On January 9, 2008, the editor of the Arab liberal website Aafaq, Omran Salman, published an article analyzing recent developments in the Middle East through the prism of the U.S.-Iran conflict and arguing that Iranian hegemony over the region was becoming a reality.
The following are excerpts:
"The Lebanon War… Announced the Birth of a New Era in the Region"
"On Wednesday [January 9, 2007] George Bush begins his eight-day trip to the [Middle East] region… The most important heading for this trip is that of confronting Iranian influence, allaying the fears of allied countries that arose from recent developments in America's [position] on Iran, and emphasizing Washington's commitment to stand by their side.
"However, anyone knowledgeable about affairs in the region knows that this is a desperate bid to change the course of [recent] events and developments, by a president who only has a few months left in office. He thus appears isolated and weak on the domestic front, while his [prospective] successors vie over which of them is the most capable of washing their hands of his policies. For this reason, neither friends nor enemies are expected to take this trip seriously.
"Following is an analysis of the situation in the region on the eve of Bush's trip:
"The Lebanon war in the summer of 2006, in which the Hizbullah organization remained steadfast in the face of the Israeli military machine, was not just another Arab-Israeli war. It announced the birth of a new era in the region – one of whose characteristics is, on the one hand, the powerful prominence of the alliance between Iran, Syria, Hizbullah, Hamas, [Islamic] Jihad, and other Islamist organizations; and on the other hand, the clear retreat of America's role in the region.
"For the first time in decades, the U.S. appears incapable of influencing events in the Middle East, and it is no longer capable of punishing or rewarding any state, as it always used to do. At the same time, Iran and its allies appeared to be preparing to take the initiative, both in the Gulf region and in the Middle East on the whole. Thus we entered the era of Iranian hegemony in the Middle East."
Iran, Qatar, and the Gulf Cooperation Council
"Since the Lebanon war, Iran and its ally Syria have increased their regional strength and influence, and have been able to make new gains, whether in the Gulf, Lebanon, Iraq, or Egypt.
"In the Gulf, Iranian President [Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad attended, for the first time, the summit of the Gulf Cooperation Council, which took place December 3-4, 2007 in Doha. The importance of his attendance does not derive solely from Iran's breaking the Gulf states' traditional political barrier [against] Iran. More importantly, the GCC itself was founded in 1981 with the fundamental goal of standing up to the danger presented by Iran to the states of the region…
"In his speech to the GCC summit, Ahmadinejad proposed the establishment of an economic cooperation bloc, and proposed also that a joint security agreement with the GCC states be drawn up. He said: 'It appears that a new page has been turned in relations among the states of the Persian Gulf… Iran's policy is clear, and it is to encourage broad cooperation among all of the states, and especially with the friendly neighboring states'…
"After the meeting, Ahmadinejad told reporters: 'Times have changed, and the days of threats have come to an end… Iran has chosen its path, and from its point of view the nuclear issue is closed.'
"It is a paradox that it was Qatar – a major ally of the U.S. in the Gulf region and the site of the largest stockpiles of American weapons – that invited the Iranian president to attend the summit, and played the role of sponsoring the new Iranian influence in the region.
"Qatar's efforts can be interpreted as an attempt to assure a place for itself in the new regional equations. This is why the Qatari government thwarted U.S. attempts – particularly those of Defense Secretary Robert Gates – to isolate Tehran and to convince the Gulf states of the danger of rapprochement with Iran."
More Arab Leaders Are Going the Way of Michel Aoun
"Qatar's stance on this [issue] is like sembles the stance of Lt.-Gen. 'Aoun in Lebanon, who early on preferred to ride the train of Hizbullah and the Iran-Syria axis because he believed that the American train had broken down, or gotten derailed, or lost its way on the twists and turns of the Middle East.
"What deserves attention is that Saudi King 'Abdallah bin 'Abd Al-'Aziz, in turn, already hastened to send an official invitation to Ahmadinejad to perform the hajj and thus become the first Iranian president to perform the hajj while still in office, though this is his third visit to Riyadh since becoming president.
"It doesn't take much to see that all this is a result of the uneasiness felt by the Gulf regimes friendly to the U.S. at Iran's increasing power and the U.S.'s retreating power.
