Monday, October 16, 2006

Man in the know says the US might divvy the region between Israel and Iran

Mamoun Fandy had his weekly column in Asharq al-Awsat yesterday (Monday October 16). He's worth paying attention to, for one reason, because he is close to the Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz. For instance when the king wanted to impress the world with his concern for Lebanon and the Lebanese, August 26, in a spin-correction following his initial one-sided condemnation of Hizbullah, he chose as his interlocutor Mamoun Fandy, who came through with the right stuff. But Fandy also used to be on the US government payroll as a senior fellow at the US Institute of Peace, an outfit funded by the US Congress, and after that he was a Senior Fellow at the James A Baker Institute. He's the quintessential missing link.

The earlier Fandy column that I summarized here was an analysis of the three factors threatening the Arab state: (1) US imposition of western-style democracy; (2) Iranian fomenting of internal dissention via the likes of Hizbullah, Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood; and finally (3) the whole idea of elevating Islam to an authoritative position that rightly belongs to the state as such (the "secular state" I said, but a commenter objected to that). I noted that his view of Iran reminded me of the McCarthyite era US attitude to communism: An Iranian under every bed.

Fandy said these three factors were linked together in the following way: US pressure for "democracy" merely gives the Islamists legitimacy, because they can scream against Western meddling, and people on the street say they are right to do so. And the Islamists, for their part, give cover to the Iranians, because people on the street think of Iranian (i.e. Islamic) influence as benign compared to that of Israel, for example. So it is a three-sided problem, but the nub of it is this issue of Iranian plotting to destroy the Arab state from within.

This week's column is interesting because Fandy appears to be making an effort to damp down the anti-Iran tones a little, making the assessment of the Iranian threat look more like a result of what he calls "cold analysis" rather than the knee-jerk impression that came through so strongly in the earlier piece. He says: Let's run through the various criteria and try and assess which is the most dangerous for us, Israel or Iran.

Inevitably, in the end, he takes us back full circle to the McCarthyite smearing of any opposition as "Iranian".

But there is a more important point tucked into the middle of this piece. Fandy says it is quite possible that the US, Israel and Iran could end up making a deal along the lines of the Sykes Picot line that carved up the region between France and England after WW I, in this case between Israel and Iran, with the US acting as overlord.

Here is a bit of a summary.

Fandy's first point in his Iran-Israel comparison is that they are both non-Arab states seeking influence in the Arab region. Second, they both occupy Arab lands. Israel occupies parts of Palestine, Jordan, and Lebanon. Iran occupies three small islands in what it calls the Persian Gulf, actually belonging to the Emirates, so this is much smaller in area and population compared to what Israel occupies. (Never heard of that issue, did you? Neither did I).

Getting down to more serious issues, Fandy asks about the intentions of Iran and Israel. He says history shows both aim to be the sole agent of America, Iran in the limited area of the Gulf, but Israel in the whole of the Middle East. This idea of being the chosen American agent goes back at least to the era of the Shah in Iran, he says, and it is self-evident in the case of Israel. It follows, he says, that any struggle between Iran and Israel is going to be a struggle for the prize of being America's sole agent; only the geographic scope of the ambitions differs.

The dangerous prospect right now (for the Arab states), says Fandy, would be if the US Israel and Iran were to come to terms and agree that Iran would have influence over the Gulf, with the rest of the region put under Israeli hegemony. If we study the American scene carefully, says Fandy, we can see that precisely this kind of a "splitting of influence" is indeed possible. First, he says: "There are parties in New York and Washington that are convinced that the only route out of the Iraq crisis goes through Tehran." And secondly: "There are a number of oil majors which, pursuing their own interests, are applying pressure in the direction of arranging a deal between Washington and Tehran, the basis of which would be to permit Iranian gas access to American markets". Fandy adds: "I know very well that this [deal respecting gas] is something that has been discussed in circles close to the [Bush] administration, as a reasonable price in return for the concept of a division of influence."

Fandy inserts a lengthy digression on signs of "intellectual cover" for the idea of a US alliance with Iran, an alliance that no doubt seems strange to [Arab] readers when they first hear of it. He cites a couple of researchers at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York who have written extensively on Iran and are (Fandy notes in his irritating way) both of Iranian extraction, and only one of them Muslim. Fandy's main point here is that some think the number one enemy of the West is Sunni Wahabism, and in this Iran is a potentially important ally. This would be a major justifying piece in any US policy of divvying up the region between Israel and Iran. (The researchers he cites are Vali Nasr and Ray Takeyh, but it would be risky to say what Fandy is attributing to whom and whether it is fair or not. His point is that this is an influential hatchery of policy ideas, and he sees the outlines forming for what he calls "intellectual cover" for the idea of a deal that would include Iran. Clearly it is not something that pleases him).

In any event, he says, the point is that this idea of "dividing the Arab body" between Iran and Israel is a serious possibility, a kind of modern Sykes-Picot agreement, only this time an undisclosed agreement.

This then, Fandy says, is the framework within which the Israel-Iran competition is taking place. (Meaning it is for a greater or lesser portion in an eventual deal). Still, he says, we should understand the tools at the disposal of the two sides in order to be able to participate in the struggle and not just be mere bystanders. The main point here is that while Israel is militarily more powerful, Iran is more powerful in its ability to infiltrate and cause social upheavals, the spectre of a lacerating sectarian war always lurking behind any discussion of Iranian influence.

Fandy has some choice remarks about media too, where he says Iran is the more influential. It has Manar (the Hizbullah TV channel in Lebanon) and a channel some call "Manar 2" referring to Al-Jazeera. And in newspapers, "it has [ostensibly Arab] dailies" that circulate in the capitals of the Mideast and Europe, but "we don't mention them by name", which he says is perhaps another sign of the Iranian influence.

And so we are back full circle to the McCarthyite smearing of any opposition as "Iranian".

Fandy concludes: And so in these respects (infiltration and media) clearly the Iranian threat is the more serious of the two.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

FYI, the issue of Iran and the islands is a real and longstanding grievance in Iranian-UAE relations. The islands in question are called Abu Musa and the Greater and Lesser Tunbs. You'll get a fairly biased Iranian perspective looking it up on Wikipedia.

4:40 PM  
Blogger badger said...


8:27 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It seems Fandy does not know how to spell Vali Nasr's name in Arabic let alone get their ideas right. I think he would like to be as important to King Abdallah as you say, but he is not.

8:36 PM  

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