Sunday, December 17, 2006

The audience at the Arab World Strategy 2006 conference in Dubai suddenly parted like the Red Sea. Iran’s national security adviser and chief nuclear negotiator, Ali Larijani, strode through the throng of Gulf notables like a visiting head of state. But what Mr. Larijani had to say from the rostrum was not only unambiguous but frightening. His harsh message left nothing to the imagination. Some in the audience even suggested it sounded like an ultimatum from the Gulf’s dominant power.

The time has come to expel the U.S. military from the region, Mr. Larijani said. And after that, Gulf Arab states — the six Gulf Cooperation Council members — must form an alliance with Iran. Meanwhile, Iran is presumably accelerating its nuclear timetable.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad already sees himself the way the late shah did in the early 1970s; inter alia, the Gulf’s dominant power. Despotism tempered by assassination seems to be Iran’s magic potion.

Gulf statesmen — there are no women among them yet — say privately they are deeply concerned about the Iranian military buildup in the Gulf. They have spent scores of billions of dollars on defense since the 1973 oil embargo, but they also know they could not put up a credible defense without the United States. And this at a time when the U.S. is under great domestic pressure to cut its losses in Iraq where the Baker-Hamilton bipartisan commission of 10 notables now concedes Iran is the dominant power, more influential than the United States.

Mr. Larijani’s offline corridor conversations with an American journalist and a visiting Harvard professor exuded charm and reasonableness. If the Americans set a timetable for leaving Iraq and Washington then opted for a new strategy of interdependence that recognized Iran’s primacy in the region, then Iran would, for starters, help stabilize Iraq as well as its other neighbor Afghanistan. Presumably, this would not be one of the cherries Mr. Bush decides to pick from the 79 recommendations made by Baker-Hamilton.

It would also prove indigestible. Mr. Bush’s neocon supporters would see this as another Munich. A prominent neocon columnist, speaking privately at one of Washington’s pre-Christmas bashes, said, “We should bomb their nukes before they nuke Israel.”

With Bob Gates ensconced at the Pentagon, the military option against Iran’s facilities, while still on Mr. Bush’s table, seems highly unlikely. The neocons call the commission’s 160-page report a recipe for a U.S. surrender to its self-avowed enemies. They still have one of the president’s ears through Elliott Abrams, deputy assistant to the president and Deputy National Security Adviser for Democracy Strategy. The other ear is now listening more attentively to President Bush 41’s perennial wisemen headed by James A. Baker III and Brent Scowcroft, who tried but failed to stop the invasion of Iraq. So more plausible now is what Time described as the biggest U-turn of the president’s political life.

Iran is making clear to friend and foe it could no longer be contained. Even Lee Hamilton was saying Iran has more influence in Iraq than the U.S. It is, he said to a worldwide audience as the commission’s report was unveiled, “a grave and deteriorating situation,” which has cost the U.S. taxpayer so far the staggering sum of $400 billion. Which could even rise to over $1 trillion, according to Mr. Hamilton.

Iraq already has an Iran-leaning Shi’ite government. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki called for a regional conference with Iraq’s neighbors, but rejected U.N. chief Kofi Annan’s idea that it be held outside Iraq. Iraqi ministers are frequent fliers to Tehran. Iran’s Revolutionary Guards are also frequent fliers to Iraq where they supervise, fund and equip two powerful Shi’ite militias — the Badr Brigade and the Mahdi Army, which Mr. al-Maliki says he would like to disarm, but is powerless to do so.

Mahdi Army chief Muqtada al-Sadr, who holds 30 swing votes and hates America, got consigliere Nasar al-Rubaie to collect signatures in parliament for a petition that calls on Mr. al-Maliki to draft a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. forces. He got 115 to sign on out of 275 parliamentarians, not quite a majority.

Syria, the connecting conveyor belt for Iranian missiles and rockets to Hezbollah, is also on the commission’s roster of bad guys the U.S. must talk to. Hezbollah, meanwhile, has paralyzed Beirut with up to half a million antigovernment demonstrators who are demanding a larger share of government power. The pro-Western government is totally isolated by Hezbollah and there is much speculation about a resumption of a 15-year civil war that ended in 1990 with neither victor nor vanquished.

Syria could conceivably be weaned away with a deal with Israel that would return the Golan Heights to Syrian control. But the multiple traumas of the evacuation of Gaza only to be shelled in return, the election victory of Hamas that refuses to recognize Israel, and more recently the 34-day war with Hezbollah which ended in a Mexican standoff, have left Israel in a pessimistic mood about the future. Not exactly conducive to more territorial concessions in occupied Palestinian lands.

Yet the Baker-Hamilton Commission made clear U.S. goals would remain elusive until the U.S. uses diplomatic heft to deliver what Mr. Bush pledged would be “a viable and contiguous Palestinian state.” On a scale of 1 to 10, that’s a 2.

Arnaud de Borchgrave is editor at large of The Washington Times and of United Press International.

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