Right Arabists: A Hawkish Turn on Iran

Posted by Cutler on September 22, 2006
Iran, Right Arabists

This may seem like a strange time to predict that Right Arabists have taken a “hawkish” turn on Iran.

After all, was it not two days ago (Wednesday, September 20, 2006) that the Right Arabist establishment at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) gathered–amidst howls of protest from Jewish and Zionist quarters–to meet with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad?

Where is the “hawkish” turn? The downgrading of the meeting from a “dinner” to ” light hors d’oeuvres on the side”? [The New York Times carefully reported of the hors d’oevres, “Mr. Ahmadinejad never touched them.”]

The invitation, notwithstanding, Ahmadinejad himself seems to have noted a somewhat surprisingly hawkish turn at the meeting. The Times quotes his concluding remarks to the CFR:

“At the beginning of the session, you said you were an independent group,’’ he said. “But almost everything that I was asked came from a government position.’’

Evidence of a “hawkish” turn among Right Arabists comes, not from the CFR meeting but from the recent pronouncements of Ray Takeyh, the CFR’s Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies.

By way of introduction, one might note that back in September 2003 Takeyh penned (with Nikolas Gvosdev) one of the most candid Right Arabist manifestos published on Iraqi politics, “Benign Autocracy is Answer for Iraq.”

The best that the United States can hope for is to encourage the rise of liberal autocracies that… while still maintaining close ties with the United States…

Instead of quixotic democratic schemes, Washington should create a strong central government in Baghdad, one that is responsive to its citizens but also capable of regulating local rivalries and is insulated from popular pressure.

The United States should select an efficient new leadership capable of initiating market and other reforms while also managing popular discontent with American policies…

Saddamism without Saddam, one might say.

While Takeyh may be more candid than some, his concerns are the standard concerns of Right Arabists.

Consider, for example, a September 18, 2006 Newsday essay–“New Sectarian Threats Rip Middle East“–published by Takeyh with his CFR colleague Charles A. Kupchan.

The strategic landscape of the Middle East is changing yet again as the emergence of a “Shia Crescent” running from Tehran to Beirut awakens a new sectarian divide. This earthquake began with America’s invasion of Iraq, a move that installed a Shia regime in Baghdad…

The intensifying rivalry between Shia and Sunnis promises to make an already volatile Middle East even more unstable. A new sectarian divide could sow domestic strife throughout the region, including in some of America’s key allies. Although predominantly Sunni, oil-rich Saudi Arabia has a large and restive Shia population in its eastern province. Bahrain, host to America’s Fifth Fleet, and Kuwait, a bastion of pro-American conservatism, both have sizable Shia populations.

As I suggested in my essay “Beyond Incompetence: Washington’s War in Iraq,” such Right Arabist fears are longstanding.

It was precisely these concerns about “the emergence of a ‘Shia Crescent’ running from Tehran to Beirut” that led Right Arabist in the Reagan administration to “tilt toward” Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war. Likewise, it was the 1991 Shiite (and Kurdish) uprising against Saddam that led Right Arabists in the first Bush administration to prop up the Iraqi regime after expelling Saddam from Kuwait.

For Right Arabists like Takeyh, the catastrophic decision of the current Bush administration to push for “democracy” in Iraq has empowered Iran, just as Right Arabists long predicted.

In September 19, 2006 testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Takeyh elaborated the point.

On September 12, a momentous event took place in Tehran. Iraq’s new premier, Nouri al-Maliki arrived in Iran eager to mend ties with the Islamic Republic. The atmospherics of the trip reflected the changed relationship, as Iranian and Iraqi officials easily intermingled, signing various cooperative and trade agreements and pledging a new dawn in their relations. It must seem as cold comfort to the hawkish Bush administration with its well-honed antagonism toward the Islamic Republic that it was its own conduct that finally alleviated one of Iran’s most pressing strategic quandaries. In essence, the American invasion of Iraq has made the resolution of Iran’s nuclear issue even more difficult…

The ascendance of the Shiites maybe acceptable to the Bush administration with its democratic imperatives, but the Sunni monarchs of Saudi Arabia and Jordan and the presidential dictatorships of Egypt and Syria are extremely anxious about the emergence of a new “arch of Shiism.” At a time when the leading pan-Arab newspapers routinely decry the invasion of Iraq as an U.S.-Iranian plot to undermine the cohesion of the Sunni bloc, the prospects of an elected Shiite government in Iraq being warmly embraced by the Arab world seems remote.

