Converging U.S. – Iran interests in Iraq are creating a common ground for an “Iranian option” for President George W. Bush that could be developed into an historical foreign policy breakthrough of the kind he has been yearning for in the Arab – Israeli conflict or India; however several factors are ruling out this window of opportunity, including his militarization of the U.S. foreign policy, obsession with the “regime changes” overseas, his insistence on exploiting to the maximum his country’s emergence as the only world power in the aftermath of the collapse of the former Soviet Union (USSR), an Iranian independent regional agenda that so far cold not be reconciled with his own, and a detrimental Arab feeling of insecurity of such a potentiality.
A potential “Iran option” for Bush, whether it emerges out of a diplomatic engagement or a military confrontation, be it on Iraq or on Iran per se, would embroil Arabs adversely and directly because both protagonists are waging their political as well as military battles on Arab land and skilfully using Arab wealth, oil, space, diplomacy and even Arab proxies to settle their scores towards either political engagement or military showdown.
True it is still premature to conclude that the prerogatives for a U.S. – Iranian regional understanding is about to emerge, or that the Arab feeling of insecurity would seriously jeopardize the friendships or alliances Washington has forged with the majority of the Arab regimes over decades of a love and hate relations, but the burgeoning U.S. – Iranian dialogue over Iraq and the convergence of bilateral interests as well as their complementary roles there during the last four years are flashing red lights, especially in neighbouring Arab capitals.
The first and second rounds of US – Iran dialogue in Baghdad in May and July this year should not perceive “dialogue” as the goal per se, but should be viewed as a diplomatic tactic within the context of a US strategy that either aims at playing Iran, in the same way Washington has been playing Israel, as a menacing threat against the Arabs to blackmail them into falling in line with the US Middle East strategy or, if a regime change in Tehran proves unaffordable, to revitalize the US-Iranian joint policing of the Gulf, but in this case on a partnership basis instead of the Iranian subordinate role during the Shah era, which boils down to serving the same US strategy vis-à-vis the Arabs in general and the oil rich Arab countries in the Gulf in particular.
On July 29, Robin Wright reported in The Washington Post that Bush was sending this week his secretaries of state and defence, Condoleezza Rice and Robert Gates, to the Middle East with a “simple” message to Arab regimes: “Support Iraq as a buffer against Iran or face living under Tehran’s growing shadow … The United States has now taken on the role traditionally played by Iraq as the regional counterweight to Iran.” Both secretaries were scheduled to meet with the Saudi Arabian monarch King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz in Jeddah on Tuesday.
Wright was aware however that, “On Iraq, Rice and Gates will have a hard sell,” particularly with Saudi Arabia, whose leader King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz raised a short – lived media tit-for-tat with the Bush Administration when he called in March this year the U.S. presence in Iraq an “illegal foreign occupation.” Wright quoted Kenneth Katzman of the Congressional Research Service as saying: “Iranophobia will not be enough to get the Saudis to back Iraq,” as they think that the U.S. – backed Iraqi government of Nouri Kamal al-Maliki is helping Iran – backed groups.
Arab and Saudi “taking aback” has less to do with backing the U.S. in Iraq or against Iran, as this backing was never a in doubt or question since the invasion in 2003, and much to do with the realistic prospects of an imminent U.S. military redeployment in Iraq that could leave the country dominantly in the hands of pro – Iran sectarian militias and parties, thus inevitably setting the stage there for either an escalating civil sectarian strife or worse for disintegration of the Iraq territorial integrity into sectarian and ethnic political entities fighting over oil and “borders,” with menacing regional repercussions.
Al-Maliki’s government is not helping to dispel this “Iranophobia.” On July 24, U.S. ambassador in Baghdad, Patrick Cockburn, quoted the Iraqi Foreign Minister, Hoshyar Zebari, in British The Independent, as saying that like it or not, “Iran is a player in Iraq” and should be engaged in dialogue. No similar statement bestowed on Arab neighbours a parallel role; may be these neighbours should qualify more, Iran – style, to be “players” there.
Ahead of both secretaries’ visit Washington unveiled what they perceive as an encouraging “banana,” a major $20 billion arms package for Saudi Arabia and other GCC oil – rich states with an eye to countering an “Iranian threat,” in the latest manifestation of an old U.S. blackmailing ploy to scare them into keeping the U.S. defence industries busy and recycling whatever surplus of petrodollars these states have amassed from the soaring of crude oil prices following the invasion of Iraq.
Arabs could not but compare this paid for “banana” with the U.S. tax payers’ $30 billion the Bush Administration has pledged as “aid” for her Israeli strategic regional ally, a pledge confirmed days ago by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert who added that Bush also pledged to him to sustain Israel’s dominant “quality” edge militarily over Arabs combined or individual states.
Both the late Ayatullah Khumeini – led Iran and the late Saddam Hussein - led Baath regime in Iraq were skilfully exploited by Washington as the scarecrows to blackmail GCC countries into buying more weapons and spending their surplus petrodollars. However the Iranian – Iraqi war (1980 – 1988) had turned Iraq into the regional counterweight to Iran, a role Washington insists now on assuming with Iraqi blood and oil, but denying the Iraqis even a contribution thereto.
Iraq's ambassador to the United States on July 25 launched a withering attack on the US administration's reluctance to provide basic weaponry to his country's U.S. – led and trained ill-equipped armed forces; Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman acknowledged “it is clear that there is still much to be done with respect to equipping the security forces” of Iraq, in another indication the U.S. is planning not to extricate herself militarily from her Iraqi debacle yet.
Arab Options Between Worse and Worst
The “banana” followed on record U.S. expressions of frustration with their insufficient backing to Bush’s war on Iraq: “Saudi Arabia and a number of other countries are not doing all they can to help us in Iraq. (Washington.) would expect and want them to help us on this strategic issue more than they are doing,” said Zalmay Khalilzad, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, on Sunday. However, Washington is offering the Arabs a choice between two adverse options between a worse and a worst as an alternative to the current bad war – fraught status quo. Similarly Saudi Arabia is “frustrated by the United States but is at a loss what to do about it,” said Rob Malley, Middle East director of the Brussels-based International Crisis Group. The convergence of US and Iranian plans for Iraq and their complementary roles there during the past four years are not the right precedents to allay Arab fears.
The prospect of a potential bilateral US-Iranian understanding on policing Iraq, if Arabs are to be left out of such an arrangement, is perceived by them as a prelude to a similar regional co-ordination that would renovate the US-Iranian policing of the Gulf in the 1950s – 1970s.
Multiple channels of communication were recently opened between Washington and Tehran. The US- installed government(s) in Baghdad since the invasion of Iraq in 2003 was the indirect channel. The gatherings of Iraq's neighbouring states, which both Iranian and U.S. officials attend alongside non-neighbours like Egypt, opened another semi-direct channel. The U.S. – Iranian meetings at the ambassadorial level in Baghdad were the first public direct channel since 1979. Realpolitics suggests a fourth covert channel as also always a possibility.