The new U.S. Government will have to deal with a new level of self-confidence in Teheran and Damascus. And with high risks.
The Middle East, a region in which the United States is considered a local hegemon, pays special attention to the upcoming American presidential elections. Washington’s decisions are and will significantly influence these countries – their consequences reaching far across the borders.
Geopolitically speaking, the Middle East connects East and South Asia on one side with Africa and Europe on the other. Furthermore, the Persian Gulf and its coastal areas are known for the largest source of crude oil and gas and has the highest drilling capacity in the global economy. This alone could be reason enough for a global power to invest all its might and prestige in securing this region for itself. Beyond that, however, this wide geographic region between the Mediterranean Sea and the Indus Valley is also characterized by a highly dangerous accumulation of conflicts and risk: regional conflicts and radical Islam, terrorism, nuclear weapons, the Shiite-Sunni confrontation as well as regional rivalries (India/Pakistan, Iran/Saudi-Arabia).
Under the Bush administration, however, the United States got stuck in the desert sand of Mesopotamia. Quite obviously, a failed strategy of the American Government strengthened the radical powers of the region, headed by Iran and Syria.
But what exactly can the Middle East expect from a change of government in Washington?
From Iran’s and Syria’s point of view, the past years have strengthened and not weakened their position. After September 11, 2001, both states were pushed into a corner and felt acutely threatened by the U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the high presence of American troops in the entire region, and the revelation of Iran’s nuclear power program. By now, however, their situation has changed.
Today, Iran is the most influential power in Iraq, and, holding a Shiite majority in this country, will most likely continue to control it politically. The same can be prognosticated for Iran’s increasing presence in the Persian Gulf.
Whoever wins control over Iraq and the Persian Gulf will sooner or later claim absolute dominance and hegemony in the entire region. This cannot be avoided, especially not if the claim to leadership would be reinforced with the presence of nuclear weapons.
This is the core of the current conflict between the global power USA and the rising regional power Iran, whose dangerousness may not be underestimated. If the states do not find a negotiated resolution that accommodates both their interests, the risk of an armed conflict will increase once more.
The United Nations have tightened sanctions, which are already causing major problems in Iran. The country remains relatively isolated, left alone with Syria as its only ally. The government’s Anti-Semitic rhetoric further added to Iran’s international isolation, and an Anti-Iranian coalition, headed by the USA, has formed in the region.
However, with its growing influence in Iraq, the Persian Gulf, Afghanistan, Lebanon (Hezbollah), and the Mideast conflict (Hamas and Islamic Jihad), combined with the increasing military troubles of the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan, Teheran has succeeded in creating some space for itself.
Despite the massive opposition of the UN Security Council, Iran has continued its nuclear program. With the publication of the latest NIE (National Intelligence Estimate), the U.S. government is sure to find its political views of Teheran confirmed.
In the months to come, it can furthermore be expected that Iran will try everything in its power to answer any open questions during the negotiations with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna. If this went through, Teheran would have the power to continue its nuclear program while entirely adhering to the rules of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Of course, this would not change one iota about the dangerousness of the Iranian program. If almost every component for a military nuclear program was developed, only one political decision would be necessary for a military use of nuclear weapons.
From a Syrian perspective, the past years cannot be complained about either.
Currently, Damascus holds key positions in the Middle East Conflict, Lebanon, Iraq, and Iran. However, Syria also has major issues to deal with. The country is one of the big losers of the Cold War in the Middle East. Furthermore, the basics of the Syrian economy and the political regime are far from being stable and promising. While an armed conflict with the United States would most likely strengthen the regimen in Teheran, Syria would experience the exact opposite. Despite these issues, however, the country has managed to resist the massive international pressure and improve its position significantly.
By now, Syria probably regrets having withdrawn their army troops from Lebanon in the spring of 2005 after being pressured by the U.S. and the Security Council. That is why Damascus is now trying everything in its power to correct that mistake. Obviously, a domination of Lebanon is more important to Syria than the return of the Golan Heights, which are under Israeli control.
The Shiite “Party of Allah” (Hezbollah) proves to be the crucial tool of Syria to keep its neighboring state under control. Although the United States, France, and other Western governments intensely pressured Beirut, an election of a new president against Syria seems impossible.
Additionally, Hezbollah as well as the Palestinian Hamas are used as tools of Syrian politicians against Israel. With its breakout from the Gaza Strip, the Hamas has proved that it has become stronger and not weaker under the conditions of isolation. This is also an advantage for Damascus and Teheran, who both support Hamas and Hezbollah.
Furthermore, in collaboration with Iran, Syria has recently demonstrated a great amount of influence on Iraq. Most likely, American troop reinforcements alone, and a lacking involvement of Teheran and Damascus, wouldn’t have lead to the decrease of violence that could be noticed in Iraq over the last few months.
Therefore, Iran and Syria consider themselves on the winning side when looking at the development in the Middle East – and just that could bring about tremendous problems in the future.
Given the geopolitical importance of this region, the interests of the USA, and the prestige of the global power that is at stake, no American president will be able to simply withdraw their troops from Iraq. A fallback without political resolution would be an unprecedented disaster for the interests and the prestige of the world power of the USA.
Out of self-interest, the new American government, whether Democratic or Republican, will pursue a policy of involvement and direct negotiations with Iran and Syria. The objective is to achieve a regional consensus and to significantly reduce or even determine the American military engagement in Iraq. In the time after Bush, the United States will politically and militarily regroup in the Middle East, but not back down or withdraw.
A change in the American government, however, will barely influence the strategic parallelogram of forces in the region. While the future American government will allow for a new balance of interest, a weakening or even termination of the American part in the Middle East and a transition to an Iranian hegemony is unlikely.
If such hopes are entertained in Teheran and Damascus, the arrival of a new American president will unfortunately increase and not decrease the danger of a heated confrontation.