"It appears that Iran's policy in the Gulf, which aims to remove the GCC states from American patronage – or at least to have them remain neutral in the event of confrontation with the West – has begun to bear fruit. More than one Gulf state – Qatar and Kuwait, for example – have made known their rejection of any military action against Iran.
"In order to achieve this goal, Tehran has pursued a dual discourse. On the one hand, it has tried to allay the Gulf states' fears of Iranian expansionism by sending soothing messages that its military arsenal is not aimed at these countries. At the same time, it has offered economic cooperation with the Gulf states, including providing some of them with natural gas."
"The U.S. Has Been Unable to… Rein In Syrian Policy or Punish Syria for What it is Doing" in Lebanon and Iraq
"[Regarding] Syria: The Bush administration has persistently accused Syria of interfering in Iraqi affairs by allowing armed followers of Al-Qaeda and the Ba'th party to infiltrate Iraq and kill American and Iraqi government forces.
"The administration has presented sufficient proof of this interference, but nonetheless the U.S. has been unable to employ its power and influence to rein in Syrian policy or to punish Syria for what it is doing.
"Likewise, there is much evidence of Syria's continued interference in Lebanese affairs, whether through its allies there, like Hizbullah, Amal, and the Free Patriotic Movement… or through the more than 10 assassinations that have taken place in this country since 2005. Nonetheless, the arm of justice has not reached any Syrian official, and no [judicial] accusations have been brought against Syria.
"[In fact,] the opposite [has occurred,] and Syrian influence in Lebanon has grown stronger, as Syrian Vice President Farouq Al-Shar' stated… on December 11, 2007: 'The situation of Syria's allies in Lebanon is stronger and better than at any time in the past – including the time when Syrian [military] forces were present in Lebanon.' He emphasized that 'the American-Israeli project in the region has failed to achieve its goals, after Israel's defeat last year in Lebanon and America's failure in Iraq… And we Arabs have a great goal – that of shouldering the responsibility for the future of this region.'
"At the same time, those Lebanese opposed to a Syrian presence have become frustrated… with the American role, especially after voices were raised in Washington demanding cooperation and dialogue with [Syrian] President Bashar Al-Assad's government – voices that found their practical expression in the invitation to the Syrian government to attend the Annapolis Middle East peace conference.
"This is clearly revealed in the tone of truce that has begun to spread in the discourse of the prominent leaders of the government coalition that is defying Syria. In statements to the Lebanese newspaper Al-Safir on November 21, 2007, [Lebanese] Druze leader Walid Jumblatt called on Lebanese politicians to make concessions in order to arrive at a resolution of the presidential crisis that has come to threaten Lebanon with a slide into the furnace of anarchy and violence. He told the paper: 'As far as I am concerned, there is no impediment to leaving the international [i.e. the U.N.] resolutions to national dialogue directly after the carrying out of the presidential elections… We don't want to implement international resolutions over the corpses of the Lebanese.'"
Iranian Attempts to Draw Egypt Out of the "Coalition of 'Moderates'"
"[Regarding] Egypt: In a countermeasure to the efforts of the U.S., which is trying in vain to remove Syria from the Iranian orbit, several months ago Tehran launched a serious attempt to remove Egypt from the coalition of 'moderates' that President Bush had worked hard to form with Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states, Egypt, and Jordan.
"On Monday, December 24, 2007, Ali Larijani, the representative of Iranian Supreme Leader [Ali Khamenei] in Iran's Supreme National Security Council and Iran's former [chief] nuclear negotiator, made an important trip to Cairo. Although Egyptian sources said that this was a private family visit, the meetings Larijani held indicate that they were designed with the goal of renewing relations between the two countries, which have been frozen since 1980.
"On this trip, Larijani met with [Egyptian] Foreign Minister Ahmad Abu Al-Gheit, Egyptian Intelligence director Gen. Omar Suleiman, Arab League Secretary-General 'Amr Moussa, and Sheikh Al-Azhar Muhammad Sayyed Tantawi. Likewise, he visited cultural and academic centers in the country, where he met with a number of university professors, scientists, and high-ranking officials.
