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More problems for the U.S. in West Asia

Atul Aneja

Containing Iran's influence in the region has become America's priority.


CHANGING EQUATIONS: An elderly woman passes a bullet-riddled building and a poster of Hizbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah in the southern city of Aita Al-Shaab, Lebanon, on October 13. Aita Al-Shaab was heavily bombed by Israeli forces during the recent war with Hizbollah fighters.

AS WEST Asia's political landscape mutates further in the wake of the American occupation of Iraq, and, more recently, after Israel's debacle in Lebanon, Washington has begun to reach out to its old Arab allies for assistance.

United States Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice recently concluded a visit to the region, with stops in Jeddah, Cairo, the West Bank, Jerusalem, and Baghdad. The purpose of her visit was evident — to restore American influence in the region where Iran's political profile has been growing rapidly.

Now, American naval presence in the Gulf is being bolstered. The American aircraft carrier, Eisenhower, will play a leading role in naval exercises slated to begin on October 31. Britain, France, and Canada are among the others participating in the manoeuvres. For the first time, two Gulf countries with significant Shia populations — Bahrain and Kuwait — will also participate in the exercises.

After the 34-day Israel-Hizbollah war, the decline in American influence in the region has become tangible. Israel, Washington's main ally, is still shell-shocked.

The Americans could also be losing influence in Lebanon, Israel's northern neighbour. This is because Hizbollah, a Shia-dominated organisation, has threatened to unravel the March 14 forces, and has challenged the leadership of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora and his pro-American government in Beirut.

But flush with the recent military success, Hizbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has challenged Lebanon's current leadership, and, has called for a new "national unity" government.

Behind Hizbollah's success, the U.S. perceives the strong hand of Iran. Containment of Iranian influence on Israel's doorstep has therefore become a top U.S. priority. Apart from Lebanon, Washington sees Israel being pressured along its southern flank as well. This is because the Palestinian landscape has been changing rapidly in recent months. The footprints of Syria, Hizbollah, and Iran in the Palestinian territories, especially Gaza, have increased. The rising influence of Hamas embodies this trend. The power struggle in the Palestinian territories, where Hamas has been challenging the Fatah faction of Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, has intensified, resulting in gunfights between the two high-profile groups.

Led by Iran and supported by Syria and Hizbollah, a formidable combination has therefore emerged in West Asia, challenging the status quo. Aware of this, Ms. Rice's mission was to cobble together an anti-Iran Arab alliance. It was here that the Americans attempted to play the Sunni-Shia card. Wary of the rise of the Shias — a process that began in 1979 with the Islamic revolution in Iran — powerful sections among the Arab elite have been hoping to counter this trend.

Not surprisingly, Ms. Rice has tried to establish a platform where key Sunni players in the region were present. In Cairo, she met Foreign Ministers of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, Oman, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates along with the envoys from Jordan and Egypt. The Iranians have not missed the basic thrust of what has been described as the "six plus two" conference. The Iranian daily Tehran Times noted: "In the meeting [in Cairo], [Ms.] Rice tried to build an Arab coalition against Iran's peaceful nuclear activities."

Despite the exertions, the new U.S. initiative is unlikely to gather broad Arab support. A clearer perception has now emerged about the dangers of tagging along with the Americans following their war in Iraq. It is widely anticipated that a confrontation with Iran would compound these problems, as Tehran's core Shia supporters in the Gulf countries could activate to generate a new wave of domestic unrest.

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