Geopolitics of U.S. interests in the Middle East

A version of this article first appeared on the website of the National Council of Arab Americans ( Elias Rashmawi is the national chairperson of the National Council of Arab Americans and national coordinator of the Free Palestine Alliance. He is a member of the national steering committee of the ANSWER Coalition—Act Now to Stop War and End Racism.

I. Challenges to U.S. strategy of dominance

The escalating U.S. pressure on Syria and Iran is part of an overall long-term policy aimed at dominating the geo-strategic, political and economic assets of the Middle East. It is part of a systematic policy that has historical origins, and is an extension of the U.S. occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Syrian troops redeploy out of Lebanon, September 2004.

Photo: Reuters/Mohamed Azakir

To achieve its goals towards Syria and Iran, the United States is advancing two simultaneous strategies: exacerbating competing interests and fragmenting potential consensus. It is fanning sectarian sentiments along religious and ethnic lines, all while forcing alliances of interests between emerging entities to arrive at a decentralized Iraqi state—and is possibly attempting the same with Syria and Iran.

The United States is making charges against Iran on the issue of nuclear power production and against Syria on the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri and Jubran Twaini, editor of An-Nahar and Lebanese parliament member. But in reality these charges are a cover for U.S. attempts to manipulate these countries’ sphere of regional and internal power politics with the aim of tipping the scale towards U.S. allies and proxy forces in the region and within Iran and Syria themselves. The formation and eventual promotion of the Ahmed Chalabi and Hamid Karzai puppet leader phenomenon in both of these states is underway. In the Syrian case, it is partially entering through the Lebanese gate, where the long defeated and silenced pro-U.S. forces have recently gained momentum.

The direct military intervention used in Iraq and Afghanistan would be more difficult to achieve in the case of Iran and Syria. Iraq had been significantly weakened by years of sanctions and internal U.S.-supported opposition. Afghanistan was never a match for U.S. military might, particularly after years of underdevelopment.

Syria, on the other hand, is relatively intact internally, despite political opposition. It has not suffered the same years of military weakness, as did Iraq, nor has it been isolated from the international community and Arab states.

Additionally, Syria enjoys the support of significant resistance movements in both Lebanon and Palestine, so that an attack on Syria will likely further jeopardize regional stability in Lebanon, Palestine and even Jordan. Forces severely critical of the United States and Israel are the primary anchors of the fragile stability of the Lebanese government.

Iran is a wealthy and well-developed country, both economically and militarily. It is vast in size with an intact political regime, despite internal opposition. Instability in Iran will significantly exacerbate U.S. alliances in Iraq, and will likely lead to a re-evaluation of forces in the most fragile area under U.S. control—Iraq. The confessional and sectarian card played in Iraq requires acquiescence on the Iranian front.

For a variety of reasons, a serious destabilization in Syria and Iran will likely lead to a shift in power politics within the Palestinian Authority, where Mahmud Abbas enjoys a fragile grip not only on his political party, Fateh, but also on other political formations and in the West Bank and Gaza as a whole. The presence of a large number of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, Syria and Jordan will likely have a direct impact on the Palestinian political landscape if their refugee status is significantly altered. For instance, an attempt to disarm the Lebanese resistance movement would also require disarming the Palestinians in the refugee camps—a condition certain to return Lebanon to its civil war years, this time with the Palestinian movement entering the fight for its very existence. And although the Palestinian resistance movement is significantly weaker than it was decades ago, the Lebanese resistance is significantly stronger and more entrenched in the state apparatus and everyday life, particularly in the south of Lebanon.

On the flip side, an attempt to force the Palestinians to be granted citizenship in either Syria or Lebanon—“Tawteen” in Arabic—a step considered vital to the U.S. plan to preserve Israel’s U.S.-dependent, Jewish-only character, will result in a backlash from the very allies the United States is attempting to prop up, particularly right-wing Lebanese forces. These allies, too, are opposed to a major shift in the demographics of their respective states.

U.S. hegemony in the Middle East is essential for U.S. fleet deployment.

Photo: Department Of Defense

Although the imposed decentralized model followed in Iraq is being played to its ultimate by the United States, the same model will likely create a schism with some of the closest U.S. allies, like Turkey. For instance, although the United States encouraged and supported Kurdish separatists in northern Iraq, the same policy does not apply to eastern and southeastern Turkey. That is, the potential Kurdish factor that was used in Iraq and, to a lesser extent, which is being encouraged in Syria and Iran has the unintended result of destabilizing Turkey, one of the strongest U.S. allies in the region.

