Posted by: sean | February 26, 2007

Two options for Middle Eastern policy

I’ve just read two interesting pieces on Iran. The first is in Foreign Affairs, penned by Ray Takeyh and argues for US détente with Iran. He argues for normalized relations as a starting point and not an end to negotiations, which should be direct and conducted on four tracks:

1. setting a timetable for resuming a diplomatic relationship, gradually phasing out U.S. sanctions, and returning Iran’s frozen assets
2. nuclear negotiations
3. stabilizing Iraq
4. Israel-Palestine

The article is much more detailed than I can relay in a short post, so it’s worth reading his outlook on the situation in Tehran and why past strategies on Iran are no longer appropriate and are likely to fail.

The second article is a piece by Sy Hersh on the Bush administration’s redirection in the Middle East:

In the past few months, as the situation in Iraq has deteriorated, the Bush Administration, in both its public diplomacy and its covert operations, has significantly shifted its Middle East strategy. The “redirection,” as some inside the White House have called the new strategy, has brought the United States closer to an open confrontation with Iran and, in parts of the region, propelled it into a widening sectarian conflict between Shiite and Sunni Muslims.

To undermine Iran, which is predominantly Shiite, the Bush Administration has decided, in effect, to reconfigure its priorities in the Middle East. In Lebanon, the Administration has coöperated with Saudi Arabia’s government, which is Sunni, in clandestine operations that are intended to weaken Hezbollah, the Shiite organization that is backed by Iran. The U.S. has also taken part in clandestine operations aimed at Iran and its ally Syria. A by-product of these activities has been the bolstering of Sunni extremist groups that espouse a militant vision of Islam and are hostile to America and sympathetic to Al Qaeda.

This seems like an obviously bad idea and reflects how the many in Washington are incapable of looking at the region in a nuanced way: either the Sunnis are evil or the Shi’a are. As anyone who lives here (or even has a fleeting interest in Middle Eastern politics) knows, the region is much more complicated than that. And the childish idea of throwing one’s weight fully behind radical Saudi-backed Sunni elements against a mutual foe (the Soviets at the time) has already been tried, to disastrous results, in Afghanistan.

Hersh mentions working with Saudi-sponsored Sunni islamists in covert actions in Lebanon to undermine Hezbollah and Tehran:

The United States has also given clandestine support to the Siniora government, according to the former senior intelligence official and the U.S. government consultant. “We are in a program to enhance the Sunni capability to resist Shiite influence, and we’re spreading the money around as much as we can,” the former senior intelligence official said. The problem was that such money “always gets in more pockets than you think it will,” he said. “In this process, we’re financing a lot of bad guys with some serious potential unintended consequences. We don’t have the ability to determine and get pay vouchers signed by the people we like and avoid the people we don’t like. It’s a very high-risk venture.”

American, European, and Arab officials I spoke to told me that the Siniora government and its allies had allowed some aid to end up in the hands of emerging Sunni radical groups in northern Lebanon, the Bekaa Valley, and around Palestinian refugee camps in the south. These groups, though small, are seen as a buffer to Hezbollah; at the same time, their ideological ties are with Al Qaeda.

During a conversation with me, the former Saudi diplomat accused Nasrallah of attempting “to hijack the state,” but he also objected to the Lebanese and Saudi sponsorship of Sunni jihadists in Lebanon. “Salafis are sick and hateful, and I’m very much against the idea of flirting with them,” he said. “They hate the Shiites, but they hate Americans more. If you try to outsmart them, they will outsmart us. It will be ugly.”

So there is a decision to realign US policy in the region to fit even more tightly with Sunni interests, including in Iraq. It looks like the US is so blinded by the idea of getting at Iran that it’s willing to target Iraqi Shi’a groups even when they (including al-Sadr’s Jaish al-Mahdi) are aligned with the US-backed government of al-Maliki. (Cleverly enough, it looks like al-Sadr is going to let the US forces do his dirty work by cleansing his militia of elements that are not firmly under his control.)

Likewise, they’re stepping up their support here in Lebanon to include arming salafi Sunni groups that are allied only temporarily with the government in Beirut but whose long-standing alliances are with groups like al-Qaida. So this means that the US is effectively funding some of the “foreign jihadis” who are leaving places like Tripoli in northern Lebanon kill Americans in Iraq.

Moreover, it looks like Washington might be flirting with the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria in hopes of overturning the Assad regime in Damascus — the goal of at least part of the government in Beirut (Jumblatt and Geagea, and maybe Hariri too).

Now the Brotherhood is, in my mind, probably closer to Hamas and Hezbollah than it is to al-Qaida in terms of the possibility of it being reformed into a governing party as opposed to being just a terrorist group. But the fact remains that we’ve already followed the Saudis (who are now telling us that they can control these Sunni groups) when they took the lead with Pakistan in financing the Taliban, and look where that got us. At the end of the day, these radical Sunni groups hate the Shi’a and they hate Iran, but they hate us even more, and when they’re done with what they consider the near enemy, they’ll inevitably come looking for the far enemy: us.

Otherwise, the rest of the Hersh article addresses a lot of different issues in the region right now and is definitely worth reading, particularly as concerns Lebanese politics. Also, Hersh has managed to get an interview with Nasrallah, although he doesn’t seem to have gotten many interesting quotes.



  1. Nice blog, just getting started?

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