Shifting desert sands

2009-03-18 00:00

Even as we in South Africa prepare to enter a new phase of change in our political landscape, beginning with next month’s election, so too does that other complex multicultural region, the Middle East, whose stormy history has had such a huge impact on the rest of the world.

I am writing this from the Gulf state of Qatar, where the Al Jazeera television network is hosting its annual media forum, which this year is focusing on what it calls “the changing dynamics and emerging political paradigms” taking place in the Middle East.

At the heart of these shifting desert sands is the end of the George W. Bush era and the beginning of that of his diametric opposite, Barack Obama.

Bush’s radical objective was to transform the Middle East by invading Iraq, overthrowing Saddam Hussein and, with the help of the grateful Iraqis, turning that country into a model democracy whose influence would then transform the entire region.

It was the high point of neo-conservative zealotry, which coupled fundamentalist free market economics with a geo-political ideology which held that the United States should use its massive military might to drive a more muscular foreign policy. Acting in terms of what became known as the Bush Doctrine, the administration seized on the national trauma of the 9/11 attacks to proclaim the right to launch pre-emptive military action to eliminate any perceived threat to U.S. national interests before it actually manifested itself. They used this to justify the war on Iraq, although it had nothing to do with 9/11.

This was hubris, and, as the old Greek gods warned, it brought retribution. Iraq became Bush’s nemesis.

The war also ironically transformed the U.S.’s arch-enemy in the Middle East, Iran, into a regional superpower by eliminating Saddam’s Iraq as its counter-balancing enemy. Moreover, by “democratising” Iraq the Americans brought the country’s Shi’ite Muslim majority to power, so unwittingly turning the old enemy into Shi’ite Iran’s ally.

Meanwhile, the intense U.S. focus on Iraq has allowed the Taliban to make a comeback in Afghanistan, while Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda have entrenched themselves along the mountainous Afghan border with Pakistan where they are beginning to infect that chronically unstable country as well. Altogether a comprehensive foreign policy cockup.

Now Obama is in power, trying to repair the damage.

From the moment of his inauguration, when he told the world’s Muslims his administration would seek “a new way forward based on mutual interest and mutual respect”, Obama has made it clear he intends abandoning Bush’s confrontational diplomacy for political détente instead. In doing so, he is going to focus on the very countries Bush regarded as beyond the pale and with whom he refused to talk —Syria and Iran.

This is obviously the wise course and could yield results. Already Obama has sent two senior officials to Syria, prompting an encouraging response from President Bashir Assad, who told Japan’s Asahi Shimbun newspaper last week that he is ready to engage in direct peace negotiations with Israel if the U.S. acted as mediator.

Assad, who allows the political leadership of the radical Palestinian organisation Hamas to base itself in Damascus, also said he wants to engage in regional peace talks with both Hamas and Lebanon-based Hezbollah participating.

Iran, too, has made some promising noises, beginning with a surprise message of congratulation which President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad sent to Obama on his election. Obama responded with an indirect message to Iran in his inaugural speech that the U.S. “will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist”.

Later, in an interview with the Arabic-language television station, Al Arabia, Obama said more forthrightly that it is important to talk to the Iranians, both to express differences and explore “where there are potential avenues for progress”.

There are several such avenues, where the U.S. and Iran have common interests. The most obvious is to stabilise Iraq as Obama withdraws the U.S.’s occupational troops over the next 18 months. With their co-religionists now in control of the country, it is in Iran’s interests to help ensure that Iraq can become a stable and peaceful neighbour.

So, too, is it in Iran’s interests to quell the threat of the extremist al-Qaeda and Taliban elements entrenched along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Shi’ite Iran’s long-running nightmare has been the prospect of being sandwiched between hostile regimes in Iraq to the west and Afghanistan to the east.

But, while there are good prospects of progress for Obama’s détente plans, there are also political risks, which are making many of the Arab analysts here at the Al Jazeera forum sceptical about how much he can achieve.

Talking to Syria and especially Iran will not be popular among many Americans, and even less so in Israel.

Hostility to Iran is deeply embedded in the American psyche, ever since the overthrow of the Shah 30 years ago, and the siege of the American embassy in Teheran and the holding of 52 embassy staff hostage for 444 days. The loud-mouthed Ahmadinejad, a kind of Middle Eastern Julius Malema, was one of the militant Iranian students involved in that diplomatic atrocity, and today he is the noisome president of Iran who volubly denies the reality of the Holocaust.

Talking to such a man will not be easy for Obama. It would be wiser to wait until after Iran’s June 12 presidential election when Ahmadinejad will be opposed by a reformist candidate, Mir Hossein Mousavi. Mousavi is being strongly supported by Mohammed Khatami, who preceded Ahmadinejad as president. In the closing months of his presidency, Khatami was putting out signals that he was eager to regularise relations with the U.S. when out of the blue the newly elected Bush proclaimed Iran to be part of an “axis of evil”. That blew Khatami out of the water and brought Ahmadinejad to power.

Of course, the locus of power in Iran is problematic. The Grand Ayatollah Khomeini presides as a kind of philosopher king, who is both the defender of the revolutionary faith and the ultimate repository of political wisdom. He has a power of veto over legislation and political strategies with which he disagrees. But there are indications that he, too, is eager to end Iran’s diplomatic and economic isolation.

But the greatest stumbling block in the way of Obama’s plans is likely to be Israel, particularly under the impending premiership of right-winger Benjamin Netanyahu. Israel fears Iran’s growing power in the region, its support for Hamas and Hezbollah, and particularly its nuclear potential, even though U.S. intelligence experts say Iran is not close to having a nuclear weapon. This could stymie Obama’s efforts, for Israel has an extraordinary ability to influence American foreign policy.

Only last week, an Obama nominee to an important intelligence post, Charles Freeman, withdrew his nomination after the Israeli lobby in the U.S. objected that he had made remarks in 2007 about Israel’s “brutal oppression” of Palestinians.

“The outrageous agitation that followed the leak of my pending appointment,” Freedman said as he quit, “will be seen by many to raise serious questions about whether the Obama administration will be able to make its own decisions about the Middle East and other related issues.”

• Allister Sparks, a former editor of the Rand Daily Mail, is a veteran South African journalist and political commentator.

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