The United States is using authoritarian Arab leaders, who fear that Iran could export its revolutionary political model to their disgruntled populations and are concerned about Washington’s reprisal against them à la Saddam Hussein in Iraq, as a buffer between the Iran-backed Hezbollah and Israel, Washington’s protégé in the Middle East, analysts here say.
"Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan fear the momentum behind Iran’s regional ambitions, which largely explains their surprisingly public criticism of Hezbollah, and by implication Iran," said George Perkovich, vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, referring to how the three nations sided with their former arch-enemy Israel in its attacks against Lebanon.
"The anti-Israel declamations of Iranian President Ahmadinejad and Iran’s continued support of actors that refuse to recognize Israel’s existence has paradoxically elevated Iran’s standing in the Arab street and alarmed Sunni Arab rulers who have either recognized Israel or moved toward it," Perkovich added.
Longtime rulers in Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Egypt have all met their toughest internal opposition from Islamist political groups, like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the Islamic Action Front in Jordan.
Some of these groups have even taken up arms against the ruling regimes, as is the case with al-Qaeda in Saudi Arabia and al-Jihad in Egypt. The regimes, with U.S. backing, have been fighting these movements for years and are concerned that such groups could draw inspiration if Hezbollah comes out stronger from its current confrontation with Israel.
"Hezbollah is also an Islamist movement with ties to similar organizations in other Arab countries. Both the Egyptian and Jordanian governments have grown fearful of the rise of Islamist movements after the Muslim Brotherhood’s electoral gains in Egypt and Hamas’ election victory in Palestine," said Amr Hamzawy of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
"Their strategic interest in containing Hezbollah, and for that matter Hamas, feeds on the ongoing domestic conflict with the Muslim Brotherhood and the Islamic Action Front, respectively."
Those motives coincide perfectly with Washington’s aim, and that of Israel, to disarm Hezbollah and push it north of the Israel-Lebanon border.
This is the mission for the visit by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to Rome on Wednesday, where a core group of international players that includes Arab states will meet to chart the future of the region in the wake of the ongoing Israeli attacks on Lebanon.
Rice’s visit has the declared purpose of creating "a new Middle East" where the Lebanese armed group Hezbollah no longer has potency in its confrontations with Israel and where the Arab governments will play a central role.
Analysts here agree that the basic theory that Secretary Rice is taking to the Middle East, where she arrived Sunday, is to get Arab regimes that are hugely unpopular with those they rule to work as guard dogs on the Israeli borders against rocket attacks from deeply rooted organizations like Hezbollah in Lebanon or the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas) in the Palestinian territories.
Rice’s job, says Juan Williams, a senior correspondent with National Public Radio (NPR), "is to get the Arab states to act as a buffer between Hezbollah and the Lebanese government and Israel and the United States."
And the Arab regimes are already on it.
The White House received Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal and Prince Bandar bin Sultan, chief of the Saudi National Security Council, over the weekend, while Egypt’s intelligence chief Omar Suliman and Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul Gheit had met earlier with Rice and President George W. Bush’s National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley.
The first target of U.S. instructions to the Arab regime appears to be Syria.
Explaining the U.S. tactics, Paul Gigot, the conservative editor of the Wall Street Journal‘s editorial page, said: "They’re working on Egypt and Saudi Arabia to try to pressure Syria to stop arming Hezbollah the most important thing is to give Israel the time it needs to really make progress against Hezbollah, and I think that is the opening, and I think they’re now taking it."
Washington has ostracized Damascus over the past two years and withdrawn its ambassador, leaving U.S.-backed Arab rulers like Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz of Saudi Arabia as the main channel to take the message to Syrian President Bashar Assad.
"[The administration] is trying to say to Syria your interests are better served in the Sunni Arab camp and the camp that’s pretty much on our side than with the Iranians," Mara Liasson, the national political correspondent for NPR, told Fox News Sunday.
"I do know that the United States is clearly looking to Syria, not Iran, as the target of diplomacy here. Syria is the weaker power, and while they don’t provide the hundreds of millions of dollars a year that Iran does to support Hezbollah, they are the conduit for all the weapons that come from Iran into Lebanon and to Hezbollah," she said.
The second step prescribed for the Arab regimes is to give both political and military backing for the secularist anti-Syrian and anti-Hezbollah government of Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora.
Joshua Bolten, White House chief of staff, said on Sunday that Rice’s mission to the region is to "empower the Lebanese government" and to rally the Lebanon Core Group, which includes the Washington-backed Arab trio Jordan, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia, in helping the Lebanese government "control its own territory" and stand between Israel and Hezbollah.
The plan is to create an international force that may include Arab elements to help the Lebanese government and its feeble army replace Hezbollah as guards for Israel’s northern borders.
"I think the strategy for the U.S. is to try to put together, with our allies, Arab and around the world, an international force that would go into southern Lebanon, as Israeli combat operations cease, accompany the Lebanese army into the south and provide, finally, a strong buffer," said David Ignatius, a columnist with the Washington Post.
"That’s a very, very difficult proposition. But that’s what we’re trying to do."