By now we are well familiar with what President George W. Bush labeled the new “Axis of Evil” — communist North Korea, socialist-leaning (Baathist) Syria and Islamist Iran. Each one has expansionist ambitions of varying degrees, though some are more grandiose in aspiration than others. North Korea and Iran want to dominate the world, while Syria will settle for considerably less.
The North Koreans want to turn the world into a vast Godless worker’s paradise, similar to the Stalinist Garden of Eden that is the northern part of the Korean peninsula — only perhaps one where the comrades aren’t starving half the time and trying to escape to South Korea or even to China the other half. However, Kim Jong-il, the megalomaniacal leader of the North, would probably be satisfied if he could occupy the South, thus reuniting the two Koreas and in the process double his clout, his ego and his people’s misery.
The ruling mullahs governing the Islamic Republic of Iran have somewhat of a similar philosophy: they too would like to dominate the world. However, the main difference with the non-believers in North Korea is that the Iranians want to impose their religious diktat on the rest of the world. The other major difference between the North Koreans and the Iranians is that the latter have been slightly more successful in exporting their revolution. The North Korean expansionist desire was stopped at the 38th parallel; in contrast, Iran’s mullahs have made inroads in the Gaza Strip by supplying Hamas with all the guns and money it needs to disrupt Bush’s efforts at peace-making in the Holy Land.
And in Lebanon, Iran’s and Syria’s proxy militia, Hezbollah, has demonstrated that it can, if it so wishes, take over the country by military force, or in any case, at least great swaths of the country. Of course whether the Shiite militia can then retain the territory it occupies is a completely different story. This Hezbollah found out the hard way when it tried to go after the Druze in the Chouf.
As for the third spoke in the new “Axis of Evil”, Syria, its territorial ambitions are far more modest than those of either North Korea or Iran: Syria only wants what is rightfully hers, the Golan Heights, the strategic plateau overlooking the northern Galilee which was taken militarily by Israel in the 1967 War and remains under Israeli occupation to this day.
Oh yes, Syria wants Lebanon too.
And here’s where the story begins to get somewhat complicated (if it wasn’t already) due to the fact that a great many Lebanese are opposed to the idea of Syrian domination. The Bush administration supports the notion of a free and independent Lebanon and has invested in backing Fouad Siniora’s government and the March 14 Movement. So the defeat of pro-government forces by the Syrian and Iranian-backed Hezbollah in early May in the fiercest exchange of internal violence Lebanon has experienced since the end of the civil war in 1990 can be seen as a defeat for Bush’s democracy spreading policy in the Middle East.
Hezbollah’s attempted coup also frightened Sunni powerhouses such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt who rightfully perceived the action as an attempt by Tehran to extend its political power base and influence in the region. Hezbollah’s victory comes as a second slap across the face of the U.S. president from his Iranian and Syrian foes. The first blow came when Hamas took over Gaza.
This leaves the U.S. administration pondering what course of action it can take. Part of the conundrum facing the administration is amplified by the fact that it continues to refuse to engage either Syria or Iran in talks, while these two countries seem to be pulling all the strings in Lebanon today.
This is where President Bush’s new counter-axis-of-evil comes into play with the American president turning to his Arab allies for assistance.
Enter Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan, three moderate Muslim nations who are getting nervous over Iran’s rising influence. The recent successes of the Islamic republic in the Gaza Strip and in Lebanon have revived fears particularly among the Saudis, prompting the Saudi king to assume greater responsibility in regional matters.
As one Saudi, who is well connected to the intelligence community in the desert kingdom, said to me when the fighting broke out in Beirut: “Don’t forget the critical Saudi role, which is now even more central than the role of the U.S. and France in the region!”
Saudi Arabia’s role in the Middle East will be all that more crucial as the November U.S. presidential elections approaches and American politicians become completely absorbed by domestic politics, turning a blind eye on the rest of the world.
Claude Salhani is editor of the Middle East Times