When Mideast Rogues Misjudge Their Powerful Friends: Noe & Raad

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By Nicholas Noe & Walid Raad

Embattled allies Iran and Syria count for backing on their powerful friends Russia and China. Some Arab commentators say their overconfidence in this support has lead them to overplay their hands.

Just before Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao visited Saudi Arabia and several other Gulf states last weekend, columnist Hasan Haidar,  writing in the London-based, Saudi-owned newspaper Al-Hayat, argued that Iran -- which has threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz, the passageway for about a fifth of the world's oil trade -- may be traveling the same road to isolation once confidently taken by Iraq under Saddam Hussein. He wrote that Saddam's ill-fated 1990 decision to invade Kuwait emerged from his belief that Iraq could fill the void in the Mideast created by the collapse of the Soviet Union. Similarly, Haidar said, Iran's leaders think they can fill the vacuum caused by the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq. Thus, they are “moving voluntarily to commit blunders of the same caliber” as Saddam's. Haidar asked:

Has their confidence in their power reached the extent of making them ignore not only the Arab countries and the West but also those whom they still consider 'friends,' like Turkey, Russia and China, who have an interest in the freedom of navigation in the Gulf and in its petroleum, which they cannot expose to risk?

Haidar concluded that alienating these formerly supportive, now rising actors is “foolhardy blindness” that will eventually trigger the same opposition from both East and West that Saddam provoked.

Wen’s visit to the Gulf prompted columnist Rajeh al-Khoury of the Lebanese daily An-Nahar to write approvingly that the premier was finally staking out a direct, moderating role for China. This move, he wrote, was based on fears of a new war “that will threaten the region and the international economy and harm China, which is largely dependent on Gulf oil.”

The billions of dollars in hydrocarbon-related projects announced during Wen’s visit were read by some in the region as an attempt by China to lessen its dependency on Iranian oil. Khoury wrote that China has firmly signaled it “will be playing a positive role in restraining Iranian escalation.” This might not amount to supporting additional United Nations sanctions against Iran anytime soon, Khoury said, but China’s role as a friend of Iran with interests planted clearly on both sides of the Persian Gulf might be more effective.

Columnist Huda al-Husseini of Asharq al-Awsat, which is also London-based and Saudi-owned, thinks China may go so far as agreeing to tighter UN sanctions. And the Iranians aren't happy about it. She wrote: Tehran “fears Beijing’s policies are two-sided. China is using its influence to reduce the pressure mounted on Iran in order to protect its interests there, but it will eventually submit to the Security Council's resolutions in order not to provoke other members.”

Husseini wrote that the Chinese are aggressively leveraging their pivotal role to demand better terms on Iranian oil. This reinforces the Iranian view that China’s support is based almost exclusively on economic considerations, which could be met by Iran's oil-rich enemies on the Arabian peninsula.

As for Syria, while Russia and China have both resisted UN action against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, their coordination “has not reached the extent of an alliance,” wrote columnist Youssef al-Kuweilit of the Saudi-based paper Al-Riyadh. Thus, he said, it should not be overstated as an all-powerful, immoveable opposition to more coordinated pressure on Syria.

Neither Russia nor China, wrote Kuweilit, can tolerate the unrest in Syria spinning out of control; already as many as 6,000 Syrians are believed to have been killed since anti-regime protests began last March. China's interests in the West are “ten-fold greater than its interest in agreements with Russia.” As a result, China will avoid a fierce conflict with the West, “and it might even stand in the middle" if the situation heats up, Kuweilit argued.

Russia and China, he wrote, "realize the need to tone down the threats because slipping into war, even a limited one, implies a disaster." Therefore, Kuweilit predicted, “all the maneuvers taking place will not reach the extent of armed conflict." They are instead, he argued, a prelude to eventual negotiations.

When it comes to Syria at least, the London-based Al-Quds al-Arabi strenuously disagreed.

In an editorial titled “Russia Is Determined To Prevent Al-Assad's Downfall,” the daily asserted that with the anchoring of Russian warships in the Syrian port of Tartous, the provision of arms to Syria and clear statements that it views intervention in either Syria or Iran as a “red line,” Russia has “woken up from its deep slumber and started to return to the region in force to protect its interests.”

Celebrating this muscle flexing, the paper wrote:

The time for the U.S. to be the sole influence in the Middle East and for regime-change wars using blockades or military interventions is on its way out.

Scarcely mentioned in this particular debate, however, was that the greatest force for change, including regime change, in the region over the past year was not the U.S., Russia, China or any other external force but rather the long repressed citizens of the Middle East. And apparently they still see a lot more that needs to change, whether the big powers like it or not.

(Nicholas Noe and Walid Raad are the Beirut correspondents for the World View blog. The opinions expressed are their own.)

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Lisa Beyer at lbeyer3@bloomberg.net or +1-212-205-0372.


-0- Jan/19/2012 20:30 GMT