Remaking the Middle East: A European perspective

Is the “axis of evil" starting to crumble? The question has to be raised after the successive announcements of last December: Syrian readiness to resume peace negotiations with Israel, Libya’s renouncing of its WMD program, Iran’s commitment to sign the additional protocol to the NPT (which allows IAEA inspections at very short notice). It is tempting to lump these three events together and to see these positive developments as a direct result of the war in Iraq and as the first steps of a global transformation of the Middle East. But is that assumption fully warranted?

Let us start with the obvious: the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s regime is clearly a proof of United States determination to go to war in order to change a geopolitical situation deemed unbearable for American vital interests in the aftermath of 9/ 11. The message could not be ignored by Middle Eastern so-called rogue states, all the more as there is today a huge American military force in Iraq, a reality that has deeply changed the regional equation.

Thus, for instance, the fact that Iran is squeezed between two countries where American troops are stationed is necessarily in the minds of decision-makers in Teheran. The overthrow of Saddam had a deterrent effect on both the Iranian leadership and Libya’s Muammar Qadhafi and led them to opt for a realist path rather than to adopt a risky confrontational line. And Syrian President Bashar Asad’s relative openness also has something to do with a desire to show goodwill towards Washington–”although the gesture is a minimal one and does not mean in any way that Syria is ready to depart from its traditional demand for return of full sovereignty over the Golan Heights.

If the new geopolitical situation has favored these evolutions, it would nevertheless be a mistake to think that they have vindicated the neo-conservative perception that only an assertive policy is able to make things move in the Middle East. The Iranian decision was the result of a combination of the demonstrative effect of force and the vital role of diplomacy. Without an American armada along its borders, the Islamic Republic would have certainly been reluctant to sign the additional protocol, but without a diplomatic horizon (the joint British-German-French initiative, last October), Tehran would also not have been as cooperative.

Indeed if, for a regime, the only option left is its demise, it is doubtful its leaders will be in a hurry to comply with the demands of the international community. Things may change if the same leaders are convinced that if they show more accountability, their regime will be spared. The new regional equation could thus have positive effects on the “rogue states” when their compliance to legitimate concerns on security matters (on WMD or support for terrorist groups) is followed by a progressive normalization of their international status (for instance lifting of sanctions such as embargos and freezing of financial assets).

Although realists in Washington would be satisfied with such an outcome, “idealist neo-conservatives” will surely not be content with mere accountability. They look for more: a general transformation of the Middle East and the disappearance of all regimes that do not totally fit with US strategic interests. The objective is not just to work towards more accountable behavior, but towards a substantial change of the nature of those regimes, meaning their overthrow (more softly called “roll back”). Such a perspective does not necessarily require a military intervention, as in Iraq; it can also be reached through a combination of sanctions, propaganda and support for opposition groups (in exile or within the country).

Thus, if despite having taken positive steps that have improved regional security (such as control of WMD), states like Iran or Libya continue to be pointed to as dangerous and non-reliable, two consequences can be expected. The first is domestic: conservative forces that stick to uncompromising positions will be vindicated, while reformists will be challenged and undermined (the parliamentary elections in Iran will be an interesting test-case). Thus, at least in the short run, rather then being weakened, the regime may well tighten its grip over society.

The second consequence is regional: these regimes will try to find allies in other neighboring states that are also concerned with the destabilizing effects of a reframed Middle East. The rapprochement between Syria and Turkey, symbolized by Asad’s recent visit to Ankara and linked with a common concern over the emergence of a quasi-independent Kurdish entity in northern Iraq, is an indication of possible unexpected realignments.

To conclude, the fact that the US is today a direct regional player has had a moderating effect on “rogue states”. But it will only be a lasting one under two conditions: a successful stabilization of Iraq, both politically and on security matters (and here uncertainties remain); and a reasonable American policy looking for incremental improvements rather than brutal breaks, because a forceful strategy is a recipe for major trouble in a Middle East based on complex internal dynamics.