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The Daily Star - November 4, 2013

by Rami G. Khouri

Observing the Middle East from the United States, where I have spent the last month, has been fascinating, because historic changes are occurring in some relationships between these two regions. This includes evolving American ties with the five key strategic players in the region: Saudi Arabia, Israel, Iran, Turkey and Egypt. The most important changes are taking place in the triangular relationship among the United Sates and each of Israel, Iran and Saudi Arabia. Three simultaneous things are occurring here that are intriguing, but their permanent implications remain unclear because events are in their early days.

The first is the United States’ resumption of direct and serious talks with Iran in a more positive atmosphere that seeks to end the dispute over Iran’s nuclear capabilities while also addressing Iranian concerns about American policy toward Iran. Should the negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 powers succeed, as I expect, this could mark a revolutionary new era when Iran would slowly resume normal ties with global powers and reshape its relations within the Middle East. This in turn could have major implications for Saudi Arabian and Gulf Cooperation Council policies, as well as conditions in Syria and Iraq, and the status of Hezbollah and Lebanon.

Washington’s evolving perceptions of Iran reflect the second change, which is a rare case of the U.S. pursuing policies in the Middle East that are not fully in line with Israeli fears or wishes. Israel and its influential American mouthpieces in Washington have lobbied overtime in recent months to prevent a U.S.-Iranian dialogue or serious negotiations that could lead to a rapprochement. They have failed to date in this. Washington has tried to placate Israeli concerns with the rhetoric that Israel expects to hear from its friends in the U.S., but President Barack Obama has ignored Israeli exhortations and moved ahead sharply to negotiate with Iran. We can expect major consequences from a U.S. foreign policy that is shaped by U.S. national interests, rather than by Israeli dictates, fears and manipulations.

The third significant development is the public criticism of the United States’ Middle East policy by the Saudi Arabian government, which is concerned about changes in Washington’s policies in Syria, Iran and Egypt, among others. This unusual public airing of Saudi concerns and strong, open criticism of the United States does not emerge from a vacuum, however, but rather naturally follow one of the important changes that have been triggered by the Arab uprisings – the changed diplomatic and political behavior of Saudi Arabia and its GCC partners. These conservative monarchies have been frightened by the uprisings’ displays of popular sovereignty and inclinations toward constitutional democracies, and also by the U.S.’ apparent willingness to recognize elected Islamist governments. For a change, Saudi Arabia and GCC states are acting like normal countries – sending their troops abroad to Libya and Bahrain, engaging in open civil wars in other countries, pushing back against regional and global powers, and engaging in public power politics to reconfigure regional orders.

The other two relationships that are in some flux – with Turkey and Egypt – reflect the emergence of stronger, more self-confident governments in those two large and important regional players that are themselves reacting and adjusting to changing regional conditions. All five of these countries with whom Washington is experiencing turbulence or changing in relations are the five key actors whose balances of power one day will shape a new security architecture in the region.

The new developments in the three most critical bilateral relationships with Iran, Israel and Saudi Arabia are still in their early stages and could move in very different directions. For now, they indicate that some long-standing American policies may be changing, as the U.S. is forced to react to changes in the region that it did not initiate (the Arab uprisings, the election of Rouhani, the expansion of Salafist militants in Iraq and Syria, the army-popular coup against the elected government in Egypt). The United States also seems to be re-evaluating some of its long-standing policies and perhaps dropping ones that hurt American national interests, like boycotting Iran or being slavishly pro-Israeli. Middle Eastern regional powers also are showing their need to loosen their close and often dependent ties with the U.S., in order to play a more independent role in the new regional geo-strategic power structure that will emerge in the years ahead.

Some of these evolving relations with key Middle Eastern players may signal a weakening of American power and influence in the region, while others may lead to new forms of American influence that rely more on soft power than on military threats, wars and sanctions. In both the intra-regional dynamics among these five major countries and in their respective bilateral relations with the United States, we are witnessing a resumption of history, after half a century of abnormal conditions and frozen regional power politics.

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