The Middle East is facing an acute danger of war, with unpredictable and potentially devastating consequences for countries and populations of the region. A ‘shadow war’ is already being waged — by Israel and the US — against Iran; by a coalition of countries against Syria; and by the great powers against each other. A mere spark could set this tinder alight.
The threat of a hot war is coming from three main directions: first, from Israel’s relentless and increasingly hysterical war-mongering against Iran; second, from America’s geopolitical ambitions in the oil-rich Gulf and its complicity in Israel’s anti-Iranian campaign; and third, from the hostility of some Sunni states towards Iran — and towards Shiites and Alawites in general.
These Arab states are apparently unaware that they are playing into the hands of Israeli and American hawks who dream of re-modelling the region in order to subject it to their will. This same neo-con ambition drove the US to invade and destroy Iraq in the hope of permanently enfeebling it.
The current Israeli war fever rests on a blatant falsehood: that Iran poses an ‘existential threat’ to the Jewish people. What a joke! The only threat Iran poses is this: were it to develop the means and skills to build an atomic weapon — without actually doing so — it would thereby acquire a limited deterrent capability. That is to say, Israel might hesitate to attack it. Israel’s freedom to attack its other neighbours would also be restricted — a freedom it has enjoyed for decades, as may be seen from its numerous wars and assaults on the Palestinians, Iraq, Lebanon and Syria.
Israel wants unfettered military supremacy. This is what the fuss is all about. It wants the freedom to hit Iran and any other country that dares raise its head, without the risk of being hit back. It does not want any Middle East state or movement to be able to protect itself — hence its bitter animus against resistance movements such as Hezbollah and Hamas, which have survived Israeli attempts to destroy them, and refuse to be cowed.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defence Minister Ehud Barak are evidently itching to bring down the regime in Tehran — and indeed the whole so-called ‘resistance axis’ of Iran, Syria and Hezbollah, which in recent years has been the only credible barrier to Israeli and American ambitions. But the Arabs should reflect that the destruction of this barrier will mean abandoning the Palestinians to their tragic fate and exposing the Gulf states to future Israeli and American pressures and possible assaults.
Israel would, of course, prefer the US to bring down the Iranian regime by itself — much as it brought down Saddam Hussain’s regime in Iraq. Netanyahu may be tempted to strike first, but only if he is sure that President Barack Obama will join in the attack or be compelled to do so, because of his alleged need to win Jewish votes in November’s presidential elections. Obama desperately wants to avoid being dragged into another war. To head off an Israeli attack, he has, in the words of his spokesman, imposed on Iran “the most stringent sanctions ever imposed on any country”.
A solution to the crisis lies in the hands of the two major regional powers, Saudi Arabia and Iran. Although they are often seen as rivals, they could also be partners, since they share a strong interest in the peace and security of the Gulf. There are small but promising signs that they are reaching out to each other.
It is striking that the recent preparatory meeting in Tehran for the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) summit, due later this month, reached much the same conclusions regarding the civil war in Syria as last week’s gathering in Riyadh of members of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC). Participants at both meetings stressed the need for a ceasefire to stop the bloodshed, followed by political negotiations and the formation of a national unity government. A hopeful sign was the presence of Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at the OIC summit in Riyadh.
Disastrous as it is, the Syrian civil war is only a sub-plot in a far wider contest. Whether President Bashar Al Assad remains temporarily at the head of the regime, or is persuaded to quit, is far from being the main issue. Those pressing for war do not care about who rules in Damascus. They simply want Syria enfeebled, preferably dismembered, and its allies crippled.
Issues of profound importance for the Arabs are at stake in this ferocious test of wills. Will the existing pattern of Arab nation states survive the crisis or will it fracture? Can Sunnis and Shiites learn to live together in harmony under the banner of Islam or are they doomed to fight each other for another thousand years? Can the security of ethnic and religious minorities, which have contributed for centuries to the rich diversity of the region, be guaranteed? And what will be the outcome for Arab independence itself?
We are witnessing today the latest phase of the struggle for Arab independence. It began a century ago when the Arabs sought to throw off Ottoman rule. But when the Ottoman Empire collapsed in the First World War, the Arabs fell instead under the control of Britain and France who divided the Arab world between them. And when these colonial powers were finally forced out, the Arabs were confronted by the even deadlier threat of an aggressive and expansionist Israel.
American influence over the region has long been predominant, especially after the collapse of the Soviet Union a generation ago. Today, as the US wrestles with economic problems and the legacy of catastrophic wars, it is also being challenged by new emergent powers. A further handicap for the US is that it has allowed Israel to dictate its Middle East policy. The Arabs should reflect that a regional war, driven by Israel, risks robbing them of the little real independence they have so far managed to secure.
Can war be prevented? King Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz of Saudi Arabia is one of the wisest leaders on the international stage. He alone has the political weight, the resources, and the influence with both the US and the rebels in Syria to check the region’s downward rush to disaster. He seems torn between his understandable distaste for some Iranian policies and his instinctive understanding of the need for better Saudi-Iranian relations. Several Gulf officials, in turn, are torn between their fear of a powerful Iran and their understanding that members of the Gulf Cooperation Council share many commercial and strategic interests with the Islamic Republic.
Instead of siding with the US and Israel in the destruction of Iran and Syria, Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies should join with Iran in building a new security system for the region free from external meddling. If they act together, they can spare the region the devastation of war. But they must act soon because time is running out.
Patrick Seale is a commentator and author of several books on Middle East affairs, Al Assad of Syria: The Struggle for the Middle East and Abu Nidal: A Gun for Hire.