x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Viable Iraq would prove Arabs can influence events

The net effect of America removing Iraq from the strategic equation has made Israel the only regional counterweight to a resurgent Iran. This has put the Arab states in a position of weakness from which they have yet to recover.

Two weeks after WikiLeaks started releasing a flood of secret US diplomatic cables, it is now possible to draw some conclusions about what these documents say about the Middle East.

The Israelis are crowing: the data dump has focused attention on Iran and given them the opportunity to deliver the death blow to the moribund peace talks with the Palestinians. The Turkish government is angry at what it sees as American slander of prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan for his policy of engaging Iran.

As for the Arab states, they are embarrassed that their concerns about Iran's rising power, long held but mentioned only discreetly, are blazoned over the world's front pages. Washington, the world's only superpower, emerges as a blinded giant, stumbling around in circles.

Seen with an American eye, the Arab countries seem to be in a great sulk, unhappy at the way the world is turning to their disadvantage but unsure how to change it. Egypt is a "stubborn and recalcitrant ally", according to Margaret Scobey, the US ambassador in Cairo.

Tunisia, once Washington's poster boy for stability and economic progress, is a "police state" run by a "sclerotic regime" which the US has to support only to stop the country becoming a base for al Qa'eda.

From the US diplomatic traffic concerning the Middle East, one harsh fact emerges. In this region there are only four countries which enjoy freedom of action - that is, they are able to set foreign policy goals and use the powers of the state openly to achieve them. These are the United States, Israel, Iran and Turkey.

None of them, of course, is Arab. In fact, from the Atlantic to the Gulf the US sees a great diplomatic desert where states, for all their mineral wealth and human resources, count for little in the concert of nations.

Hossam Eitani, writing in Al Hayat newspaper, has concluded that "the Arab world, and its peoples, regimes and causes, are absent from the American radar". American strategy in the region, he says, is based on containing Iran, which is trying to extend into "the Arab vacuum".

So how did the 350 million Arabs disappear into "a vacuum" into which Iran, Turkey and Israel stride with confidence?

It was not always thus. In the 1950s and 1960s President Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt set the regional agenda. Nasser may have made some terrible errors, but there was no doubting that he enjoyed the freedom of action to make them.

Nasser was trying to undo the work of France, which created a confessional state in Lebanon, and Britain, which created a Jewish national home in Palestine.

Now we can see the Arab world becoming more Lebanon-ised by the day. Lebanon has long been the sandpit where regional powers play out their rivalries, each backing a different minority. Other countries are falling into the same trap.

The Palestinians, already divided up by the Israelis into a dozen categories according to religion (Muslim, Christian or Druze), culture (Bedouin or settled), or residence (citizen, living under occupation or stateless refugee), are now further factionalised by outside influence into Hamas and Fatah.

Iraq has gone the same way since the US swept away the Saddam Hussein dictatorship, its future contested by political factions based on religious or ethnic identities, all sponsored by allies abroad. Yemen seems to be the next domino to fall.

One reason is that Arab countries from Tunisia to Egypt to Saudi Arabia have succession issues that they need to resolve. But of far greater import is Iraq's collapse into civil war, and now political impasse, which has put the Arabs at a strategic disadvantage.

It is not often mentioned, but the net effect of America removing Iraq from the strategic equation has made Israel the only regional counterweight to a resurgent Iran, which seems determined to become a nuclear power. This has put the Arab states in a position of weakness from which they have yet to recover. The Arab states did not ask the US to upset the regional balance in favour of Iran. Since the Americans broke the balance of power, it is up to them to fix it.

Far from being a strong citadel of Arabism, as the Baathists used to say, Iraq is now a frontier territory, contested between Shia Iran to the east and the Sunni states to the west.

That contest is still going on. But one of the WikiLeaks cables casts a more positive light on Iraq than the general gloom from the region. Writing a year ago, the then-US ambassador to Iraq, Christopher Hill, went to great lengths to point out that Iraq was not about to fall like a ripe plum into the hands of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.

"Iran's influence in Iraq should not be overestimated. As the GOI [government of Iraq] continues to gain its footing, points of divergence between Tehran and Baghdad become increasingly evident on such sensitive bilateral issues as water, hydrocarbons, maritime borders, and political parity," he wrote.

Prominent Iraqi leaders, including those with close ties to Iran such as the prime minister, Nouri al Maliki, "are increasingly sensitive to being labelled Iranian lackeys".

Since the elections last March, Iraq looks like it has broken the record for length of time to form a government, so Mr Hill's comments should be taken with a pinch of salt. But still, he is surely right that Iraq is not fated to lose its independence to Iran, provided the US and the Arab states work together.

After all the chaos since the US-British invasion of Iraq in 2003, the formation of a viable Iraqi government would prove that the Arab world has not lost its ability to influence events. On the best projections, it could mark the revival of state power in the Arab world after a lost decade. But we are still some way from that.