Friday December 22, 2006
Tony Blair waited until the final stop of his Middle East trip to deliver his big message about the state of the region. After visits to Turkey, Egypt, Iraq, Israel and the Palestinian territories he declared in Dubai that Iran was at the heart of a "monumental struggle" between the forces of moderation and the forces of extremism. In the preceding days the prime minister had seen for himself the issues and conflicts he was drawing on for evidence of this dramatic claim: Turkey's troubled relationship with the EU; the barriers to democracy in Egypt; the deadly impasse between Israelis and Palestinians - including the danger of a Palestinian civil war; and of course the disaster in Iraq three years after he recklessly followed George Bush into a war that replaced Saddam Hussein's dictatorship with mayhem that has crippled the country, made it a magnet for jihadists and fuelled anti-western sentiment across the Muslim world.
Many of the prime minister's critics think he has done quite enough damage in the Middle East already, should now concentrate on limiting that, and have the humility to stop making sweeping pronouncements that might do even more. His thesis subsumes too many discrete issues under one roof, portraying a clash not of civilisations but of ideologies. This sounds dangerously like a substitute for the global confrontation of cold war days in which every international problem could be neatly explained by reference to a Manichean struggle of right against wrong, freedom versus tyranny, west versus east. Dubai represented a return to Mr Bush's "axis of evil" approach but this time with only one named member state - Iran.
Few analysts would disagree that the Islamic republic has been the main beneficiary of the war in Iraq, its influence and confidence boosted by the victory of its Shia allies. It is certainly promoting its interests in Iraq. It is doing the same by backing the Shia Hizbullah in Lebanon and (the Sunni) Hamas in Palestine. Its pursuit of nuclear energy - widely seen as a cover for acquiring nuclear weapons - threatens non-proliferation efforts, challenges Israel's hegemony and is preoccupying the UN security council in a search for sanctions. President Ahmadinejad's rhetoric about Israel is inflammatory; his hosting of the Holocaust denial conference in Tehran is not clowning.
The problem with blaming Iran for all the ills of the Middle East is the same problem as blaming the Soviet Union and its satellites for every cold war conflict. Moscow supported the ANC in its struggle against apartheid. PLO men were trained by East Germany's Stasi. Cuba backed left-wing guerrilla groups in Latin America. But just as those conflicts existed independently of external involvement so do those in which Iran is involved in the Middle East today. The Palestine issue is so hard to resolve because it has been left to fester for too long, not because Hamas leaders are welcome in Tehran. Hizbullah reflects changing internal Lebanese political realities as well as hostility to Israel.
Mr Blair's thesis also ignored the fact that the nervous Sunni kingdoms and republics he wants to form "an alliance of moderation" are hardly beacons of moderation themselves. Saudi Arabia's Wahhabi ideology did much to nurture jihadist thinking. Egyptian democracy would not have produced a fanatic like al-Qaida's Ayman al-Zawahiri. The prime minister's speech was disconcerting too because it so closely echoed Mr Bush's bellicosity and went against the idea in James Baker's Iraq Study Group report of reaching out to talk to Iran (and Syria). It dropped the sensible notion of using carrots and sticks at a time when there is some evidence that pragmatists may be gaining ground against the extremists in Tehran. If the US and Britain understood in the frozen depths of the cold war that they had to talk to their Soviet enemy, surely Iran is too a serious a player in today's Middle East to be addressed solely through the rhetoric of confrontation?