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West Asian wound

Print edition : Apr 06, 2007 T+T-

The U.S.-dominated post-Second World War political order in West Asia is in terminal decline.

ATUL ANEJA in Dubai

IN the third week of February, the second United States aircraft carrier, John C. Stennis, entered the turquoise blue waters of the Gulf. Armed to the teeth and carrying 6,500 sailors and marines on board, it joined its sister ship, USS Dwight D. Eisenhower. Several smaller warships accompanied the two carriers. The presence of the two aircraft carriers, which in substance are floating airfields, is significant; together they can undertake round-the-clock bomb raids in the neighbourhood.

The assemblage of heavy firepower in the Gulf is mainly directed at Iran. Teheran has defied the U.S. and its European allies by persisting with its uranium enrichment programme. Iran's detractors say that this will help Teheran achieve its core objective - the manufacture of atomic bombs. Low-enriched uranium can be used as a reactor-fuel to produce electricity. However, highly enriched uranium can form the explosive core of a bomb. In April 2006, the Iranians demonstrated that they had acquired the know-how to produce a small sample of enriched uranium. Subsequently, Western countries have intensified their efforts to freeze the Iranian enrichment programme.

The Bush administration has managed to persuade all the other four permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, including Russia and China, to pressure Iran to suspend its enrichment activities. Iran has been promised talks and possible incentives if it abides by this demand. Limited sanctions have been imposed following its refusal to halt enrichment. The deployment of warships supplements the economic coercion and, from a U.S. standpoint, serves two purposes. First, it gives teeth to its diplomacy by adding a military dimension. Second, it conveys the impression that a real military option is available to the U.S. if diplomacy fails.

However, the Iranians have monitored the U.S. military activity in the Gulf and, despite being deeply concerned, have not panicked. Notwithstanding the differences between hardliners led by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and moderate conservatives such as former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the Iranians are united on one score - they will not suspend uranium enrichment in order to revive nuclear talks with the West. This is the bottom line, which all mainstream political sections in Iran accept. The differences lie elsewhere. For instance, in the domestic debate on the intensity and scale of enrichment. Should their programme be confined to low-grade enrichment? Should Iran go ahead with large-scale enrichment? Would Iran be attacked if it pursued industrial-scale production at its underground nuclear facility in Natanz?

Tensions in Teheran are real but restrained because of an understanding that there are limitations to what the U.S. can do. Despite all its firepower, the U.S. military machine, to most seasoned observers, has weakened considerably. The problem lies not in its military capability, but in the political and psychological domain. At this point of time, the U.S. is not capable of a sustained military campaign involving ground troops. Iranians realise that despite the bluster of air strikes, no serious military attack against them can go ahead without a contingency back-up of ground troops.

The situation in Iraq has much to do with Iranian calculations. From an Iranian standpoint, its arch-enemy, former President Saddam Hussein, is no longer on the scene. A friendly Shia-dominated government is in place in Baghdad. The historic ties of the Shia religious network, which draws Najaf and Karbala in Iraq with centres such as Qom and Mashhad in Iran on a common grid, have enmeshed social and cultural bonds between the people of the two countries. Despite all the violence, cross-border trade between Iran and Iraq is thriving.

Iranian influence among the Shia militias and the Iraqi security forces is also extensive. The Badr corps, which belongs to the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution of Iraq (SCIRI), was armed and trained in Iran. Its present leader, Abdulaziz Al Hakim, spent several years in exile in Iran during the Saddam Hussein era. The Iranians have also had a longstanding relationship with the Iraqi Al Dawa party. Besides this, Teheran is well-entrenched in the Kurdish areas and has a strong relationship with Kurdish leaders such as Iraqi President Jalal Talabani. The Iranians are well aware that despite the deployment of additional troops by the U.S., Iraq cannot be stabilised without their support. Therefore, the Iranians were not surprised when the U.S. accepted a dialogue with them to calm Iraq. The two sides met face-to-face in Baghdad at a security conference in March, in the presence of Iraq's key neighbours and the other permanent members of the U.N. Security Council. A Foreign Ministers' meeting in Istanbul in April will follow the dialogue initiated at Baghdad.

