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The Enduring Middle East Strategic Framework Begins to Emerge as Iran Surges, and the US Resiles

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The lingering impact of August 3, 2010, clash on the Israeli-Lebanese border lies in the greater context of, and wider strategic dynamics in, the Middle East. These aspects were highlighted by HizbAllah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah in his speech later that day.

See Defense & Foreign Affairs Special Analysis, August 4, 2010: Clash on Israel-Lebanon Border Holds Potential for Strategic Escalation.

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Overall, the issue dominating the overall situation in the Middle East is the reaction by the local powers to the emerging new grand strategic reality: namely, the demise of the United States as the dominant regional power. This is a dramatic reversal of a concentrated US policy of more than half a century.

Back in the Autumn of 1956, the US intentionally undermined the strategic posture of two of its closest Cold War allies, Britain and France. In the late-1960s, the US capitalized on the British unilateral withdrawal from the Persian Gulf and the active Soviet interceding in the Arab-Israeli conflict in order to consolidate the US role as the dominant Western, and later global, power in the Middle East.

This posture endured even after the US betrayed its close ally -- the Shah of Iran -- and permitted the rise of the Islamic Republic in the late 1970s. Consequently, however, the US has had to intensify its direct involvement in regional crises, culminating in the US active war-fighting in and against Iraq. Come August 31, 2010, the US will be abandoning it all with the disengagement from Iraqi security affairs and the beginning of a year-long withdrawal.

Led by an assertive and determined Iran, the aspirant powers of the region cannot wait to fill the void that is already emerging as the US is disengaging from military operations in Iraq and the Persian Gulf. This strategic posture is aptly demonstrated by the US Barack Obama Administration's explicit abandonment of the twin-pillars of the US regional posture -- Israel and Saudi Arabia -- leaving them to cope on their own with a nuclear Iran.

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Moreover, the US is exerting immense pressure on Israel not to strike Iran for fear of derailing the rapprochement with Iran which the Obama White House is seeking, and the possibility of Iranian retaliation against the remaining US presence in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as the Persian Gulf energy infrastructure.

Tehran is cognizant of the significance of these developments. Iran had already started its drive to exploit and fill in vacuums created by the US in the early 1990s. At the time, Iran exploited the widespread trauma as a result of the US undermining and shaming of both (Iraq's) nationalist Sunni Islam and (Saudi Arabia's) traditional-conservative Sunni Islam in the 1990-1 Gulf War in order to push its own Shi'ite-based doctrine of revolutionary-militant Islam. By 1992, Sudan's Hassan al-Turabi adapted the Iranian jihadist tenets and adopted them into the Sunni neo-salafite doctrine, thus setting the grounds for the ascent of the jihadist trend now popularly associated with Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and their supporters.

Presently, Tehran is ready to surge and exploit the far more significant vacuum which will be created by the US de facto withdrawal from Iraq and Persian Gulf. The continued global preoccupation with Iran's nuclear program serves Tehran's interests for it constantly reminds friends and foes alike about Iran's claim to regional and global preeminence. Tehran uses the nuclear crisis to project self-confidence and threaten its neighbors against counting on the US to protect them.

The Obama Administration is playing into Iran's hands. For example, on August 1, 2010, the US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, publicly acknowledged that the US had contingency plans for "the military options [which] have been on the table and remain on the table", but quickly qualified that any military action against Iran could have "unintended consequences that are difficult to predict in what is an incredibly unstable part of the world".

This caveat did not prevent Tehran from issuing counter-threats on August 3, 2010. "If any threat strikes against Iran, the Islamic Republic armed forces are fully prepared to counter them on the ground, sea and air," IRGC Brig.-Gen. Ahmad-Reza Pourdastan stated. "Military threats of US officials against the Islamic Republic are nothing new, we're certain that the US military forces are in an appalling condition. The increasing number of deaths and suicide among American forces attest to the failure of the US in Iraq and Afghanistan."

Just to be sure that Tehran's message was not lost on the West Iran orchestrated on July 28, 2010, a non-lethal attack on the Japanese-owned supertanker M. Star while it traveled through the Strait of Hormuz. Apparently, the IRGC fired a few rockets/missiles with inert warheads at the supertanker, thus reminding everybody of Iran's ability to do greater damage should Tehran choose to.

No less important was the US Fifth Fleet's inability to prevent the attack, or identify and strike at the perpetrators. The recent claim by the Abdullah Azzam Brigades that the attack was carried out by a martyr-bomber named Ayyub Al Tayshan cannot be taken seriously because the dent in the tankers outer wall and damage to the crew's cabin are the result of an external explosion and/or the impact of a projectile fired from sea-level; that is, a boat or a shore battery.

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Concurrently, Tehran demonstrated its dominance over the key political developments in the Arab world using Damascus as the implementing proxy.

First came the Iran-sponsored mediation between various Shi'ite factions in Iraq. In late-July 2010, Tehran oversaw a series of meetings in Damascus between Iyad Allawi, Moqtada Sadr and Nouri al-Maliki in which the outline of a Shi'ite-wide coalition dominated by Tehran was formulated and agreed upon. It was in Damascus that all leading Shi'ite politicians agreed to Sadr's demand that the US-backed Maliki would not be elected to a second term specifically because of the US endorsement.

Former transitional Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, who had been unseated under US pressure for his pro-Iran policies and replaced by Maliki, has emerged as the compromise candidate. Tehran's overt dominance over the Iraqi Shi'ite political maneuvers -- albeit in Damascus rather than Tehran -- are a slap in the US face.

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