Mideast Peace thanks to …Iran?

In a recent talk to students at the Interdisciplinary Center, Herzliyya; a former head of Israel’s army intelligence let drop some interesting information. The Saudi peace proposal may be more serious than most people realize. It may also have a lot less to do with Saudi Arabia’s charitable feeling toward their Palestinian ‘brothers’ (they repeatedly turned Arafat down cold when he asked them for cash, and have been cool to the Palestinians ever since), and more to do with Saudi-Arabia’s strategic interests.

The gist of the remarks were that the peace proposal (an unimaginative plan based on UN resolution 242 like almost every other peace proposal, and considered irrelevant by both Washington and Jerusalem at first) is probably more than an attempt by the Saudis to adjudicate the peace process or get equal status with the Quartet. It is the first official overture as such by the Saudi kingdom to Israel, and may very well be the initial stage of a diplomatic move to talk directly with the Jewish state about a much wider range of issues than peace with the Palestinians.

Likewise in the Arabian Gulf (or Persian Gulf, depending on which side you live on). Bahrain, Qatar, and even the UAE have each allowed increased trade and interaction with Israeli business interests. Israelis may now travel there, and “trade missions” stand in for embassies in a relationship that is rapidly changing. It is even widely understood that several years ago Shimon Peres turned down an offer from a small Gulf state to purchase tanks from Israel. 

When the second Lebanon war began, Saudi Arabia and others described Hizbullah’s actions as “unhelpful”, and refused to unequivocally support the Arab side in an Arab-Israeli conflict for the first time. Likewise the Palestinians have been given the cold shoulder from the Gulf States for years, partly stemming from the decision of the Palestinians to side with Sadaam Hussein in the 1991 Gulf War, and partly due to where they receive their principal support from now.

The reason for this rapidly thawing relationship between Israel and the Arabian Gulf is the same thing that looms behind every major decision and hot spot in the Middle East today; Iran. Like the elephant in the room, Iran is not always spoken of, but looms over every decision and action now made in this volatile region.

The Gulf States are militarily indefensible, but hold around a third of the world’s oil wealth. They rely completely on America’s protection. Their borders lack any significant natural barriers, their populations are small and spread out; any significant ground army could walk through them except for the fact of a series of US military bases and security commitments. Iran has long sought to dominate the Gulf; they have considered themselves the guardian, and natural dominant power in the region, and to Iran, the populations of most Arab gulf countries are miniscule. Left alone, Iran could literally swallow them even more effectively and completely than Iraq dominated Kuwait in 1990.

Today’s Middle East is undergoing transformation. Iran is developing nuclear weapons capability. It is understood that the United States will not engage in a conflict against a nuclear-armed power. This nullifies the protective value of the shield the US army has long provided to the gulf. Even more troubling; the United States is obviously contemplating a unilateral pullout form Iraq. The majority party in the US Congress is committed to that action even now. This must concern the Gulf nations. They must ask themselves if America has the stomach to protect them; even protection under a US nuclear umbrella from the Iranian menace would beg the question; would the United States risk New York for the sake of Riyadh? Given the perceived state of American commitment to the region as US policy begins to look like a race to buy a way out of Iraq at any cost as soon as possible, the Arabian Gulf must be very concerned. 

That concern is expressed in the multimillion dollar study underway right now concerning the feasibility of Saudi Arabia developing their own nuclear technology. Other Gulf nations have banded together with the Saudis into a regional defense organization, and are rumored to be involved in this effort as well. Considering what is at stake, we can expect enormous investment; but even so, they are unlikely to be able to develop their own nuclear deterrent in time, and Iran is unlikely to be as merciful as the United States was during it’s period of nuclear monopoly, since they know they will only have that monopoly once.

These considerations leave the Arabian Gulf with two further choices; either find another power that can protect them, a power with a nuclear capability of their own to counter that of Iran (assuming the world allows the Iranians to develop their weapons, as now looks ever more likely), or cut a deal with Teheran. Today, the Saudis have all three options on the table and are taking their time deciding. Call them what you will, but political amateurs they are not. 

