This changes the map of the Middle East forever
From the Gulf to Israel, no country is untouched by the fall of Saddam writes Malcolm Rifkind
For many years the Saudis have relied on a security guarantee from the United States to protect them from aggression, mainly from the Iraqis but also from the Iranians
The people of Iraq are beginning to enjoy a freedom that was stolen from them more than 30 years ago. Some will see that as a justification, in itself, for the war. Others will continue to doubt. But while we can all rejoice with the Iraqi people, the significance of the current conflict is far wider and deeper than the removal of a detested tyranny. The map of the Middle East has changed profoundly and irreversibly.
Saudi Arabia is the key country. For many years the Saudis have relied on a security guarantee from the United States to protect them from aggression, mainly from the Iraqis but also from the Iranians. While few in Riyadh have disputed the need for that alliance, there is little doubt that it has bred huge resentment among both Islamic fundamentalists and Arab nationalists. It was the most important reason why Osama bin Laden, a Saudi national, repudiated his privileged family background and preached jihad against the American infidels.
This alliance has taken physical form in the huge American and British base at Dhahran in the kingdom’s north. I remember, as Defence Secretary, visiting it. My Saudi colleagues asked me, in any TV interviews I gave from the base, not to mention that I was in Saudi Arabia but to say simply that I was “somewhere in the region”, such were their sensitivities.
Now that Iraq has ceased to be a threat, my expectation is that the Saudis will move to change the alliance with the Americans into a political relationship no longer needing the presence of the American military. Nothing would do more to boost the flagging support for the Saudi dynasty among its own people and, in any event, the US has been showing recently some irritation with the Saudis.
The second, profound change will be the momentum given to political reform and the growth of accountable government. The Arab world has been the part of the world where there has been least progress in the past 40 years. Not just in Syria, Iraq or Saudi Arabia has there been an absence of democratic institutions. Even in Egypt and Jordan, models of moderation, there have remained authoritarian governments unwilling or unable to allow free elections. President Mubarak, in Egypt, is said to be grooming his son for the succession with an ease that King Farouk would have envied. Yassir Arafat has been uninterested in the rule of law. The Gulf States have yet to progress beyond nervous tinkering with their constitutions.
Iraq is, of course, highly unlikely to become a model democracy. But if there emerges a government that has been elected, if the press becomes, and remains, free and if the rule of law takes root, it will have a profound effect. Ironically, a democratic Iraq could be more destabilising to the Middle East than was Saddam. But the Americans should not assume that this would benefit their other objectives. No one could be more moderate or pro-Western than Mubarak, or King Abdullah in Jordan. In the short term democracy in these countries would benefit populist and Islamist parties who, in many cases, would be virulently anti-American.
The people, who will be most nervous, at present, will be the Iranians. For them, paranoia is not unreasonable. The creation of an American protectorate in Iraq, following the American protectorate in Afghanistan, and accompanied by a US military presence in Pakistan, Turkey, Kyrgyzstan and the Gulf, results in an Iran that has become encircled by the Great Satan.
The downside of this could be an acceleration of the Iranian nuclear programme to ensure that Washington will never dare invade. If the Americans want to counter this key will be the co-operation of Moscow. The Russians should be worried about the prospects of a nuclear Iran on their border but Russians have been supplying Tehran with nuclear material ostensibly for a civil nuclear programme. However, it will also now be far more difficult for the reactionaries to resist the need for a dialogue with the United States. Iran’s weakened position will help the reformists under President Khatami.
That leaves Israel and Palestine. Peace in Iraq will lead to unprecedented pressure to resolve the last great problem of the region. The US has agreed to give the issue much greater priority, but what will be pressed for is not just American interest but American clout. What will happen when Bush comes to shove is far from clear. But what is needed is a much more radical initiative than has so far been contemplated. The Israelis will be obliged to allow the creation of a Palestinian state, to pull out of the Golan Heights and dismantle many of the settlements on the West Bank. This will be painful for them and Ariel Sharon may be unable to deliver. But Israel is a democracy and, if there were a real prospect of a just and permanent peace, the Israelis would not find it too difficult to choose an alternative government.
In exchange, Israel needs to be offered not only secure frontiers and American guarantees, but also a commitment from the Arab states, including Syria and Saudi Arabia, that there will be a normalisation of relations, including an exchange of ambassadors, unrestricted trade and an acceptance of Israel as a legitimate regional power.
Perhaps there is a further initiative that Britain could launch to help. Why not encourage Israel, Palestine and Jordan to join the Commonwealth? They were all once part of the Empire and are as eligible as any of the current members. What better way of providing a forum where Israelis and Palestinians could plan their common future?
Come to think of it, why not be really imaginative? The Americans could also be invited to join the Commonwealth. That would really help the peace process. Is it not now time for Washington to forgive George III? —The Times
The author was UK’s foreign secretary from 1995-97