Third World Diplomatic Cooperation and the Future of US Empire in the Middle East

Friday 04 June 2010

by: Stephen Maher, T R U T H O U T | Report


Last week, Brazilian President Lula da Silva and Turkish Prime Minister Reccep Erdogan announced a breakthrough agreement on the Iranian nuclear impasse that they claimed would make further sanctions on Iran “unnecessary.” The agreement, accepted by Iran, was immediately rejected by the US and its European allies, who chose instead to continue the three-decade long US effort to strangle and isolate Iran by all means available.


In what Graham Fuller, a top-ranking former intel official, called “a stunningly insulting response,” Hillary Clinton proudly announced consensus for a fourth round of sanctions against Iran days later, which she called “as convincing an answer to the efforts undertaken in Iran in the past few days as any we could provide.”


With multiple aircraft carrier battlegroups right off Iran’s coast and threats of attack emanating from Washington and Tel Aviv on a regular basis, the US is literally demanding at gunpoint that Iran surrender a large portion of its enriched uranium in exchange for delivery of nuclear fuel for its reactors to be supplied by Europe or Russia and cease all enrichment activities at once. Meanwhile, Iran has insisted that it cannot trust the West after decades of aggressive and hostile US policies - including the overthrow of Iran’s democratically-elected government in 1953 - and that, consequently, the uranium should be exchanged on Iranian territory and only after it receives the nuclear fuel. Under the Lula-Erdogan agreement, the swap would take place on Turkish soil under the supervision of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).


Though barely mentioned in the US press, the Lula-Erdogan agreement is a truly remarkable and historic event that may have “changed the Middle East forever” as David Rothkopf wrote in Foreign Policy. It has “seemingly ushered in a new era of diplomacy,” he continued, and “could well signal a change in how international diplomacy works.” In direct defiance of US orders, these two lesser, “third world” countries, which were once treated as mere vassals, have challenged a key US regional objective. Should China, Russia and/or the IAEA get behind the deal, US efforts to build international support for sanctions would suffer an even graver setback.


American strategists have struggled mightily against independent nationalism for decades as they constructed and maintained a worldwide system of indirect empire. This has meant propping up corrupt and self-interested local rulers who reliably carry out US orders, maintain regional systems favorable to US power and enrich themselves while diverting much-needed resources from domestic needs to serve the interests of wealthy, Western investors. To put down resistance both domestically and among potential regional rivals, these client regimes are given military and diplomatic assistance from the US that allows them to use any means available to maintain a favorable balance of power.


It is this threat the US was combating in 1953, for instance, when it intervened to overthrow the democratically-elected Iranian national hero, Mohammed Mossadegh, replacing him with the shah, a vicious torturer and murder who had been driven out of the country. Mossadegh was a danger not just because he insisted on nationalizing Iran’s oil resources, denying the west control of them, but also because he was an “intolerable symbol of anti-British sentiment in the world,” as New York Times journalist Stephen Kinzer wrote in his book “All The Shah’s Men.” He represented “the wretched of the earth against the rich and powerful” and was becoming “the preeminent spokesman for the nationalist passion that was surging through the colonial world,” a serious threat to any empire. The United States has been punishing the people of Iran to the fullest extent of its abilities since 1979, when, again, the shah was again overthrown by the Iranian people (…) the US has sought to strangle the Iranian economy and prolong the damage of war as long as possible.


As planners have acknowledged, such an approach leaves the US and its allied regimes “militarily strong but politically weak.” It is natural that a power in such a position would not be willing to entrust its hegemony with the whims of the natives and its power of persuasion and would instead prefer violence. In the Middle East, the US relationship with Israel has served just this purpose. As elsewhere in the world, the danger has always been that an independent, nationalist movement would take root, challenging US dominance and emboldening others to follow suit, a threat that has not been taken lightly in Washington. As they constantly puzzle over the inability of the United States to secure support for its objectives among the locals, planners and strategists have inevitably reverted to the use of brutal, overwhelming violence instead - a solution easily supplied by Israel.


