The momentum in the Middle East is shifting. Not in anyone’s favor per se but toward a U.S. policy addressing the region’s unresolved crises—Iraq, Lebanon, the Palestinian territories, Iran’s nuclear program—as part of a broader Middle East settlement, rather than individually and ad hoc. Elements of this approach have been promoted by British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Counselor to the U.S. State Department Philip Zelikow (PDF), who just stepped down, as well as by leading U.S. policy analysts like CFR President Richard N. Haass. President Bush travels to the region this week to test the waters (AP) and explore what regional diplomatic options are available. Whether or not to engage Syria and Iran is also up in the air, as Syria has opened up diplomatic relations with Baghdad and Iraq’s president visits the Supreme Leader in Tehran to bolster ties (Syria’s president was also invited to participate but declined). On Wednesday, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad addressed the "peace-loving and justice-seeking" American people in an open letter, urging them to back a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq. Nicholas R. Burns, under secretary of state for political affairs, dismissed the letter as "transparently hypocritical and cynical" (NYT), and Iran analysts agreed that the repressive nature of Iran's government undermines the letter's message.
Part of this shift in strategy may be explained by the diminishing prospects of a new and democratized Middle East, once touted as within reach by the Bush administration. The sectarian violence in Iraq—and U.S. domestic solutions to end the fighting, culminating with next month’s so-called Baker report—have overshadowed the United Nations’ nuclear dealings with Iran. Syria, seen by some as behind the assassination of leading Christian politician Pierre Gemayel, continues to curry influence in Lebanon. And the latest effort to forge an Israeli-Palestinian truce looks no more promising than previous cease-fires. That forms the backdrop to King Abdullah II’s warning (ABC) that three separate civil wars—in Iraq, Lebanon, and the Palestinian territories—could erupt in the year ahead. Bush’s visit to Jordan is meant to defuse regional tensions as well as shore up support among Washington’s Arab allies, namely Jordan, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia, for a political solution to minimize—if not end—the bloodshed in Iraq.
Roping all these seemingly intractable problems into a grand regional conference has a fresh ring to it. But some question whether it makes any of these prickly issues any easier to settle. With the U.S. military overstretched in Iraq and its reputation not high among Muslims in the region, Washington may lack leverage to bring countries like Syria and Iran to play constructive roles in Iraq, to say nothing of Lebanon or Gaza. Experts also warn that many of these conflicts will take years, not months, to resolve. This could provide space for Iran to complete its nuclear fuel cycle and bolster its position of power. Another concern is that Israel has different red lines on Iran from the international community and may take a go-it-alone posture and strike Iran’s nuclear facilities. Experts say the risk of such a strike has grown as a result of Israel’s perceived loss to Iran-backed Hezbollah this summer. Further, several experts say Israel is becoming more involved with separatist Kurdish groups in northwestern Iran in hopes of destabilizing the regime. Seymour M. Hersh, writing in the New Yorker, claims the Pentagon has also developed “covert relationships” with many of Iran’s ethnic groups for similar reasons. This new Backgrounder outlines these ethnic minorities.
Partially what’s at stake is a “hearts and minds [contest] in the Middle East between Iran and the United States,” George Perkovich of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace tells Bernard Gwertzman in a new interview. “It’s that the United States is on the side of Israel and Iran is on the side of the Palestinians and the Muslims,” he says. “Who is going to win that contest?” Yet another theory holds that Iranian power may have peaked last summer and is now on the decline. After all, oil prices are down 20 percent since August, upcoming provincial elections in December may bring more reformists to power, and Iran continues to have technical difficulties getting even one nuclear cascade—or 164 centrifuges—to work properly, let alone 3,000 centrifuges, as President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad predicted by March 2007. Finally, a tougher UN resolution with stronger sanctions may be in the offing next month.