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Rising Instability in the Middle East


Many analysts note that the United States has embarked on a vigorous diplomatic strategy of isolating Iran, as the Middle East's strategic balance has begun to tilt toward Teheran. They say a key part of the new diplomatic effort is building a regional anti-Iranian coalition, which would include Sunni Arab states and Israel. What are the difficulties of forming such an alliance in the volatile region?

During their recent joint visit to the Middle East, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates discussed new arms and military assistance deals with Arab allies. The two sought support for U.S. peace efforts in the region and reassured friendly Arab regimes, wary of Iran's growing influence in the area that America will stand with them.

The expected arm deals for Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates amount to about $20 billion. And Egypt has been promised $13 billion dollars of arms aid in a separate arrangement.

Middle East security analyst Richard Russell of the National Defense University, here in Washington, says the ten-year boost in U.S. military aid is designed to help friendly Middle Eastern states counter growing Iranian assertiveness in the region.

"What the U.S. is trying to do with the bolstering of arms sales and security cooperation in the Middle East is to make sure that those smaller Arab states, as well as Saudi Arabia and Egypt, continue to lean towards balancing Iranian power by looking to the United States as the pillar for security in the region. The smaller Gulf states are all uneasy about provoking Iran politically and publicly. But privately, they are all coming to the United States looking for ways to reassure or to bolster their security," says Russell. "They are looking for American demonstration of resolve and discipline in containing, what is widely perceived to be an Iranian threat among Arab Gulf states."

Russell says the United States believes Iran can be contained through a combination of deterrence and coalition building with moderate Arab states and Israel. He notes that although Saudi Arabia doesn't recognize Israel diplomatically, the two countries share common security interests in the region.

"The old adage, 'The enemy of my enemy is my friend,' certainly applies to the case of Saudi Arabia and Israel. Iran and Saudi Arabia are the two largest competitors for power in the Persian Gulf," says Russell. "The prospect of Iran having a nuclear weapon is one of the largest security challenges that Israel has ever faced for which they have no good answer. So if the Saudis are in a difficult position vis-à-vis Iran, so too are the Israelis. They have mutual vital security interests in seeing that Iran's power is contained and controlled in the Middle East."

Regional Concerns

Leading Sunni leaders like Jordan's King Abdullah talk about the dangers of a Shi'ite crescent encircling the core of the Middle East. Saudi Arabia has voiced its concern that Iraqi Shi'ites intend to ethnically cleanse Iraq of its Sunni minority population with Iranian backing. And many analysts note that Persian Gulf leaders fear that Iran seeks to gain greater influence through Shi'ite communities in their states. But political scientist Fawaz Gerges of New York's Lawrence College says Arab publics have a different view of Iran.

"If you talk to Arabs on the street they will tell you, 'It's all the fault of the United States. The United States is trying to incite its allies, particularly Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and Kuwait, in order to counterbalance Iran and maintain control over the region's resources.' They tend to be extremely suspicious of American foreign policy interests in Iraq, in the [Persian] Gulf, in Palestine, in Lebanon and other places as well," says Gerges. "And you have sizable Sunni communities in various countries who look to Iran as being the anti-colonial resistance power in the region today."

The Israeli-Palestinian Issue

Gerges says that a Sunni-Israeli alliance is unrealistic without progress on the Palestinian front. He adds that Sunni Arab leaders are uneasy about taking a step, which many in their societies deem contrary to Arab interests.

"The Arab states now are being seen as cronies and dependents of the United States of America. And this is not good for the pro-American Sunni elites because what has happened is that their own legitimacy has been undermined by the result of what's happening in Iraq and Palestine. In fact, the state system in the region is extremely vulnerable and there is tremendous anger and rage simmering under the surface in almost every single Middle Eastern state," says Gerges.

Some experts say growing tensions and instability in the region have affected the way Israelis view developments in the Middle East, as well. Political scientist Ian Lustick of the University of Pennsylvania visited Israel recently.

"Most Israelis have a sense, 'We just don't want to live in the Middle East anymore. We don't want it to be the Middle East. Were going to just build a wall or operate unilaterally' -- not try to even use force as used to be the case to convince Arabs to accept Israel by convincing them that Israel is here to stay and then negotiating," says Lustick. "What I'm seeing is an attempt to wall off Israel from the realities of the Middle East."

According to Lustick, many Israelis and Palestinians are losing hope that a two-state peace settlement is achievable after such a long period of violence between them and stalled diplomatic efforts to tackle the issue.

"That option is no longer as available as it was, not because specifically there is a wall because of the settlements, although that doesn't help, but because of the general polarization and the levels of hatred and impressions on both sides of the brutality of the other side," says Lustick.

The Middle East, most analysts agree, faces serious challenges, including militant Islam, sectarian tensions and Iran's ascendancy in the region. And they say because many of the issues are linked -- like Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict -- it will take time and skillful diplomacy on all sides to stabilize the region.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program,VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.

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