In the absence of U.S. leadership, others want to direct the Middle East. The battle is becoming a competition of radicals to run the region. That’s what happened in the 1950s and 1960s and it isn’t good. Then, the competition was between Egypt, Syria, and Iraq. Today, the contestants are Turkey, Iran, and a radical Egypt, with Iraq and Syria sidelined due to internal issues. Meanwhile, the Saudis have been forced to take over leadership of the remaining moderate Arab states (the Gulf sheikdoms, plus Morocco and Jordan) since they can no longer depend on America for protection.
The Egyptian foreign minister has warned Iran not to try to intervene too much in the Gulf, posing as protector of Saudi Arabia and the smaller states. This is a hint that Egypt wants to resume its pre-Sadat role as leader of the Arab world. Cairo will see itself as protector of the Muslim, Sunni, and Arab world against Persian, Shia Muslim Iran; Turkish Turkey; and Jewish Israel. With Iraq turned inward and Syria turned upside down, Egypt is the only remaining Arab state that can make a play for region-wide power.
That Egypt wants to stop Iranian expansion is a good thing, but that the next government — a radical, possibly Islamist one, will have its own ambitions isn’t. I predict that Egypt and Iran will tussle over who will be the patron of Hamas and that Egypt will win. It also seems likely that a radical, Islamist-influenced Egypt would be supportive of the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria and Jordan, too.
The Saudis are also reaching out. Their leadership of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) in sending troops to Bahrain and tightening the security links among the members is another sign that they aren’t depending on the United States anymore. Equally impressive is the GCC’s invitation to Jordan to join, a total break with past policy. This is a good thing since the Jordanians need help (particularly money) to stay stable and fend off Iranian influence and a Muslim Brotherhood takeover.
Iran’s ambitions are well-known but the statement of parliament speaker Ali Larijani (generally regarded as a “moderate” on the Islamic republic’s political spectrum) is still an escalation. He said that Tehran will “protect” Muslim states from U.S. and Israeli aggression. Clearly, this doesn’t include Libya, where the Iranians hope that the United States and NATO will overthrow dictator Muammar Qadhafi and open the way for a radical Islamist dictatorship.
Of course, Iranian protection implies that regime’s hands around the neck of other countries. The regime now has Lebanon as a satellite, tremendous influence in Iraq and parts of Afghanistan, patronage over Hamas, and an alliance with Turkey and Syria. That’s a pretty good situation. And once it has nuclear weapons, the Iranian regime believes it can do whatever it wants and nobody will complain too much.
Then there’s Turkey. It is foolish and certainly outdated to see Turkey as somehow on the “West’s” side against Iran. First, Turkey is allied with Iran to a large extent. Second, if and when the two countries differ it is about how to carve up others. Kemal Ataturk’s wise injunction — the equivalent of George Washington’s avoiding “foreign entanglements” — of “peace at home, peace abroad” is being thrown on the garbage heap with all of his other hard-earned wisdom.