Beware the winds of December http://www.atimes.com/
While America has been absorbed by the Afghan election imbroglio, a less-noticed event slid into place in the Middle East. It is less dramatic than President Hamid Karzai's near removal; but this event tilts the strategic balance: Turkey finally shrugged off its United States straight-jacket; stared past any beckoning European Union membership; and has fixed its eyes toward its former Ottoman Asian and Middle Eastern neighbors.
Turkey did not make this shift merely to snub the West; but it does reflect Turkey's discomfort and frustration with US and EU policy - as well as resonate more closely with the Islamic renaissance that has been taking place within Turkey.
This "release" of Turkish policy towards a new direction - if successful - can be as significant as the destruction of Iraq and the implosion of Soviet power was, 20 years ago, in "releasing" Iran to emerge as one of the pre-eminent powers in the region.
In the past months, a spate of new agreements have been signed by Turkey with Iraq, Iran, Syria and Armenia, which suggest not just a nascent commonality of political vision with Iraq, Iran and Syria, but more importantly, it reflects a joint economic interest - the northern tier of Middle East states are in line to become the principal suppliers of natural gas to Europe - thus displacing Russia as the dominant purveyor of gas to central Europe. In short, the prospective Nabucco gas pipeline to central Europe may gradually eclipse the energy primacy of Saudi oil.
What is mainly symbolic in the prospective passing of the baton of energy "kingpin" - at least for Europe - from Saudi Arabia to the "northern tier", however, is given substance, rather than symbolic form, in the simultaneous weakening of the "southern tier" - Saudi Arabia and Egypt - both of which have become partially incapacitated by their respective succession crises and domestic preoccupations.
The weakening of the "southern tier" comes at a sensitive time. The region sees the drift of power from erstwhile US allies, Egypt and Saudi Arabia towards the northern tier, and, as is the way in the Middle East, is starting to readjust to the new power reality.
This can be most clearly seen in Lebanon today, in the growing procession of former US allies and critics of the Syrian government, making their pilgrimage to Damascus. The message is not lost on others in the region either.
The US administration sees these changes too. It additionally knows - as writers on the elsewhere have made clear - that any sanctions on Iran over its nuclear program ultimately will fail. They will fail not only because Russia and China will not play ball but precisely because the much touted "moderate alliance of pro-Western Arab states" is looking increasingly to be a paper tiger: the "moderates" are not seriously going to confront Iran and its allies.
Hopes by those, such as John Hannah, writing on foreignpolicy.com, that the Saudi bombing of the Houthi rebels in Yemen would mobilize a sectarian Sunni hostility towards Shi'ite Iran have not been realized. On the contrary, the Saudis' action has been clearly seen in the region for what it is - a partisan and tribal intervention in another state's internal conflict.
But if sanctions on Iran are widely acknowledged - at least in private within the US administration - as destined to fail, this must be provoking some interesting self-questioning within the White House: The US is in the process now of withdrawal from Iraq, it is looking for the exit in Afghanistan and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is getting messier. None of these events seems likely to become particularly glorious episodes for the administration.
It is not hard to imagine White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emmanuel and White House senior adviser David Axelrod asking themselves, "why the president should want to risk another perceived failure" - as sanctions on Iran surely will be. "Why", they may ask, "do sanctions and open ourselves to persistent Republican jeering at their inevitable failure and then ultimately force us to have to ask ... well, what do we do next, Mr President"?
"Worse, will we," they may ask, "be going into mid-term congressional elections with the Republicans raising that old Vietnam taunt that the ‘US Army did not lose in Vietnam - it was the politicians who stabbed the military in the back' but with that same mantra now being used by our political enemies to depict Iraq and Afghanistan as failures of political nerve? Do we want to go into the midterm elections with failing Iran sanctions hanging like an albatross around our necks too?"
No doubt in this discussion one of the White House staffers will point out that, in the case of Iraq, sanctions were indeed pursued, despite the likelihood of their failure, but for one reason only: to entice the Europeans on board; to go through the diplomatic motions - so that the Europeans would have no choice but to accept the consequences of their failure. But this does not apply in the case of Iran, the officials might point out: Britain and France, and to a lesser extent Germany, are, on this issue, more committed to "imploding" the Iranian state - by "soft" war, if not by "hot" war - than is Washington - so what would be the purpose of sanctions now?
We do not know the outcome to this hypothetical debate. We do not yet know that negotiations with Iran will fail; although it seems that the debate within the administration seems to be hardening against the idea of Iran retaining any enrichment capacity. If this does become the administration's position, then failure of negotiations is assured. Iran will not abjure its right to a nuclear fuel cycle for power generation - even at the risk of war. This is the essence of the dilemma: if sanctions seem likely to lead to nothing more than Republican sniping and taunts of weakness, how does the president display "toughness" on Iran - against the backdrop of withdrawal from Iraq, Afghanistan and abstention on the Israeli-Palestinian political process?
It is clear that Israel must be reading the region in the same fashion. Israelis are acutely sensitive to US politics, and the Israeli media already express understanding for the acute dilemma that will face the US president if sanctions do not succeed in persuading Iran to abandon all enrichment (the Israeli objective). How might Israel see the way to help President Barack Obama resolve this dilemma - given the improbability that Israel will be given any "green light" to attack Iran directly, with all the consequences that such military action might entail for US interests in the region?
A recent article by the veteran and well-connected Israeli columnist, Alex Fishman, in the Hebrew language newspaper, Yediot Ahronoth, perhaps offers some insights into how Israelis may be speculating about such issues when he warns about "the approaching December winds