US makes allies of Arab Sunni states to counter Iran

NEWS ANALYSIS

US SECRETARY of State Condoleezza Rice has, in recent days, been hopping from one Middle East capital to the next seeking to win Arab backing for America’s plan to stabilise Iraq and resuscitate an Israeli-Palestinian peace initiative.

An undeclared but significant aim of Dr Rice’s whirlwind trip is the containment of Iran and its Shi’ite influence in the region.

With its tentacles reaching out to radical Islamic groups such as Hizbollah and Hamas – and plans to acquire the nuclear bomb – Teheran is seen as a clear and present danger by the Bush administration.

To neutralise that danger, Dr Rice is hoping to build a sympathetic coalition of Arab Sunni states.

Dr Daniel Goure, who advises the Pentagon and other US security agencies on global strategic trends, said Sunni-Shi’ite rivalry will emerge as the biggest polarising factor in the region, with Teheran fuelling proxy conflicts.

“An uninhibited Iran is the biggest threat to American interests in the Middle East,” he told The Straits Times.

“This administration does not want to be caught anymore on the back foot by actions Iran might take.”

Iran’s rise has, however, brought Arab Sunni states closer together and even forged common strategic interests for traditional foes such as Israel and Saudi Arabia.

Observers say Dr Rice was intent on exploiting the Sunni-Shi’ite faultline by rallying several regional states ideologically opposed to Iran.

For their part, regional Sunni Muslim leaders are greatly concerned at the prospect of a US withdrawal from Iraq and all-out civil war there.

But an even greater worry for them is a Shi’ite-dominated government in Iraq coupled with the menacing influence of Iran in their regional backyard.

Dr Rice drummed home the point of what she called a “different Middle East” at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing last week.

She said: “There is a new alignment of forces, pitting reformers and responsible leaders in Israel, Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and the Palestinian territories against extremists of every sect and ethnicity who use violence to spread chaos, to undermine democratic governments and to impose agendas of hatred and intolerance.”

Clearly, she was referring to Iran – and Syria – as the chief protagonists of violence in the region.

In an interview with the New York Times last Friday just before leaving for the Middle East, Dr Rice described an “evolving” strategy to confront “destabilising behaviour” by Iran across the region.

The paper noted that even some of President George W. Bush’s fiercest critics do not question the administration’s conviction about Iran’s ambition. In fact, US officials had wondered in 2003 whether Iran was a far more potent threat than Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.

US intelligence agencies now describe the Iranian threat in grim terms. Outgoing director of national intelligence, Mr John Negroponte, for example, warned Congress last week that Iran’s regional influence goes beyond the danger of its nuclear programme.

He cited, in particular, the Iranian-backed Hizbollah’s success in fighting Israel in Lebanon and Hamas’ victory in the Palestinian elections.

As a result of such findings, Washington appears to be pursuing a two pronged strategy in dealing with its long-time enemy in the Middle East.

The first aspect of the strategy is a more confrontational approach.

America is stationing more naval, air and anti-missile forces off Iran’s coast; it has persuaded many international businesses to cut off dealings with Iran; and significantly over the past three weeks, it has carried out raids on Iranians in Iraq to prevent them from aiding attacks against US forces.

The second aspect is diplomacy, though not with Iran, as it concentrates on building bridges with Arab Sunni states.

And this seems to be Dr Rice’s main aim in her latest Middle East trip. Encouraging progress on solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will also serve to rally the Arabs to support the fledgling regime in Iraq.

And more importantly, an evolving alliance of these states could block Iran’s ambition to be the strongest power in the Middle East.

AMERICA’S BIGGEST THREAT

“An uninhibited Iran is the biggest threat to American interests in the Middle East. This administration does not want to be caught anymore on the back foot by actions Iran might take.”
DR DANIEL GOURE, who advises the Pentagon and other US security agencies on global strategic trends

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