Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

American power in Middle East tested

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TEL AVIV -- The nuclear conference that has concluded in Istanbul and the forthcoming meeting in Baghdad on May 24 are far more important than their declared goal -- preventing Iran from becoming a nuclear power.

The real purpose of the gatherings, from an American perspective, is how to maintain American hegemony in a region where new forces are emerging and are seeking a slice of the cake that was owned until now by the U.S.

The Israeli victory in the 1967 Six Day War led to a bipartisan American foreign policy that had two goals -- securing adequate oil supplies from the Persian Gulf at reasonable prices; and assuring the security of Israel.

There was, however, a third, undeclared, and possibly far more important goal preventing any regional power taking control of the Middle East.

There was a time when Egypt, under the presidency of Gamal Abdul Nasser, constituted such a threat. But Nasser died and with him died Egypt's regional ambitions.

One must admit the U.S. very much succeeded in this policy. During the Nixon years, Henry Kissinger managed to convince Nasser's successor, Anwar Sadat, to switch alliances from the Soviet Union to the U.S. Indeed, since the 1973 Yom Kippur war, the U.S. has been the only superpower in the Middle East.

The 1979 Khomeini Revolution in Iran was the first sign things are likely to change in the region.

Iran concluded an alliance with Syria, consolidated its Hezbollah base in Lebanon and established an ambivalent relationship with Shiite Iraq.

Through its nuclear ambitions and oil royalties, Iran sought to become the dominant power in the Persian Gulf region.

It's here where Iran clashed, for the first time, with the bipartisan American policy of preventing any regional power from becoming the dominant power in the Persian Gulf. In the eyes of many politicians and scholars, this "war" cannot end with a compromise. It must end with a clear American victory.

In the meantime, each side is using its cards the best it can. Syria was chosen as the preferred "battleground."

Here, however, the West appears to have suffered a defeat. Turkey, in particular, was humiliated by Bashar Assad. Despite its political support and the large economic investments, Syria preferred Iran over Turkey.

Turkey's eyes are now turned to the Persian Gulf proper. On Sunday, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan flew to Saudi Arabia for discussions with King Abdullah. The only subject was Syria.

Saudi Arabia and Qatar are smuggling light arms to the Syrian insurgents through Lebanon. This is becoming more difficult by the day. Saudi Arabia appears now ready to switch venues -- from Lebanon to Turkey.

This is an interesting development. During the Arab Spring in Egypt, Turkey tried to inject itself into Arab politics. But most Arab countries refused to involve non-Arab Turkey in Arab affairs. Is there is now a change in Saudi position?

Meanwhile, the Iranian drive continues in full force. This week, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad paid a surprise visit to Abu Mussa, one of the three islands Iran captured from the United Arab Emirates.

This was the first visit of an Iranian president to the island. At the end of the visit, Ahmadinejad announced "regular touristic trips" to the island.

Both the United Arab Emirates and Iran complained to the UN Security council. They also met Monday in Riyadh to discuss what can be done about this flagrant Iranian aggression. Apparently, not much.

Which brings us back to what was said above -- to the undeclared American bipartisan principle of not letting any regional power undercut American hegemony in the Persian Gulf.

Many in the region are asking: Will Obama rise to the challenge before or after the presidential elections? Or will he seek a compromise with Iran that would enhance Iranian position in the Persian Gulf?

Many in Israel and elsewhere believe if Obama opts for compromise, it would be a disaster for every country in the Middle East. I, for one, cannot see such a scenario developing.

Samuel Segev is the Winnipeg Free

Press Middle East correspondent.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 17, 2012 A10

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About Samuel Segev

Samuel Segev is the Winnipeg Free Press correspondent in the Middle East. He is based in Tel Aviv.

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