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THE THUMPIN' AS SEEN FROM THE MIDDLE EAST
by Amir Taheri
Jerusalem Post
November 14, 2006

It may take months before the full impact of the mid-term elections on American foreign policy may be gauged. However, one thing is already certain: radical elements throughout the Middle East see the defeat of President George W Bush's Republican Party as a victory for themselves.

Designating the US election as "the beginning of the end for Bush," Ayatollah Imami Kashani told a Friday prayers congregation in Teheran that the Americans were learning the lesson the Israelis had been taught by last summer's war in Lebanon.

"Faced with the resistance of dedicated martyrdom-seekers, the Americans are heading for the exits," adds Ayatollah Mahmoud Khatami, a leading radical cleric.

Teheran decision-makers believe that the Democratic Party's victory will lift the pressure off the Islamic Republic with regard to its nuclear program.

"It is possible that the United States will behave in a wiser manner and will not pit itself against Iran," says Ali Larijani, Teheran's chief negotiator on the nuclear issue.

His view is echoed by academics with ties to the Supreme Guide Ali Khamenehi.

'THE DEMOCRATS will do their best to resolve Iran's nuclear issue through negotiations rather than resorting to threats, as Rumsfeld and neo-conservatives did," says Yadallah Islami, who teaches politics at Teheran University. "Bush will be forced to behave the way all US presidents have behaved since Richard Nixon; that is to say, get out of wars that the American people do not want to fight."

Nasser Hadian, another academic with ties to the Supreme Guide, goes further to welcome as positive developments both the Democratic Party's victory and the appointment of Robert Gates as the new US Secretary of Defense.

"With the return of a more realistic view of the world, the US will acknowledge the leading role that the Islamic Republic must play," he says. "There is no reason for our government to make any concessions on the nuclear issue."

Even the daily Kayhan, the most outspokenly anti-American publication in Iran, has welcomed the Democrats' victory. "The victory of the Democrats means the Bush administration will be forced to tread cautiously instead of waging war around the globe," Kayhan said in an editorial.

It claimed that Bush would be too distracted by the need to "fight the Democratic majority in the Congress" to think of confronting the revolutionary forces in the region.

ARAB RADICAL circles are even more hopeful that Bush's defeat will mark the start of a historic American withdrawal from the Middle East. Parallels are drawn between the American election and the 2004 general elections in Spain that, under the impact of the Madrid terrorist attacks, led to an unexpected change of government there.

There are three issues on which the radicals expect the United States's policies to change.

The first is Iraq.

Although the American election did not produce any clear picture of what the Democratic Party's policy might look like, the assumption in radical circles is that the US will cut and run.

Salafist groups linked to al-Qaida believe that an American cut-and-run will be accompanied by a stampede of those Iraqis who worked with them. The Iraqi Shi'ite leaders will flee to Iran, where most were in exile before the fall of Saddam Hussein, bringing about the collapse of the government in Baghdad. Kurdish political and business elites will flee to the three provinces they have held since 1991.

That will enable the Salafists, in alliance with the remnants of Saddam Hussein's Presidential Guard, to enter Baghdad and seize power.

WHAT IS absent in this calculation is the role that Iran might play. Will the mullahs sit back as Salafists and Saddamites chase away the Shi'ites and lay the foundations of a new Arab regime that would turn against Shi'ite-dominated Iran?

Radical Shi'ites have their own vision of Iraq after the Americans have fled. They believe that, backed by Iran, they would be able to move into the four Arab Sunni provinces that have been restive since 2004, and crush the Saddamites and al-Qaida in the "oriental way" - that is to say, with no regard for the Marquess of Queensberry rules.

What radical Shi'ite elements seem to ignore is that any Iranian intervention in Iraq is certain to provoke a massive Arab reaction, with Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and even Syria, currently an ally of Iran, forced to back Sunni Arabs in Iraq. In other words, any hasty American withdrawal from Iraq could lead to either a long and bloody civil war, or an even longer and bloodier regional conflict involving half-a-dozen nations.

THE SECOND issue on which radical circles in the Middle East expect a US policy change concerns Iran's nuclear program.

These circles are unanimous in their belief that Iran can now proceed with its program without fear of US and allied retaliation. The expectation is that the Democrats will revert to American policy under President Bill Clinton and seek a grand bargain with the Islamic Republic, acknowledging Iran as the major regional power and recognizing its right to acquire the full cycle of nuclear technology.

The perception that US policy will change in favor of Iran's ambitions has boosted President Ahmadinejad's fortunes in the crucial elections to be held next month. Ahmadinejad hopes to use Bush's defeat as justification for his own policy of "standing firm against the Great Satan."

Ahmadinejad hopes to see his faction win control of the Assembly of Experts, a body that can elect and dismiss the Supreme Guide, thus controlling all levers of power in Teheran.

However, even on the issue of Iran it is not certain that the expected American retreat would materialize or, if it did, would produce the results Teheran desires. There is no reason why Democrats in Congress should be less worried about a rogue state armed with nuclear weapons than were the vilified neocons who once surrounded President Bush.

Iran's entry into the nuclear club, even if not opposed by Washington, would provoke opposition in the region. Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and its Persian Gulf allies would be forced to seek nuclear weapons. And that could trigger an arms race the Islamic Republic might find hard to fight in terms of the burden it would put on its ailing economy.

THE THIRD issue concerns the Israel-Palestine conflict. Radical Islamists in both Iran and the Arab countries believe that the Democrats' victory indicates growing American lassitude regarding the issue. They believe that once it becomes clear that Americans do not want to fight for the Middle East, many in Israel will immigrate to the United Sates and Europe to escape the hardship of living under constant daily pressure from Islamist groups such as Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Hizbullah.

In visits to more than a dozen countries in the past few months, Ahmadinejad has been promoting his "one-state" formula with much vigor. He claims to have won the support of Syrian President Bashar Assad, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and Sudanese ruler General Hassan Bashir. Ahmadinejad believes that once it becomes clear that the US will not fight a war in support of Israel, most Arab states will rally to his "one-state" formula.

That would pave the way for a referendum in which both Palestinians, including those outside the region, would vote along with those Israelis who have chosen to stay to create a single state in which Jews and Arabs live together. The euphoria promoted about the "one-state" formula, however, may also prove problematic. There is evidence that a majority of Palestinians wish to have a state of their own as quickly as possible rather than being led into a quest for to a single Arab-Jewish state that might prove nothing but a chimera. Nor is there any reason why substantial numbers of Israelis would choose to flee, as Ahmadinejad expects, rather than remain and defend their country.

Also, most Arab states remain committed to the Bush road map, a fact underlined last week by Saudi Arabia's call for a new peace conference based on the two-state formula.

The mullahs and al-Qaida may soon find out that their celebration of "the end of Bush" was premature. The Democrats might have promised cut-and-run to win the election. But, once in power, they might realize to their horror that - this time - those from whom Americans run away will come after them.

There is one more fact the mullahs and al-Qaida should take into account. Their nemesis, the reviled Bush, will be around for another two years and unlikely to dance to their tune, even if the new Congress demands it.

And two years is a long time in politics.

 

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