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Op-Ed: US Mid-East Withdrawal Opens Opportunities for Tehran

Sunni-Shiite sectarian battles across the Middle East may be diverting radical Islamic groups from attacking Israel - for now. And Tehran and the US are on the same side against al-Qaeda.
Published: Thursday, January 16, 2014 2:52 PM



According to jihadist websites, al Qaeda now controls territory that stretches more than 400 miles across the heart of the Middle East.
The Obama administration's misguided diplomatic policies of self-defeat helped create a geopolitical vacuum risking a spillover of growing sectarian violence across the Levant to the Arabian Peninsula and the Persian Gulf.

The resurgence of Al Qaeda affiliates in the current fighting in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon will be an unwelcome distraction for Team Obama as it sets about trying to simultaneously clinch a nuclear breakthrough with Iran and end the festering Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Israel and Saudi Arabia's furor over the unresolved nuclear saga and a potential thaw in relations between the US and Iran constitute a serious challenge to the existing status quo in the most complicated part of the world.  

Even as the US and Iran pursue negotiations on Tehran’s nuclear program, they find themselves on the same side of a range of regional issues surrounding an insurgency raging across the Middle East.

Therefore, the confluence of interest between Iran and the US to eradicate al-Qaeda raises questions about Tehran's future role in the region in contradistinction with Turkish, Israeli, and Arab interests. 

Israel and Saudi Arabia's long-standing security alliance with the US is the cornerstone of its national security strategy, but Obama's betrayal has forced a reassessment between the two arch-enemies' security strategies and alliances.

Arguably, an American withdrawal in the Middle East provides compelling opportunities for Tehran to fill the leadership and power vacuum in the volatile Middle East.

Arab nations may present Iran with a major challenge in any future competition for leadership in the region. However, Turkey's brand of Islamic democracy and its ‘zero problems’ regional policies  are more appealing than Iran’s militaristic theocracy.

Although Sunni Arabs and Shiite Iran jockey for hegemony, Israel is the wild card that may spoil the balance of power given the time and opportunity to do so.

Notwithstanding, Iran and Saudi Arabia's role in violent ethnic and sectarian conflict has led to proxy wars between the Islamic movements and Arab armies, further undermining President Barack Obama's substantial collusion with the Muslim Brotherhood.

The past year was marked by the collapse of political Islam. The Egyptian Army staged a coup which prevented the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood gradual takeover of Egypt towards a dark Islamic religious state.

Despite the Iranian-backed Syrian regime's use of chemical weapons against its own people, the al-Qaeda-linked insurgents' takeover of the rebel opposition prevented US military intervention- as we are led to believe.

According to a famous Islamic principle, an exploiting government is better than anarchy. President Bashar al Assad knew very well that the Americans would not help al-Qaeda rise to power in Syria due to the regional ramifications and especially those concerning Israel.

In Lebanon, the past year was a year of turbulence between Hezbollah and the Sunni jihad organizations.

Both in Iraq and in Syria, the Kurds are taking advantage of the instability in order to create an autonomic enclave in the northern part of the country. Similar to the situation in Lebanon, Iraq is on the verge of a civil war between Sunnis and Shiites.

The focus of al-Qaeda has always been regime change in the Arab world in order to install Taliban-style regimes. According to jihadist websites, al Qaeda now controls territory that stretches more than 400 miles across the heart of the Middle East.

Almost 8,000 civilians were killed in Iraq and as many as 130,000 people have been killed in Syria, where an insurgency linked to al-Qaeda has split rebel groups seeking to oust Assad.

Last month, the US quietly sent Hellfire missiles and surveillance drones to the Iraqi government to support their fight against increasing al-Qaeda-related violence.

The downside of the US providing logistics support to an embattled Shiite-dominated Iraqi government is in sharp contrast to Washington quietly withholding $1.3 billion in military aid the US sends to Egypt every year - tantamount to Shiite Iran wanting the US to help fund its proxy wars.

The US directly arming al-Qaeda and other radical Islamists through Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar to implement regime change across the Arab world is extremely shocking. 

In like manner, Hezbollah is increasingly engaged in the kinds of operations that have very little to do with “resisting” Israel.

Make no mistake about it. The Islamic republic of Iran is the root cause of all sectarian conflicts and certainly a great obstacle to peace between Israelis and Palestinians. 

Having said that, Iranians are not our enemies, but considering the values on which the Islamic Republic is based - the opportunistic and messianic regime makes peace and stability in the region an impossible goal.

Underscoring the shifting alliances in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia has granted the Lebanese army as much as  $3 billion to purchase weapons from France.

More troubling, the House of Saud recruiting Pakistan to train Saudi and radical extremists against the Syrian army could transform Iran's soft underbelly into a lawless al Qaeda haven.

After all, Saudi involvement in proxy conflicts in Syria and Lebanon does not advance its vital national interests, but does run the very real risk of threatening Israel.

This raises the prospect of diverted military aid being used against Israel in an attempt to regain the Golan Heights, Syrian territory lost as a result of the 1967 Israeli-Arab War. A crisis in US-Saudi relations and Israeli retaliation would perhaps be inevitable.

Menacingly, radical Sunni Islamist victories in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon could be a destabilizing force for the whole region, threatening the Jewish state.

Radical Sunnis detest Shiites, the Assad regime and their fellow Sunni opponents, leaving Israel as mostly a sideshow for the time being. Sunnis are also ready for a holy war against the Jews.

Sunni-Shiite battles across the Middle East may be diverting radical Islamic groups from attacking Israel.

The National Intelligence Council estimates that 'extremist violence would be directed outward, against Israeli, Western, or other targets. An Arab-Israeli settlement probably would be a "cold peace" akin to the current Egyptian-Israeli relationship'.

In strategic context, however, without a secure settlement to halt all enrichment and plutonium-related work at Tehran's nuclear sites; a hasty American collaboration with Iran is highly unpredictable and extremely dangerous to the  security of Israel and the West.

When looking at the 'modified' US foreign policy, the regional strategy built on experience in Iraq and Afghanistan is a balance of power: a Sunni versus Shiite and the Arabs against the Iranians.

The goal is not war, but a more self-reliant Saudi Arabia  and a reasonably strong and stable Iran regardless of its ideology. Saudi Arabia is not abandoned and the US is committed to the survival of Israel.

Regardless of what an unstable Middle East does for US security, "Peace through Strength" is the only  effective way to defend Israel; the other possibility, Peace with the Palestinians recognizing the State of Israel and living side by side in prosperity and security is just a pipe dream.

Former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon best exemplified his aspirations of peace: "I know that we are both inhabitants of this land, and although the state is Jewish, that does not mean that Arabs should not be full citizens in every sense of the word." However, that takes a recognition that the other side is loth to give.