Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is in the Middle East this week seeking to build a network of support for what she calls "emerging moderate forces" (i.e. Iraq, the Palestinian Fatah Party, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt) against "extremist" ones that are opposed to US interests.
The No. 1 extremist Ms. Rice intends to to counter, say analysts, is Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. This trip comes at a time when an oil-flush, potentially nuclear Iran has growing clout in the region, particularly among armed Shiite groups in Lebanon and Iraq.
Ms. Rice is seeking to tap a deep, historical concern among Sunni Arab countries wary of Shiite Iran, with the aim of building a counterweight to Iran's influence.
"The US sees Iran now as the source of destabilization in the Middle East and because there are fears among the Arab countries that Iran also possess a threat this gives the US a chance to form a coalition against Iran and against all its allies, like Syria, like Hizbullah, like Hamas," says Hassan Nafai, chair of the political science department at Cairo University.
Rice's public statements so far have given more time to shoring up the secular Lebanese and Palestinian leaders, ending Iraq's insurgency, and disarming Hizbullah in Lebanon than to Iran. But the confrontation with the Shiite state seems to be at the top of the agenda, and in many ways sits at the center of America's concerns in the region.
Hizbullah is seen by the US as an Iranian proxy that could harass Israel if the nuclear dispute with Iran moves to open conflict; disorder in Iraq is seen as serving Iranian interests by tying up US forces and creating the possibility that the country's Shiites could rise up against US forces in support of their coreligionists; and Hamas, too, is seen by America as a threat to speed attacks against Israel in the event of war.
But Washington's conviction that Iran is seeking nuclear weapons (Iran insists its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes only) trumps all other concerns.
Rice said in Saudi Arabia Tuesday that Germany and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council would meet soon on Iran, and indicated the US will press for sanctions if Iran doesn't suspend its uranium-enrichment program. Enriched uranium can be used for either nuclear power plants or bombs.
Rice is meeting foreign officials from eight Sunni Arab nations on the trip, before meeting with Israeli and Palestinian officials later in the week, who all fear the implications of an Iranian nuclear bomb but are also worried about the consequences of an armed confrontation over the issue, since it is likely to inflame popular public sentiments against their own regimes.
Tuesday, Rice flew from Saudi Arabia to Egypt, where she met privately with Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, who has been working on reconciling Palestine's warring factions.
"Expectations have to be kind of low on this trip. There are not going to be any major policy breakthroughs, either on the peace process or on Iran," says Josh Stacher, a lecturer at the British University in Cairo. "For Rice this is mostly a bit of a listening trip, finding out what allies want in the lead-up to building a coalition to go after Iran, be that sanctions, or military strikes, or further diplomacy."
Mr. Stacher says that while all eight of the Arab governments are eager to limit the possibilities Iran could go nuclear – particularly Saudi Arabia, which has feared Shiite expansionism since Iran's Islamic revolution – they will be urging the US against military action because of potential blow-back against their own regimes, none of which are democratic and six of which are monarchies.
Mr. Nafai agrees, and says that while the US might get fairly tepid support for sanctions against Iran, he doesn't see an eventual Arab coalition backing military action, largely because of the unresolved conflict over the Palestinian territories. "As long as the US continues to support unconditionally Israel's policies in the region and is not trying to seriously help find a settlement it will be almost impossible to form a strong coalition."
The recent confrontation between the Shiite Hizbullah and Israel boosted the regional popularity of Mr. Ahmadinejad, who supports Hizbullah, and hurt the standings of regimes like Egypt and Saudi Arabia because they were seen by their people as insufficiently condemning Israel's strikes inside Lebanon.
Rice has also adopted a new rhetorical approach on this trip, in which America's allies in the region are cast as moderates, and its enemies as extremists, something she said was demonstrated by the war in Lebanon.
"When Lebanon happened ... [we] got in very stark relief a clear indication that there are extremist forces and moderate forces" in the region, she told reporters. "The countries that we are meeting ... is a group that you would expect to support the emerging moderate forces in Lebanon, in Iraq, and in the Palestinian territories."
"The President isn't going to stop pressing for democracy because he believes that ultimately it's the force that will stabilize the Middle East most," Rice said. "But it does not mean that even if states ... are not yet transformed to democracy that we're not going to have relations with them and that we're not going to work together to resist extremist forces in the region."
Stacher says her comments at the start of her trip make the current administration policy on the region look similar to those of past administrations, when the stability and support of allies was more important than promoting change. "The Bush administration has redesigned policy toward the region. Nondemocratic states that are friendly are being painted as moderates and unfriendly undemocratic states are being branded as extremists. The rhetoric is about to reflect reality"
None of the Arab countries Rice is talking to on this trip – Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, and Oman – are democracies, and most severely limit free speech and political organization.
For many Arabs, says Nafai, ongoing US support for these "despotic" regimes means the promises of President Bush to promote democracy aren't believed, and residents of these countries end up more inclined to support US enemies.