Israel is the only feasible choice to counter an active threat from Iran backed up with nuclear force. Only Israel has a nuclear umbrella in the region. Israel has many of the advantages of the United States as far as military technology, but unlike the USA, they will not pull out of the Middle East, simply because they cannot. Israel has a reputation for doing what is necessary to ensure their safety and dealing with repercussions later, as at Osirak in 1981. This is precisely the sort of reputation you look for in a protector. Finally, there is no conceivable possibility of Israel taking advantage of a mutual agreement and dominating the Gulf themselves; they don’t have the population to simply absorb the Arab Gulf states and seize their oil assets as Iran certainly could. 

The Saudi peace proposal is a feeler. They are seeking contact with the Israeli government. The Arabian Gulf for the first time is unsure of the protection provided by it’s American benefactor, especially in the chaotic wake of a pullout from Iraq that leaves that nation probably in the hands of Iran. They are realists seeking the preservation of their states in a very rough region of the world. 

Turkey today is massing troops to the North of Iraq; just over the border, and is even beginning to slip them into the Kurdish regions of the North, little by little. They claim that this is in reaction to the rising possibility of Kurdish terrorism, but they have been quite patient and willing to stay on their side of the border as long as the United States looked committed to staying in Iraq. Like the Arabian Gulf, Turkey has a brutal calculus concerning their own interests. They will face a nuclear armed Iran on their Southern border and an America likely to be unwilling to commit to a serious “adventure” to help them for years to come. Turkey cannot be too confident in NATO to protect them given the unwillingness of most NATO members to send forces to ensure their security during the Iraq crisis in 2002-3. Many NATO members failed to live up to their security commitments in the midst of the Iraq war recriminations. Likewise, a growing consensus amongst the members of the EU that Turkey is not part of Europe proper must make any Turkish officials realize that their safety will not be guaranteed by any outside power despite all the signed guarantees in the world. Europe has long lacked the will to live up to their commitments, the MIddle East is watching in horror as the United States starts to sound more and more like them. 

Thus, Turkey will probably move into Iraq in force if the US pulls out. Let’s not delude ourselves; a unilateral pullout means chaos in Iraq; Turkey wont risk the results of that chaos, and will need the troops there to control at least part of Iraq. They will also desperately need some buffer between themselves and Iran; which may very well move into Iraq too. Thus, the Kurdish North of Iraq would likely become Iraq’s version of the Israeli ‘security zone’ in Lebanon that was finally abandoned in 2000 (allowing the Hizbullah to rocket Israel again, with the results we all can see). Turkey’s move would probably spark reciprocal moves by Iran, and Iraq would quickly lose any modicum of independent government. The Iraqi army couldn’t even begin to deal with this sort of scenario. 

Iran has bought the debt that Syria owed to the old Soviet Union, and which was transferred to Russia. They paid off the massive debt owed for hundreds of tons of Soviet military equipment largely destroyed in one of the previous Arab-Israeli wars. This huge favor from Iran has allowed the Syrians to rebuild their military and rearm with the latest Russian weaponry. They are now more heavily armed than at any time since just before the Yom Kippur War in 1973. Like “the Godfather”, Iran doesn’t do favors like this for nothing; a quid pro-quo is expected, and Syria has become a firm member of the Iranian camp. Syria is completely responsible for allowing unlimited Iranian weaponry to reach their proxy Hizbullah in Lebanon through Syrian territory, and for allowing Palestinian and other terrorists access to Iraq via their border. Both of these actions are in Iran’s interest. It is very clear that what Syria will be expected to do with all their new military power in return for the favors from Iran, when the time comes, will involve Israel.

Ironically, Arab states and Iran have long claimed that the Arab-Israeli conflict is at the heart of all problems in the region. If the Kurds and Turks have problems, it is Israel’s fault. If the Azerbaijanis and Armenians are fighting, you know who to blame. If Iran and Iraq are at war; a peace between Arafat and Israel will help. Strangely enough, today, the shallow stereotype is in fact correct, though not in all it’s particulars. Today, with the entire MIddle East polarizing and choosing sides, an Arab-Israeli peace actually is the way to deal with the major problems in the region. Ironically, the Palestinians will probably have little to do with it. 

