Radical elements across the Middle East see last Tuesday's defeat of President Bush's Republican Party as their victory.
Calling the election "the beginning of the end for Bush," Ayatollah Imami Kashani told a Friday congregation in Tehran that the Americans were learning the same lesson that last summer's war in Lebanon taught the Israelis.
Tehran decision-makers believe that the Democrats' victory will lift the pressure off the Islamic Republic with regard to its nuclear program. "It is possible that the United States will behave in a wiser manner and will not pit itself against Iran," says Ali Larijani, Tehran's chief negotiator on the nuclear issue.
His view is echoed by academics with ties to "Supreme Guide" Ali Khamenei. "The Democrats will do their best to resolve Iran's nuclear issue through negotiations, rather than resorting to threats," says Yadallah Islami, who teaches politics at Tehran University. "Bush will be forced to behave the way all U.S. presidents have behaved since Richard Nixon - that is to say, get out of wars that the American people do not want to fight."
Nasser Hadian, another academic with ties to Khamenei, goes further. "With the return of a more realistic view of the world, the United States will acknowledge the leading role that the Islamic Republic must play," he says. "There is no reason for our government to make any concessions on the nuclear issue."
Arab radical circles are even more hopeful that Bush's defeat will mark the start of an historic U.S. withdrawal from the Middle East. They draw parallels between the American election and Spain's 2004 vote, days after the Madrid terrorist attacks, which led to an unexpected change of government.
The radicals expect U.S. policies to change on three issues:
Iraq: The assumption is that America will cut and run.
Salafist groups linked to al Qaeda believe that this will mean a stampede of those Iraqis who worked with the Americans. Iraq's Shiite leaders would flee to Iran, where most had been in exile before Saddam Hussein's fall. Kurdish political and business elites will flee to the three provinces they have held since 1991. This would enable the Salafists, in alliance with the remnants of Saddam Hussein's Presidential Guards, to enter Baghdad and seize power.
Absent in that calculation is the role Iran might play: Will the mullahs sit back as Salafists and Saddamites lay the foundations of a new Arab regime that would turn against Shiite-dominated Iran?
Radical Shiites have their own vision of Iraq after the Americans have fled. They believe that, backed by Iran, they'll be able to move into the four Arab Sunni provinces that have been restive since 2004 - and crush the Saddamites and al Qaeda. This ignores the certainty that any Iranian intervention in Iraq will provoke a massive Arab reaction - with Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and even Syria (now an Iranian ally) forced to back Sunni Arabs in Iraq.
In other words, any hasty American withdrawal from Iraq could lead to either a long and bloody civil war or an even longer and bloodier regional conflict.
Iran: Radical circles are unanimous in their belief that Iran can now proceed with its nuclear program without fear of U.S. and allied retaliation. They expect Democrats to revert to Clinton-era policy and seek a "Grand Bargain" with the Islamic Republic - acknowledging Iran as the major regional power and recognizing its right to the full cycle of nuclear technology.
This perception has boosted President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's cause in next month's crucial elections. Ahmadinejad argues that Bush's defeat vindicates his own policy of "standing firm against the Great Satan he hopes to see his faction win control of the Assembly of Experts - a body that can elect and dismiss the "Supreme Guide." Ahmadinejad would thus control all levers of power in Tehran.
Yet the expected U.S. retreat on Iran may not materialize - or, if it does, produce the results Tehran desires. Why should Democrats be less worried about a rogue state armed with nuclear weapons than the vilified "neocons"?
Iran's entry into the nuclear club, even if not opposed by Washington, would provoke opposition in the region. Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and its Persian Gulf allies - all would be forced to seek nuclear weapons. And the ensuing arms race would be a heavy burden on the Islamic Republic's ailing economy.
Israel: Radical Islamists in both Iran and the Arab countries believe that the Democrats' victory indicates "growing American lassitude." They believe that, once it becomes clear that Americans don't want to fight for the Middle East, many in Israel would emigrate to America and Europe to escape the constant daily pressure from Islamist groups such as Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah.
In visits to more than a dozen countries in the past few months, Ahmadinejad has been vigorously promoting his "one state" formula for Israel-Palestine. He claims to have won the support of Syria's Bashar al-Assad, Venezuela's Hugo Chavez and Sudan's Gen. Hassan al-Bashir, and believes that, once it becomes clear that America wouldn't fight a war in support of Israel, most Arab states would rally along.
His "one state" plan turns on a referendum in which Palestinians, including those outside the region, will vote along with those Israelis who have chosen to stay to create a single state in which Jews and Arabs live together.
This euphoria, too, may prove problematic. There is evidence that a majority of Palestinians wish to have a state of their own as quickly as possible, and see outsiders' quest for a single state as a chimera. Nor is there any reason why many Israelis would choose to flee, as Ahmadinejad expects, rather than stay to defend their country.
Also, most Arab states remain committed to the Bush "road map," a fact underlined last week by Saudi Arabia's call for a new peace conference based on the two-state formula.
The mullahs and al Qaeda may soon find out that their celebration of "the end of Bush" was premature. Some Democrats may have promised cut-and-run. But, once in power, the party as a whole may realize (to its horror) that, this time, those from whom Americans run away will come after them.
One more fact for the mullahs and al Qaeda to take into account: Their nemesis, the reviled Bush, is around for another two years, and unlikely to dance to their tune, even if the new Congress demanded it. And two years is a long time in politics.
Amir Taheri is a member of Benador Associates.
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