ALTHOUGH peering into the future is a hazardous business, it would not be rash to say that of all the potential man-made catastrophes that might afflict the world this coming year, for sheer destructiveness none would surpass a US or Israeli attack on Iran. Is such an attack probable or even possible? Regrettably, it is. In the current confrontation with Iran, the military option remains very much on the table. In both the US and Israel, the same military planners, political lobbyists and armchair strategists that pressed the US to attack Iraq are now urging it to strike Iran — and for much the same reasons. These reasons may be briefly summarised as the need to control the Middle East’s oil resources and deny them to potential rivals, such as China; the wish to demonstrate the US’s ability to project military power across the globe; and Israel’s determination to maintain its supremacy over any regional challenger, especially one as recklessly provocative as Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. An effective US or Israeli strike against Iran would have to destroy not only its nuclear facilities but also its ability to hit back — its entire military-industrial complex.
The attack would have to be so devastating it would rob Iran of the will and means to retaliate. This could take weeks of air and missile attacks and, because of the size of the country and the dispersal of its military assets, would be difficult to achieve.
It seems more than likely that if attacked, Iran will, one way or another, manage to strike back — against US troops in Iraq, against Israel, and against US bases and US allies in the Gulf.
Of all these targets, the Arab states of the Gulf — the most prosperous, modern and forward-looking of the Arab world — are perhaps the most vulnerable.
The effect on Arab society would be incalculable.
The effect would also be devastating on US-Arab relations, on Israel’s long-term security, on the flow of oil from the Gulf, on the oil price, on the economies of the industrial world and on the already highly fragile dollar. And yet, some influential voices argue that the only way the US can hope to “win” in Iraq is to destroy Iran.
US President George Bush is due to make a statement on his Middle East strategy soon. All the indications are that he will reject the advice of the Iraq Study Group, led by James Baker and Lee Hamilton, to withdraw combat troops from Iraq, to engage Iran and Syria in a dialogue and to give priority to resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict.
There is talk of sending more troops to Iraq, of tightening sanctions against Iran and Syria, of mobilising “moderate” Arab states against “extremists”, of arming the Fouad Siniora government in Lebanon against Hezbollah, and the Fatah forces of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas against the Hamas government.
In the Horn of Africa, the US is lending its tacit support to Ethiopia in its war against Somalia’s Union of Islamic Courts, in the name of the ill-conceived war on terror which creates more terrorists than it eliminates.
Instead of bringing peace to a deeply troubled region, US policies are feeding the flames of civil war in Iraq, exposing US troops to greater danger, forcing Iran and Syria to look to their defences, exacerbating conflicts in Lebanon and Palestine and opening a new front in Somalia, which risks destabilising much of east Africa.
Still in the grip of the neoconservative cabal which has destroyed his presidency by its insane belligerence, Bush continues to see the Tehran-Damascus-Hezbollah-Hamas axis as the main enemy to confront and bring down.
The real danger this year is that Saudi Arabia, alarmed at the rise of Iran and the self-assertion of Shiite communities in Lebanon and the Gulf region, will be persuaded to side with the US against Tehran.
Meanwhile, Israel continues to play cat and mouse with the international community, pretending to make concessions to Abbas, such as removing a few checkpoints and releasing a fraction of the funds it has sequestered, while blatantly establishing a new illegal settlement in the Jordan valley and pressing ahead with its infamous separation wall. The message is clear: Israel’s land grab on the West Bank will continue whatever Washington or anyone else might say.
Last year’s war in Lebanon confronted Israel with the choice of continuing to seek to dominate the region by military force and expanding its territory at the expense of the Palestinians or of making peace with the Arab world on the basis of something like its 1967 borders.
Ehud Olmert’s government in Israel has chosen the first option: it has rejected Syria’s offer to reopen peace negotiations for the return of the Golan Heights; it is not ready to end its occupation of Palestinian territory or allow the creation of a viable Palestinian state; it is rearming and retraining its forces in anticipation of a “second round” against Hezbollah in Lebanon; it continues its cruel war of attrition against the Hamas movement in Gaza; and it is determined to maintain its regional monopoly of weapons of mass destruction. Various influential Israelis have stated that if the US does not strike against Iran to destroy its nuclear facilities, Israel must do so itself.
If one considers the likely effect of these US and Israeli policies, it is clear the coming year is likely to be a hot one in the region.
The real problem is a worldwide lack of leadership. There is hardly anyone around with the power or the vision to end the current state of international anarchy.
Bush has delegitimised himself and squandered US authority by his blunders. Russia’s Vladimir Putin has managed to hoist his country back into the front rank of international powers but his focus is still on reasserting Russian state control over oil and gas resources, while keeping neighbours such as Ukraine, Belarus and Georgia firmly within Russia’s orbit.
The European Union is a magnificent example of how 27 nations can by mutual agreement and by means of carefully crafted laws give 500-million people a life of peace, stability and considerable prosperity. But in terms of a common foreign policy, it is a failure.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair has marginalised himself and his country by his slavish attachment to the US. He will, in any event, be leaving office this year. President Jacques Chirac of France, an experienced and sober Middle East hand, will be out of office by May.
In the Middle East, three men will bear a heavy burden of responsibility in the coming year. They are King Abdallah bin Abdulaziz of Saudi Arabia, President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey. They all have great problems at home but if they were to get together, pool their considerable resources and jointly exert their political influence, they could protect the region from some of the risks, perils and potential catastrophes of the year ahead.
‖Seale is a leading British writer on the Middle East and the author of The Struggle for Syria; Asad of Syria: The Struggle for the Middle East; and Abu Nidal: A Gun for Hire.