- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 30, 2003

As the new year gets ready to unfold, it’s time to dust off the proverbial crystal ball to try to predict what the next 12 months might hold for U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East.

Terrorism: The war on terrorism will continue to occupy the United States and its allies in 2004 as al Qaeda and its affiliates expand their destructive franchise.

Using Iraq as a staging ground, Islamist jihadis will attempt to carry out more devastating attacks, such as the twin bombings that shook Istanbul in November.

They also will try to make greater headway into the oil-rich Persian Gulf states in their efforts to destabilize the monarchies, particularly in Saudi Arabia.

As al Qaeda leader, Osama bin Laden’s ultimate aim is to remove the House of Saud, which he sees as corrupt, and replace it with a strict Islamic theocracy. His vision is to establish the beginning of an Islamic caliphate, which he sees expanding across the Arab world into the Muslim former Soviet republics of Central Asia and eventually into Europe.

Iraq: One safe prediction in this otherwise tumultuous and unstable region is that Iraq will remain the major preoccupation for the Bush administration well into 2004. With presidential elections in November, the Bush administration would like to see a smooth year ahead.

With military casualties in Iraq mounting almost daily, the Bush team will place great effort toward resolving that crisis. The great fear for the president’s advisers is that he will become the second President Bush to lose a second term, despite the capture this month of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, which by November will be old news.

Saddam’s trial, however, which is expected to start in the spring after the establishment of an Iraqi government, should keep his capture on the front pages of the world’s newspapers.

A danger for Iraq is that the United States will lose interest, declare a premature victory and exit, leaving the country in far greater chaos than before the war. If that occurs, terrorism and not oil could become Iraq’s major export.

Iran: Tension between the United States and Iran’s theocratic rulers will continue to rise over the nuclear question. Placed by Mr. Bush in “the axis of evil” along with Saddam’s regime and North Korea, Iran is the subject of renewed attention from Washington, and the administration will continue to pressure Tehran to drop its nuclear program.

Although military intervention to unseat the ayatollahs in Tehran most likely has been discussed in Washington, that option remains unrealistic. Iran’s military is more powerful and far better structured and organized than Iraq’s was under Saddam.

The CIA’s 2003 estimates show that Iran boasts more that 12 million people fit for military service, compared with Iraq’s 3.5 million. The country is larger and consists of more rugged terrain than neighboring Iraq. Iran has a population of 68 million, compared with Iraq’s 24 million.

“It is terribly important not to plunge headlong into the tempting notion that America will unilaterally take pre-emptive action on suspicion that a country possesses weapons of mass destruction, which is what the doctrine right now amounts to,” Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Carter’s national security adviser, wrote in the International Herald Tribune on Nov. 14.

Although they have ruled out the military option, some of Mr. Bush’s advisers are advocating a tougher stance toward the Islamic republic and are pushing for stronger support for the opposition.

Whether Iran will continue with its nuclear program, thus escalating tensions, or give in to international and U.S. pressures remains to be seen. What is clear, however, is that both Israel and the United States are keeping a close eye on developments there.

Some observers say a repeat performance of the Osirak attack, when Israeli warplanes destroyed Iraq’s nuclear reactor in 1981, is not to be dismissed if Iran persists with its nuclear ambitions.

Speaking on Israel radio’s Farsi-language program in December, Shaul Mofaz, Israel’s Iranian-born defense minister, promised to protect the environment from radioactive fallout if Israel was to destroy Iran’s nuclear ability.

Syria: Syria finds itself on Washington’s political radar again. The passing of the “Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act of 2003” is likely to raise the level of conflict in the area another notch.

Designed to impose sanctions on Damascus as a means of forcing it to sever its ties with “terrorist organizations” and remove Syrian forces from Lebanon, this bill most likely will fail on both counts, unless the solution is connected to solving the 50-year-old Arab-Israeli dispute.

Israel/Palestinian Authority: Given the intricate nature of the Arab-Israeli dispute, predictions in this area have been particularly difficult to make.

With the peace process stagnating, it is hard to see whether the region will move away from the deadly cycle of attacks and counterattacks of this past year, regardless of who initiated the violence.

The “road map”— the U.S.-backed plan to bring about a lasting peace to the region — has stalled. As predicted when it was introduced, it led nowhere other than to another dead end in Israeli-Palestinian relations.

Israel’s former intelligence bosses — four heads of the Shabak, the country’s internal security agency — said in an interview to Yedioth Ahronoth in November that the Israeli government’s attitude toward the Palestinians was unacceptable and that barring a miracle, Israel was “heading for destruction.”

Efforts by Israel and the Bush administration to sideline Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat and render him “irrelevant” proved unproductive.

The move was criticized by Avraham Shalom, a former head of the Israeli security agency Shabak, who said, “This was the mother of all mistakes regarding Arafat. … The fact is that without him nothing moves.”

If any lessons can be learned from the mistakes of this past year, it is that chances of engaging the peace process were missed. Whether the new year will bring new opportunities is a question as difficult to answer as the political process itself in the Middle East.

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