It is proving increasingly difficult to interpret US policy in the Middle East by listening to the fears of its presumed targets. Why? Because all the Sunni and Shiite regimes in the region now seem to think they are being targeted by the US.
And, given that the paramount US goal in the invasion of Iraq was to achieve a dual rollback of “wayward” Sunni and Shiite regimes, one might even say that all the panic is justified.
Sunni Arab Fear of a US Tilt toward the Shia?
On the one hand, Sunni political elites are quite understandably upset by signs of an Iraq-based, US-inaugurated “Shiite tilt” in the regional balance of power.
Indeed, one might suggest that pronounced Sunni howls of protest over the weekend provide the best evidence yet that the US moved decisively toward a “Shiite Option” in Iraq.
Consider, for example, signs of increasing frustration and defiance on the part of Iraq’s Sunni vice president, Tariq Al Hashemi.
According to an Associated Press report, Hashemi is very concerned about the upcoming talks between the US and Iran:
Iraq’s Sunni vice president spoke out Sunday against the upcoming U.S.-Iran talks on the situation in his country, saying the dialogue was “damaging to Iraq’s sovereignty.”…
“It’s not good to encourage anybody to talk on behalf of the Iraqi people on their internal and national affairs,” al-Hashemi told reporters on the last day of an international conference held by the Geneva-based World Economic Forum.
Al-Hashemi said he would have preferred that the subject of Iraq’s stability was “tackled by Iraqis themselves.”
“This is really damaging to Iraq’s sovereignty,” he said.
And, yet, for all his alleged concern for Iraq’s sovereignty as a general principle, Hashemi seems most concerned about one neighbor in particular–Iran.
Gulf News reports that Hashemi “lashed out” at Iran:
Iraqi Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, a Sunni Arab, lashed out at Iran at the conference.
“We say stop your interference in our internal affairs, stop settling scores on our soil, stop being part of covert plans to destabilize Iraq, and sit down with us to settle our differences, resolve outstanding issues and talk about economic cooperation,” he said.
Indeed, in an effort to thwart a US-Iranian tilt in Iraq, Hashemi seems willing to drop all the pretenses about Iraqi sovereignty and invite a regional takeover of Iraq. The Jordan Times reports:
Iraqi Vice President Tariq Al Hashemi stressed that the security of Iraq is becoming the security of the region and it is trying to convince its neighbours that “the situation in Iraq is going to spill over sooner or later.”
He asked for help from Iraq’s neighbours to reconcile internal differences before moving on to resolve external conflicts.
“We are not asking anyone to come and make decisions for us. All that we need is to stop people who are capitalising on our human tragedy; if this is beyond the capacity of the US then let the United Nations and our neighbours take over,” the Iraqi vice president said.
Finally, Hashemi is also reportedly resisting passage of the US-backed hydrocarbons bill introduced by Iraq’s Shiite Oil Minister, Hussain al-Shahristani. The Associated Press reports:
Iraq’s vice president said Sunday he opposes a draft law that is key to the future of his country’s lucrative oil sector, saying it gives too many concessions to foreign oil companies.
“We disagree with the production sharing agreement,” Tariq al-Hashemi told reporters on the sideline of an international conference hosted by the Geneva-based World Economic Forum.
“We want foreign oil companies, and we have to lure them into Iraq to learn from their expertise and acquire their technology, but we shouldn’t give them big privileges,” al-Hashemi said.
As the Jordan Times reports, Hashemi’s fears and frustrations were echoed by Jordanian Foreign Minister Abdul Ilah Khatib:
“We have to end proxy wars, we don’t want any party to use Iraq as a fighting ground for capital gains,” Foreign Affairs Minister Abdul Ilah Khatib said at the session, entitled “Iraq the regional security dimension.”
He added, however, that the Kingdom first wants to see Iraq achieve political reconciliation internally and the revival of Iraqi nationalism.
“When there is a national feeling of weakness it opens the door for other affiliations to emerge at the expense of our collective security in the region,” he said.
An Associated Press report puts Khatib’s concerns in the context of the regional balance of power:
Jordanian Foreign Minister Abdul-Ilah al-Khatib… turned a cold shoulder to… Iranian delegates.
“There are serious flaws in the regional order and some countries are interfering in the affairs of Arab countries,” al-Khatib said Sunday, referring to Iran’s growing influence in Iraq.
“We need to see deeds on the ground and respect for Iraq’s territorial integrity,” he said…
Iranian Fear of an Arab-Israeli-American Coalition against Iran?
Even as the Arabs continue to fear US plans for the formation of a “Shia Gulf,” the Iranian regime appears to fear Arab support for US and Israeli efforts to topple the Iranian regime.
The Financial Times reports:
Shia Iran meanwhile suspects its Sunni Arab neighbours, all allies of the US, of working to undermine it.
In response, Iran is trying to enhance its credibility with the “Arab street” in order to undermine the legitimacy of any anti-Iranian Arab initiative. The FT makes the point:
Seeking the support of ordinary Arabs and Muslims with anti-Israeli slogans has been a cornerstone of Iran’s foreign policy under President Mahmoud Ahmadi- Nejad. But the strategy has infuriated Arab governments, and intensified suspicions of Tehran’s intentions at a time when its influence in the region has grown.
Evidence of such a strategy was on display at the World Economic Forum where Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki took aim at Saudi King Abdullah’s Palestinian “peace initiative.” The Associated Press reports:
Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said the [Saudi] plan would flounder…
“We had some 130 plans in the past 30 years, but none of them were realized because of the approach of the other side (Israel),” Mottaki said during a panel discussion. “Besides, we do not see any chance for the success of the Arab peace initiative because it fails to address fateful issues, like the capital of a Palestinian state and the right of return for some 5 million refugees.”
Former Saudi ambassador to Washington Prince Turki al-Faisal scolded Iran, however, saying that the predominantly Persian country had little to do with Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking.
“It’s an Arab issue and should be resolved within the Arab fold,” he said.
Cheney’s Middle East
Prince Turki al-Faisal and Saudi King Abdullah can hardly be viewed as Cheney’s likely or willing collaborators in his efforts to assemble an anti-Iranian coalition in the Gulf. It is, therefore, quite an accomplishment for the Iranian Foreign Minister to provoked the wrath of Prince Turki.
Perhaps the real “accomplishment” should be credited to Cheney himself.
After all, it was Cheney’s “rejectionists” in Gaza who detonated the current round of fighting that pits Iranian-backed Hamas forces against Fatah forces traditionally backed by Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia.