Captain Ahab and the Islamic Whale

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Kaveh L. Afrasiabi 

This is a splendid example of what is fundamentally wrong with US foreign policy, like a giant whale self-stranding in a maze of contradictions yet breathing as if exuding fresh air. Washington's Captain Ahab, in the garb of President George W Bush, setting foot in the Middle East, holds the olive branch of Middle East peace in one hand and the Damocles sword of Iran-bashing in the other, a twin agenda in complete disharmony. It's no way to catch Moby Dick. [1]

Bush left Washington on Wednesday on a tour to Israel, Palestine, Kuwait, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

Lest we forget, in the aftermath of the Middle East peace summit in Annapolis in the US last November, when the White House announced Bush's plan to tour the region, the initial accent was purely on the peace process. Yet, somehow, that has increasingly branched off in the anti-Iran direction, irrespective of the conciliatory statement of Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, with respect to the possibility of future US-Iran rapprochement.

Thus, in a careful pre-travel media stage setting, in addition to leaking a Pentagon plan for the invasion of Iran via Iraq, named "The Big Right Turn", Washington orchestrated a flurry of activities aimed at conveying the impression of "mounting tensions with Iran", which convenienced Israel's get-tough approach with regard to the Palestinians.

Then came the "incident" on Sunday between the US Navy and Iranian speed boats at the strategic Strait of Hormouz, confirmed by the Iranians, who at the same time painted it as a "normal" occurrence between the two sides, nailing the Iran focus of Bush's trip.

Consequently, if the White House has its way, Bush's Middle East trip will yield a gainful harvest in terms of coalition-building against the "Iran threat" that, per the latest interview of US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice with the Jerusalem Post, represents "the single greatest threat to the kind of Middle East we would like to see". There is, without doubt, a great perception gap between the US's and Israel's dream of a compliant "greater Middle East" and the assertive, self-reliant Middle East favored by Iran and her allies. The latter increasingly includes some of the US's own allies, such as Egypt, which is on the verge of normalizing relations with Tehran and, simultaneously, slammed by the US on the eve of Bush's departure to the region.

However, this is not a zero-sum game, and this is precisely what is wrong with the US's current anti-Iran drive that has to some extent overshadowed the Middle East process. That is, the US's inability to map a different strategy, one that is not anchored in the murky water of ingrained hostility, institutionalized since the early years of the Bill Clinton administration. A hundred fibers connect the two sides together, a new closeness that warrants even risk-taking.

Filling a major void in the post-Cold War milieu, the "rogue" Iran plays a vital role for the US's military-industrial complex that thrives on lucrative arms sales to the conservative oil sheikhs of the Persian Gulf, ostensibly threatened by the "hegemonic" and nuclear ambitious Iran.

But, whereas the capitalist logic of arms sales dictates heating up the furnace of Iran-bashing, on the other hand, certain geopolitical realities, eg, in Iraq and Afghanistan, spell out a diametrically different logic of action. This is reflected in the bilateral US-Iran dialogue on Iraq's security; a fourth round of talks has been put on hold because of Bush's trip and his stern anti-Iran agenda. This includes pressuring Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)states such as the UAE to curtail their financial transactions with Iran, in tandem with US-led sanctions on the regime over its nuclear program.

While it remains to be seen if the UAE and other GCC states will appease the lame-duck president, who may be wishing a final grand adventure before he leaves office, what is already clear, and disturbing, is the White House's persistent failure to impose even a modicum of pressure on Israel. Talking peace and acting war against Palestinians, Israel's contradictory approach has augmented the US's image problem in the Middle East. And, short of any major concession to the Palestinians, that approach is likely to receive a major boost from Washington now that Bush has set foot in Israel.

As a result, Bush's Middle East trip risks being a major foreign-policy disappointment for the Arab world fixing its glare at the delayed peace initiative of a US president who has pulverized an Arab nation and who is widely regarded in Israel as the "friendliest US president in history". Unlike his father, former president George Herbert Bush, who followed his military gambit in Kuwait in 1991 with the Madrid peace talks and strong-arming the Israelis by threatening to cut off US aid, George W Bush has until now lacked a "balancing approach". This is reflected in the minutest lack of criticism of Israel's relentless expansion of Jewish settlements on Palestinian lands. What is more, any minor improvement is likely to be regarded as a necessary adjustment to push the engine of "containing Iran" and its band of "rogue" allies in the region.

Yet, if Bush were sincere in his pursuit of a peaceful Middle East, a good beginning would be his echoing the United Nations' call on Israel to furnish the whereabouts of some 1 million unexploded bomblets that Israel scattered over south Lebanon in the waning days of its summer assault on Lebanon two years ago. Since then, more Lebanese, many of them children, have been killed or maimed by these bombs than during that month-long war.

Alas, the big wrong turn on Iran is in essence embedded in a larger wrong turn and twist of the US's overall approach toward the Middle East that is cemented by an "Israel first" priority almost to the exclusion of all other considerations. And, at this critical juncture, that simply means missing yet another window of opportunity to set relations with Iran on the right foot. Indeed, this Ahab's Middle East ambitions are dulled by self-made myths, for example, "Islamofascism", predestined to if not complete failure, complete muddling through; the path to his fixed purpose is laid with iron twists, smelling like the right wing of the day of judgment. His curtain about to fall and yet plotting more drama, will anyone survive the wreck? Will Bush's legacy survive him or will it be, as Melville put it, "... and his whole captive form folded in the flag of Ahab, went down with his ship". He may not be dismasted by the Islamic whale, yet like his neo-conservative friends, he may spit his last breath at them.

1. "All that most maddens and torments; all that stirs up the lees of things; all truth with malice in it; all that cracks the sinews and cakes the brain; all the subtle demonisms of life and thought; all evil, to crazy Ahab, were visibly personified, and made practically assailable, in Moby Dick. He piled upon the whale's white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down; and then, as if his chest had been a mortar, he burst his hot heart's shell upon it." - Moby Dick, Herman Melville

Kaveh L Afrasiabi, PhD, is the author of After Khomeini: New Directions in Iran's Foreign Policy (Westview Press) and co-author of "Negotiating Iran's Nuclear Populism", Brown Journal of World Affairs, Volume XII, Issue 2, Summer 2005, with Mustafa Kibaroglu. He also wrote "Keeping Iran's nuclear potential latent", Harvard International Review, and is author of Iran's Nuclear Program: Debating Facts Versus Fiction.


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