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Analysis: Shifting Middle East alliances

By CLAUDE SALHANI, UPI Contributing Editor

WASHINGTON, Aug. 25 (UPI) -- Alliances in the Greater Middle East are written in sand, not stone, and as the winds blow and the sands shift, so do alliances. Today the prevailing wind appears to be blowing from Moscow.

Russia's aggressive response in Georgia has unleashed what Joshua Landis, co-director of the Center for Middle East Studies and a specialist on Syrian affairs at the University of Oklahoma, calls "a tectonic shift in the region."

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"It has emboldened Syria, Hezbollah and Iran to push harder against Israel and the U.S. in an attempt to capitalize on recent setbacks in the Balkans, Lebanon and Afghanistan," Landis writes on his Syria Comment blog at www.joshualandis.com/blog.

Indeed, Russia's heavy-handed reply to Georgia has established a landmark phase in a new era in East-West relations. This is the new realpolitik as perceived by the Kremlin, and it will set the pace of Moscow's offensive policy in dealing with regional crises.

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One of the first "casualties" of Russia's muscle-flexing will be a drastic shift of alliances in the Caucasus/Greater Middle East region.

U.S.-Iranian relations -- or lack thereof -- may very well turn out to be one of the first changes this new political reality will dictate. Tehran, which has regarded the United States as its enemy ever since the 1979 Islamic Revolution overthrew the Shah, abolished the monarchy and established a strict theocratic regime, suddenly might re-evaluate its policy of anti-Americanism.

Iran's mullahs may yet awaken to the reality that the United States, or the "Shaitan Bozorg," the "Great Satan," as the mullahcracy often refers to the United States, is not all bad and could, in fact, come in very handy in a showdown with the Russians.

Despite the many disagreements and exchanges of rhetoric between Tehran and Washington, at the end of the day the United States has no territorial desires over Iran. This is more than can be said about Russia, which long has craved access to a warm-water port and has ogled with great envy ports on the Persian Gulf.

On the reverse side of the coin, the United States might find it serves its national interest to cut Tehran some slack and have the Iranians on the same side when trying to thwart Russia's efforts to expand its zone of influence in the Caucasus/Middle East region. The nukes Iran so badly craves might after all serve to deter the Russians, ironically enough.

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Here is how the cards are stacked at this point:

As the contention over Iran's nuclear program continues, the Islamic Republic suddenly could find itself in a much tougher situation than it initially expected, this time with Russia breathing down its neck. For reference, just ask the Georgians what that means.

Given the shifting alliances likely to emerge in this post-Georgian conflict, a nuclear-armed Iran is very likely to render the Russians even more nervous than the United States or Israel.

Russia is only about 106 miles from the closest Iranian border, well within striking distance of Iran's Shahab-3 missiles, which have a range of more than 1,200 miles. The United States, however, remains far beyond the reach of the Islamic Republic's arsenal.

A nuclear-armed Iran, in fact, would represent more of a deterrent to Moscow than a threat to Washington. And the Russians, as was demonstrated by their recent show of force in Georgia, would have no qualms about destroying Iran's nuclear arsenal, regardless of the amount of "collateral damage" -- the military euphemism for civilian casualties -- that would cause.

Additionally, Russia and Iran have an existing dispute over rights to the Caspian Sea, which Russia might just decide to settle in the same manner in which it addressed its contention with Georgia over the two autonomous republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

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Russia is 860 miles from the Persian Gulf waters on Iran's southern coast. Russia's longtime ambition is to have direct access to a warm-water port for its navy, as it is currently restricted to using bases on Russia's Pacific coast headquartered in Vladivostok or the limited capacity of the Baltic Fleet based in Kaliningrad, a small Russian exclave situated between Poland and Lithuania that tends to freeze during those long northern European winter months, restricting the navy's movements. As for Russia's Black Sea and Mediterranean fleets, both are obliged to pass through the Bosporus in Istanbul, a 19-mile-long and only half-mile wide passage separating Europe from Asia. As a strategic point with great tactical value, the Bosporus is under the tight control of the Turkish military -- and therefore NATO.

However, as the winds of change blow through the region, Washington will need to engage proactively, accepting that it too needs to change its Middle East policy.

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(Claude Salhani is editor of the Middle East Times.)

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