The Lula-Erdogan agreement represents an important and major defeat for these longstanding efforts to suppress democracy and freedom in the third world. It was fear of these threats to US dominance that led to strong US backing for the overthrow of the democratically-elected Brazilian leader Joao Goulart by Castelo Branco in 1964. President Johnson ordered that the US take “every step that we can” to aid in the overthrow of Goulart, while large multinational corporations and international financial institutions bankrolled the cruel, right-wing dictatorship as it dismantled the Congress, banned all political parties, eliminated press freedoms and savagely repressed the population for 20 years. In exchange, military rulers ensured Brazil was a reliable US vassal in the effort to thwart independence and self-determination in Latin America, a glimpse of the grim fate millions of people in Brazil and elsewhere in the region would suffer over the subsequent decades.


Similar motivations have led successive American governments to attempt to isolate and suffocate Iran and force it to comply with US orders or to destroy the independent government that emerged after the overthrow of the shah in 1979. After supporting Saddam’s barbaric invasion of Iran in 1980, the US has stopped at nothing to block Iran’s access to international credit, while pressuring Europe and Asia to cooperate in preventing its shattered economy from rebuilding. Despite the decades-long, herculean effort it has expended, the US has been unable to secure support for a military attack on Iran nor for sanctions as harsh as those it has desired. The effort to isolate Iran has itself been a remarkable illustration of the limits of US power. In order to secure the backing of Russia and China, sanctions have been weakened and watered down practically beyond recognition. Should Russia and China, possibly with the backing of the IAEA, choose to throw their weight behind the Lula-Erdogan proposal, the sanctions effort would be completely undermined.


The difficulties of the Clinton administration in getting Europe and even American corporations to cooperate with US sanctions were reversed somewhat by the Bush administration, which managed to get the UN Security Council to sanction Iran and demand it surrender its right to peacefully enrich uranium. By engaging in “dialogue” with the Islamic Republic, the Obama administration has been able to claim key diplomatic successes in getting other powers on board with a new round of sanctions and, thus, increase Iran’s isolation. That two third world countries came together in direct defiance of US orders and undercut such a longstanding, key diplomatic effort is without precedent in this strategically crucial region, both revealing and contributing to the decline of US power.


The evolving tripolar world order, in which Asia and Europe are integrating and forming independent poles of influence that rival the US, serves to amplify the leverage of many states which are often derisively labeled as “third world” and summarily dismissed. The formation of the Shanghai Cooperation Council (SCO) is illustrative in this regard. The SCO is an independent, regional organization that denied the US application for observer status, while accepting that of Iran, and seeks to act as a counterbalance to NATO’s influence and the US economic agenda. Simultaneously, growing European integration and independence and the re-emergence of Russia are also serious challenges to US rule. As Zbigniew Brzezinski wrote in his book “The Grand Chessboard,” for instance, “European unity” will require the US “to adjust to the new reality of an alliance based on two more or less equal partners, instead of an alliance that … involves essentially a hegemony and its vassals.”


To challenge near-complete US dominance of the Middle East, Russia has reached out to those who stand in opposition to US objectives and empowered a broader degree of resistance to US commands. While the Obama administration renewed sanctions on Syria for another year, and the US and Israel continue to insist that Syria has transferred Scud missiles to Hezbollah despite UN observer mission’s finding that there is “no evidence” to support this claim, Medvedev traveled to Damascus on the first-ever visit to Syria by a Russian head of state since the Bolshevik Revolution. As he arrived last week, it was reported that Russia is “supplying Syria with warplanes, armoured vehicles and air defence systems.” Medvedev also said that nuclear cooperation between the two countries “may get a second wind,” and suggested that Russia could build Syria a reactor. Such a move could threaten the position of Israel as the region’s sole nuclear power and, thus, “prompted concern from Washington.” While in Syria, Medvedev also met with exiled Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal.


Before heading back to Moscow, Medvedev visited Turkey, an important US ally since World War II. Turkey has cooperated openly with Israel, prompting US policymakers to hold the relationship up as a “model for how a Muslim country can pursue a … cooperative relationship with the Jewish state.” In return, Israel and the US have long supplied Turkey with sophisticated military equipment. Yet, as Medvedev arrived, the typically pro-Western Turkish military announced that it had installed anti-aircraft batteries on the Syrian border as “a message” to deter Israel or the US from entering Turkish airspace during a potential attack on Syria or Iran.


