Anne Penketh: A belated recognition of where the real power in the land lies

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The Independent Online

The Iranians and Syrians must have been choking on their tea last night. After three years of being branded a part of the axis of evil and an outpost of tyranny and ordered not to meddle in Iraq, they are being invited to be part of the new Middle East.

But not the one advocated three years ago by the neoconservatives who predicted that the fall of Saddam Hussein would give rise to a wave of democracy that would sweep Arab dictators from their pedestals. That dream was shattered for good last week by the American midterm elections which propelled the Democrats into the driving seat of Congress for the first time in 12 years.

The new watchword is "recalibration". Do not expect any recognition in the coming days that the new policy of Tony Blair and the US is capitulation, or even a U-turn, as they go cap in hand to the leaders of Syria and Iran, accused of fomenting trouble in Iraq and supporting terrorist groups in the broader Middle East.

Last night, Mr Blair's spokesman insisted that no "concessions" are being offered to Iran and Syria, and the Prime Minister stressed that the diplomatic overtures do not mark a policy shift. The two countries can either co-operate, or face isolation, Mr Blair said.

But the midterm elections have made the search for an exit strategy even more urgent. The insurgents can smell the defeat of a superpower. So unless the US and Britain can persuade Iraq's neighbours that it is in their interests to help curb the insurgency, the coalition forces risk being dragged even deeper into a civil war.

Why should Iran and Syria help the US and Britain at this stage? Because it is in their interests to do so - and retain important leverage in their own region. The Iranians have long felt slighted by the Americans, who rewarded them with the "axis of evil" speech after they helped the US in Afghanistan and in Iraq in the days that followed the overthrow of Saddam.

The Syrians, too, say that they have acted on US requests to control the porous border with Iraq, and have deployed 10,000 troops there.

But one thing has changed in the three years since the US and Britain invaded Iraq. And that is the rapport de force in the region, where Iran and Syria hold the upper hand after the Lebanon war. Mr Blair and Mr Bush - and Ehud Olmert of Israel - now have the role of lame ducks.