Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1240, (2 - 8 April 2015)
Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Issue 1240, (2 - 8 April 2015)

Ahram Weekly

The American ‘consolidating act’ in the Middle East

Washington is seeking a new ally in the region capable of underwriting stability, while not dismissing past associations, Dina Ezzat reports

Al-Ahram Weekly

It is hard to underestimate how keen is the follow-up in several Arab capitals on the Lausanne talks that were scheduled to end Tuesday with the basis for a potentially “historic deal” that would end decades of isolation imposed on Iran.

 It is also hard to miss that for many Arab capitals  allies and adversaries of Tehran  the news of a deal that will bring the powerful and “aggressively ambitious” Islamic Republic, in the words of one Arab diplomat, out of the cold is not necessarily good news.

A reintegrated Iran would act almost immediately, according to Arab diplomats, to make its mark on the ground  “something it has been doing recently with vigour”, one North African diplomatic source said and flex its diplomatic, military and economic influence in the otherwise predominantly Arab region.

Diplomatic sources in Cairo and in the Arab Gulf countries are becoming less reserved in recognising what is round the corner: an end to the hostility between Iran and the West and possibly, or eventually as one Egyptian diplomat argued, a soft alliance between Tehran and Washington.

“It is clear that the White House wants the deal and it seems quite likely that this deal is going to see the light of day towards the beginning of the summer, provided that the hardliners in Washington and Tehran do not show unexpected intransigence,” said a Cairo-based Western diplomat.

The same diplomat argued that US President Barack Obama is not planning to say goodbye to 2015 without a deal with Iran. “He wants his historic deal and he is set to get it.”

As the second and final term of Obama draws to a close, the US president could hardly have any illusions on his chances to achieve the other historic deal he was hoping for: an end to the Arab-Israeli conflict and the launch of an independent Palestinian state.

“It is a dead end; nothing is going to happen there and to be honest it has been clear for a few years that nothing was going to happen there, and [the Americans] had almost stopped trying to move things forward,” said another Cairo-based Western diplomat.

He added that it has been quite explicit in talks with from the Palestinian Authority and in Washington that there is no peace deal, or even peace negotiations, in the offing as long as recently re-elected Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is in office.

The failure to move the peace process forward was coupled with another failure for the White House in the Middle East, several informed commentators and diplomats remind: securing the democratic transition of the region that seemed possible with the Arab Spring in early 2011.

 This failure, in the eyes of some commentators, is a product of exaggerated faith on Washington’s part that political Islam of its moderate shades could rule uncontested by both the remnants of toppled authoritarian Arab regimes and the traditional ruling monarchies who made no secret of their hatred for the Arab Spring and whatever it might bring about regionally and at home.

In the eyes of other commentators and diplomats, however, not excluding considerable quarters in Washington, this failure is the product of exaggerated faith on the part of the US (some specify the White House) in the keen wish of Arab populations to prioritise democracy.

 Alongside these failures, Obama is facing disturbing challenges, including the persistence of the Islamic State and other radical militant Islamic groups and the growing weakness some of Washington’s key Arab allies are suffering from.

  “This is not just about what the Americans see happening inside the house of the ruling Saudi family, but also about their assessment of the internal political situation in Turkey. For sure, it is also about question marks that the Americans still have over the fate of Egypt, even if many in Washington would argue candidly that the ruling authorities in Cairo are here to stay, for a while at least,” said a Middle East diplomat who has just returned from the US.

 The growing sentiment in Washington today, according to this and other diplomats, is that there are more questions than answers over the stability of most Arab regimes  whether the republics that will eventually have to face up to their populations’ demands for welfare, freedom and democracy, or the monarchies that will have to face up to these same challenges plus internal feuds about who governs and who rules.

 According to these diplomats, Washington, even in “disengaging-from-the-Middle East mood”, cannot risk being without a stabilising regional power, especially in the Gulf that seems in the American assessment sure to see change in the next decade or two.

 Is the US eyeing Iran as a regional power that could stabilise the Gulf? “The Iranians will open up and democratise in a short time after the deal is done; the deal will strengthen the democratic quarters in Tehran,” argued a European diplomat based in the Middle East.

 A democratic Iran, argued the same diplomat, would mean less instability for Iraq and Lebanon and maybe even a possible end to the havoc in Syria.

 It could also mean more sober home and regional political choices for the Arab Gulf regimes, the same diplomat added.

 Meanwhile, Washington, according to sources based in the US capital, is not giving up on its old allies  especially not Riyadh and Ankara, or Tel Aviv. The three are said in diplomatic quarters to be deeply apprehensive over the anticipated Iranian comeback.

 Washington has been actively pursuing closer cooperation between the Saudis and the Turks, and it has been succeeding, according to sources in Saudi Arabia and Turkey.

 Meanwhile, the US has been “encouraging” Cairo to open up to joining this diplomatic duet, “without pushing too much given that it is clear that the Egyptians still need time there”, according to one Washington-based diplomatic source. He added that the US is keen not to pressure the authorities in Egypt at a time where they are already facing considerable challenges, “including the situation in Sinai and on the borders with Libya, and of course the economic situation”.

Western diplomats in Cairo agree that Washington wants to consolidate regional stability. “This is taking precedence over the call for democratisation,” one source stated in plain words.

Meanwhile, the US is acting to reassure old allies about its diplomatic fidelity. This is why the US has shown “understanding” on Saudi apprehensions on the fate of ally President Abd Rabbu Hadi in Yemen, in the immediate Saudi backyard, along with blocking calls for the inclusion of Damascus  as a participant  in future strategic calculations.

This said, the US has made it clear to its Gulf allies that it will not tolerate a ground operation in Yemen and that it wants a political deal that would include the Houthis (strictly seen in Saudi Arabia in light of their association with Iran).

 Washington is also shrugging off statements coming from the office of the Israeli prime minister about supposedly contradictory US policies that are opening up to Iran that is supporting the Houthi terrorists in Yemen.

 The narrative in Washington is basically that there is no contradiction in its Middle East policies: the US is seeking a new powerful ally in a region where old allies are not as strong as they were in the face of two key destabilising conflicts: the Arab-Israeli conflict, which comes with layers of religious antagonism, and the battle between democracy and authoritarianism, which comes with layers of ethnic and tribal feuds.

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