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What can we expect from Washington in 2015?

Encouraging moderation, simply put, must begin by confronting Iran’s regional hegemony scheme

Eyad Abu Shakra

Published: Updated:

Having just bid farewell to 2014 with a failure at the U.N. Security Council to pass a resolution ending the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories within three years, let’s wish everybody a happy new year.

The U.S. had made its intentions clear by claiming the resolution failed to address Israel’s security concerns; thus observers became interested to know how far Washington would go and whether it would resort, yet again, to the veto. Thankfully, for Washington, the veto was not required after it secured two abstentions from Nigeria and Rwanda, depriving the Palestinians of the magic nine votes needed to pass the resolution.

So another year passed with no marked American change of position on the Palestinian crisis. This ‘no movement’ however, has not been universal with regard to other Middle East crises. The emergence of the “jihadist-takfirist” strain of Sunni fundamentalist Islam has provided Washington and others with an opportunity to redefine their vital political and security priorities. Washington, for a start, does not view the Iranian regime as hostile anymore but, rather implicitly, as an ally in the new war against the “jihadist-takfirist” groups.

Last week American–Israeli columnist and journalist Jeffrey Goldberg wrote a revealing article in The Atlantic about President Barack Obama’s position towards Iran, and subsequently, Syria. It is worth mentioning here that it was Goldberg who was the first journalist to highlight the early signs of the White House’s radical shift towards Tehran and Sunni-Shiitte frictions, in an interview with Obama published by Bloomberg View last March.

Encouraging moderation, simply put, must begin by confronting Iran’s regional hegemony scheme

Eyad Abu Shakra

In last week’s article Goldberg recalls another interview he conducted in 2006 with the then Senator Obama. Goldberg asked him to talk about the challenges to rational deterrence theory posed by the behavior of rogue states. Obama replied “Whatever you want to say about the Soviets, they were essentially conservative. The North Korean regime and the Iranians are driven more by ideology and fantasy.”

Goldberg then goes on to discuss last May’s interview with Obama in Bloomberg View, writing: “Earlier this year, I asked Obama the following question: ‘What is more dangerous: Sunni extremism or Shiite extremism?’ His answer was revealing, suggestive of an important change in the way he has come to view the Iranian regime. He started by saying, as would be expected, ‘I’m not big on extremism generally.’ And then he argued—in part by omission—that he finds the principal proponent of Shiite extremism, the regime in Tehran, is more rational, and more malleable, than the main promoters of Sunni radicalism.

‘I don’t think you’ll get me to choose on those two issues,’ he said. ‘What I’ll say is that if you look at Iranian behavior, they are strategic, and they’re not impulsive. They have a worldview, and they see their interests, and they respond to costs and benefits...’”

In Goldberg’s words: “Since becoming president, Obama has made the argument that Iran could be induced, cajoled, and pressured into compromise, a view that has been proven provisionally, partially, correct: Sanctions, plus Obama’s repeated (and, to my mind, at least, credible) threat of military action, convinced Iran to temporarily halt many aspects of its nuclear program in exchange for limited sanctions relief. But Obama and his international partners have been less successful at bringing Iran to permanent denuclearization ... Without Iran’s assistance, Assad would have fallen a long time ago.”

Key to all mythologies

He also points out that Obama “seems to believe that a nuclear deal is, in a way, like Casaubon’s key to all mythologies: Many good things, he believes, could flow from a nuclear compromise . . .and would be good for everybody,” i.e. the United States and the Middle East “and most of all, it would be good for the Iranian people.” Here, however, Goldberg expresses his doubts about the Obama approach. He says “This is a wonderful notion, the idea that the end of Iran’s isolation could lead it to moderate its more extreme impulses. But there isn’t much in the way of proof to suggest that Iran’s rulers are looking to join an international order whose norms are defined by the United States and its allies. In fact, there is proof of something quite opposite: Iran seems as interested as ever in becoming a regional hegemon, on its own terms. And its supreme leader, and his closest confidants, have made it clear, over and over again, that he is not interested in normalizing relations with the United States.”

He then details Iran’s “blunt” and “brutal” interventions across the greater Middle East, which "supports Shiite insurrections in Yemen and Bahrain, attempts to manipulate Lebanese politics through its Beirut-based proxy Hezbollah, intervenes in Gaza and against the already-fading hope for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Arab crisis; and continuously threatens to eradicate Israel."

Touching on all the above to suggest that Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, “has a vision for Iran that differs from Obama’s,” Goldberg then reaches his target: Iran’s role in Syria. Here he says that “nothing underscores the Iranian regime’s imperialistic, hegemonic nature more than its support for the Assad regime in Damascus. Without Iran’s assistance, Assad would have fallen a long time ago. The death toll in Syria is more than 200,000; half of Syria’s population has been displaced. These dark achievements of the Assad regime would not have been possible without Iran. Thousands of Hezbollah and Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps troops and advisers, plus Iranian weaponry, have made all the difference for Assad.”

He adds: “Today, the U.S. and its allies are fighting in the Syrian theater, but they are fighting Assad’s putative enemies, the Sunni extremists of ISIS, not Assad and his Iranian allies. And yet ISIS is a derivative problem of a larger crisis: Without Assad—which is to say, without Iran—there would be no ISIS “caliphate” in Syria in the first place. The midwives of ISIS are Assad, Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah, and Ayatollah Khamenei.”

This lengthy, but clear account is neither authored by Syrians or Arabs in the anti-Assad camp, nor by fundamentalists and extremists in the region, but by a pro-Israel American journalist and analyst who is now concerned about the dangers of extremism–regardless of sectarian identity–in the Middle East.

Mr. Goldberg, as I understand him, neither wishes nor expects President Obama to take sides in the ongoing confrontation between Sunni extremists and Shiite extremists, based on traditional sensitivities of affinities in the region, but is simply making the old logical argument that “extremism begets extremism”. Thus, in order to encourage moderation a credible twin-track effort is required without prejudice, illusions and miscalculations.

If the Obama administration really believes that preventing the spread of chaos in Iraq is today a top priority, then is it possible to imagine the costs of chaos on a wider scale if it continues to escape forward?

Encouraging moderation, simply put, must begin by confronting Iran’s regional hegemony scheme, not ignoring it or make light of its impact, en route to justifying and accepting it as a fait accompli.

This article was first published in Asharq al-Awsat newspaper on Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2015.

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Eyad Abu Shakra (also written as Ayad Abou-Chakra) began his media career in 1973 with Annahar newspaper in Lebanon. He joined Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper in the UK in 1979, occupying several positions including: Senior Editor, Managing Editor, and Head of Research Unit, as well as being a regular columnist. He has several published works, including books, chapters in edited books, and specialized articles, in addition to frequent regular TV and radio appearances.

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