IS the United States’ widely perceived retreat from the Middle East for keeps, or “an historic accident”?
The question was posed by visiting Israeli political analyst Professor Efraim Inbar at a briefing of journalists organised by the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council last week.
The director of Bar-Ilan University’s Begin-Sadat Centre for Strategic Studies addressed audiences in both Victoria and NSW this month.
At his Melbourne briefing, Inbar, a professor of political studies at Bar-Ilan University, said, “If [President Barack Obama’s Middle East policy] is an historic accident, I can live with it, despite the great damage, in my view, he does to the United States and to its allies. If it’s an historic trend, then we have to adjust.”
Asked by The AJN whether he thought Washington’s arms-length approach to the Middle East, particularly the switch of support by the Obama administration from the Saudis to Iran, would continue to be a policy of the next American president of whichever stripe, Inbar said it is hard to predict, but added: “Anything is better than Obama – if we want a stronger America, if we want an America that is wisely involved in international affairs.”
Inbar said one way the next White House incumbent could draw a line under the present set of policies would be to renegotiate last year’s nuclear deal between Iran and the P5+1 countries.
He blamed the pact for placing Tehran in the driver’s seat of the region, regaining financial assets unfrozen by the rolled-back sanctions and needing to wait only 10 years until it can regain access to centrifuges removed under the agreement. “Ten years is a short time for Iran.”
Inbar said that while ISIS is making headlines, the real danger to the world is an ascendant Iran with a ring of client regimes and a nuclear option, particularly as Tehran’s rivals – the Saudis, Egypt and Turkey – will jockey for nuclear parity with their Persian neighbour. He predicted a multi-nuclear Middle East, with various Arab countries upping the ante, would be “a strategic nightmare”.
With the signing of the Iran deal, America’s ostensible allies, Israel, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, have concluded the US is an unreliable ally in a region now increasingly under the influence of Russia, which has invested heavily in Syria and in Cyprus, and is increasing its profile in Egypt, he argued.
Political Islam is a potent force that has overthrown the established secularist regimes in Syria, Libya and Iraq. Fundamentalist regimes, from ISIS to Hamas, are popular with local populations, Inbar claimed, adding: “The eastern Mediterranean is becoming an Islamic lake.”