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Iran's influence grows, thanks to America

As'ad Abdul Rahman, Special to Gulf News

December 29, 2006

At the time when the US is wading in the heavy mud of the Iraqi quagmire, Iran is stealthily assuming the role of a major player in the region. That is why the Iraq Study Group recommended that the US should start negotiations with Tehran to bring about regional stability.

Now it is well-known that ever since the American invasion of Iraq and the many mistakes committed by the US, Iranian influence in the Middle East has been growing and surpassing that of the US. This fact was emphasised by the UK's Royal Institute of International Affairs. For in its "war on terror", the US has strengthened the Iranian role by toppling two of its enemies (the Taliban in Afghanis-tan and Saddam Hussain in Iraq) without laying out proper political structures in their places.

Observers agree that 2007 will be a crucial year for the region; but they have different views about it. While some think military solutions will be resorted to, others think diplomacy will triumph. Both solutions may seem impossible for the US because things are very entangled.

The US, with all its power, is unable to venture into a new military campaign. At the same time, one wonders if and when it will muster enough courage to start negotiations with Iran, dubbed a major member of the "axis of evil"?

Today, three and a half years after the Iraqi misadventure, the American military is not the decisive power there. In southern Iraq, it is practically Iran that is in control, and the various Shiite militias simply receive directions from Tehran. Also, according to US military intelligence, it is the Sunni resistance (and not the Americans) who have the upper hand in the vast Anbar region in western Iraq. Therefore, using force against Iran will not serve US interests, irrespective of the fact that, if it ever happens, it will please the Israeli lobby and the fanatical neo-conservatives in the US.

Direct threat to Israel

Moreover, the efforts that Iran is exerting to acquire nuclear technology and perhaps nuclear weapons that may pose a direct threat to Israel and may bring to an end the latter's monopoly of this technology in the Middle East, are again worrying the US. The same can be said about Iran's interference in the region that has started to show up clearly in its support of Hezbollah, Hamas and the regional Shiite minorities.

A possible future alliance between Sunnis and Shiites in Iraq is an additional source of worry to the Americans. However, despite the American desire to topple the Iranian Shiite Islamic system, waging war against Iran is not in the interests of the US, which also lacks the necessary power to do so. Such a war may extend to the whole region and jeopardise the flow of petrol from the Gulf to the West.

Therefore, the coming stage will most probably witness pacification, as all parties are in need of peace, particularly the US.

It was in this context that George W. Bush held meetings with some Iraqi leaders, although some of these leaders are crippled in their ability to decide about Iraq. Perhaps the most important meeting was that with Abdulaziz Al Hakim, leader of the largest Shiite bloc, who has no official post in Iraq.

His visit to Washington aroused some speculation that he is considered Iran's "number one man" in Iraq. Al Hakim's militia, known as Badr Brigades, has been involved in attacks against Sunnis.

Al Hakim's Washington visit emphasises the fact that the US, bashfully perhaps, is knocking at Iran's door, with the purpose of having a dialogue. The US, therefore, seems to have discerned that its military occupation of Iraq did not grant it a new regional influence as much as it did Iran. The Iranian influence has indeed exceeded the Iraqi borders towards countries of the Arabian Gulf, through their Shiite minorities, as well as towards Lebanon and Palestine through Hezbollah and Hamas. This is in addition to Iran's alliance with Syria.

Hezbollah's strong resistance last July against Israeli aggression and the failure to disarm this party has caused great confusion in the US. In contrast to the regional Iranian project of reviving the "Iranian empire", the cherished American goal of creating a "new" or "Greater" Middle East seems doomed to failure.

Finally, one should not forget the how unpopular America has become in the Arab world at a time when Iran is enjoying great popular support in both the Arab and Islamic worlds.

The choices remain open for the US, whether diplomatic or military. Some observers think the US prefers diplomacy now, because without the participation of Iran and Syria, there won't be any solution in Iraq.

The question that keeps popping up is whether it is really so difficult for Bush to perceive (and act on) the necessity of adopting and putting into action a new strategy in the Middle East.

Professor As'ad Abdul Rahman is the Chairman of the Palestinian Encyclopedia.

:: Article nr. 29402 sent on 30-dec-2006 05:37 ECT


Link: www.gulf-news.com/opinion/columns/region/10093024.html

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