Across the Bay

Monday, April 24, 2006

Breaking Iran's Levantine Expansion

As a follow-up to Ammar's case for regime change in Syria, I'm posting this recent WSJ op-ed by Michael Young, which makes a similar argument.

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The Mullahs’ Neighborhood

By Michael Young
THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
Wednesday April 12, 2006
Pg. A13


With the occupation of Iraq, the U.S. practically overnight became the natural counterweight to Iran in the Persian Gulf. Those now demanding an American withdrawal from Iraq ignore the regional implications of a power vacuum there. Tehran would profit the most and would use that leverage, and its nuclear program that yesterday announced that it had begun enriching uranium, in a bid for regional hegemony. Lebanese politician Walid Jumblatt said it best when remarking about the Iranians, “Those who weave carpets are very patient.”

The Bush administration has few attractive options in containing Iran. A military strike against nuclear facilities would create more problems than it would solve, particularly as America’s latitude to wage war in the Middle East has been greatly eroded due to Iraq. However, Iranian vulnerabilities are hardly negligible. It has a weak and isolated ally in Syria’s Baath regime. By working to create alternatives to President Bashar Assad in Damascus, the U.S. could break that organic link, as well as the one which, via Syria, allows Iran to arm Hezbollah in Lebanon. And at home, Iranian leaders oversee a corrupt and autocratic system. If there is one place where determined American-led democratization efforts would be taken seriously, it is in Iran. But before the U.S. can act on these pressure points, it must first reconsider the merit of its Arab friends.

The Iranian regime is wagering on two things in extending its power: American irresolution in Iraq and Arab weakness. Confirming the reality of the first better allows it to exploit the second. But for a moment let’s consider the weaker link in this chain, the frailty of the Arab states, because that will determine how much influence the U.S. can maintain in Iran’s vicinity. The signs are that within the coming decade, everything else remaining constant, key Arab states, and particularly the traditional power brokers in the region, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, will play increasingly marginal roles in shaping regional policy. Rather, it is the Middle East’s peripheral states—Iran, Israel and Turkey—that seem most likely to impose their agendas.

The main source of Arab weakness is that the various regimes have imposed illegitimate social contracts on their societies. Order has come with a heavy price tag of despotism, the absence of rule of law, uneven or negligible economic growth and bankruptcy in the succession process (in Syria, formally a “republic,” Hafez Assad handed power over to his son; Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak seeks to do the same.) Even order is no longer certain, with regimes facing greater domestic travails than ever before.

Such systems have little institutional vigor to compete with the expanding power and military might of the peripheral states. Arab nationalists (though not the anxious Middle Eastern regimes themselves) naively imagine an Iranian bomb would offset Israel’s nuclear arsenal. They don’t ponder how exposed a non-nuclear Arab world would be, caught between two nuclear states and a third, non-nuclear Turkey, integrating into the European Union and enjoying the protection of a nuclear umbrella through NATO. This imposes tough choices on the U.S., whose regional policy still very much rests on the twin pillars of Saudi Arabia and Egypt. If you look more closely, however, you’ll notice stress marks.

Take the standoff between the Bush administration and Syria. Since the February 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, the U.S., along with France, has backed an international investigation of the crime. Three U.N. reports have explicitly affirmed that Damascus played a crucial role in Hariri’s killing. The inquiry continues, but the consensus in the Middle East and at the U.N. is that the order came from Syria’s top leadership. But Saudi Arabia and Egypt are little concerned about justice; they are concerned that if the truth about Syria’s involvement emerges, it could not only destabilize Mr. Assad’s regime but harm their own interests as well.

Why are Mr. Mubarak and King Abdullah so worried? No Arab ruler likes to see a comrade fall, but more specifically the Egyptian regime doesn’t want Syrian Islamists to take over power in Damascus because it would bolster Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. As for the Saudis, they fear Syria’s ally Iran might use the kingdom’s Shiite community to stir up trouble in the country if Riyadh were to abandon Mr. Assad. The Saudis also fear that a cornered leadership in Damascus might unleash the same Sunni Islamists against them that Syria has used to destabilize Iraq and Lebanon. And so, while the Egyptians and Saudis have publicly welcomed the U.N. investigation, they privately hope it fails, and are pushing the Lebanese to be more accommodating with Syria.

The Syrian president, realizing the Arab states won’t subvert his authority, has brazenly strengthened his relationship with Iran, substantially undermining Egyptian and Saudi sway. Last January, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visited Damascus, where he met, among others, the secretary general of Lebanon’s Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah.

If Egypt and Saudi Arabia have shown no backbone in the Hariri inquiry, they can be little expected to do more in the far rougher contest of helping the U.S. inhibit Iran. Indeed, they have not even managed to mold an Arab consensus against an Iranian bomb, an effort absent from the recent Arab League summit in Khartoum. Can Washington therefore afford to keep its relationships with the two Arab states unchanged? If they are resolutely heading toward greater irrelevance, then their value as American strategic partners against Iran is limited.

This is why the U.S. must reconsider its Syria policy and persist in its regional democratization efforts. The Bush administration must break Syria’s ability to manipulate Saudi and Egyptian trepidation when it comes to accepting change in Damascus, but it must also get over its own nervousness toward a post-Assad order. Unless a concerted process to replace the regime in Damascus is implemented, the Iranian-Syrian-Hezbollah axis will remain a serious thorn in the American as well as the Egyptian and Saudi sides. Islamists won’t necessarily take over in Syria. The society is complex, the merchant class is probably willing to back a credible alternative, and the Assads are discredited. But Washington must push hard for this and compel Egypt and Saudi Arabia to go along.

If Mr. Assad were ousted, the shock to Iran would be serious while Hezbollah would be isolated in a Lebanese society largely fed up with the fact that it still retains its weapons. But Tehran would probably be able to absorb that blow. More difficult for the Iranian regime to parry, however, would be what it has managed only imperfectly to suffocate at home: democracy. Now, more than ever, the U.S. must use democratization both against the Islamic Republic and to reinvigorate its anemic Arab allies. The process will take time, U.S. foes will win in places, but it must be given priority. Only rug weavers need apply. A U.S. allied with a democratic Syria, a democratic Lebanon, and a stabilized, pluralistic Iraq, would force the Saudis and Egyptians to change, or become superfluous.

Legitimate Arab regimes would be valuable allies in denying Iran the ability to dominate its surroundings, particularly if it is armed with the bomb. But more importantly, they would allow the U.S. to hedge against the transitory nature of current Arab dictatorships, and plan an enduring future in the region. There will be setbacks, but the alternative is Arab “allies” that are more a burden than a boon.

Mr. Young, a Lebanese national, is opinion editor at the Daily Star in Beirut and a contributing editor at Reason.