|Ahmadinejad received a rapturous welcome on his first visit to Lebanon since taking office in 2005 [EPA]|
No sooner had Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Iranian president, left Beirut last week, than Jeffrey Feltman, the US secretary of state for Near East affairs, arrived in the Lebanese capital.
Washington wasted no time in seeking to counter what it views as Iran’s growing influence across the Arab world and Ahmadinejad’s message of resistance to Israel.
But it is precisely that message that has so far foiled the US’ relentless efforts to form a regional security pact to isolate and confront Tehran. Washington has failed – and will continue to fail – to convince Arabs that Iran, not Israel, is the real enemy.
A sectarian formula
This does not mean that Iran’s agenda in the region has been entirely palatable to Arab states. It has been complicit in the invasion and occupation of Iraq, where its position remains opportunistic and deeply sectarian.
But Washington has no issue with that aspect of Iranian foreign policy. It was, after all, the US invasion that fed sectarian divisions within Iraq. And Washington has been happy to champion Shia political parties within the country in order to suppress its rich pan-Arab identity – all while being opposed to the Lebanese Shia group, Hezbollah.
That Washington does not have a favourite sect is not evidence of its commitment to secularism. It supports different sectarian formulas in Iraq and Lebanon to guarantee that neither country poses a threat to Israel.
In Lebanon, sectarianism has been employed to prevent national unity. And when that has not been sufficient Israeli wars have been used to quell resistance – whether by a Palestinian coalition with Lebanese leftists and pan-Arabists in 1982 or by Hezbollah in 2006.
But these wars backfired: The 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon created Hezbollah, while the Israeli withdrawal from south Lebanon in 2000 and the 2006 war anointed the movement as the only Arab force to defeat Israel in a major battle.
Through Hezbollah’s triumphs, Iran has consolidated its influence in Lebanon and enhanced its image as the region’s counter power to Israel. For in Iran, just as in the Arab world, confronting Israel helps to legitimise a regime.
The Iranian regime stepped into this role almost immediately after the 1978 revolution that transformed the country from a gendarme for US interests and an Israeli ally into a champion of the Palestinian cause.
Even the Iran-Iraq war failed to unanimously rally Arabs against Tehran, as evidenced when a 1981 US-backed summit intended to form an axis against Iran was boycotted by most Arab parties, including the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO). The majority of Arabs simply refused to see Iran as posing a greater threat than Israel.
In fact, the eruption of the first intifada in 1987 came about partly as a reaction to another US-backed summit, which sought to establish Iran as the main enemy of the Arab world – and in so doing to marginalise the Palestinian cause.
Yasser Arafat, the then PLO leader, was snubbed by the Jordanian hosts of the summit and by other Arab regimes, prompting him to boycott the official dinner and to declare that Palestine remained the core issue for the region. This attempt to humiliate the PLO provoked visible anger in the West Bank and Gaza Strip – a sentiment that was openly expressed during the intifada when it erupted less than a month later.
Fake peace process
But the US did not learn its lesson. More than two decades later it is still trying to create an Arab axis against Iran, while expecting Arabs to ignore Israeli occupation and aggression. And while a US-backed so-called ‘moderate’ axis comprising Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt and Kuwait does exist – brought together by legitimate and fictional fears of Iranian meddling in their affairs – none see a bigger threat to regional stability than Israeli expansionism.
These countries have often urged the US to advance Israeli-Palestinian peace in order to enable them to effectively help in countering Iran. But consecutive US administrations have instead pushed a fake peace process focused more on solidifying Israeli supremacy than addressing the root causes of the conflict. The current administration’s ‘enthusiasm’ for a resumption of the stalled Israeli-Palestinian talks is no different and is motivated more by a desire to provide a cover for its drive against Iran than achieving a suitable and just settlement to the conflict.
Israel is now openly lobbying the West to either declare war on Iran or to support an Israeli strike against the country – or at least its nuclear facilities. It uses the Iranian president’s rhetorical threats to justify this, but for all Ahmadinejad’s words it is Israel that is engaged in the real and systematic destruction of lands and lives.
But the US and Israel do not fear that Iran poses a real, existential threat. It is the deterrence Iranian power represents that they seek to eliminate, thus allowing Israel to freely pursue its aggressive expansionist policies.
For its part, the US is opposed to the existence of a regional power that it does not consider an ally. So when Ahmadinejad was warmly welcomed in Beirut, Feltman made an unscheduled visit to protest against “Iran meddling in Lebanon’s affairs”.
The former US ambassador to Lebanon, known for his constant meddling in Lebanese affairs, was declaring Lebanon – and with it the Arab world – to be within the US’ sphere of influence.
Vying for influence
This is not to say that Iran is not also vying for regional influence – something stressed by an Iranian parliamentarian who declared that Ahmadinejad’s visit asserted “Iran’s supremacy”. And there is no doubt that Iran’s agenda is not always compatible with Lebanese or, more broadly, Arab interests. But its support for Hezbollah in its battles against Israel has elevated its status among the Arab public in a way that no anti-Iranian Arab axis can deny or top.
The real problem is that US meddling and support for Israel obstructs any critical discussion of Iran’s role in the region. The US has no interest in such a discourse because it simply expects Arabs to endorse its own agenda, including normalising ties with Israel even as it continues to suppress Palestinian rights.
But none of the US’ Arab allies would dare – or could afford – to follow the American line completely, particularly if this includes a strike against Iran. For Arab governments would then be pressed to explain their support for a war against Iran, when they have so clearly failed to confront Israel.
The US-led war against Iraq shattered any illusions that the US could bring stability or democracy to the region – a fact that even its staunchest Arab allies are aware of. And there is a growing awareness that both Iran and the US – and in a different way, Turkey – have been vying to fill a political gap resulting from Arab weakness.
But Washington is truly delusional if it thinks it can defeat Iran by convincing Arabs that its pro-Israeli agenda could bring peace and stability, let alone justice to the region.
Lamis Andoni is an analyst and commentator on Middle Eastern and Palestinian affairs.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.