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What lies beneath the US-Iran standoff?

The current situation reflects the bizarre politics of the region and the fluid nature of international politics, argues Wajahat Qazi
Wajahat Qazi
11 January 2012

It would be perhaps safe to posit that the US-Iran standoff accrues from a range of factors, the most salient among which may be - the Arab spring that has thrown the political equations in the region into a bit of a tizzy, the United States’ exit from Iraq, the regional hegemonic status that a nuclear weapons capability would accord Iran and the implications and consequences of the changed political equations on Israel’s security. Let us review the changed conditions and try to extrapolate from these the reasons why the United States is tightening the screws on Iran and their potential consequences and implications.

It is now becoming increasingly clear that Islamists of different hues are most likely to come to power in most of the Arab Muslim Middle East. This challenges the status quo - a condition where the Arab authoritarian state created artificial state-society relations and the international orientation of these states was determined by a narrow and unrepresentative praetorian clique. The foreign policy posture of these states corresponded to what both the regimes and the sole superpower were apparently happy with: stability. However, the Arab spring and its bottom-up movement that appears to aim at aligning state-society relations in the Arab Middle East and democratizing the region’s politics can potentially disrupt this condition or equation.

The massive disaffection and alienation of the authoritarian and praetorian state had managed to keep a lid on by creating police states and buying the loyalties of the populace. This could now be channelled by the Islamists towards foreign (mis)adventurism. This may mean reviewing the foreign policy postures of these states vis-à-vis the United States at a macro level and directing the rage of the Arab Muslim youth bulge and the military capability of these states towards Israel. Both actions would be in accord with the denizens of the region where anti Americanism runs rife at the popular level and where American influence seems to be waning. With massive popular backing, the new governors of these states may under a spell of hubris and disconnection from reality attack Israel.

Or alternatively, in another scenario, the Islamists, predominantly Sunni may enter into a tactical alliance with Shiite Iran. The country’s potential nuclear capability coupled with its conventional capability which could, along with the conventional capability of other states, act as a force multiplier and embolden the new alliance to put Israel into their crosshairs. This new or changed political condition would render Iran the natural hegemon of the region - a prospect that would neither be liked by the Wahhabist forces and surviving autocrats, nor by the United States. The former would view Iranian influence as a threat and encroachment on the domain of Sunni Islam, reviving the age-old rivalry that began with the formation and crystallization of Shi’ism as a protest movement. The latter, that is, the United States, may be compelled by the new forces to drawdown its troop levels in the region and thus lose its influence. This would naturally be viewed by the smaller states, which comprise the Gulf Co-operation Council as a threat to their integrity and survival. So, all in all, the older paradigms and equations would be disrupted and the region’s politics would enter into a phase of extended uncertainty.

Given that nuclear weapons are the critical variable that may render the scenario described in this piece into a reality, the United States is likely trying to pre-empt this outcome. And this then explains the standoff. The question is: Is the approach adopted by the United States prudent? The answer clearly is No. Tightening the screws on Iran at this time and posturing amounts to almost a joke. Iran is neither a failed state nor on the brink of disaster. It can withstand sanctions and its strategists must know that the US, given its exit from Iraq, the potential exit from Afghanistan and the precarious and parlous state of the global economy is in no position to opt for war. So the US sabre rattling amounts to nothing but eyeballing Iran and baring teeth. What could then be a prudent approach that creates conditions for a stable, peaceful, secure and prosperous Middle East?

The first axiom that statesmen and powers that be in the region and the Middle East must bear in mind is that war talk and even posturing should be avoided. Gratuitous actions can lead to situations and outcomes that may open Pandora’s Box in the region, with implications reaching far beyond. Second, the peace process between the Palestinians and Israel must be revived and some dynamism injected into a two state solution. The United States must invest its political capital and if need be lean on all parties to arrive at a settlement that seems to be the most just, effective and doable one. Third, the United States must open back channel negotiations with Iran and offer it security guarantees. These guarantees should assure Iran that regime change is out of the question and Iran will not be in the crosshairs of the United States. And assure Iran that if it disavows its nuclear ambition, it will be welcomed as a valued and valuable member of the international community enjoying all the benefits that will accrue from this. A concerted effort that incorporates all these aspects may then pre-empt the scenario that the US is trying to avoid. A lot is at stake here. The world does not need war or tension and the expectations from the United States are high. The need of the hour is skilled diplomacy and sagacious statecraft. This is what the world expects from the United States. Not posturing and sabre rattling.

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