The Middle East is poised at a unique moment in its long and often turbulent history. With the rapid changes in the security structure of the Middle East, all the regional powers are cautiously reassessing their political strengths and weaknesses and re-evaluating their perceptions of threats and challenges.
Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Iran and Israel are the main regional players and are all reshuffling their cards for different reasons. Israel is trying to maximize its profits from the changing security environment, Egypt is trying to preserve and enhance its role in Middle East affairs as the traditional leader of the Arab world. Saudi Arabia is exercising damage-control of the impact of the changing world around it, while Syria and Iran are trying to minimize losses and to gain international acceptance and reinstitution as important elements in any future regional security and stability arrangement.
Iran is a unique case among these players due to a number of internal and external factors. These factors are crucial and important in the game of pull and tug with its Arab neighbors, Israel and the US. Despite violent upheavals, a bloody war with Iraq, internal political tensions, power struggles among the ruling elite, and external threats and pressures Iran has managed not only to survive but also to maintain a considerable degree of political stability.
Contrary to prevailing misconception, Iran has an internal pluralistic and vibrant political and social dialogue, and a diverse and active civil society. A myriad of pragmatists, moderates, traditionalists, radicals and hardliners are all part of the internal discourse.
The major events that emerged after the end of bipolarity and the cold war have heightened Iran’s sense of danger and compounded its threat perceptions. The eight-year war with Iraq, a byproduct of US strategy of containment, the nuclearization of India and Pakistan, the occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq by the United States and its allies, the continuous pressures over Iran in the IAEA to strip it from any potential nuclear capability, the international tolerance and silence over Israel’s nuclear arsenal, the adoption of aggressive strategies of preemption are all elements that conspired to change the balance of power in the Middle East and heighten Iran’s sense of fear and danger.
Naturally, like any other nation under external threat, security and national pride override any demands for freedom, human rights and democracy. Even in the US people have accepted to curtail civil rights under the pretext of fighting terrorism. Fear is a powerful antidote to freedom.
These threat perceptions and dangers allowed the theocratic government and the Shi’ite hardliner clergy to consolidate their grip over the levers of power in Iran, and to tolerate a limited degree of political pluralism.
The alarming deterioration in security in Iraq as US forces find it difficult to cope has made Iraq a blessing and a curse at the same time to Iran. With the presence of the US, Iran is flanked from both sides by the forces of the only superpower in the world, a superpower that considers Iran a member of the "axis of evil". This is enough reason for any country to be gravely alarmed.
On the other hand, Iraq with its estimated 60 percent Shi’ite Muslim population with strong ties to the Iranian people could be the trump card for Iran to improve its status if it plays its hand smartly. Until now, Iran seems to be playing the cards with finesse and subtlety. Iran has, at least publicly, kept a distance, maintaining a wait-and-see approach, while covertly encouraging Iraqi Shi’ites to do the same until American intentions regarding the shape of Iraq’s political future become clearer.
The mounting resistance against the Americans has been coming, until now, from Iraqi Sunni Muslims who are finding it hard to let go of their historic hold on power in Iraq. This situation presents a serious dilemma to the Americans, as the ascent of Iraqi Shi’ites to power could create a power structure in Iraq that might adopt Iran’s theocratic example if the Americans mess things up.
It is obvious that this scenario, of two powerful neighboring Shi’ite states, is unacceptable to the US as it moves ahead with its plans to reshape the Middle East. It is also obvious from a security point of view that the US has no intention of allowing Iraq to rebuild its army, at least in the foreseeable future, or of really withdrawing. The US intends to maintain a strong military presence in the form of bases that would serve as deterrence and a subtle threat to any state in the region that should contemplate overstepping its role as perceived by the US.
Such a permanent US military presence would also serve another important goal. It would free the US from reliance on traditional allies in the Arab states and permit it to freely pursue its agenda of its Broader Middle East and North Africa initiative.
Arab-Iranian relations, meanwhile, can best be described as a love-hate relationship. Iran has a mixed record in terms of Gulf and Arab security. Although Iran no longer seeks to export its religious revolutionary model to neighboring and Arab states, many of its neighboring small states, particularly those with a partially Shi’ite population, feel threatened by the sheer size of Iran and its military might. With Iraq out of the game, American military presence is not only welcomed, but also perceived as a security necessity.
On the other hand, there is a sense of fraternity between the two peoples, Arabs and Iranians, as they share a common history and religion. They also see eye-to-eye on the oldest and most sensitive conflict in the region, namely the Arab-Israel conflict. Both are disillusioned by biased American policies toward Israel and the blind strategic alliance between Israel and the US, particularly under the present neo-conservative administration.
The issue of WMDs is also another common area of understanding, as they feel they are being singled out to prevent them from acquiring nuclear technology, even for peaceful use, while Israel is allowed to maintain the fifth most sophisticated nuclear arsenal in the world.
The only obvious winner of this regional political landscape is Israel, which did not hesitate to manipulate the war on terrorism to its advantage by drawing cynical comparisons between the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and the Palestinian struggle for freedom from occupation and quest for an independent state. To further its military superiority, conventionally and unconventionally, Israel is fueling the rhetoric against Iran’s nuclear program and its ties to terrorism, exploiting undercurrents of western Islamo-phobia and feeding fears in the Gulf over Iran’s conventional military power as a threat to Gulf stability.
The fact is that Iran now is a far less modern military power than it was under the Shah or during the Iran-Iraq war. Most of Iran’s military hardware is aging, second rate, and worn down, while it is being denied access to modern weaponry and technology to replace what it has. Iran’s weapons imports during 2000-2003 amounted to $500 million in comparison to $2 billion in the years 1996-1999. This level of import is only about 35 to 50 percent of what is required to modernize its forces.
The fears of Iranian military power have been exaggerated politically by the US and Israel to create demand in the smaller Gulf states for three things: an American military presence, new weapons, and a need for a regional security structure or arrangement that includes Israel and external powers, while keeping the balance of power totally in favor of Israel.
This imbalanced status-quo makes peace in the region totally dependant on Israel’s interests and good intentions rather than any systematic guarantees for military stability.