A military attack on Syria or Iran using proxy Kurdish forces will likely face serious Turkish opposition. Turkey, like Iran, is a well-developed state with significant pull in the region, so that any instability within its borders will likely produce a serious challenge to Turkish-U.S. relations. Turkey’s geopolitical position in relation to Russia and other former Soviet republics further adds to the critical nature of its role.

These factors combined pose a challenge to U.S. policy in the region, particularly since it is engaged in a losing and increasingly costly battle in Iraq. Yet the strategic importance of Syria, Iran, Palestine and Lebanon for full U.S. hegemony in the region has caused the reigning neo-conservative wing of U.S. policy makers to seek all existing options short of military engagement, full scale or limited. It is these diplomatic and saber-rattling destabilizing options that we are witnessing. Both Syria and Iran recognize that the quagmire in Iraq is partially weakening any intentions that the United States has for military intervention.

II. Geostrategic assets and long-term U.S. goals

Dominance over the Arab world is of particular interest to the United States. It is a region composed of 22 states and 300 million people, extending from the Arabian Gulf to the Atlantic Ocean, sharing a common language, culture and aspirations for unity. Also of particular interest to the United States is the region known as Central Asia, which lies to the east of the Arab world and is composed of states such as Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and the former southern Soviet Republics, amongst others.

Together, these two regions possess vital geostrategic interests to U.S. imperial designs. In addition to the regions’ vast energy reserves and productivity, these interests include valuable contiguous landmasses, airspace and waterways without which U.S.-European-Asian trade would be severely restricted and the ability of U.S. military maneuvering would be significantly hampered.

For example, the Suez Canal, which connects the Red Sea to the Mediterranean Sea through Egypt, plays a vital role in U.S. military and economic designs. It has shortened the distance of a maritime journey from London to Bombay by 41 percent and from London to Shanghai by 32 percent. In the year 2000, 62 percent of the canal’s shipping was from the United States and Europe. Only 11 percent of the shipping was African, 20 percent Asian, and 7 percent Arab. The majority of Asian shipping was in reality trading with Europe and the United States.

Vast U.S. military forces also pass through the Suez Canal and other vital waterways such as the Bab Al Mandeb and the Strait of Gibraltar. The United States has three major naval fleets between East and South Asia and the Middle East, including the Sixth Fleet, which roams the Mediterranean Sea. Lack of control over these water pathways would significantly choke U.S. ability to maneuver, particularly in the event of a rapid forward strike.

With regards to energy, eight of the largest 20 energy-producing countries are Arab, including the top three; 14 are in Asia and Africa; and only three are Western—Norway, United States, and Canada.

Israeli bulldozers destroyed homes in the Rafah refugee camp, Gaza, November 2004. A weakened Palestine is a major U.S. goal in the Middle East.

Photo: Mohammed Abed/AFP/Getty Images

Japan imports about 85 percent of its oil from the Middle East. In 2001, 76.2 percent of its total net oil imports came from the Arab Gulf region alone, with 31 percent from Saudi Arabia. In the same year, the United States imported 25.3 percent of its net oil imports also from the same Gulf region, with approximately 60 percent of that amount from Saudi Arabia.

Iraq’s oil reserves stand at about 115 billion barrels, equivalent to the total oil reserves of the United States, Canada, Mexico, Western Europe, Australia, New Zealand, China and the whole of Asia outside the Middle East. Through its occupation, the United States hopes that Iraq would be able to sustain the export of about 600,000 to 700,000 barrels per day, mostly to the United States—in addition to 300,000 to 400,000 barrels required for Iraqi domestic consumption. This would be increased in the future to the pre-war level of 2.5 million barrels a day. But this time it would be under full U.S. control.

The United States is following a comprehensive strategy to pursue these significant interests. It is aiming to de-Arabize and fragment developed Arab states. It aims to prevent the possibility of any form of pan-Arab unification, particularly since Syria and Iraq, along with Egypt, have strong historical seeds for pan-Arab unification. It seeks a forward deterrent force in the region, in collaboration with Israel supported by proxy regimes. It hopes to destroy the Palestinian national liberation movement and transform Palestine into another functionary entity. It is trying to secure the total economic, military and political Arab dependency on the United States, as well as to secure landmasses, airspace and waterways entrances into Africa and Central Asia. It is seeking to secure control over markets and energy sources for the rapidly expanding economies of China, Japan, India, and Indonesia, hence securing indirect control over these expanding powers. It aims to deepen competing interests between anchoring states of the Middle East, such as Iran, Iraq and Syria. Finally, it is trying to position itself at the southern flank of Russia and at the western flank of China.

