Friday, May 28, 2010

The Middle East in May 2010: An Assessment

By Professor Barry Rubin

Why am I writing so much about U.S. policy and less about developments within the region itself lately? Because in a real sense not that much is happening right now in the region. A colleague remarked to me today that the world's political weather is set by the U.S. president. This seems very true right now.

Recently, there was a bit of a war scare regarding the Israel-Lebanon border. Yet there was never any chance of a shooting conflict. Syria and Hizballah don't want one at present. They are too busy taking over Lebanon and are holding their fire for the possibility in future of an Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear facilities.

There's also a lot of noise about Israel-Palestinian Authority indirect negotiations. But nothing is happening or going to happen there either. The closer you get to the two sides--and the further from the discussion in the Western media and capitals--the more obvious is that reality.

Regarding Israeli politics, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's coalition is solid. The Kadima-led opposition is very quiet and not making any strong points. Netanyahu's government is going to continue for quite a while.

Nor have there been any big changes in the internal stability of Arabic-speaking countries, though we are all waiting for the coming transition in Egypt. Turkey's regime continues to march it in the direction of greater Islamism, though the outside world seems to take little notice. Lebanon's "progress" in the direction of Syria-Iran control is clearer. And it is now clear that the Iranian regime has defeated the opposition for the forseeable future, which probably means a bundle of years.

At the moment, then, the main battle is being fought over the region's head, so to speak, regarding Iran's nuclear program. That involves U.S. policy and the question of sanctions. The foundation for the future--and it might be a very weak one--is being laid down in these maneuvers. For the failure to establish strong sanctions indicates that it is unlikely U.S. policy will be able to build a strong containment strategy in the era when Iran does have these weapons.

If you've been following my writings, you understand that doesn't mean Tehran will fire off nuclear-armed missiles, just that Tehran will try to gain hegemony in the Middle East. It won't succeed but it will make progress in that direction.

In the longer term, I'm reaching two conclusions. First, we should be devoting our research to what the region would look like when Iran has nuclear weapons. Second, I don't believe that Israel is going to attack Iran, and my conclusion is that this is a correct decision. I'll be talking more about these points in the coming days.
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