In These New Times

A new paradigm for a post-imperial world

Iran on new voyage of discovery

Posted by seumasach on February 23, 2011

Kaveh Afrasiabi

Asia Times

24th February

“The Americans try hard to not be the target of these huge popular uprisings, but will fail because people have realized that the policies of Americans and their cronies are the causes of humiliation and division among nations. As a result, the key to resolving people’s problems rests on ending America’s arrangement in the region.”
– Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamenei

On Monday, with two Iranian warships about to sail through the Suez Canal – much to the chagrin of Israel which viewed the move “with utmost gravity'” – Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei addressed a group of foreign dignitaries from the Muslim world and confidently spoke of the dawn of a new era in the Middle East, reflecting a “new Islamic awakening”.

With the fall of two pro-West dictators in Tunisia and Egypt and the rapidly evolving protests in the largely Shi’ite Bahrain, home to the US’s Fifth Fleet, Iranian leaders have ample justification for their confident assertion of a “new Middle East” that is increasingly less subservient to Western interests and more and more independent and assertive.

An Iranian frigate and a supply ship passed through the Suez on the way to Syria after receiving approval from Egyptian authorities – the first time such vessels had navigated the waterway since before the fall of the Shah of Iran in 1979. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Sunday that Iran was trying to exploit instability across the region.

Under international law, only ships from countries at war with Egypt are barred from passing through the Suez Canal. But military ships need prior permission from Egypt’s Defense and Foreign Ministries.

“I think that today, we can see what an unstable region we live in, a region in which Iran tries to exploit the situation that has been created in order to expand its influence by passing warships through the Suez canal,” Netanyahu was reported as saying. The Israeli Foreign Ministry called the ships “a provocation” that should be “dealt with by the international community”.

The consensus among Iran’s foreign policy experts is that the Egyptian military’s decision to allow the passage of the Alvandand the Khargh was a significant ice-breaker that sets a positive tone for a much-needed improvement in Iran-Egypt relations.

Accused by the Israeli media of “conniving” with Iran over the ships’ passage, the Egyptian military leaders – who now effectively run the country following the ouster of president Hosni Mubarak in January – may now accelerate the process of normalization of relations with Iran ahead of elections scheduled for September. This is irrespective of the fact that they have pledged that the government will stick to all previous foreign obligations, including the Camp David peace treaty with Israel.

According to the Israeli paper Ha’aretz, Israel can no longer guarantee that Egypt will remain an ally against Iran. A more accurate interpretation might be that Israel fears Egypt becoming Iran’s ally against Israel, thus denoting a change in the balance of forces to the detriment of the conservative bloc spurred by the United States and Israel to isolate Iran.

In the tumultuous times in the Middle East and North Africa, it is now pro-US regimes that are either being toppled or seriously contested by their own populations, giving the Iran-led bloc, that includes Syria, Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Hamas in Gaza, the unique momentum to harvest a great deal of (geo) political gain. This would especially be the case if the present “domino effect” gives rise to a significant transformation of Bahrain’s archaic political system.

Although Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the US military, in his latest interview implicitly accused Iran of stirring the troubles in Bahrain, the fact is that many Bahraini Shi’ites look to Iraq’s holy city of Najaf and the spiritual leadership of Ayatollah Ali Sistani, while a minority emulate the guidance of Khamenei.

Regardless, the inevitable empowerment of Bahrain’s Shi’ites – who outnumber the ruling Sunnis – one way or another (such as through outright revolution or the government-proposed “national dialogue”) , will be widely interpreted as an important gain for Iran. This will cause both Bahrain and other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to demonstrate greater deference to Iran’s rapidly rising power in the region. The GCC, created in 1981, comprises the Persian Gulf states of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

This recognition of the changing political tides favoring Iran, America’s bete noir in the Middle East, can already be seen in Saudi Arabia’s unprecedented decision to allow a port visit by Iran’s warships (that traversed the Red Sea and the Suez en route to the Syrian port city of Latika). However, the olive branch to Iran might also have been motivated by Riyadh’s fear of an uprising by its own discontented Shi’ites (about 2 million out of a population of 26 million).

This raises new questions regarding the future of US-Iran relations, in light of the uneasy coexistence of conflicting as well as shared interests between the two countries in the Middle East cauldron and beyond.

