Oct 11, 2006

Here Comes the New Middle East

"What new Middle East" snorted Lebanon's Information Minister in response to Condoleezza Rice's call for a "New Middle East" during the recent Lebanon war. That was also the reaction of many observers in the region; the war ended and the "Old Middle East" and the "New Middle East" conspicuously looked very much the same. But the US didn't drop the idea as Condi's recent trip to the Middle East showed. The keyword of the trip was "Arab moderates" countries, and the lucky "moderates" were the GCC countries plus Egypt and Jordan. But surely, these countries must have something else in common apart from being "moderates" you might wonder, and they do. Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan have voiced alarm of a "Shia Crecent" stretching from Iran into Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, destabilising Gulf countries. In the recent Lebanon war, the leaders of these three countries have - initially - blamed Hezbollah's for the crisis, visibly angered by Iran's support for Hezbollah. In brief, these countries are angary and afraid of the growing Iranian/Shia influence in the region ; anger and fear are a powerful combination the US is trying to exploit. The US wants a new alliance against Iran.

But what is US planning for Iran? Some speculate that the US is gathering support for
an attack on Iran . I'm not sure they're that naive - though some might point to Iraq. Iran is in a strong position as long as the US is stuck in Iraq, which is - needless to say - likely to last a little longer, perhaps few more years. The other option is to isolate Iran, something the US has been trying to do for the last two decades. But Arab regimes feel that the unresolved issues of Palestine, Lebanon and Iraq is what's giving Iran to a room to flex its muscles, so resolving these issues is what the US should focus on they say. As Saud al-Faisal,the Saudi Foreign Minister put it, "It is the hope that the US will restart the peace process and lead the region to peace and stability," , he also described the Israel-Palestinian conflict as the region's "core problem" on whose settlement the resolution of other disputes depended. Similar appeals have come from Egypt and Jordan.

Another target of of the "New Middle East" are the Islamists, it seems theUS wants to reverse the "unexpected" results of its push for democracy in the Middle East. The influence of the Islamists will continue in the region (which I think is a good thing), because people are tired of the current Arab regimes. Any further push for democracy, the US knows, is more likely to bring Islamists into power. Faced with such a choice, the US is starting to abandon the idea of promoting democracy in the Middle East, at least for now. The new Middle East I think will be shaped by events (and others) besides the US.

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