As they gather in Riyadh for their annual summit, the leaders of the six Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) nations could not fail to notice one fact and acknowledge one need.
The fact that they would have to notice is that the regional balance of power, as shaped over decades, has been shattered, creating what historian’s call “a systemic disequilibrium.” Since the late 1970s, the status quo had been under threat from three sources: the Khomeinist Revolution in Iran, the American ambition to win the Cold War and control its aftermath, and, finally, the armed Salafist groups trying to seize control of the agenda in parts of the region.
After 9/11, the American challenge to the status quo was put into effect with the toppling of the Taliban in Kabul and the Ba’ath in Baghdad, with ripples that included the expulsion of the Syrians from Lebanon, the marginalisation of Colonel Kaddhafi, and the brief but significant budding of democratic hopes across the region, including in the Islamic Republic of Iran.
The changes produced by the American move have now enabled the Iranian challenger to make its move. As France’s president Jacques Chirac said at the NATO summit last month, Iran is now actively engaged in both Afghanistan and Iraq.
It is no accident that the Afghan armed groups opposed to President Hamid Karzai’s regime are increasingly active in provinces that border Iran rather than Pakistan. Nor is it an accident that several Iranian-backed Pushtun warlords, including Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, have been persuaded by Tehran to join forces with their erstwhile enemies including Mullah Muhammad Omar to develop a joint strategy against Karzai.
Iran’s role in Iraq is equally clear now. Having lost control of the Badr Brigades that appear to have decided to be Iraqi patriots rather than Iranian agents, Tehran quickly recruited a new client in Iraq in the form of Muqtada Al Sadr. In one of hose ironies that give history spice, Sadr started by casting himself in the role of a pan-Arab enemy of Persians with the promise of combating Iran’s influence in Mesopotamia. His rapid transformation from the reluctant debutante to keen courtesan may be the stuff of legend, but the net effect of his switchover is to give Iran a real possibility for making mischief in Iraq with a relatively small investment.
The Islamic Republic has also taken Syria under its wing, forcing President Bashar al-Assad to abandon policies worked out by his late father over three decades. The latest Iranian move has come in Lebanon where Hezballah, is trying to stage what amounts to a putsch against the democratically elected government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora.
Even if we disagree with the present regime in Tehran, as I heartily do, none of the above should be read as a criticism of Iran. The Islamic Republic is behaving like any other opportunistic power. Finding a vacuum, it is trying to fill it. Under similar circumstances, the Shah’s regime would have pursued the same objectives, though certainly not with the same methods.
The grater Middle Eat today is the only major region in the world to lack credible structures for stability. All other regions are covered by a variety of security arrangements, economic alliances, and political groupings. Dotted with small, weak and often newly created states, the Middle East is seething with tensions at various levels. All the enemies of the modern world- from extreme nationalism to religious fundamentalism are present in this region alongside deadly sectarian rivalries, pervasive corruption, frustrated hopes, and archaic social and cultural attitudes.
Four years ago the US came to the region with the claim that it intended to help shape a new balance of power in which its own national security interests would be combined with the deeper aspirations of the region for reform and progress.
President George W Bush’s ambition was to transform the US from a guarantor of the status quo into a revolutionary power seeking radical change.
Judging by what we currently know the new majority in the United States does not share that ambition, and will be looking for an elegant way to abdicate the responsibility that Bush had assumed in the region. However, in politics things could change overnight. The new Democrat majority may soon find out that playing politics with Iraq to win an election is one thing while destroying the United States’ credibility as a responsible power is another. In the months ahead, the American public may well begin to understand the consequences of running away.
The immediate effect of an American abdication would be a boosting of the Iranian position as the only power crabapple of helping the region create new structures of stability. The American abdication will also offer fresh hopes to armed Salafist groups that have been largely defeated in Algeria, Egypt and the Gulf region.
The expected American abdication would have another consequence: it would rule out the possibility of a “Grand Bargain” under which an Irano-American condominium could be imposed on the Middle East. If the Americans are running away, why should the Islamic Republic offer them 50 per cent of anything? The Yalta-style deal that President Bill Clinton had hoped to make with Tehran would be possible, at least theoretically, if only the Americans remained in the game. Right now, however, it seems that they simply wish to walk away from the table. Ahmadinejad’s analysis of Bush as “an aberration” and an atypical American leader who is ready to stand and fight is beginning to look credible. However, even if Bush’s successors do not turn out to be as spineless as Ahmadinejad hopes they will be, it is only prudent for the GC nations to take into account the possibility of an American abdication.
Having observed the fact of the situation as described above, the GCC leaders would have to consider the need that arises from it: the need for new and credible structures of stability. If the US cannot offer such structures, who can?
The truth is that, despite President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s hubristic sloganeering, the Islamic Republic is a ramshackle and unstable regime with its internal contradictions that cast a shadow on its future. In other words the Islamic Republic lacks the economic power, the political influence, the military might and the accumulated experience needed to act as the regional “superpower.” What it has is a denial power, a negative power that could be used to sabotage the work of others. However, it lacks the positive power without which no new equilibrium is constructed. Far from emerging as the core of a new stability in the Middle East, the Islamic Republic may develop into the vortex of a new and much bigger crisis in the region.
Because of its strategic location and the fact that it contains almost two-thirds of the world’s oil and gas resources, the greater Middle East region is of vital importance to the entire world. This is why almost everyone has a direct interest in this region’s stability. Those who wish to see the Americans leave and those who think the Iranians lack the wherewithal to generate stability must come up with alternatives. The American abdication, if it happens, and the Iranian weakness, when it is exposed, could create a vacuum that would suck the region into a generation of violent instability and war. Like nature, politics abhors the void.