The great chess game of the Middle East

Nerves are frayed to the point of breaking over the Middle East escalation. One can tell this is so when even respectable think-tanks start looking for ulterior motives behind seemingly minor events, without offering any specific evidence or well-developed leads.

Take, for example, Thursday’s emergency landings of two Iranian civilian airliners over Turkey. Absolutely nothing unusual was reported, except that both aircraft malfunctioned, both over Turkey, and both coming from Tehran.

Still, the event warranted a front-page report by Stratfor. The (anti-climactic) conclusion: “These incidents may simply be representative of Iran’s inability to maintain its commercial aircraft under the weight of sanctions and financial restrictions, but given Iran’s ongoing confrontation with the West over its nuclear program, ulterior motives for the landings cannot be ruled out.”

Similarly, when two Syrian-backed groups, al-Ahbash and Hezbollah, shed blood in Beirut this week over a personal dispute, Stratfor had this to say: “Though tensions between the two groups have long simmered, it remains unclear whether a broader political agenda influenced this parking dispute. Syria could be using a group like al-Ahbash to shake Hezbollah’s nerves. Alternatively, Iran and Hezbollah could be looking for ways to threaten Syrian assets in Lebanon – including groups like al-Ahbash – to warn Damascus of the consequences of moving against Hezbollah.”

It is not that Stratfor’s suspicions are wild or unwarranted. What is remarkable in these reports is that the perceived urgency to publish them overrides the lack of any clear hypotheses. Ordinarily, respectable publications such as Stratfor hold on to such suspicions until they have something more specific to tie them to; rushing to publish, on the other hand, conveys a sense of emergency and distress.

These Stratfor reports on the Middle East, moreover, are a microcosm of what is going on in the world media as a whole. Jeffrey Goldberg caused a storm earlier this month with a detailed analysis in The Atlantic, in which he predicted that “there is a better than 50 percent chance that Israel will launch a strike [on Iran] by next July”, [1]

Other respected analysts either agreed with Goldberg or sharply disagreed with him, accusing him of warmongering, among other things; Professor Mark Lynch’s summary of the debate is instructive [2], as is Tony Karon’s recent piece [3].

Other publications, such as Debka File, are beating the war drums loudly, and predicting an imminent conflagration [4]. Former George W Bush administration hawk John Bolton predicted that Israel only had until last Saturday (when Russian scientists started loading the Bushehr reactor with fuel) to attack [5]. He was immediately slammed and corrected by others [6], yet, despite his controversial record, he made some sense.

A strike on Bushehr is all but impossible to imagine now, and though it is true that the reactor cannot easily be converted for military use, it is also true that an attack on Iran’s other nuclear installations [7] would give the Islamic Republic a pretext to openly try to do so. Still, even as the deadline passed, the speculations of an impending war did not die down.

A few days ago, in another detailed and respectable analysis of the situation, Bruce Riedel argued that “the United States should take steps to assure Israel’s deterrence remains strong, as this is the only way to both prevent an Israeli assault on Iran in the short term and to contain Tehran in the future” [8].

Other bits and pieces surfaced. The Israeli Air Force recently updated its wartime codes. According to Israeli analyst Ron Ben-Yishai, the appointment of the new Israeli chief of staff was meant to send “strong message to Iran” [9]. Iran tested a number of new weapons, and threatened “a global response” to an attack [10]. The French president issued a stern, and unusual, warning to the Islamic Republic [11], which came on the heels of unconfirmed reports of joint US-British-French war preparations in recent months. Stratfor’s articles, though far more vague, also add to this sense of urgency.

There are still other developments that are difficult to both avoid considering and tie very precisely to the confrontation over Iran’s nuclear program. One is the conference intended to kick off the new round of direct Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations, scheduled for 2 September in Washington, DC. Hardly any observers see the talks going anywhere, and indeed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is already talking about quitting before they have started (see Stratfor’s analysis on the negotiations [12].
Another such development is the US pullout of Iraq, which many see as intimately tied to the peace talks [13]. A widespread consensus should be noted that Iraq is on the verge of civil war, and Iran plays a major role in stoking up tensions (for a summary of such arguments, see Tom Ricks’ article [14]. Moreover, something is clearly afoot in Lebanon and Syria, with Hezbollah is at the center-stage (my previous story discusses this in more detail: Turning up the heat on Iran, Asia Times Online, August 3, 2010).

