March 15, 2009

Iranian ascendancy - an opportunity for U.S. policy

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Iran's rising influence in the Middle East is causing concern in the Gulf Arab states, long rivals of the Persian country across the water. That presents some opportunities for U.S. foreign policy in the area.

Every time Iran announces another missile test launch, introduction of a new weapon system, a large scale military exercise or advancements in its nuclear research program, the level of anxiety climbs in the countries that comprise the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) - Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Oman.

These Arab countries rightfully concerned. Since the American invasion of Iraq in 2003 removed Saddam Husayn, Iran has tried to assert itself as the major power broker in the region. The Iranian leadership believes that the removal of Saddam cleared the way for them to increase their influence in one of the countries that has traditionally been a rival at best and a deadly foe at worst.

Iran continues its meddling in Iraqi affairs, especially in the Shi'a-dominated southern part of the country. For years Iran has provided weapons and training to various Shi'a militias, militias that have killed hundreds of American troops. One of Iran's primary clients in Iraq is the jaysh al-mahdi of radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

On the Iraqi political front, Iran has tried to develop and maintain close relations with the majority Shi'a political parties, including that of Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. When American troops depart Iraq, there will be a struggle over who will emerge as the key power broker in the Gulf region. Will it be Iran, Saudi Arabia or the United States?

It is almost as if Iran has been preparing for that day. Since 2003, Iran has continued an ambitious militarization program across the spectrum, including the development of long-range ballistic missiles. The country has large, fairly well-trained and experienced armed forces, as well as a good special operations capability.

Although on paper the GCC appears to also have capable military forces, it is difficult to imagine them taking on Iran militarily. Add nuclear weapons to Iran's current capabilities - there is little doubt that Iran is intent on acquiring them - and it makes for an intimidating neighbor.

The recent overtures by Saudi Arabia to the Syrian government are a reaction to what is happening in Iran, not in Syria. Syria is the only Arab state aligned with Iran. Other factions in the Arab world, particularly Lebanese Hizballah (created by the Iranians in 1982) and Palestinian Hamas, also are aligned with the regime in Tehran. It is this Syrian-Iranian alliance that provides Tehran its gateway to Lebanon - the international airport in Damascus is the conduit for Iranian money and weapons to Hizballah, as well as other terrorist groups.

The Obama administration has also made overtures to Syria for the same reason - Iran. U.S-Syrian relations have been strained since Syria was allegedly complicit in the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri. If - and this is a big "if" - either the United States or Saudi Arabia is successful in breaking Syria away Iran, it would be extremely helpful to American diplomacy in the region. Not only would it virtually strangle Hizballah, it would set the stage for meaningful talks between Syria and Israel. As long as Syria allows Iran to support Hizballah via its territory, Israel will not return the occupied Golan Heights. Those are the two main points for peace between Syria and Israel.

The Obama administration should be actively engaging our Gulf Arab allies - we need to maintain our relationships in the region, including access to a series of military bases in Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar and the UAE. As long as these countries perceive Iran as as threat, we have a unique opportunity to increase our influence in the region by being thought of as the guarantor of their security. Threatening to use nuclear weapons against the Gulf Arabs, or even against Israel, is one thing. Threatening to use them against the world's superpower is not credible. Our diplomats should try to convince the Gulf Arabs that the key to answering the Iranian challenge is close relationship with the United States.

As long as the United States imports two-thirds of its oil from abroad, it is essential that we have the ability to guarantee the flow of oil from the Persian Gulf. Good relationships with the Gulf Arabs will not only provide security for them, it will allow the United States to maintain its role as a key power in the region.