The US in the Middle East Today

by Charles Naas

Not even a month in office, Secretary of State John Kerry took his first official trip to the troubled Middle East and immediately felt first-hand the pressures and metamorphosing power relationships in the region. He began his visit with a meeting in Rome with countries that provide assistance to the various resistance forces in Syria. He pledged $60 million in aid for civilian purposes — to be administered by the United Nations — to help the millions of refugees who have been uprooted by the conflict. The Syrian tragedy hung like a pall over the session and Kerry was berated by representatives of the militias for the size of the offer and the continued policy of not sending modern arms. Nevertheless, the US has now taken one more small step toward greater participation with the anti-Assad groups, something the Administration has maneuvered to avoid.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdo?an, a prickly fellow at any time, was openly rude about a few minute wait for Kerry and took the opportunity to lambaste Israel and Zionism while knowing full well how Kerry would react. He continued to pressure the US to become more involved in the Syrian situation and stressed that Turkey has accepted thousand of refugees and has been struck by errant munitions in the fighting near the border. Was Erdogan’s rudeness of great importance? Not really, but symbolically, yes. Meanwhile in Saudi Arabia, the assault on the Secretary regarding Syria was also in full force.

In Egypt, a number of the leaders of the democratic-secular opposition parties refused to meet with Kerry — or at least to meet him without publicity — and some got together privately. Of great importance? Again, no, but of symbolic significance, yes. Kerry released some aid for Egypt that had been held up but lectured President Mohamed Morsi on some matters. Auntie US can’t seem to refrain from telling others how to run their country.

In Almaty, Kazakhstan last week the nuclear talks with Iran continued after a nine month recess. The P5+1 nations (the  US, England, France, Russia, China and Germany) for the first time eased ever so slightly their previous proposal. It was relatively “well received” by Iran. Tehran is torn internally about its relationship — or the absence of one — with the US but has persevered undeterred by the threats of bombing and the economic sanctions. It’s likely that Iran is following the old Russian KGB tactic of good guy versus bad guy by having mid-level officials speak openly about the desire for an improvement of ties with the US, followed by intransigence in the talks, refusing to meet directly with the head of our delegation and speeches by conservative religious leaders filled with condemnation for the West. Thus, the importance of the “well received” aspect of all this will not be known until the next full meeting in April. The key question is: will Iran reply with some movement of its own, particularly about the buried uranium enrichment plant in Fordow, or “pocket” the proposal and remain obdurate. The Iranian decision could determine whether future talks continue.

Just how or why has this willingness to defy the US come about? Not long ago in the twilight of the Cold War the United States’ position in the Middle East seemed unassailable. We had “lost” Iran but the Soviets had been unable to bring peace and control to Afghanistan . For a couple of decades Musharraf in Pakistan, the Shah in Iran, Sadat and Mubarak in Egypt and various conservative monarchies in Jordan and Saudi Arabia as well as in neighbouring countries in the Persian Gulf stood with us in the struggle to dominate an area with much of the world’s petroleum,vast wealth potential and strategic positioning location wise. There were of course disputes among these nations over clear differences in perceived national interest, but we were able to adjust to such matters.

The changes we are witnessing now have thus been percolating for more than a decade.The end of the Cold War finally permitted the Middle East to reassess what was important to it. The Arabs, Persians and many ethnic and sectarian groups within these populaces have lived through the Ottoman, French and British Empires, as well as through the clash of the Soviet and American pseudo empires.

A number of powerful indigenous forces have accordingly had the opportunity to express themselves. First, there has been nationalism, historical pride and an insistence on mutual respect, which has been inextricably interwoven with religion. Over a billion people from Indonesia to Morocco are involved in one way or another in the search for what Islam means to them and the glory of its past. Who would have thought the Muslim Brotherhood would be governing Egypt prior to the Arab Spring, which sent shockwaves through the world? Pakistan is being destroyed by the fight over Islam’s true meaning. Second, there’s sheer exuberance over the fact that at last the populaces of these countries can govern themselves and make their own mistakes. Finally, a bi-product of all this has been the freedom to attend to old divisive factors such as religious schisms of Sunni versus Shi’a and ethnic differences.

President Obama seems to have recognized that old truisms that previously worked in the US’ favor no longer apply to America’s future relations with the Middle East. Early on he pledged to implement US withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan. His deep reluctance to get heavily involved in Libya and now in Syria also reflects his understanding of the complexity of these matters and his recognition of the weakness of our economy, the weariness of our military and his desire to pivot to the competition with China. Republican party leaders meanwhile object to any shift in US priorities and any hint that the golden days of American hegemony are over.

But in the Middle East and South Asia, political leaders are largely dedicated to their own problems and finding ways to resolve the serious issues that divide their populace and make governing onerous. They are sensitive to nagging and direction from outsiders. It is within this greatly changed political atmosphere that US diplomacy must operate. It will not be easy, particularly by a nation as seriously divided as our own — not to mention our unflinching support for Israel. But if ever there was a time for Obama to take on this daunting task, it’s during his final term as President.

Photo: Demonstrators in Cairo’s Tahrir Square on the morning of 27 November 2012. Credit: Lilian Wagdy.

Charles Naas

Charles Naas was Deputy Ambassador and Charge d'Affairs in Tehran during the initial stages of Iran's revolution. Preceding that he was Director of Iranian Affairs and served also in Pakistan, India, Turkey, Afghanistan, as the ME advisor at the US's UN delegation, and retired from The Policy Planning Staff.