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Mainstream, Vol XLV, No 51

Desire to Dominate : Overriding US Perception in West Asia

Tuesday 11 December 2007, by M Hamid Ansari

Any discussion of contemporary West Asia must begin with three questions: What is happening in the region? Why is it happening? What is the way out?

The answer to the first question is obvious. It focuses on a set of well-known situations: A Middle East peace process that is lingering on promissory notes whose encashment has been deferred repeatedly; a quagmire in Iraq that has dented the prestige and power of the United States; a failure to abandon the doctrines of ’pre-emptive strikes’ and of ’regime change’ despite the experience of recent years and sharply declining public support for it in the United States; Israel’s failure to destroy the Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza; America’s stand off with Iran, and the threat to regional and world peace emanating from it; enhanced external pressure on Iran to terminate its nuclear programme; demographic pressures and a developing gap between commitment and expectation in West Asian societies; failure of the ’Middle East Initiative’ and the ’Greater Middle East Initiative’ and of the attempt to democratise West Asian societies. Also, the impact of this on indigenous reform movements; and the little mentioned problem of water.

There is no simple answer to the second question. West Asia has been and continues to be a pivotal factor in global geopolitics. These have been aggravated in recent years by a set of new considerations: Crisis of the old order and end of bipolarity; the attempt to impose a new order; failure to develop a security paradigm in the region and particularly in the Persian Gulf; and ideological dimensions and their implications—defeat of Arabism and Arab nationalism, failure of the Left and re-emergence of religious radicalism.

An answer to the third question is contingent on variables of considerable size and diversity. One could begin by stating the factual situation as known publicly. While the greater part of the region and its population are Arab, the principal factors in the strategic calculus are non-Arabs. Two are on the periphery—Israel and Iran, and one beyond it—the United States. The interaction of these with the region, and with each other, is having a decisive impact.

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A beginning may be made with self-perceptions. The region, President Bush said in his State of the Union message earlier this year, is the venue of ’the decisive ideological struggle of our times’. As Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns put it, it is the epicentre of American foreign policy.

On the other side is the view of Dr Martin Kramer, an Israeli-American scholar of conside-rable repute who also serves as senior Middle East advisor to Republican presidential hopeful Rudy Giuliani. He said in a lecture the other day that ’we must get ourselves back over the horizon and as much out of the Arab line of sight as possible’ and, as was done by the British, French, Ottoman throughout history, ’Rule lightly, unless provoked. Delegate power and don’t tamper with local customs. Using these rules, great empires dominated the Middle East for centuries. Our problem, though, is that we don’t see ourselves as a great empire, and we don’t want to rule anyone directly. We just want to transform them thoroughly.’

The operative expression in both sets of perceptions is a desire to dominate. The discussion is only about modalities.

Israel, a mid-twentieth century factor in the region, has not been able to translate its military superiority into a total, definitive, victory. Its invincibility was dented in the war with Hezbollah. This is not reflected in political perceptions where Right-wing political parties and a small but effective settler lobby has defied moves towards a meaningful peace process. The lack of a serious US interest in the peace process has helped sustain it. The American West Asian policy is hampered by the ’Israel test’ to which it is subjected in terms of domestic politics. Israel’s policy objective is to: one, exhaust the Palestinians, make impossible the emergence of a viable Palestinian state; and, two, dominate the region.

Iran, driven by memories of the Revolution and the long war with Iraq, seeks to project a threefold desire: one, acknowledgement of its regional weight, particularly in West Asia and the Persian Gulf; two, development of a technological capability to assist it; three, bring an end, on equitable terms, to the regime of sanctions to facilitate access to badly needed technology and foreign investment for economic development.

The stand off on Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons programme is thus a political instrumentality resorted to maximise advantage in a complex negotiating process.

The US today is not the Sole Super Power of the spring of 2003. The policies of unilateralism, ’creative destruction’ and pre-emption have faltered. The US has been mauled by non-state actors in Iraq; its policies have given an impetus to terrorism; it has lost domestic support for its Iraq policy; its unpopularity levels are alarmingly high in Arab and Muslim countries and its intentions are suspected. The financial burden of the war and the drain on the dollar has added to public concerns. The dissent in the national security establishment of the US has become public.

The imperatives in the Iran policy of the US have to be viewed in this context. Suggestions about military action have emanated from time to time; doubts about its efficacy and wider implications have also been raised. The absence of decisive evidence of Iranian culpability has been a restraining factor. Non-proliferation experts like Dr David Albright have recently expressed the view that, one, Iran has not yet demonstrated competency at enriching uranium, two, the programme ’still has a way to go’, and, three, creative thinking should focus at direct negotiations without pre-conditions, but with some confidence building measures by Iran, between Iran, the EU and the US. Dr Henry Kissinger, who was in Delhi recently, was cautiously optimistic about such talks taking place in 2008.