Finally, the evasive Russian position on Iran and the Middle East is worth noting. “The US’s reset with Russia seems to be the shakiest leg in its Iran policy,” writes M K Bhadrakumar for Asia Times Online [15]. The move to start fueling Bushehr, among other moves, surprised many, and prompted John Bolton to claim (in the interview quoted above) that “the Russians are, as they often do, playing both sides against the middle”.

The million-dollar question, then, is, what to make of all this? There is hardly much more to say about the war preparations. Moreover, focusing only on these carries the danger of missing out on many dimensions of a very complex situation, where a number of independent and elaborate agendas clash powerfully. A number of broader dynamics must be noted.

Firstly, it is hard to avoid the fact that despite all threats on the Jewish state, Israel profits to a certain extent from Iran’s belligerent posture. Writes Stratfor: “The countries of the Arabian Peninsula are infinitely more interested in the threat from Iran than in the existence of Israel and, indeed, see Israel as one of the buttresses against Iran.”

For the first time since its creation, Israel finds itself in the same camp as many Arab states, and for better or for worse, having a common enemy is perhaps the best way to make friends in the Middle East. Moreover, the Israeli threats of a unilateral attack are a powerful way of extracting military assistance from the United States (US military aid to the Jewish State has already increased considerably).

Secondly, the debate on the significance of nuclear weapons is quickly shifting, and it is safe to assume that military doctrines in the region will reflect these changes, if they haven’t already. In my story US military’s robotic shuttle spooks Iran (Asia Times Online, May 4, 2010). I traced some of these developments, and argued that a conventional space race may in the near future make the nuclear race, if not obsolete, at least obsolescent.

A flurry of other recent reports comes to mind and appears to tie in with this development: Israel plans to develop its satellite industry, Iran is pushing with its space program, and even the Russians are debating whether or not to ditch the new Bulava missile in favor of more aggressive aerospace enterprise.

Thirdly, the Russians seem bent on keeping the US occupied in the Middle East, with hopes of using this opportunity to strengthen their influence in the Caucasus and other parts of the former Soviet Union. They certainly have the capacity to continue balancing back and forth.

Finally, some analysts are predicting a powerful Sunni-Shi’ite confrontation in the Persian Gulf (specifically in Iraq) and in Lebanon, but also in other parts of Asia. It is important to continue watching these fronts as such a flare-up has the capacity to change the focus of the Middle East conflicts profoundly. Both the US pullout from Iraq and the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks have been tied by various sources to this development.

What emerges is a kind of a grand bargain, the results of which are difficult to predict. The Israelis may have to weigh the option of safeguarding their nuclear deterrent against the option of achieving a conventional deterrent of a kind that may well be more important in the future than nukes.

For some of the US’s Arab allies, this second option is less feasible (thus reports are already surfacing of alleged Saudi Arabian efforts to obtain a bomb of its own), though the massive recent US-Saudi Arabian arms deals suggest at least an effort in that direction [16]. It bears noting that assistance to Saudi Arabia might well pave the way to a deal with Israel of the kind Bruce Riedel mentioned a few days ago, and this may also be one of the reasons why the Jewish state largely kept silent on the former.

It is difficult to predict which way the scales will tip. On the one hand, the cost of an attack on Iran may be outrageously high for everybody involved. On the other hand, however, should the US try to contain a potentially nuclear-armed Iran with conventional assistance to its Middle East allies, there are a number of inherent dangers for those allies.

American foreign policy is often fickle in the long term (what better examples than Afghanistan and Iraq), and countries such as Russia can fairly easily upset the balance by arming Iran and its allies. A Shi’ite-Sunni clash could also dramatically, and unpredictably, influence the situation. Furthermore, especially in the Middle East, security issues are usually dealt with according to rigid doctrines, and for the time being, these doctrines stipulate that nuclear weapons are the highest trump card in the deck.

A major factor in the calculation may be the position of other countries. If a large part of the international community were able to unite against Iran, as France has suggested, this could be the least painful way out of the crisis. But that in itself is far from certain. There are plenty of pieces on the proverbial chess board to ensure suspense until way into the endgame.