Having broken the ice in Baghdad, Iran is likely to adopt a diplomatic posture that would encourage their de facto recognition as an independent regional power in the Gulf and beyond. For the Iranians, an expansion of the dialogue with the U.S. would be a measure of tangible success. In other words, the Iranians are looking for a comprehensive regional dialogue with the U.S. that would cover a gamut of issues, such as their nuclear programme, the situation in the Gulf, and the crises in Lebanon and Palestine.

Realists in the Iranian establishment know that there are practical reasons, including issues of regime stability, to demand an expansion of their dialogue with Washington. For instance, if the single-track dialogue on Iraq succeeds and the country is stabilised, it would free U.S. troops for deployment against Iran. Consequently, any process of stabilising Iraq has to proceed in tandem with broad-based dialogue for the normalisation of ties with Iran.

Iranians are of the view that there are sufficient reasons for the U.S. to widen their dialogue. The Iranians know that they are key players in Lebanon owing to their close ties with the Lebanese militant group Hizbollah. Hizbollah's stunning resistance to the Israeli invasion in the summer of 2006 has had a deep impact on security establishments in the U.S., Israel, and other West Asian countries. Given its reliance on Israel as its most important strategic partner in West Asia, it would be in U.S. interests to talk to Teheran in order to restrain Hizbollah. The Iranians have also emerged as important players in the Palestinian territories, as a result of their support to the Palestinian militant group Hamas.

The decline in U.S. influence in West Asia after the Iraq war is a historic development as it challenges the security architecture raised by the Americans following the Second World War. The U.S. began to assert itself in the region from 1945 with three key objectives. First, it wanted to contain the influence of the Soviet Union. Second, it had to protect the Gulf oilfields, both for its own energy security and to deny the Soviets physical access to this resource-rich area. Third, it needed to support Israel, as it was its chief military ally in the region.

The Americans began their post-War forays in the region with the announcement of the Truman Doctrine on March 12, 1947. This declaration took place after a power vacuum emerged in Turkey and Greece, to which a cash-strapped Britain had decided to withdraw support. The Truman doctrine proclaimed that the area, which was not far from the Soviet Union, was a zone of special interest and that the U.S. would provide the two countries with economic and military aid. This area was vital for east-west trade; the Straits of Bosporus and Dardanelles pass through Turkey.

Similarly, the Eisenhower Doctrine, delivered on January 5, 1957, committed the U.S. to using armed force in response to a request by any state that was threatened by "international communism". This doctrine was first applied in Lebanon, where U.S. forces landed in 1958 to support the regime of President Camille Chamoun. The United Arab Republic (UAR), which at that time was dominated by a pro-Moscow Egypt, supported the Lebanese Opposition.

In Iran, a military coup engineered by U.S. and British intelligence agencies overthrew the government of the nationalist Mohammad Mosaddeq in 1953. Mossadeq was the architect of the nationalisation of the Iranian oil industry, which has been dominated and exploited by the British Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. The coup brought to power the pro-U.S. Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the Shah of Iran. However, U.S. interests in Iran were seriously undermined following the 1979 Islamic revolution, which, riding the wave of Iranian nationalism and religious fervour, overthrew the Shah. Following the power shift in Teheran and the presence of Soviet troops in Afghanistan, President Jimmy Carter announced the Carter Doctrine on January 23, 1980. This designated the oil-rich Gulf as an area that was vital to U.S. interests in defence of which Washington would use "any means necessary, including military force". This would ensure an uninterrupted flow of oil from the Gulf. To back up these words, the Carter administration established the Rapid Deployment Joint Task Force (RDJTF) and made it responsible for military operations in the Gulf.

On January 1, 1983, President Ronald Reagan turned the RDJTF into the full-fledged Central Command. Its area of operations currently spans more than 4,800 kilometres and covers Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates - the five leading oil producers in the world. Keeping the Strait of Hormuz open, through which tankers carrying nearly 14 million barrels of oil transit every day to markets abroad, is the primary responsibility of this command. Nearly all American soldiers who have died since 1985, including those in Iraq following the U.S. invasion of the country four years ago, served under the Central Command.

