Between the Lion of Damascus and the Lion of Teheran

Por George E. Irani (para Safe Democracy)

George E. Irani describes how despite the overwhelming results of the US midterm elections, the administration of President Bush is not backing down from its hardliner policies in the Middle East. With the power and influence of both Iran and Syria on the rise, a new (Persian) Cold War seems to be taking place, with relative power manoeuvres and its own arms race. Yet, taking the strife in Lebanon as an example, Irani points out that the US must sit down at the negotiating table with its Middle Eastern counterparts, in order to break this cycle of war and destruction.

George Emile Irani is the Lebanese-born director of the Africa and Middle East Program of the Toledo International Center for Peace in Madrid. He is the author of “The Papacy and the Middle East: The Role of the Holy See in the Arab-Israeli Conflict”.

IN THE AFTERMATH OF THE US electoral tsunami, US foreign policy in the Middle East has been forced to rethink itself.

What measures should be taken to deal with the mayhem in Iraq and the possible destabilization of Lebanon? What is the best way to interact with Syria and Iran?

In the wake of the elections, Tony Blair and George W. Bush have continued to play good cop bad cop.

While the Bush administration remains steadily opposed to negotiating with terrorists and members of the axis of evil, a recent speech by the British prime minister suggested the opening of a dialogue with the President of Syria, Bashar Assad. Blair even dispatched the Lord Mayor of London to visit the Syrian leader.

The recommendations of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, chaired by former U.S. Secretary of State James Baker, have also advocated arbitration. In his report, Baker recommended a step away from realpolitik in order to negotiate with Damascus and Teheran on the festering crises in Lebanon and Iraq.

Iran has become an important player in the Middle East. In Iraq, the Iranian regime has greatly influenced the Shiite leadership in the south of the country as well as in Baghdad. Iranian intelligence operatives have been active throughout the country, fomenting action against US troops.

In Lebanon, as well, Iran has had a great amount of influence, backing (and some claim inciting) Hezbollah in its attacks against Northern Israel.

Iran has also continued in its bid to develop nuclear weapons, taking advantage of the weakness of the Bush administration. To many, this arms race, coupled with the indirect power manoeuvres of both the United States and Iran in the Middle East appears to be the beginning of a new (Persian) Cold War.

Since the war, the situation in Lebanon has descended into further chaos. The Shia members of the US-backed Lebanese government, Fouad Siniora, have withdrawn from politics. And the extremist groups Hezbollah and Amal –two Iranian allies– have threatened to use street protests to overthrow the current regime.

General Michel Aoun, a major Christian leader who has sealed a political alliance with Hezbollah, is also backing them.

Syria has also emerged as a major player in both Iraq and Lebanon. But, compared to Iranian influence, the Syrian regime is much weaker, more easily influenced by the decisions of the United Nations. A UN commission assigned with the investigation of the assassination of Rafiq Hariri is due to release a report in mid-December.

The report could bring accusations down upon some high-level members of the Syrian government, thus reshaping Syrian politics.

And so, where do we go from here? Although the loss of Republican control in both the House and Senate has sobered the Bush administration, the President has still not changed his hardliner policies. And in the opinion of many, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s visit to Washington could signal the possibility of an Israeli military attack against Syria, as early as 2007.

The Israeli Defence Forces are awaiting the results of the investigations of this summer’s botched war in Lebanon. The results of these investigations will boost the leverage of those in the Israeli military who want to invade Damascus.

The jury is still out on whether the American eagle is willing to sit down with the Lion of Damascus and the Lion of Teheran. The American eagle has been heavily wounded, yet is still capable of causing great harm on an international scale.

The only way to avoid future war is for both sides to sit down at the negotiating table and open an urgently needed dialogue.

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