III. The historical context

After World War I and even more so after World War II, the United States emerged as a primary superpower. It wanted to secure its economic and political interests. Oil and geostrategic landmasses were at the top of these concerns. At the same time, the importance of the Arab Gulf region and the Arab world was mounting in view of its huge newly discovered energy resources. The Marshall Plan had helped transform European energy dependency from coal to oil, leading to a growing European need for a stable, plentiful and nearby oil source—Arab oil.

Land and water routes and air space connecting Europe to Africa and Asia became a priority. The development of a cheap manufacturing labor base was vital to the expanding industries. As such, the destruction of the non-aligned and the decolonization movements that swept Africa, Asia and Latin America—in which the Arabs played a key role—became a central goal in order to establish long-term strategic bases, proxy and client states and dependent partners.

The plan promulgated by the 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement between Britain and France was aimed at serving these interests. This agreement re-carved the Middle East, creating new entities ruled either directly by colonial powers or by proxy regimes. Britain and France divided the Fertile Crescent, encompassing Iraq, Syria, Palestine, Lebanon and Jordan. France controlled Lebanon and Syria, while Palestine, Jordan and the two southern provinces of Iraq—Baghdad and al-Basra—went to Britain. Control over the northern Iraqi province of Mosul remained unresolved between them. Though the parties agreed that France would control the region, the British were determined to keep Mosul within their new Iraq colony.

The United States, in conjunction with France and Britain, launched a number of projects to secure their colonial interests in the area. In 1948, Israel was established, comprising over 78 percent of Palestine and sending 75 percent of the Palestinian people into exile. This created a permanent forward military deterrent force in the heart of the Arab World.

In 1953, the CIA overthrew Mohammed Mossadeq, prime minister of Iran, after he nationalized Iranian oil. This sent a signal that any shift in economic policies from dependency to independence by the emerging liberation movement would not be tolerated by the United States.

The same policy was carried out against Egypt in 1956 when it nationalized the Suez Canal. Britain, France, and Israel attacked Egypt to quell the rapid emergence of the popular leader Gamal Abdel-Nasser, then president of Egypt. Egypt nationalized the canal to fund the building of the Aswan High Dam, after funding by the World Bank and the United States was rejected. The Aswan Dam remains a key factor in modernizing and strengthening Egypt as a whole.

A year before, in 1955, the United States and Britain formed the Baghdad Pact with Iraq, Turkey, Iran and Pakistan to oppose the emergence of the non-aligned movement after the 1955 Bandung Conference in Indonesia. The Bandung Conference had posed a serious challenge to colonial powers, uniting historic leaders like Nehru of India, Nasser of Egypt, and Sukarno of Indonesia.

In 1957, the Eisenhower Doctrine was issued declaring the “right” and intent of the United States to intervene in the Middle East. In 1958, U.S. marines from the Sixth Fleet landed in Lebanon in an attempt to prevent the advance of the revolutionary movement in Iraq.

In 1958, British troops landed in Jordan for the same purpose.

IV. Conclusion

The advance of the U.S. empire cannot occur without a significant realignment of the Middle East. This entails the forced formation of the Greater Middle East, as described by U.S. strategists. It would mean that Israel’s colonial policies would be made the norm. The Palestinian people would be permanently dismembered through apartheid walls, absorbed in destabilized neighboring states without realizing their right to return home. Syria would be transformed into a functionary junior entity, devoid of its pan-Arab identity. Lebanon would be once again transformed into a confessional fragile entity dependent on the United States and Israel for its imposed stability. Jordan would continue its buffer role as a client state, through which U.S. and Israeli policies enter the Arab World. Iraq would be truncated into a decentralized proxy state with its vast resources in the hands of U.S. corporations. Saudi Arabia would be maintained as a forward U.S. base and an economic baton to threaten emerging powers. Egypt would be maintained as the flagship of normalization and as a proxy U.S. force. And Iran would be weakened to a point of instability, hence allowing the ascendance of a pro-U.S. client regime.

The Middle East as a whole would be secured as a point of air, land and water entry into Asia, Africa and Russia, and as a reservoir of energy through which the United States can exert indirect control over emerging economic powers, such as China.

All in all, the policies of the United States aim at driving the Arabs apart from each other and from their Asian and African basin. To achieve these goals, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and Iran must be brought into the fold. They are the only remaining entities outside full U.S. control in that region.

The success or failure of this strategy thus depends on the ability of opposing forces to counter it in their respective areas and regions.

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