- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 31, 2003

As the new year nears, it’s time to dust off the proverbial crystal ball and try to predict the future — in this case, the next 12 months — for U.S. Middle East policy.

• Terrorism: The war on terrorism will continue occupying the United States and its allies in 2004 as al Qaeda and affiliates expand their destructive efforts. With Iraq as a staging ground, Islamist jihadis will attempt more devastating attacks like the two bombings that shook Istanbul last month.

They intensify efforts in the oil-rich Persian Gulf states to destabilize the monarchies, particularly in Saudi Arabia. Al Qaeda head Osama bin Laden’s ultimate aim, after all, is to replace the House of Saud, which he sees as corrupt, with a strict Islamic theocracy. His vision is of an Islamic Caliphate, to expand 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 coming next in November, the Bush administration would like this year to be smooth, with as few hiccups as possible, particularly closer to the election.

However, as military casualties in Iraq mount daily, it should be no great surprise that the Bush team will exert great effort toward resolving that crisis. The great fear for President George W. Bush’s advisers is continuation of the current trend could make the president the second President Bush to serve a single term in the White House — despite the capture of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein early this month, which by next November will be old news.

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

Yet a real danger for Iraq is that the United States will lose interest, declare a premature victory and leave the country in far greater chaos than they found it. If that happens, terrorism, rather than oil, could become Iraq’s major export.

• Iran: Tension between the United States and Iran’s theocratic rulers will continue rising over the nuclear question in the coming year. Originally placed by Mr. Bush in “the axis of evil” along with Iraq and North Korea, Iran now is getting renewed attention from Washington, as the administration continues pressuring Tehran to drop its nuclear program.

Although military intervention to unseat the ayatollahs in Tehran has probably been discussed in Washington, that option remains rather unrealistic. Iran’s military is more powerful and far-better structured and organized than Iraq’s under Saddam. CIA estimates of this year are that Iran has more than 20 million troops, compared to Iraq’s 6.4 million. The country is larger, with more rugged terrain, than neighboring Iraq. Iran has 68 million people, 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,” wrote Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Carter’s national security adviser, in the International Herald Tribune on Nov. 14.

While ruling out the military option, some of Mr. Bush’s advisers advocate a tougher stance vis-a-vis the Islamic Republic and stronger support of the Iranian opposition.

It remains to be seen if Iran will pursue its nuclear ambitions and continue its nuclear program, thus escalating the situation, or give in to international and U.S. pressures. But It is clear Israel and the U.S. are closely watching developments there.

Some observers say if Iran’s nuclear ambitions persist, not to rule out a repeat of the 1981 Osirak attack — when Israeli warplanes destroyed Iraq’s nuclear reactor. On Israel Radio’s Farsi language program this month, Shaul Mofaz, Israel’s Iranian-born defense minister, vowed to protect against radioactive fallout if Israel destroys Iran’s nuclear ability.

• Syria finds itself again on Washington’s political radar. The passing of the “Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act of 2003” providing sanctions on Damascus to force severance of its ties with “terrorist organizations” and removal of Syrian forces from Lebanon, is likely only to raise area conflict a notch. In reality, the bill will most likely fail on both counts, unless the solution is tied to an overall resolution of the Middle East crisis — i.e.: solving the 50-year-old Arab-Israeli dispute.

c Israel/Palestinian Authority: Given the intricate nature of the Arab-Israeli dispute, predictions about it have always been particularly difficult to make.

But with the peace process stagnating, it is hard to see how the region will move away from 2003’s deadly cycle of attacks and counterattacks, no matter who initiated the violence.

The “road map” — that ephemeral document that was to bring about a lasting regional peace — turned out to be nothing but lip service from the U.S. president to appease his British ally, Prime Minister Tony Blair and ensure Mr. Blair’s support in the Iraq war. As initially predicted, it led only to another dead end in Israeli-Palestinian relations.

Unfortunately, the Bush administration failed to realize stability in the Middle East is far more tied to the Israel-Palestine issue than it ever was to Iraq. Despite repeated cries of “wolf” over Saddam’s alleged but undiscovered weapons of mass destruction, the continued situation in the Palestinian Territories fuels anti-Americanism in the Arab-Islamic world.

Even four former heads of Shabak, Israel’s internal security agency, acknowledged 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 is “heading for destruction.”

Continued efforts by Israel and the Bush administration have failed to sideline Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat and render him “irrelevant.” The marginalization move was criticized by Avraham Shalom, a former Shabak chief, who said: “We are not going to decide who is relevant and who is not. This was the mother of all mistakes regarding Arafat. … The fact is that without him nothing moves.”

Indeed, if there are any lessons from the mistakes of this year, it is that chances were missed to engage the peace process. Will we be any smarter and avoid missing future opportunities? The answer remains as obscured by dark clouds as the political process in the Middle East.

Claude Salhani is international editor for United Press International.

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