Aaron David Miller, former senior advisor on the Arab-Israeli conflict with the State Department, says he thinks the turmoil in the Middle East today is the product of four basic “trend lines.” First is the emergence of “non-state actors within non-states,” such as Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Shi’a and Sunni militia cultures in Iraq, and Hamas in Gaza. Second is the problem of Iran and its determination to become a regional superpower. Third is the emergence of Salafists, a “viciously radical anti-Western and anti-American strain” in Islam. And fourth is the failure of American policy in Iraq and Lebanon and on the Israeli-Palestinian front to “cope with these trends.”
Speaking on VOA News Now’s Encounter program, Dr. Ziad Asali, president of the American Task Force on Palestine, says he agrees with Aaron Miller’s assessment. And he adds one cannot isolate the assassination of Lebanese cabinet minister Pierre Gemayel from developments in Iraq, Iran, and Palestine. He suggests that the failure of U.S. policy is related to a “lack of comprehension of what makes the region tick” and an imposition of Western assumptions about the region. He notes that this latest political assassination is the 35th since Lebanon gained its independence in 1943, and all 6 victims in the past 2 years have been anti-Syrian. Mr. Miller suggests that Lebanon shows the “limits” of what a great power can do when it “meddles, somewhat unwisely, in the affairs of small tribes.” But he says he does not foresee civil war there, partly because Lebanon’s Christian community is not strong enough to mount an effective challenge to Hezbollah, and he predicts that both Iran and Syria will continue to play an important role.
Ziad Asali suggests that the emergence of Iran as a regional super power is directly related to the destruction of Iraq, combined with a friendly regime in Syria, Hezbollah, and Hamas. The most important decision Washington has to make, Dr. Asali says, is whether to deal with Iran through confrontation or through negotiation. Aaron Miller calls it a “paradox” that, in attempting to topple Saddam Hussein and eliminate the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction in the region, Washington has unintentionally accelerated the emergence of Iranian W-M-D’s and parties hostile to American interests. He suggests that Iran is an even “more dangerous rival” than Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. But he says the best way to deal with Tehran is unclear because of Iran’s internal political tensions. Mr. Miller believes that Washington and Tehran have mutually exclusive agendas on some core issues – whether Iran should be allowed to pursue its nuclear programs or to support non-state actors such as Hezbollah and Hamas. In Syria, he says, a weak and insecure leadership has allied itself with Iran.
Ziad Asali argues that the Syrian position in the region is weaker since the assassination of Pierre Gemayel and suggests that Damascus has lost the support of Saudi Arabia. Aaron Miller says this is clearly a “Shi’a decade” and it may even turn into a “Shi’a century,” and so he doubts the value of trying to coordinate a “Sunni response” to this phenomenon. But Dr. Asali thinks it unlikely the Sunni Arab states will be willing to concede hegemony to Iran in any foreseeable future. Furthermore, the threat posed by Iran provides a greater incentive for the United States, Israel, and the Palestinians to work together on a solution to the Palestine issue than at any time in the past.
Aaron Miller says he thinks that the U.S. administration should seize this opportunity to “transform the environment” that now exists between Israelis and Palestinians, which might enable its successor to facilitate negotiations that could lead to the emergence of a Palestinian state living in peace and security beside Israel.
For full audio of the program Encounter click here.