- The Washington Times - Friday, December 30, 2005

It is customary this time of year for some political analysts to go out on a limb and predict how U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East will be affected during the next 12 months. This year I thought it would be interesting to compare past predictions, before climbing back out on that frail limb.

(Predictions from 2003) Iraq: One safe prediction in this otherwise tumultuous and unstable region of the world is that Iraq will remain the major preoccupation for the Bush administration well into 2004. However, with military casualties in Iraq mounting daily, it should be no great revelation the Bush team will make a great effort to resolve that crisis.

The real danger for Iraq is that the United States will lose interest, declare a premature victory and get out, leaving the country in far greater chaos than it found it. If that were to occur, terrorism, and not oil could become Iraq’s major export.

(Predictions for 2006) The situation in Iraq remains precarious; U.S. deaths have surpassed 2,100, and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld just announced the reduction of about 7,000 U.S. troops in Iraq scheduled to begin in spring 2006. The United States will begin a gradual transition of power, handing responsibility for security back to Iraqis probably by the end of 2006 or mid-2007. Are we starting to lose interest?

(Predictions from 2003) Iran: Tension between the United States and Iran’s theocratic rulers will continue to rise 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 the subject of renewed attention from Washington, as the administration will continue to pressure Tehran to drop its nuclear program.

Although military intervention to unseat the ayatollahs in Tehran has most likely been discussed in Washington, that option remains somewhat unrealistic. Iran’s military is more powerful and far better structured and organized than Iraq’s under Saddam Hussein. Iran boasts a far larger army than Iraq ever did. The country is larger and consists of more rugged terrain than neighboring Iraq. Iran has a population of 68 million, as opposed to Iraq’s 24 million.

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

Whether Iran will pursue its nuclear ambitions, thus escalating the situation, or give in to international and U.S. pressures remain to be seen. It is clear, however, that both Israel and the United States are keeping a close eye on developments there. According to some observers, a repeat performance of the Osirak attack, when Israeli warplanes destroyed Iraq’s nuclear reactor in 1981, is not to be ruled out. Speaking on Israel radio’s Farsi language program in December (2003), Shaul Mofaz, Israel’s Iranian-born defense minister, promised to protect the environment from radioactive fallout were Israel to destroy Iran’s nuclear ability.

(Predictions for 2006) Not much to add regarding Iran other than to say that in the last two years the Islamic republic has most certainly made much headway in its nuclear program. Tensions will continue rising over the nuclear issue and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s repeated claims Israel should not exist.

(Predictions from 2003) Syria: Syria finds itself again under Washington’s political radar. The passing of the “Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act of 2003” meant to impose sanctions on Damascus as a means to force it to sever its ties with “terrorist organizations” and see the removal of Syrian forces from Lebanon, is only likely to raise the level of conflict in the area another notch.

(Predictions for 2006) As it turned out, it was sheer pressure from the Lebanese street that finally pushed the Syrians to remove their forces from Lebanon, though Washington, much like Paris, played a major role keeping the pressure on Damascus. U.S.-Syrian tensions have escalated since 2003, particularly following the assassination of Lebanon’s former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in February 2005 and other politicians and prominent journalists. Lebanese and American officials blame the killings on Damascus.

(Predictions from 2003) Israel/Palestinian Authority: Given the intricate nature of the Arab-Israeli dispute, predictions in this area have always been particularly difficult. But with the peace process stagnating, it is hard to see if the region will move away from this last year’s deadly cycle of attacks and counterattacks, regardless of who initiated the violence.

The “road map” — that ephemeral document that was to bring lasting peace to the region — turned out to be nothing more than lip service from the U.S. president to appease his British ally, Prime Minister Tony Blair, and ensure his support for the Iraq war. As predicted when it was first introduced, it led nowhere other than another Israeli-Palestinian dead end.

Unfortunately the Bush administration failed to realize stability in the Middle East is far more tied to the Israel-Palestine issue than Iraq ever was. Despite repeated cries of “wolf” over Saddam’s alleged weapons of mass destruction — which remain to be found — the continued situation in the Palestinian Territories fueled anti-U.S. sentiments in the Arab-Islamic world.

Even Israel’s former intelligence bosses — four heads of the Shabak, the country’s internal security agency (also known as Shin Beth) — acknowledged in an interview to Yedioth Ahronoth in November 2003 that the Israeli government’s attitude toward the Palestinians was unacceptable, and that barring a miracle, Israel is “heading for destruction.”

(Predictions for 2006) The death of Yasser Arafat in November 2004 allowed the more moderate Mahmoud Abbas to replace the longtime leader of the Palestinians, reopening the door to negotiations with Israel. However, elections in the PA have strengthened the Islamic Resistance Movement, better known by its Arabic acronym Hamas. As Israel refuses to negotiate with Hamas, one can predict yet another year of stagnation and lost opportunities in the Middle East.

Claude Salhani is international editor for United Press International.

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