Henry Kissinger, in ‘Diplomacy’ outlined the framework of historical realpolitik in Europe. That book clearly demonstrates the historical reality of power balancing in Europe and the world at large. Traditionally, whenever a given power in Europe grew too dominant, the other powers would shift away from them and ally in order to ‘balance’ the subcontinent; thus keeping any one power to dominate Europe since Rome. Even today, many in the EU describe the EU itself as a mechanism for balancing against American power. In the Middle East on the other hand, this historical pattern does not exist. The Middle East has often been dominated by either one or two dominant empires, since before the time of Rome until the modern day, the two political constructs of the Middle eastern landscape were the empire and the tribe. Tribes, unlike the kingdoms of Europe typically orient toward a growing power, not against it. The Middle East functions like a wolf pack; with perceived weakness followed by other powers turning on the weak one, and perceived strength followed by bandwagoning. This is why Iran is slowly becoming the ‘superpower’ of the region. This is also why a unilateral American retreat from Iraq would destroy our credibility for some time to come. 

As Iran’s power grows, more and more factions will try to join the ‘pack’. Today, Hamas receives almost all it’s support from Teheran. Fatah, Hamas’ deadly rival, also receives support from Iran, allowing Teheran to retain influence no matter who ultimately wins. This is why the Palestinians are out of favor with the Gulf States; they are part of the Iranian axis, and Iran is the one nation the Arabian Gulf fears most. 

Today, this course of events has provided us with an opportunity. Turkey and Israel already cooperate in security matters. Both are threatened by Iran, both are Middle Eastern states with nowhere to “pull out” to should Iran become dominant. The Gulf kingdoms require local allies to counter the Iranian threat, and Israel seeks recognition from the Arab world and normalization of relations. The Middle East has always rallied around dominant powers, today, if we do not provide that leadership, Iran will. We have the opportunity to bring the Gulf states, Turkey, Israel, and the new governments of Iraq and Afghanistan together with a common purpose. A regional security arrangement is necessary not only for the states of the Middle East themselves, but also for a United States that cannot count on Europe to view “local problems” as compelling.

Such a security framework would simultaneously solve several outstanding problems in the region. It would normalize Israeli-Arab relations with some of the most important states in the Arab world; bringing real peace a lot closer, it would bolster security guarantees to the Gulf States themselves, likely making it unnecessary for them to develop a nuclear option themselves and prevent further proliferation, it would bring Turkey into a regional framework as a major player, not as the second fiddle they would be consigned to be in Europe, making up for their likely loss of a chance to fully enter the EU, it would create a security organization capable of stationing troops within Iraq for some time to come, should a need arise to contain Iran, thus adding to Iraqi stability, and most importantly, it would force Iran to back down from their endless escalation in the face of a regionally dominant alliance. This would have a critical effect on the morale of the Iranian people. Like any tyranny in history, Iran relies on a sense of omnipotent power and fear to keep it’s people oppressed. A major political setback for the regime would electrify the democratic opposition that is simmering even now.

On the other hand, if we fail to grasp the moment, we will see many things that have been built in the region fall apart. Iraq will become a chaotic mess, followed by the transformation into the pawn of it’s neighbors. The Arabian Gulf will either develop nuclear weapons or turn to Iran and cut the best deal they can, massively increasing Teheran’s power and allowing them to squeeze the West or cripple the Western economies at will. Israel will face existential threat and potential annihilation. Iran backed Hamas, Hizbullah, and Syria will likely start yet another round of Arab-Israeli conflict, and the war could spread even further. America’s credibility will be exhausted and we will lose maneuvering room as former allies find new friends in the face of an America entering a shellshocked “post Vietnam” type phase in international relations. Obviously, the effect of this sort of moralization on the Islamist terror organizations will be profound. 

We now have a choice. The United States is the only nation that has the capability to broker the sort of deal that could lead to a regional Middle Eastern security framework. As of now, we are still in Iraq and our willingness to stick out a fight isn’t yet considered to be unreliable by our allies. The Arabian Gulf nations would clearly rather deal with the United States, and even Israel, than try to cut some kind of deal with a hegemonic Iran. Today we have all the cards, unfortunately, based on the insight into the ways of the Middle East shown by the current administration, I am very concerned that we may not even realize the opportunity now before us.

In the high-risk game inwhich we are involved, leaders of imagination and vision are needed. If we fail in this test, the results that we and our children will have to live with are almost unmentionable. Ironically, we may one day look back on the fanatic, violent regime of present day Iran as the spur that finally led to a real Mideast peace.

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~ by Jubal Biggs on June 25, 2007.

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