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Iran: the time to deal with the periphery has passed

For more than a year the United States and its allies have courted various nations on the periphery of Iran, in the hope of isolating it and thus motivating it to change its course. Events show that this strategy is not working. Indeed, more and more nations believe that the U.S. is "folding" in the Middle East. In Iraq, the U.S. is obviously on its way out. Many assume that it will give up on Afghanistan long before it is stabilized, and that the U.S. will be unable to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear arms. Moreover, the U.S is viewed as militarily overstretched and exhausted, economically challenged, and its allies as unable or unwilling to pick up the slack. In short, American power in the region is declining rapidly and substantially.

At the same time, Iran, it is widely assumed, will continue to suppress its dissenters at home, will weather whatever sanctions are imposed on it, is developing nuclear arms, and has the political will and resources to expand its influence in the Middle East. As a result we see that several nations in the region are moving toward improving their relationships with Iran and are drifting away from the West, despite intensive efforts by the U.S. and its allies to court them.

The clearest case in point is Syria, which the U.S. actively courted in the hope of peeling it off from its close relationship with Iran. The U.S. offered Syria to reappoint an envoy to Damascus, remove Syria from the list of terrorist states, and lift the sanctions imposed on it. However, Syria continued to transfer arms and funds from Iran to Hezbollah, including scud missiles. Shortly after Secretary Clinton testified before the U.S. Senate that she was troubled by Syria's close relationship with Iran, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad hosted Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Damascus, cancelled visa restrictions between the two countries, and declared that "our circle of cooperation [with Iran] is expanding every day," while accusing Washington of "colonialism in the region." He added that there is a new triple alliance between Syria, Turkey and Iran - part of a "northern alliance" that Damascus has been trying to construct against Israel and the U.S.

In Lebanon the influence of Iran has increased. It not only rearmed Hezbollah, but increased its weaponry and granted it considerable economic assistance. Moreover, Hezbollah has become part of the Lebanese government, giving it more say over Lebanese policy, and making this nation, too, more Iran-friendly.

One would assume that, given the very sizable military and economic commitments of the U.S. and its allies in Afghanistan and given the high dependency of the Karzai administration on the United States, about the last thing Karzai would do is cozy up to Iran. However, there is a widespread and growing sense among the political elites in Afghanistan that the U.S. will not stay the course. The public U.S. commitment to start dialing down its forces in Afghanistan in the middle of next year gained much attention. The fact that the U.S. withdrew its support of Afghanistan after it helped local forces to push out the U.S.S.R. is very much on many Afghan minds. Nor do Afghans ignore the growing chorus of American critics of U.S. involvement in the war and the decline of support for it in public opinion polls, and the great difficulties the U.S. military efforts are encountering. No wonder Karzai recently welcomed and celebrated a visit by Ahmadinejad to Kabul, and quickly reciprocated and visited him in Tehran.

The most troubling change is taking place in Turkey, a NATO member, with a considerable military force, and a key geopolitical position. For the reasons already cited, combined with the humiliation experienced as a result of the de facto rejection of Turkey by the EU, and the growing role of both fundamentalist and moderate Islamist forces as compared to the secular pro-Western ones, Turkey is moving closer to Iran. This is revealed in the fuel swap Turkey and Brazil concocted with Iran, widely viewed as an attempt to derail the U.S.-led push for new UN sanctions on Iran as an ineffectual way to stop that country from building nuclear bombs. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has characterized Iran as a "friend" and Turkey has strengthened its economic ties with Iran, concluding lucrative natural gas and oil deals.

All this suggests that U.S. influence over the Middle East is declining, while that of Iran is rising. It follows that encouraging Iran to play a more responsible international role is unlikely to come by turning the nations on Iran's periphery, leaving it isolated and willing to make accommodations. It seems that only the opposite track is open: turning the new center of power, Iran, through engagement, with sanctions, by supporting the domestic opposition, or by the exercise of force. The rest of the Middle East is then more likely to follow.

Amitai Etzioni is a University Professor and professor of International Relations at The George Washington University and the author of Security First (Yale 2007).

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