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America’s new Middle East ‘mini-Nato’

S ource: UK Guardian

Barack Obama put a positive spin on this month’s announcement confirming all American troops would leave Iraq by year’s end. But there is no disguising Washington’s anxiety about the future direction of events both there and in neighbouring Syria. Nor is it possible any longer to avoid the conclusion that while the US fought the Iraq war, it was Iran that won it. Hence Pentagon plans, disclosed this week, for big new military deployments in the Gulf region.

Obama’s failure to secure Iraqi agreement to a continuing US military presence after 31 December has attracted sharp criticism from Republican presidential hopefuls. Businessman Herman Cain and Texas governor Rick Perry both accused Obama at the weekend of squandering eight years of costly effort. Neither man explained how, if he were president, he would keep troops in Iraq against Baghdad’s wishes. On the other hand, the worries they expressed about a power vacuum and post-withdrawal conflict in Iraq are widely shared in the region.

Defence department proposals to significantly increase its forces based in Kuwait, and to raise the US navy’s profile in the Gulf, can be viewed in this context of ongoing instability in Iraq. Two bomb attacks in a Shia area of Baghdad that killed or wounded more than 100 people last week were a nasty reminder that sectarian tensions that led the country to the brink of civil war in 2005-7 still simmer.

Nouri al-Maliki, who leads Iraq’s Shia-dominated coalition government and is sometimes criticised as a divisive figure, is pursuing what looks to many like a deliberate purge of Sunni politicians, former army officers and community leaders. Maliki said at the weekend that 615 people had been arrested on suspicion of ties to the banned Ba’ath party of former president Saddam Hussein.

“The recent arrests, which were carried out by the security forces and were based on information and evidence, were aimed at those who threaten state security and state stability,” Maliki said. Opponents link the mass roundup to a controversial autonomy bid mounted by the largely Sunni province of Salahuddin, which wants a measure of Kurdish-style independence from Baghdad. “The Ba’ath party aims to use Salahuddin as a safe haven for Ba’athists,” Maliki claimed.

Exactly what the Pentagon might do with its expanded Kuwait and Gulf-based forces, should Iraq implode again at some future date or become destabilised by the unrest in Syria, is unclear. A second invasion would not command much public support, to put it mildly. If, on the other hand, the new American deployments are primarily about containing, intimidating or potentially attacking Iran, the emerging picture becomes more comprehensible, although not more reassuring.

Maliki and his government maintain strong lines of communication to Tehran. The prime minister has spoken out in support of Iran’s suspect nuclear programme. And he shares Iran’s dual aim of keeping President Bashar al-Assad in power in Syria while keeping its Sunni population at bay. While Saudi Arabia, Egypt and other Arab states have distanced themselves from Assad, Iraq, egged on by Iran, has sought in recent months to strengthen political and trade ties with the Damascus regime.

Iran’s influence in Iraq and Syria, wielded directly and indirectly through powerful proxies such as the hardline Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, may be expected to grow in the wake of the US pullout. This will not only encourage Assad to hang on; it is also likely to increase tensions between Iran and neighbouring, pro-western Gulf Co-operation Council states.

Hence the third pillar of the Pentagon’s evolving strategy, as disclosed by the New York Times: a plan to develop new “security architecture” that would potentially conjoin Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the UAE and Oman with the US in a sort of Middle East “mini-Nato”. Just as Nato was created to counter the Soviet threat, so this new grouping’s main aim in life would be to push back against Iran.

Specifically, it is suggested the Gulf allies would integrate air and naval patrols and missile defences. Arming all of them with compatible, US-made weapons systems would neatly serve an additional purpose: boosting American arms sales while lessening the impact of coming Pentagon budget cuts. Above all else, such a development would help compensate for the de facto loss of Iraq and reassure Israel, among others, that Iran will not be allowed free rein.

Iran appears to have no doubts the US moves are aimed at Tehran. Speaking during a visit to Baghdad today, the Iranian foreign minister Ali Akbar Salehi said the plans to expand America’s military presence in other Middle East countries showed a “deficit, unfortunately, in rationality and prudence”.

The Arab spring has distracted attention from Iran. This deceptive lull is unlikely to continue into 2012, especially as the countdown to next November’s US presidential election proceeds. Recent reports suggest Iran is still actively seeking to develop a nuclear weapons capability, apparently undeterred by technical problems and sabotage. Tehran’s alleged involvement in a plot to kill the Saudi ambassador to Washington has ratcheted up bilateral tensions. Some of the toughest international sanctions ever imposed have not so far fundamentally altered the regime’s behaviour.

Israel will not stand back indefinitely in the face of what it sees as an existential threat, and could yet try to force an electorally vulnerable Obama’s hand. Nobody in Washington is talking about an October surprise, mainly because October just finished. But October, 2012 may be a month to watch.

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