While in Ankara, Medvedev and Erdogan signed agreements for Russia to construct Turkey’s first-ever nuclear power plant and for the development of an oil pipeline project to carry Russian oil to the Black Sea. While Erdogan proclaimed “solidarity with Russia” and Medvedev stressed their “strategic partnership,” both states agreed to ease entry visa restrictions while talks proceed for Russia to supply Turkey with helicopters and air defense systems. Such efforts to improve ties should not be surprising, given that Russia’s gas exports have now made it Turkey’s second-largest trading partner.


Turkey’s response to the nighttime Israeli commando assault on the Gaza aid flotilla, killing at least nine civilians, reveals further the growing unwillingness of Turkey to be a US collaborator in its regional project. It publicly invoked the NATO Charter, thus requiring a response from other NATO countries, and promised to send another aid convoy to Gaza with Turkish Naval escort. As massive protests broke out throughout the world to condemn the atrocity, Erdogan called the attack a “bloody massacre.” “Today is a turning point in history,” he said, “nothing will ever be the same again.” The sentiment was echoed by Tel Aviv when a “senior official” told Yediot Aharonot that “the alliance is dead.” “The Turks are right about one thing,” he continued, “irreversible harm has been caused to the relations. In the situation that has been created, Turkey will no longer be a strategic ally of Israel.”


In fact, the Lula-Erdogan deal and Turkey’s response to the flotilla attack are just the latest in a recent sign that increasingly-violent US/Israeli rule over the Middle East may actually be alienating an important US regional ally. As many observers have noted, Turkey has become increasingly independent, and recent events “may suggest that Turkey’s continued cooperation with the West is far from guaranteed,” as Soner Cagaptay wrote in Foreign Affairs. This shift was highlighted in October 2009, when Turkey canceled Israel’s participation in an annual Turkish air force exercise that it has held with Israel, Europe and the US since the mid-1990s, likely a result of public outrage over Israel’s barbaric slaughter of Palestinians in Operation Cast Lead. One day after barring Israel from participation, Turkey invited Syria to conduct joint exercises instead. In the wake of the flotilla attack, Turkey has again canceled planned war games with Israel. Meanwhile, Turkey has strengthened ties with Libya and Syria.


The rise of China will also have far-reaching regional consequences and the day is not far off when its power will surpass that of Russia. In the meantime, China is beginning to establish its foothold in the highly strategic, energy-rich region by forging strong ties with regional powers and gradually challenging US\Israeli regional dominance. As its share of oil purchases from large regional producers like Saudi Arabia increases along with investments and other ties, the Saudis’ traditional dependence on the United States is reduced and the space for dissension from US commands is increased - even if only by a few degrees at this stage. China’s response to the Lula-Erdogan proposal is in sharp contrast to that of the US. Despite China’s apparent agreement to another round of sanctions, a Foreign Ministry spokeswoman said, “we value and welcome the agreement reached between Brazil, Turkey and Iran on Tehran’s research reactor.”


And so the longstanding rule in the Middle East that “what we say goes” is beginning to change, with resistance to US dictates increasing as its global power declines. Syrian President Bashar Assad recognized this fact over the weekend during the visit of French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner to Syria as the Israel Defense Forces declared a massive military drill and Hezbollah expressed its readiness for war in response. He urged the US and Europe to accept the Lula-Erdogan deal and “pleaded with the West to restrain the Jewish state,” saying, “the West must understand that the region has changed,” and that the use of Israel as an attack dog to terrorize and beat the region into submission is “no longer acceptable.”



Stephen Maher is an MA candidate at the American University School of International Service. He is currently writing his masters thesis, “The New Nakba: Oslo and the End of Palestine,” on the Israel-Palestine conflict. His work has appeared in Extra!, The Electronic Intifada, Truthout, ZNet, The Israeli Occupation Archive, and other publications. His blog is



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