The US may now need to revise its coercive approach toward Iran over its nuclear program and refrain from further sanctions and the hitherto futile politics of isolating Iran, in order to get Tehran’s confidence that cooperation on shared or parallel interests, such as containing the triple threats of the Taliban, Wahhabi extremism and drug trafficking, is feasible, not to mention regional stability.

In terms of the nuclear standoff, a prudent US move would be to consent to a nuclear fuel swap for Tehran’s medical reactor, and to throw its weight behind the current United Nations-led efforts in the realm of a Middle East nuclear weapons free zone.

Also, the US may want to drop its objection to India’s participation in an Iran-Pakistan-India pipeline; the economic logic of interdependence, in fueling political moderation, cannot and should not be ignored.

However, it is unlikely that Washington will ever recognize Tehran’s prominent place in overall Middle Eastern affairs. Instead, as reflected by Mullen, the US continues to guide its policy through an Iran-phobic lens, as a result of which the grey area of “mutual interests” remains largely unexplored and untapped.

‘Sticky’ Palestinian rights
As expected, the Iranian media have lambasted the Barack Obama administration’s veto last week of a UN Security Council resolution that criticized Israel’s illegal settlements. This reinforces a widespread perception in Iran and other parts of the Arab and Muslim world that the US government is in the palms of the pro-Israel lobby and fundamentally incapable of drifting away, let alone opposing, Israel’s map of action for the region.

Unless the White House proves otherwise, by adjusting its approach toward the “peace process” by exerting real pressure on Israel, the suspicion remains that America’s Middle East policy is to a significant degree shaped in Tel Aviv.

Iran’s interest in the Palestinian “issue” is both ideological and born out of the desire to enhance Iran’s areas of influence, which essentially means that the US’s policy of excluding Iran from the multilateral dialogue on the peace process is both counter-productive and dysfunctional.

“Israel’s expansionist policies have harmed the US’s interests and without doubt contributed to the unpopularity of America’s shah, Hosni Mubarak,” says a Tehran University political scientist who specializes in Iran’s foreign affairs, adding, “Israeli politicians are naturally blindsighted to this point, but should the Americans?”

Pointing at the Egyptian military’s recent order to open the Gaza crossing for several days as an indication of a new Egyptian approach that no longer subscribes to the siege of Gaza, both the Tehran professor and a number of other Iranian pundits are optimistic about a bright future for Iran-Egypt relations. This they say would be based on “common solidarity with the Palestinians”. At a minimum, Cairo can now pitch for a better bargain from the US and Israel, by raising the specter of bandwagoning with Iran, indeed an unsettling development from the prism of US-Israeli interests.

Cognizant of the need to drive a wedge between the US and Israel, Iran’s strategy is to combine its anti-American stick of a “Middle East without the US”, to paraphrase President Mahmud Ahmadinejad’s speech on the occasion of the 32nd anniversary of the 1979 revolution, with the carrot of cooperation on “shared concerns”, such as the Taliban’s menace.

The fact that Iran can be a timely corridor in light of the constant attacks on North Atlantic Treaty Organization supply lines through Pakistan to Afghanistan, or be a moderating influence on its Shi’ite brethren in the Persian Gulf, has been pointed out by some Tehran pundits. They condition such a role by Tehran on the US’s willingness to shift its policy away from sanctions, threats and attempts at regime change.

The irony is that the net result of the US’s policy has been the exact opposite of what was intended: its allies are falling while Iran is only minimally impacted by the “democratic fever” gripping the region, as a result of which Tehran considers itself in the driver’s seat of dictating the terms of any US-Iran dialogue. This is because the US is perceived as having been weakened, on the defensive and in “panic mode over the dominos falling”, to quote a conservative Tehran daily’s editorial.

The empire might well find ways to strike back and regain its crumbling order, but for now the day belongs to Iran and its allies.

Kaveh L Afrasiabi, PhD, is the author of After Khomeini: New Directions in Iran’s Foreign Policy (Westview Press) . For his Wikipedia entry, click here. He is author of Reading In Iran Foreign Policy After September 11 (BookSurge Publishing , October 23, 2008) and his latest book, Looking for rights at Harvard, is now available.

(Copyright 2011 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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