The New Middle East Order

Sometime this month, President George W. Bush will – reluctantly – announce a new policy for the United States in Iraq. A new policy is needed not only in order to halt America’s drift into impotence as it tries to prevent Iraq from spiraling into full-scale civil war, but also because the map of power in the Middle East has changed dramatically.

That map has been in constant flux for the last 60 years, during which the main players – Egypt, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Israel, and Iran – have formed and broken alliances. Now, something like a dividing line is emerging, and if Bush finally begins to understand the region’s dynamics, he may be able to craft a policy with a chance of success.

This regional realignment is typified by the emergence of a de facto alliance that dare not speak its name. Israel and Saudi Arabia, seemingly the most unlikely of allies, have come together to contain their common enemy: Iran, with its mushrooming influence in Iraq, Lebanon, and Palestine. Iran not only threatens Israel (and the region) with its desire for a nuclear capability and its Shi’a proxy militants; it is also seeking to usurp the traditional role of moderate Sunni Arab regimes as the Palestinians’ defenders.

After decades of using concern for the Palestinian cause to shore up popular support for their own ineffective and undemocratic regimes, these moderate Arab leaders have now been put on the defensive by Iran’s quest for hegemony. If Iran succeeds in being seen as the genuine patron of Palestinian national aspirations, it will also succeed in legitimizing its claim for dominance in the Middle East.