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Iran, the Middle East, and the Changing Balance of Power

LeverettOn March 28, Iran expert Hillary Leverett, a senior fellow at the Jackson Institute and CEO of Strategic Energy and Global Analysis (STRATEGA), a political risk consultancy, gave a lecture at the MacMillan Center entitled, “Iran, the Middle East and the Changing Balance of Power.” She said there’s been a breakdown of the U.S.-led political and security order in the Middle East. “I see the potential collapse of U.S. hegemony in the region,” she added. Leverett said from the end of World War II to the collapse of the Soviet Union, the U.S. was constrained from going for “all-out hegemony” in the region by an outside force – the U.S.S.R. – and two internal powers allied with Moscow – Iraq and Egypt. Then with the Camp David Accords, Egypt moved into the pro-America camp. By 1991, Iraq had been knocked out of contention after the first Gulf War.

“We were essentially unconstrained going into the 1990s in both our ability and our determination to consolidate hegemony in the Middle East, and by this I mean a highly militarized, U.S.-led political and security order for the region. Today, that is disappearing right before our eyes.” Leverett said there has recently been a “dramatic shift in the regional balance of power away from the U.S. and increasingly going in favor of the Islamic Republic of Iran and its allies.” She said this has been going on for more than a decade, but has accelerated and intensified with the “Arab awakening” of 2011, and that Iran has advantages in the realm of "soft power," as opposed to hard military power.

Leverett said U.S. definitions of “moderate” and “radical” Arab camps in the Middle East have nothing to do with how those regimes treat their own people, but how positively (or not) they view strategic cooperation with the U.S. and a negotiated peace settlement with Israel.

She said the basis for U.S. dominance in the region rested on both capacity (i.e., military power) and legitimacy. As for legitimacy, the past several presidential administrations have tried to gain the “buy-in” of Arab states for U.S. hegemony because that would bring greater security and a resolution of the “core dispute in the region – the Arab-Israeli conflict.” She said the U.S. has not fulfilled these promises, and in fact, the U.S. wars in the region have eroded support.

“Instead, the United States today is widely seen in the Middle East as enabling an Israeli national security doctrine that requires regional hegemony for Israel as well as the United

States, with the means of permanent occupation and the freedom for Israel to use military force unilaterally and disproportionately.”

Leverett said that even though President Obama has said Muammar Gaddafi has no legitimacy and must go, there have been times in the past when the U.S. was able to negotiate successfully with him on sensitive issues. She said Obama foreclosed any possibility of negotiations with Gaddafi just as he has with Iran, and that U.S. military action in Libya (albeit in a coalition effort) is a “doctrine of preventive humanitarian intervention. It will be a very close analog if not just a direct supplement to President Bush – Bush 43’s – endorsement of ‘preventive war.’”

She said to restore the U.S.’s standing and strategic leadership in the region, it must be able “to deliver important benefits to our partners there, rather than be a contributor to the Middle East’s problems,” and to practice “the art of classical diplomacy,” through relationships with a range of countries who hold various opinions about the United States.