Was it coincidence that Barack Obama scheduled his speech to Muslims last week on the eve of two closely fought regional elections – in Lebanon last Sunday and Iran this Friday? Now the “pro-western” coalition has won a narrow victory in Lebanon, some of the US president’s supporters are suggesting his timing was indeed calculated.
If so, it was disingenuous. Under Lebanon’s complex constitution the seats reserved for Sunnis and Shias were fixed, and Sunday’s result turned on the way Christians rather than Muslims voted. A majority showed their disappointment and anger with the senior Christian politician, General Michel Aoun, who aligned himself with the Shias. After the usual weeks of negotiation Lebanon is likely to continue with a national unity government, and the real task for Obama is not to discourage the victorious Sunni-Druze-Christian alliance from inviting the Shias, and in particular Hezbollah, into their cabinet.
The challenge goes beyond Lebanon. Has Obama changed US policy in the region towards one of inclusion rather than the divide-and-rule strategy of his predecessors, Democratic and Republican? George Bush tried hard to exacerbate Sunni/Shia suspicions, using them to increase Arab/Iranian ones. He named Iran in his “axis of evil” and played on the domestic insecurities of conservative Sunni leaders in Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia by building up an image of an allegedly expansionist Iran.
Obama is too smart to try directly to influence Iran’s election, especially as President Ahmadinejad’s strongest opponent, Mir Hossein Mousavi, is already being branded a US agent by the entourage of Iran’s supreme leader. Any expression from Washington of hope in Mousavi would certainly backfire. Debate in Tehran over dialogue with the US is more intense than it is in Washington where a consensus for trying to normalise relations now seems firmly established. In his Cairo speech Obama offered Iran talks “without preconditions”. His apology for the US role (helped by Britain) in toppling the democratically elected Mossadeq government in 1953 was a big step forward.
Mousavi is the candidate who most favours dialogue with the US, and he appears to be galvanising the more modern sectors of Iranian society, in part by his forthright attacks on Ahmadinejad for undermining Iran’s international prestige with his Holocaust denials and wild language. But Iranian presidential voting usually goes to a second round, and a Mousavi victory on Friday does not guarantee his election.
The Obama speech contained other important nuances. Although he listed the usual points that Hamas must accept in the context of peace, he did not make them preconditions for US contacts. If this means an end to the boycott of Hamas officials, and of Hamas ministers if a united Palestinian government emerges, this would be significant. Obama also deplored Sunni-Shia tensions across the region. He devoted only one sentence to the point, but this too is an important shift.
Short of helping to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict, the biggest contribution Obama could make to Middle Eastern peace would be to end the unfounded perception of an Iranian threat. Iran was built up by Washington and London to become policeman of the Gulf during the shah’s time. Since his overthrow the Islamic republic has projected much less military power in the region; and in the 1980s Iran was the victim of Arab/Iraqi aggression. In subsequent decades it has attempted to gain influence largely through the conventional routes of diplomacy, trade and investment.
Certainly, it is easy to stimulate anti-Iranian prejudice, not least in today’s Iraq where Sunni suspicions are, sadly, intense now the country is led by Shias with close links to Tehran. Al-Qaida-inspired Sunni/Shia bloodletting in Iraq in 2006 and 2007 has left a deep legacy of bitterness. But there are countervailing tendencies in the region. Qatar hosted Ahmadinejad in January for a pro-Hamas summit that was also attended by Oman. Many Arab Sunnis find Saudi-sponsored Wahhabism with its lavish funds for mosque-building and fundamentalist propaganda more menacing than Shi’ism.
The region’s central issue is the conflict over an Israeli-Palestinian modus vivendi, and the real reasons why Iran has been demonised in Washington are linked to that. One is that Iran leads an “axis of resistance” to Israel’s refusal to go back to its 1967 borders – and works with (Sunni) Hamas, (Shia) Hezbollah, and (bit of both) Syria to confront it. The other is that post-shah Iran is independent. From Cuba to Venezuela and Belarus to China, Washington has always been reluctant to deal evenly with countries that reject its embrace. In Cairo Obama spoke much of “mutual respect”. The test is to show he means it.
Hamas and Hezbollah officials have often indicated that resistance will end once a two-state solution, the principle of refugees’ right to return, and shared control over Jerusalem are agreed. The so-called threat from Iran depends intimately on the threat from Israel. Talk of an expansionist Iran is propaganda compared with the historical reality of a demonstrably expansionist Israel.
Can Obama break the mould of decades? His vice-president, Joe Biden, recently hinted that US subsidies to Lebanon would be undermined if the opposition had won Sunday’s poll. What of US subsidies to a government in Israel that openly opposes US policy – are they sacrosanct?