Does U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton want confrontation and war in the Middle East or dialogue, reconciliation and peace? Her pronouncements and policies during her visit to the region last weekend suggest impatient belligerence. She seems intent on spreading mayhem, to the puzzlement and anxiety of many of the locals, as I discovered on a visit which coincided with hers.
In Riyadh last Saturday, 31 March, she returned to her now familiar theme of seeking to incite the Gulf Arabs against Iran, a country she insists on demonising as ‘a regional and global threat.’ At a meeting with foreign ministers of the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council (Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the UAE and Oman) she proposed erecting a strong missile shield to protect the Arab states of the Gulf. ‘It is a U.S. priority,’ she declared, to help the GCC build a regional missile defence architecture’ against what she saw as a looming ballistic missile threat from Iran.
It is hard to see how Iran would have any conceivable interest in attacking, let alone destroying, the Gulf States, since they are among its prime business partners – or at least they were before the United States tried to sever Iran’s long-standing banking and commercial ties with countries such as Dubai.
Clinton’s missile shield proposal might be good for U.S. defence contractors but would seem to have little local relevance. It bears an uncanny resemblance to a U.S. scheme to defend Europe and the United States from a hypothetical Iranian nuclear missile attack -- a scheme dismissed by William Pfaff, one of the wisest of U.S. commentators, as ‘a make-work project for the American aerospace industry.’
Many Gulf Arabs I spoke to in the region earlier this week see Iran as a potential partner rather than an enemy. They think it is the United States and Israel that are seeking to deepen the rift between Iran and the Arabs -- and between Sunnis and Shi’is -- for their own geostrategic advantage. Muslims, they believe, should close ranks and not allow external powers to exploit their divisions by drawing them into the quarrel between the United States and Israel, on the one side, and Iran on the other. As a well-placed Arab (who wishes to remain anonymous) put it to me: ‘The essential vocation of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia must surely be to unite Muslims not divide them.’
Catherine Ashton, the European Union’s foreign affairs chief, is attempting to re-launch negotiations over the nuclear issue between Iran and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany (the so-called P5+1). But instead of lending America’s full support to these efforts, Hilary Clinton insists on throwing doubt on Iran’s sincerity in wanting to reach an agreement. ‘It is up to Iran whether they are ready to make the right choice,’ she declared belligerently in Riyadh. ‘What is certain,’ she added, ‘is that Iran’s window of opportunity to seek and obtain a peaceful resolution will not remain open forever.’ This is precisely the threatening language we are used to hearing from Israel’s hard-line Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu.
Clinton, in fact, expressed serious doubt about whether the Islamic Republic had any intention of negotiating a solution that would satisfy the United States and Israel. As is well known, Israel wants to close down Iran’s nuclear programme altogether -- a totally unrealistic objective. As a signatory of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT), Iran is entitled to enrich uranium for peaceful civilian purposes, under the supervision of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA.)
Is Clinton now saying that America has embraced the Israeli objective of forcing Iran to accept ‘zero enrichment’? If that is the case, she is undermining efforts to re-launch talks with Iran before they have even started -- which is precisely Israel’s objective.
For his part, President Barack Obama has continued to ratchet up sanctions on Iran, with the evident aim of closing down its oil exports. But such measures, however crippling, are unlikely to make Iran yield. What the Islamic Republic wants is respect, recognition of its regional role and guarantees against attack -- notions which are apparently totally absent from the mindset of the U.S. Secretary of State.
From Riyadh, Hilary Clinton went to Istanbul to attend the ‘Friends of Syria’ meeting, where she again preached confrontation rather than reconciliation -- this time against Syria. Kofi Annan, the former UN secretary general, has been mandated by both the UN and the Arab League to seek a peaceful resolution of the Syrian crisis. Last Monday, he told the UN Security Council that the Syrian government had pledged to adhere to the ceasefire and pull back its troops by April 10, in accordance with Annan’s own six-point peace plan.
But on Syria, as on Iran, Hilary Clinton has displayed nothing but impatient belligerence. As if seeking to undermine Annan’s mission, she has misrepresented his objectives. Annan called for a simultaneous ceasefire by both the regime and the armed opposition. But Clinton has accused President Bashar al-Asad alone of having failed to keep his promise to pull back his troops. Instead of urging the opposition to put aside its weapons and accept a ceasefire, she has put the onus of stopping the fight on Asad alone. Her demand that Annan impose a ‘time line’ on Asad risks subverting Annan’s peace mission.
Annan’s six-point peace plan makes no mention of Asad stepping down, but Clinton keeps repeating that ‘Asad must go!’ Annan has stated clearly that he is against arming the opposition, knowing that it will only lead to more bloodshed. But Clinton has come very close to endorsing armed opposition to the Syrian regime. She has confirmed that the United States is providing Syrian fighters with satellite communications equipment to enable them to ‘organize and evade attacks by the regime.’ While promising $25m in humanitarian aid, she has encouraged Arab Gulf states to pledge $100m in pay for opposition fighters. In his report from Istanbul on the Friends of Syria meeting, Steven Lee Myers of the New York Times commented that this ‘blurs the line between lethal and nonlethal support.’
By setting up a working group to coordinate U.S., EU and Arab sanctions against Syria, Clinton’s evident intention would seem to be to bring down the Syrian regime in order to weaken Iran. By seeming to fear a peaceful settlement of the Syrian and Iranian crises, she has exposed America’s aggressive face.
Kofi Annan’s mission has only just begun. It might take weeks, if not months, before it shows results. There is clearly a need to give him more time, while pressing both sides to put up their guns. Similarly, Catherine Ashton’s attempts to re-start a dialogue with Iran in order to arrive at an overall settlement should be given every encouragement and not sabotaged by unnecessary threats and crippling sanctions.
The United States should be careful not to add to the catastrophic legacy of its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, not to mention the violent hostility its policies and actions have aroused in Pakistan, Yemen, the Horn of Africa and elsewhere in the Arab and Muslim world.
* Patrick Seale is a leading British writer on the Middle East. His latest book is The Struggle for Arab Independence: Riad el-Solh and the Makers of the Modern Middle East (Cambridge University Press).