"During his meeting with Larijani, 'Amr Moussa urged the Arabs to begin consulting and cooperating with Iran, emphasizing that expanding the relations between the two sides is something that is 'necessary and efficacious.'
"Likewise, Moussa spoke strongly about the importance of Arab-Iranian cooperation in order to deal with the sensitive situation in the region…
"As for the Egyptian Foreign Ministry, it emphasized that Egypt and Iran would be conducting talks at the ministerial level, with the aim of fully reinstating diplomatic relations…
"Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad already said last May that Tehran is ready for a full renewal of its relations with Egypt, and that it would open its embassy in Cairo the very same day that the Egyptian government gave its consent [to this].”
U.S. Policy Failures – Including the NIE – Paved the Way for Iran
"These developments came amidst the complete collapse of U.S. policy towards Iran. This collapse began with the failure of the double-containment policy implemented during the '90s vis-à-vis the Iranian and the Iraqi regimes, and continued with the entrusting of the Iranian nuclear dossier to the European troika (Germany, France, and England). This collapse became complete with the famous report published by the American intelligence agencies last November, that gave a nuclear certificate of innocence to the Iranians when it concluded that the Tehran regime had halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003.
"It is no surprise that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad called the report a resounding victory for his regime, and began to act with the mentality of a victor. Today he is demanding that the U.S. recognize him as a [major] force in the region.
"American policy committed two major errors in the past period in dealing with Tehran. The first is that it gave the impression that Iran is just a country that is making trouble for the U.S. The reality is that Iran is not just a regular rogue state, like Syria for instance. It is, rather, a country that is competing with the U.S. for influence over the Gulf region and in the Middle East. It has been striving for a long time to inherit America's role [in the region].
"At every point of contact with American policy, there is a powerful and active Iranian presence, whether in Iraq, the Gulf, Lebanon, the Palestinian territories, or Central Asia.
"The second error was the exaggerated focus on Iran's nuclear program, and its depiction as the only thing obstructing U.S.-Iran relations, and, more generally, relations between the West and Iran.
"The reality is that nuclear weapons are just a means or a tool (among a large group of means and tools) for ensuring Iranian influence and hegemony in the region, with the goal itself being the influence and the hegemony. While nuclear weapons may be the most important of these Iranian tools, Tehran is capable of attaining its goals through conventional means (support for militias, spreading ideology, conventional military power, etc.)"
American Policy is Inconsistent on the Question of Who is a Friend and Who is an Enemy
"[Another factor] that makes the picture even more confused and confounding for the U.S.'s allies is the lack of dividing lines between enmity and friendship…
"The reason for this is that in the American view, its enemies, like its friends, are in a perpetual stage of transition. There was a time when Iran was part of the axis of evil and Syria was the greatest obstacle to stability in Iraq. But today no one is sure any longer whether these assessments are still in effect, and no one knows where [these countries] have ended up on the enmity-friendship spectrum.
"American officials find nothing wrong with meeting and talking with representatives of the Iranian and Syrian regimes when necessary – but at another stage, they demand that the world strengthen sanctions against them. One of the indications of anarchy and drift in American foreign policy in the region is that it has changed under the pressure of the rapid pace of events, and has adopted hasty and contradictory policies…"
This is a Strategic Struggle That Will Determine Whether the New Middle East Will Be Iranian – and the Iranians are Advancing
"The struggle whose features we have seen and continue to see in Iraq, Lebanon, the Gaza Strip, and other parts of the Middle East, is likely to continue, and perhaps also to broaden. This is not a tactical struggle, but a strategic one, and it will determine whether a new Middle East will be Iranian, or whether it will be [a place] where the U.S.'s word will be strongest.
"Despite the fact that we are [only] at the beginning of this struggle, which can be expected to produce great and profound transformation, what is clear so far is that the Iranians and their allies are advancing, while American influence in the region is being eaten away. The earth is moving under the feet of the U.S.'s allies – first and foremost, Saudi Arabia – while the fate of the smaller allies, the Gulf states (with the exception of Qatar and Oman), is left to be carried away by the wind.
"Perhaps in a future stage they will be obliged to submit and to perform the duties of obedience and loyalty… to the new master in the Gulf."