Rise of Tehran has intensified debate about use of force

July 19, 2007 - 0:0

As the good book says, God loves the sinner that repenteth even if he repenteth late - so George Bush will probably win a smile from heaven for his belated call for a Middle East peace conference before the year is out. Sure, it's a bit late now for the president to be scrabbling to make amends for six-and-a-half years of at best intermittent attention towards the Israel-Palestine conflict. But something is better than nothing - even if Tony Blair is probably a bit miffed that the proposed chair for this international powwow will not be him, despite his new job, but Condoleezza Rice.

What's made Bush see the light? In a word: Iraq. With his administration losing allies by the day because of its failure in Baghdad, Bush is desperate for something that might resemble a foreign policy achievement. More interesting is why the other participants expected at Bush's meeting will be there. Of course, Ehud Olmert and Mahmoud Abbas could hardly stay away: they both want to prove that, with Hamas shoved to one side, they can move forward. But Bush also plans for neighboring states to come along - Egypt and Jordan and perhaps others, too. Their motive is more intriguing and also comes down to a single word, a word which, increasingly, has become the critical one in the region: Iran. The so-called moderate Arab states, those that lean towards the west, are petrified by the rise and rise of Tehran. Cairo, Amman and Riyadh fear surging Islamism which Iran represents, the latter of which, were it not so thoroughly repressed in their own countries, would badly threaten their regimes. Egypt does not want to see Hamas, partner of Egypt's dissident Muslim Brotherhood movement, take over the West Bank the way it's taken over Gaza any more than Israel or Fatah does. This emergence of a common enemy has sparked a flurry of activity in the long stagnant Israeli-Palestinian conflict, much of it positive. In a bid to boost Abbas, to show he can get results that Hamas cannot, both Bush and Olmert have turned the money tap back on. Israel is also set to release 256 Palestinian prisoners, including many who were involved in failed attacks. That's in addition to the new Israeli amnesty extended to 178 fugitive militants from the Fatah-aligned Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades. Israel and Abbas will now cooperate on security too, all part of the strategy approved not only by Israel and the US, but also the European Union and several Arab states - of ensuring that West Bank Fatahland basks in the sunshine while Gaza's Hamastan remains in shadow. As if to ram home the message, a delegation from the Arab League will make history next week when it visits Israel for the first time. There are other motives at work in all this, of course, but Iran is a key factor. Reluctant to let Mahmoud Ahmadinejad pose as the Palestinians' champion and anxious to prevent the Palestinian plight from further radicalizing their own populations, these mainly Sunni, pro-western states want to show they can deliver too. This is the window of opportunity through which Bush is pushing his conference. Nowhere is the Iranian peril assessed more closely than in Israel. In several conversations with Israeli policymakers, they all described Tehran as the biggest single threat to their national security, ranking ahead even of the Palestinian conflict. It can go around pressing the Chinese or Russians to act diplomatically on Iran or else, if they do not, then those crazy Israelis will act instead: it is the classic good cop, bad cop. Israel has other reasons to be wary. An air assault on Iran's nuclear sites would not be the clean, surgical hit on a single location that took out Iraq's plutonium reactor at Osirak in 1981. Tehran's uranium-enrichment centres are dispersed, hidden and protected. Above all, Iran has the power to retaliate, as they have in the past. Source: The Guardia