the region’s dominant power.

The fear among many U.S. officials, though, is that the Sunni-Shiite unrest in Bahrain could turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy. If the Bahraini government stops negotiating with the moderate Shiite opposition, it risks radicalizing its own population — and driving some of them into the arms of Iran. Another outcome could be a conflict between Sunni and Shiite that would cross several borders.

In a worst-case scenario, warned Charles Freeman, a former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia, a Sunni-Shiite split could prompt the pro-U.S. government in Iraq to ally itself with Iran, scrambling the basic foundation of U.S. security policy in the area, which aims to make Iraq a bulwark against Iran.

“The strategic stakes in Bahrain are higher than many outside the region appreciate,” Freeman said.

The Obama administration has been urging the Bahraini government to negotiate. Last week, the State Department’s top Middle East hand, Jeffrey Feltman, rushed to Bahrain to try to reopen talks between the government and the opposition.

But the administration has been notably gentle, because it wants the Bahraini royal family to stay in power and it doesn’t want to offend Saudi Arabia.

In a speech last week, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the U.S. “strongly condemned the abhorrent violence committed against peaceful protesters by the Syrian government.” But on Bahrain, she merely warned that “security alone cannot resolve the challenges.” (“We know that a one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t make sense,” she explained.)

Another official said the administration is promoting reform throughout the Arab world, but it’s also reassuring rulers in places such as Saudi Arabia and Bahrain that it won’t insist on immediate change. “It doesn’t have to come fast,” he said.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and national security advisor Tom Donilon visited Saudi Arabia this month to try to patch up the U.S. relationship with King Abdullah, who was furious when Obama backed the overthrow of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Both U.S. and Saudi officials said the meetings helped repair the U.S.-Saudi alliance on issues such as Iran. But they said there was no sign of any Saudi moderation on the issue of Bahrain, which the Saudis consider their backyard.

The gulf has long been a central focus of U.S. foreign policy, both because it’s the source of much of the world’s oil and because it’s the frontier between the pro-American Arab monarchies and anti-American Iran.

That’s why the U.S. has a naval fleet there — headquartered, as it happens, in Bahrain.

Now Bahrain is at risk. Hard-liners have opted to use an iron fist, to see whether repression can restore stability; reform, they say, can come later. If they turn out to be wrong, the consequences could be dire.

By Doyle McManus

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Royal Rift, Absent Saudis Beset U.S.

Posted on 19 February 2011 by hashimilion

U.S. efforts to stabilize Bahrain, another key Arab ally roiled in popular uprising, is being threatened on several fronts—including apparent splits in Bahrain’s royal family and a sense of disengagement by Saudi Arabia, the region’s biggest power.

Whether the U.S. can halt the unrest in Bahrain is viewed as critical to stabilizing the Persian Gulf and checking Iran’s influence. But there is growing uncertainty in Washington over who in the tiny Middle East sheikdom’s royal family ordered the use of increasing force against unarmed protesters, according to officials briefed on the diplomacy.

Successive U.S. administrations have cultivated closed relations with Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa and his son, the crown prince, both of whom are viewed as modernizers. But the island-state’s security forces are under control of the king’s uncle, Prince Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa, who also serves as prime minister.

Previous U.S. administrations have sought to convince King Hamad to remove his 76-year-old relative, according to former U.S. officials, following charges of corruption and his opposition to political liberalization. These officials said there is a growing likelihood Prince Khalifa is overseeing the crackdown, with the king and crown prince relegated to the sidelines.

“Our influence is largely with one part of the ruling family, and not with the prime minister,” said an American official in close contact with Bahrain’s government.

The situation in Bahrain is complicated by U.S. uncertainty over Saudi Arabia’s position on the growing regional turmoil. Riyadh has enormous influence over Bahrain’s royal family due to the financial and energy aid it provides. Riyadh has in the past sent its own security forces into Bahrain to quell unrest, concerned that Bahrain’s Shiite majority could fuel instability inside Saudi Arabia.

Still, Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah and many of his closest advisers have been in Morocco in recent weeks as the Saudi monarch recovers from surgery. That has been seen as limiting the ability of other Saudi royals to make decisions. Other leading members of the Saudi royal family are also said to be in decline physically, particularly the second-in-line, Crown Prince Sultan, who is believed to be suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.

A spokesman for the Saudi Embassy in Washington didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Saudi officials voiced disapproval of the Obama administration’s handling of Egypt, in particular its decision to pull its support for President Hosni Mubarak, according to Arab diplomats. There has been little high-level contact between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia in recent weeks, U.S. officials said.

“There’s a leadership vacuum in Saudi Arabia, which is clouding the decision-making process,” said Simon Henderson, who tracks Saudi politics at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Washington’s strategic alliance with Saudi Arabia has faltered in other theaters in the Middle East as well this year.

Last month, the militant Lebanese group Hezbollah overthrew the U.S.- and Saudi-backed government in Beirut, greatly enhancing Iran’s and Syria’s influence in the Mediterranean nation. Successive U.S. administrations had since 2005 worked with Riyadh to try and bolster former Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri as a counterweight to Hezbollah’s backers in Tehran and Damascus. But Saudi Arabia ultimately pulled out of mediating efforts on behalf of Mr. Hariri, as Hezbollah threatened to sow unrest.

The fate of Bahrain, as Egypt before it, is crucial to U.S. strategic interests, and the unrest is showing up the administration’s inability to influence the course of events. Bahrain has been a crucial partner in Washington’s efforts to combat nearby Iran as well as al Qaeda. It sits in a key strategic position in the Persian Gulf and hosts the headquarters of the U.S. Fifth Fleet—a home to 3,000 military personnel who oversee the 30 naval ships and some 30,000 sailors.

“If the U.S. loses Bahrain, they risk losing the Persian Gulf,” said a senior Arab diplomat Friday.

President Barack Obama made his strongest call Friday for an end to the violence in Bahrain, urging the government “to show restraint in responding to peaceful protests, and to respect the rights of their people.”

King Khalifa announced Friday he had appointed his son, Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa, to engage in a dialogue with the opposition once calm had returned. U.S. officials in Washington acknowledged this likely wouldn’t quell the protesters.

Officials wouldn’t comment on whether the Obama administration was directly seeking the removal of Prime Minister Khalifa. But the official said the prime minister “is hated by the majority in Bahrain.”

The prime minister, on his website, says he has supported the king’s reforms, specifically his press reforms.

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D., Vt.), chairman of a Senate panel that oversees foreign aid, has asked Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to review whether units of the Bahrain’s security forces used lethal force against civilians in violation of U.S. law, a finding that could prompt the U.S. to freeze assistance to those units.

The law, known as the Leahy Amendment, requires the U.S. to cut off aid to foreign security forces that are found to have committed gross human rights violations, and could provide a point of leverage for the Obama administration.

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