New Year, New Challenges for the US and the Middle East

[caption id="attachment_55247657" align="alignnone" width="620"]US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel speaks to troops gathered on December 10, 2013 at Al Udeid Airbase, Qatar.  (Mark Wilson/Getty Images). US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel speaks to troops gathered on December 10, 2013 at Al-Udeid Airbase, Qatar. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images).[/caption]Happy New Year? For the United States, probably not—at least in its dealings with the Middle East. Not since 1980 has the US entered a new year facing as much uncertainty, shifting alliances and difficult decisions in the region as it does now.

At the beginning of 1980, American diplomats were hostages in the US embassy in Tehran, prisoners of a radical new regime that scrapped Iran’s role as the principal instrument of US policy in the region and replaced it with militant anti-Americanism. Soviet troops had invaded Afghanistan at the end of December. Iraq, Syria, Algeria and Libya had united to punish Egypt and its then-president, Anwar Sadat, for signing a peace treaty with Israel and had bullied even Saudi Arabia into joining their campaign. The Arab countries cut off aid to Egypt and expelled it from the Arab League. The oil-producing states were sucking dollars out of the industrialized West at a spectacular rate because of the price increases of the 1970s.

Fast forward to January 2014. The level of uncertainty and the difficulty of devising effective policies in the region approach—and perhaps exceed—those of 1980. Egypt, a strong ally and military partner of the US for 35 years, is in turmoil, its stability tenuous and its regional influence diminished. Sectarian conflict is ripping through Iraq, threatening the fragile stability it took the US years to achieve. A deadline set by Secretary of State John F Kerry for a negotiated peace between Israel and the Palestinians is fast approaching, with little progress visible and no obvious backup plan. Al-Qaeda and affiliated groups seem to be gaining strength in Yemen, Libya, Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, and especially Syria, where the civil war is in its third year and the US has no idea how to stop it. Saudi Arabia is sulking over the interim nuclear agreement between Iran and the P5+1. And Iran, whose hostility to the US and pugnacious attitudes toward its Gulf neighbors provided a unifying policy framework for 30 years, has shown surprising new signs of flexibility that require creative responses from Washington. It accepted the interim nuclear deal and has proclaimed a commitment to better relations with the Gulf states.

As Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel observed at the Manama Dialogue over the weekend of December 7, “Any challenges that the region already faced [before the outbreak of the rebellions known as the Arab Spring], from violent extremism to failed states, to proliferation, have actually intensified, and destabilizing actors, state and non-state actors alike, have adopted more and more advanced weaponry, weaponry from ballistic missiles to cyber capabilities.”

Hagel assured his audiences in Bahrain that the US commitment to Gulf security was firm and unequivocal, and its military presence in the region would not be reduced. The US has more than 35,000 members of its armed forces in Iraq, Kuwait, Qatar and Bahrain, Hagel noted, and has embarked on a 580 million US dollar expansion of the US Navy’s Bahrain-based Fifth Fleet.

But the most difficult issues don’t lend themselves to military solutions—or, at least, not to military solutions that Washington is willing to consider. The US is not going to intervene on the ground in Syria, nor is it going to attack Iran if the next round of nuclear negotiations fails to achieve a permanent agreement.

Thus Washington faces the unhappy reality that successful outcomes on several issues may depend more on Iran than on anything the US can do. If Iran has truly decided to end its economic isolation, restore correct if not warm relations with Western nations, and accept permanent constraints on its nuclear program that would preclude development of weapons, it could transform the atmosphere and reduce tensions and violence across much of the Middle East.

Absent a military attack, the US has little leverage over Iran. It cannot force Iran to rein in Hezbollah, or to stop sending weapons and troops to support the Assad regime in Syria. It can, however, urge its Arab friends in the Gulf, including a wary Saudi Arabia, to respond favorably to the conciliatory messages coming from Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. They have nothing to lose by testing Iran’s intentions under the new government of President Hassan Rouhani.

It is not at all clear that Rouhani has the political strength at home, or sufficient backing from the country’s supreme guide, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to chart a new course in international affairs. Iranians born since the 1979 revolution have been raised and schooled in the ‘Death to America, Death to Israel’ doctrine. Hardline groups such as the Revolutionary Guards and the Basij militia are deeply entrenched. The outcome of this internal dynamic in Iran, more than any policy decisions by the US, is likely to set the region’s course during the coming year.

All views expressed in this blog post are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, The Majalla magazine.