Saudi Arabia, the largest oil producer in the world, became a key U.S. ally in 1945 following a meeting between President Franklin D. Roosevelt and King Abdul Aziz ibn Saud. The oil-for-protection arrangement that it produced has lasted for more than 50 years. However, the relationship began to experience some turbulence after it became known that the bulk of the hijackers in the planes that attacked the World Trade Centre on September 11, 2001 had connections with Saudi Arabia. Two more developments - the takeover of the Saudi Arabian monarchy by the independent-minded King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz and the American difficulties in Iraq - appear to be loosening the longstanding relationship between Washington and Riyadh. Recently, Saudi Arabia has begun to demonstrate unprecedented assertiveness in the region.

Soon after assuming the throne, King Abdullah embarked on a "look east" policy. He signalled his intent to look beyond traditional allies by visiting India, Pakistan, Malaysia and China during his first overseas tour. He followed this up by engaging Russia, which under President Vladimir Putin is looking at reasserting Moscow's role in the region. The relationship moved forward rapidly and the two countries signed deals in high-technology areas such as a new space navigation system and defence. There have been reports that the Saudi Arabians are considering the purchase of 150 T-90 tanks from Russia. The two governments have also been considering the formation of a gas cartel, with Iran and Qatar as partners. Russia is the largest producer of gas in the world, followed by Iran and Qatar. The formation of a gas cartel is likely to undercut efforts by the European Union to lower its dependence on Russian natural gas by engaging alternative suppliers. A meeting on this subject is expected in Doha in April.

The U.S. debacle in Iraq has contributed to Saudi Arabia's growing assertion as an independent regional player. The country's heightened activism in the region can be traced to the visit of the U.S. Vice-President Dick Cheney to Riyadh in November 2006. The visit took place at a time when Sunni-Shia tensions were raging in Iraq and sectarian violence in Lebanon threatened to escalate into civil war. After Cheney's visit, Saudi National Security Adviser Prince Bandar bin Sultan became the point person leading a flurry of diplomatic exchanges. Realising that problems of West Asia could not be addressed without the support of Iran, the region's leading Shia nation, Saudi Arabia began to engage Iran directly. This resulted in several meetings between Prince Bandar and his Iranian counterpart, Ali Larijani.

Alarmed by the rise of sectarianism, the two countries first addressed the situation in Lebanon. While the Iranians exerted their influence on Hizbollah, the Saudis approached the wealthy Sunni community. The Sunnis, who are led by Saad Hariri, son of the late Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, are the key components of Lebanon's Fouad Siniora government. The joint initiative has brought relative calm to Lebanon and opened up the possibility of a productive dialogue. Encouraged by the results in Lebanon, the two countries raised the level of their interaction with the visit to Riyadh by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on March 3. In the Palestinian territories, Saudi intervention in faction fighting between Hamas and Fatah has begun to make a real difference. The Saudi monarch invited leaders of both groups for talks in Makkah, where an accord was signed that resulted in the formation of a national unity government. Under the Makkah accord, the militant group Hamas has agreed to "respect" past agreements between Arabs and Israelis. There was initial resistance to the Saudi initiative, but a number of European countries have begun to interact with the new government. The Saudis are now looking for a bigger role in the international diplomatic efforts to resolve the Arab-Israeli dispute. They have brought to the table the Beirut declaration, which they drafted in 2002, as a basis for lasting peace with the Israelis. It calls for the normalisation of ties with Israel, provided the Israelis vacate the Palestinian territories that they occupied during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.

Sensing Washington's diminishing influence in West Asia after the Iraq war, both Iran and Saudi Arabia appear set to emerge as independent regional heavyweights. In turn they are willing to engage new extra-regional players such as Russia and China in this process. Saudi Arabia has shown a special interest in India following King Abdullah's visit to New Delhi in January 2006. Iran is reaching out to Latin American countries such as oil-rich Venezuela. Venezuela, at Teheran's prompting, has opened diplomatic ties with Palestine's Hamas government.

While a new political and security order is yet to emerge in West Asia, it is evident that since the U.S. debacle in Iraq the transition away from the status quo, until now enforced by U.S. military and economic might, is well and truly under way.