Commentary / World

Opportunities in Mideast power struggle

by Mai Yamani

PRAGUE — This week U.S. President George W. Bush is — reluctantly — announcing a new policy for the United States in Iraq. A new policy is needed not only in order to halt America’s drift into impotence as it tries to prevent Iraq from spiraling into full-scale civil war, but also because the map of power in the Middle East has changed dramatically.

That map has been in constant flux for the last 60 years, during which the main players — Egypt, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Israel and Iran — have formed and broken alliances. Now, something like a dividing line is emerging, and if Bush finally begins to understand the region’s dynamics, he may be able to craft a policy with a chance of success.

This regional realignment is typified by the emergence of a de facto alliance that dare not speak its name. Israel and Saudi Arabia, seemingly the most unlikely of allies, have come together to contain their common enemy: Iran, with its mushrooming influence in Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine. Iran not only threatens Israel (and the region) with its desire for a nuclear capability and its Shiite proxy militants; it is also seeking to usurp the traditional role of moderate Sunni Arab regimes as the Palestinians’ defenders.

After decades of using concern for the Palestinian cause to shore up popular support for their own ineffective and undemocratic regimes, these moderate Arab leaders have now been put on the defensive by Iran’s quest for hegemony. If Iran succeeds in being seen as the genuine patron of Palestinian national aspirations, it will also succeed in legitimizing its claim for dominance in the Middle East.

Israel, a country in shock following its failure to destroy Hezbollah last summer, and humiliated by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s vow to “wipe Israel off the map” — a threat backed up by Iran’s support of Hamas and Hezbollah — now talks about a “quartet of moderates” as the region’s only hope.

Indeed, Israel now sees its security as relying not so much on a U.S. guarantee, but on Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Turkey (which is seeking regional influence in fear of rejection by the European Union) in restraining Iran and its paid proxies. According to Israeli Vice Premier Shimon Peres, Israel hopes to isolate and contain the Shiite/Farsi spheres of power by forging open cooperation with the Sunni/Arab domain.

Saudi Arabia is just as eager to contain the Iranian threat and the growing “Shiite crescent” that, with the empowerment of the Shiites in Iraq, has moved westward to begin to include the Shiite regions of the Saudi Kingdom. So it should be no surprise that the Saudi regime was the first to condemn Shiite Hezbollah at the start of the war with Israel, and that it announced in December that it would support Iraq’s Sunnis militarily should a precipitate U.S. withdrawal incite a Sunni/Shiite civil war there.

The Shiite threat to the Saudi government is ideological. Indeed, it goes to the heart of the Saudi state’s authority, owing to the Al Saud royal family’s reliance on Wahhabi Islam to legitimate its rule. Since the Wahhabis consider the Shiite apostates, the challenge from the Shiite — both within and without Saudi Arabia — represents a mortal threat.

So Saudi Arabia is ready to cooperate with Israel not only against Iran, but also against other “radicals,” such as Hamas. Remarkably, Palestine’s Hamas prime minister, Ismael Haniyeh, was not received in Saudi Arabia in December, when he was traveling through the region pleading for support for his beleaguered government.

Conservative Saudi Arabia prefers dealing with traditional and predictable leaders, such as Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Lebanon’s premier, Fouad Siniora, rather than firebrand populist leaders like Hezbollah’s Hassan Nasrallah, Hamas’ Khalid Meshal and Iran’s Ahmadinejad.

Last year, Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah, worried by Shiite expansionism, was persuaded by Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the head of his National Security Council, to coordinate policy with Israel to counter Iran’s growing influence. Israel, after all, is a “reliable enemy” for Saudi Arabia, having destroyed Nasser’s Egyptian Army in 1967 — a time when the Saudis were fighting Egypt by proxy in Yemen. So Prince Turki al-Faysal, the long time head of Saudi intelligence, met with Meir Dagan, the head of Israel’s Mossad, while Bandar met with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in Jordan the same month.

Yet covert support from Israel, America and the Saudis for Abbas and Siniora does little to help them in their domestic battles. From Morocco, Algeria, Libya and Sudan to Bahrain and Yemen — indeed, throughout the Muslim world from Jakarta to Nigeria — Islamic radicals have won the popularity sweepstakes. A recent poll in Egypt ranked Nasrallah, Meshal and Ahmadinejad as the three most popular figures. This leads to an unavoidable dilemma: Bush will have to choose between supporting democracy and backing those who want to fight Islamic radicalism.

Yet Israel, America and the region’s moderates can benefit from the deepening schism in the Arab/Muslim world. That schism is being consolidated by Saudi support of all the region’s Sunni Muslims. It is this sense of “Sunni solidarity” that is becoming the decisive factor in the war for the soul of Islam, and in the struggle for mastery in the Middle East that is now under way.