Saturday, December 15, 2007

So Condi, how's that "moderate" Arab, anti-Iran alliance shaping up?

If you know a little, but not a lot, about the Middle East at the moment, you know the Sunni hate the Shia and the Shia hate the Sunni.

If you know a little more than that, but still not a lot, you might be able to identify which regimes are Shia and which are Sunni.

Those people with that little amount of knowledge are probably the ones who'll tell you that the "moderate" Sunni Arab regimes ("moderate" means close to Washington) are asking the US to help them defend themselves against Iran. That, we’re told, is the scenario in the Middle East at the moment.

Here’s an example.

Early last week the normally understated, soft-spoken US Defence Secretary Robert Gates made some uncharacteristically bellicose statements about Iran. Iran, he said, should remember that "imperial Germany, imperial Japan, Nazi Germany, fascist Italy, the Soviet Union - all made this fatal miscalculation [of misunderestimating the US]. All paid the price. All are on the ash heap of history".

Recall that it was Gates that apparently led the efforts to push through the publication of the recent National Intelligence Estimate which said that Iran had no nuclear weapons programme after all, thus undercutting the warmongering of Vice-President Cheney and his allies. Plainly this public debacle made the US look weak; afraid of the consequences of a war with Iran (which Gates and more intelligent imperialists certainly are). This will never do. Gates’ fiery outburst was probably his way of overcompensating for any perception of weakness that might result from his leading the US retreat.

Gary Samore of the US Council on Foreign Relations has his own interpretation. For him, Gates' rhetoric was intended to reassure Washington's "moderate" Sunni allies. "The Gulf states are insecure and resentful but they are in a very weak position" Samore explained. "Gates had to reassure them that the US was not giving up on Iran after the NIE."

This is very much of a piece with the standard political correctness. The US is not seeking to dominate a continent on the other side of the planet from Washington for reasons as grubby as its own power and strategic advantage. No, Washington’s actions are defensive. It is defending its allies, defending its “national interests” or whatever. Well trained intellectuals, journalists and commentators have internalised this script to the extent that the merest idea of US power being aggressive – of the intrinsically aggressive nature of imposing our will on others – is, literally, unthinkable.

So if the “moderates” want us to defend them from the extremists, if in the backward Muslim world the Sunnis and Shia are gripped by an implacable, interminable blood feud which only the good offices of the civilised West can possibly control, how do the likes of Samore and others explain this photo?

It doesn’t get more Shia and “extremist” than the cartoon bogeyman of Western liberals Mahmoud Ahmadinajad, and it doesn’t get more Sunni and “moderate” than King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia (you can forget for a moment that “moderate” Saudi Arabia somehow succeeds in being even more tyrannical than Ahmadinajad’s Iran - western liberals certainly have). And yet, here they are, holding hands. Abdullah doesn’t look very “insecure and resentful” to me. He looks so relaxed and confortable you’d think Ahmedinejad was George Bush.

Ahmadinejad was meeting with leaders of the (“moderate” Sunni) Gulf Cooperation Council; the first Iranian President ever to do so. He came offering free trade deals and a regional security pact. His hosts praised his “gestures of goodwill”, saying they wanted to “develop our relations for the sake of regional stability”.

Hang on. Doesn’t “regional stability” involve lining up with Washington to isolate Iran? How does developing relations fit in to that? How isolated is Iran going to feel when it develops relations with a regional block that wields twice the investment clout of China?

And what’s this? The BBC now reports that "Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will this week become the first sitting president of the Islamic republic to perform the pilgrimage to Mecca, his office said."

"It follows a formal invitation from King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, seat of the Islamic holy places and a long-time regional rival of revolutionary Iran."

"An official said the invitation was an important event in Saudi-Iranian ties."

""It is the first time in the history of relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia that the king of this country invites a president of the Islamic republic to make the pilgrimage to Mecca," said presidential aide Ali Akbar Javanfekr."

Whatever script Gary Samore’s been reading, someone obviously forgot to email it to the colonies.

So what does all this tell us? Well, lesson one is that US claims to be performing a species of altruistic missionary work in the Middle East, protecting its “moderate” friends from the Iranian bogeyman, is a self-serving spin on what are strictly imperialistic machinations serving narrow self-interest. Lesson two: these small states that most commentators couldn’t find on a map have their own interests that are defined by their own realities, not the whims of Washington. Lesson three is that, increasingly, Washington is losing its power to bring these states into line.

And if there’s a lesson four, its that an interpretation of events that is useful to power can become an established truth even when it bears no relation whatsoever to the facts.

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