A Search for Common Ground with Iran

Nevertheless, Takeyh’s fears have, until now, been tinged with hope for finding common ground with Iran.

In January 2006, for example, Takeyh argued that Iran had reason to share his commitment to a strong, centralized government in Iraq. In an International Herald Tribune Op-Ed published with Charles A. Kupchan, Takeyh argued,

The United States and Iran have many common interests in Iraq, providing a unique opportunity for Tehran and Washington to edge toward normalization. Tehran, like Washington, is keenly interested in avoiding a civil war and sustaining Iraq as a unitary state. Iranian elites support a democratic Iraq, fully aware that consensual arrangements for power-sharing among Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds are vital to Iraq’s survival…

Iran’s seminaries, clerics, politicians and businessmen hold powerful sway over elites in Baghdad as well as local leaders. Tehran’s interest in preventing the fragmentation of Iraq gives it reason to encourage all Shiite parties, including the independent militias, to work with the central government and resist secessionist temptations.

Those hopes appear to have been dashed by the recent Shiite push for regional autonomy in Iraq. On September 11, 2006 the International Herald Tribune reported,

Over the weekend, the head of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, who is close to Iranian leaders, renewed his call for a massive eight-province southern autonomous region, stretching from Kut to Basra, that would include much of the country’s Shiite population and oil wealth. Such a step, he suggested, is necessary to protect Shiites against a return to despotism.

As Takeyh conceded in a September 14, 2006 interview on NPR’s All Things Considered

Iraq is not going to have a strong central government. Iraqi constitution itself recognizes that Iraq will have strong provisional governments and a weak central government. In the future in ideal terms… contending federal enclaves would come together in the central government… But the future of Iraq as envisioned by the constitution and as developments on the ground are moving is likely to be a state with strong provinces and a weak central government.

Containment, Not Regime Change

Notwithstanding his alarm at the growing power of Iran and his disappointment regarding Iranian influence in Iran, it is important to note the ways in which Takeyh’s posture toward Iran–however hawkish it may now become–remains fundamentally different from that of Right Zionists and Neoconservative Unipolarists.

As I have argued in several previous posts (here, here, here, and here, for starters), Right Zionists are hawkish toward the incumbent regime–what they call “official Iran.” But in the long run, Right Zionists are not at all “anti-Iranian.” Indeed, they dream of restoring US and Israeli alliances with a strong, post-revolutionary regime, grounded in what they call “eternal Iran.”

For Right Zionists, regime change is the essential–if missing–ingredient US policy toward Iraq.

Not so Right Arabists like Takeyh.

Back in the 1970s, Right Arabists criticized US reliance on the Shah to police the Persian Gulf because they feared that the US-Iranian alliance under Nixon and Kissinger was an attempt to tilt the balance of power away from the US-Saudi alliance.

The last thing Right Arabists want to see is a restoration of a powerful US-Iranian alliance.

Takeyh said as much in his recent Senate testimony where he rejected reconciliation, proposing instead a “model of engagement” for containing Iranian regional power.

In essence, this model of engagement does not seek reconciliation between the two antagonists

The proposed engagement strategy appreciates Iran’s resurgence and seeks to create a framework for limiting the expressions of its power. The purpose of engagement is not to resolve all outstanding issues or usher in an alliance with the Islamic Republic…

As such engagement becomes a subtle and a more effective means of containment.

Indeed, in his Newsday essay, Takeyh insisted,

[T]he Bush administration’s top priority must be containing Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

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