The Iran connection

This is the backdrop of the New York Times Week in Review article. Titled ‘The Larger Game in the Middle East: Iran’, it casts a penetrating gaze into the framework of decision making in the Obama White House. David E. Sanger reports

“Libya is a sideshow. Containing Iran’s power remains their central goal in the Middle East. Every decision — from Libya to Yemen to Bahrain to Syria — is being examined under the prism of how it will affect what was, until mid-January, the dominating calculus in the Obama administration’s regional strategy: how to slow Iran’s nuclear progress, and speed the arrival of opportunities for a successful uprising there.”

Looking at the prime example of Bahrain:

“To King Abdullah, President Obama’s decision to abandon President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt was a sign of weakness, and a warning that he might throw the Saudi leadership under the bus if democracy demonstrations took root there.

Perhaps that explains why there was barely a peep from the White House when the Saudis rolled troops into neighboring Bahrain to help put down the Shiite-majority protests there. Much as Mr. Obama wants to see the aspirations of democracy protesters fulfilled, and urged steps toward reform in Bahrain, he has no desire to see the toppling of the government that hosts the Fifth Fleet, right across the Persian Gulf from Iran.”

There is nothing surprising about the framework being employed, this is exactly the framework of discourse among US Foreign Policy elites. It suffers from two distinct problems.

1. Keeping in mind US strategic interests, its clear that Iran is not a serious threat to US dominance of the region. Everyone will be happy to see the Islamic regime pack up and leave, and one can even sympathize with American-Israeli efforts to thwart the regime’s attempts to enrich uranium. But Iran can no more challenge the US in the Middle East than Bangladesh. The CIA fact book records Iranian military spending at about $21 billion (2.5% of GDP estimated to be $863b), or approximately the moolah that would come out of the Pentagon’s nose if it sneezed.

2. Lets be ridiculous and assume that undermining the Islamic regime in Iran is the principal goal of US Middle East policy. (Given the events of the past few months, one would think that managing the overall emerging order in the region would be more crucial.) It does not immediately follow that this is consistent with supporting Saudi repression of its own Shi’ite minority and that of Bahrain’s Shi’ite majority. Even if one were to put some weight on claims based on sectarian gravity, a democratic Shi’ite majority regime across the water from Iran will undermine the Islamic regime in Iran. It will benefit the supporters of Mousavi, and more generally the cause of the democracy protestors who were brutally crushed last year.

As far as the Fifth Fleet is concerned, it is not clear why a democratic regime in Bahrain would want to kick it out. Even the Pentagon reckons that this is unlikely. Bahrain is almost 70% Shi’ite but dominated by a Sunni elite. A multi-sectarian regime that is responsive to demands of the disenfranchised majority will certainly not want to invite the wrath of the United States. They want to participate in the global economy and reap its benefits. Given how isolated Iran is, a democratic regime will no more want to ally itself with Iran than the current one. In any case, the Fifth Fleet can be relocated to a number of other places in the Gulf or to Djibouti without compromising on power projection capabilities.

Clearly, the xenophobic Wahhabi regime in Saudi Arabia would be displeased. But should US foreign policy be set according to the worst tendencies of its most radical allies? Will the regime not fall in line if the US insisted? How long would the House of Saud survive without US support? U.S. support for Saudi bigotry and xenophobia is already jeopardizing exit plans in Iraq and threaten to destabilize Yemen further.

The emerging order in the Middle East will have both democracies and dictatorships. The crucial question for US foreign policy is which side of the fence will it sit. If the United States continues to supports these crackpots, things will go the way of Latin America where endless US support for autocrats eventually led to a situation where the US ran out of allies.

So far the Arab spring has been markedly free of anti-imperialist sentiment. This might have to do with what Zizek would call ‘the absence of alternative visions’ since the fall of the Soviet Union. Protestors and potential voters understand that there are no credible alternatives to the current capitalist order and global strategic unipolarity. The Obama White House needs to sit back, relax and think things through.

The current strategy is neither consistent with American interests nor with American values.

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