HOT SPOT

An explosive, unstable imbalance in the Middle East

By J Brooks Spector 20 September 2019

From left, former Israeli army chief of staff Benny Gantz, Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu, US President Donald Trump. (Photos: EPA-EFE / Abir Sultan) | (EPA-EFE / Atef Safadi) | EPA-EFE / Jim Lo Scalzo)

The respective trajectories of the Iran/Saudi-US confrontation, and Israeli politics after its newest election, may mean the two are moving in very different directions.

For some years now, the Middle East has been sliding away from its delicately stacked balance and on to far less stable arrangements. On the other hand, there are a few glimmers of hope for some new energy as well.

Last Saturday, numerous weapons exploded in strategic oil facilities in eastern Saudi Arabia. Soon after the explosions, the Houthi rebels in Yemen claimed credit for these attacks. The Houthis are strongly supported by Iran, while the government of Yemen is equally fully backed by Saudi Arabia (with the US as its backstop). The resulting fighting has generated the kind of barbaric suffering that has put millions of Yemenis at imminent risk of starvation or victims of epidemics – while many others have already reached such circumstances.

One problem is that the resulting explosions have, depending on who is explaining things, halted something like half of all Saudi oil production, leading to somewhere in the neighbourhood of 8% of global oil production being stopped. Not surprisingly the spot price of oil on global markets jumped upwards quickly, and stock exchanges around the globe headed the other way in the aftermath.

In response, for the US, there was discussion about releasing some of the country’s strategic petroleum reserve, although the market steadied sufficiently that that has proved unnecessary – at least in the short term – and the Saudis insist that following their assessment of the destruction that the damage could be reversed in a few months. As it stands now, global oil production has actually been exceeding consumption for some time, thereby keeping price uncertainty to a relatively narrow band, nowhere near the price ructions of, say, the OPEC oil embargo of 1973-4, following the October War between Arab nations and Israel.

Nevertheless, the theory of Houthi drones doing all the damage – despite their claim of responsibility – had some holes in it. First of all, the damage was apparently more than what could have been inflicted by a dozen or so drones. Instead, something much stronger was required, such as the payloads from cruise missiles. Second, the Saudi government gave an international media audience a show of parts recovered from cruise missiles that had not detonated, as well as a map (without Trumpian black sharpie semicircles), showing the presumed range of cruise missiles from a launch in Iran to the target.

Per the range circles spreading out from the targets that were struck on the map they displayed, the Saudis argued it would have been impossible for the missiles to have come from Yemen and those Houthis, and – no prize for guessing – the logic of the recovered parts, targets and range map pointed to no one other than the Iranians. Chiming in from the sideline, various US officials such as the president and secretary of state offered a variety of observations that kept edging towards saying it was almost certainly Iran who was the responsible culprit. The Americans then announced still more, harsher economic sanctions were headed towards Iran. (Given all the sanctions already in place, one is left wondering just what else could be targeted.)

The challenge facing the US (and the Saudis) in all this, of course, is how well they can make a convincing case for blaming Iran for the missiles – and that they were launched from Iran. Firing off those missiles seems logical, up to a point, given Iran’s antagonism with the Saudis, and in pointing out the obvious fact that Saudi oil infrastructure is especially vulnerable to attack, and thus so is the flow of petroleum outward from Saudi Arabia to the rest of the world. Talk about your asymmetric warfare…

But given President Trump’s record of misstatements, fibs, and head-ringing, four-alarm, glowing phosphorescent whoopers – more than 12,000 since entering office – there is some understandable hesitancy on the part of many to immediately take on board, on faith, statements about culpability for the attack, absent undeniable cast-iron proof of Iranian involvement. At the minimum, so far, this kind of “you did it”, “no we didn’t” exchange has helped the cynical to recall charges about those weapons of mass destruction that presumably had been created by yet another Mideast nation.

In the meantime, some like New York Times commentator Nick Kristof are cautioning a more wait-and-see approach, writing, “Bob Gates, the former defense secretary, once scoffed that Saudi Arabia ‘wants to fight the Iranians to the last American.’ 

“I fear we just might slip toward that nightmare. Gates continues:

The problem is that Iran probably was behind the attack on Saudi Arabia’s oil installations, and it may have taken the risk of such a provocation partly because of a calculation that President Trump bellows loudly but carries a small twig. There is a risk of signalling weakness — but in my judgment, an even greater risk of responding militarily and risking escalation into a catastrophic war.

“When you hear hawks talking about the importance of striking Iran to teach it a lesson, remember that these are the same hawks who counseled that we could withdraw from the Iranian nuclear deal and apply ‘maximum pressure’ on Iran so that it would buckle. These are the same folks who promised that we would invade Iraq and install a freedom-loving democracy.

Trump’s suggestion that we defend Saudi Arabia because it pays us to do so is an insult to our troops, casting them as mercenaries. The truth is that Saudi Arabia and Iran are both repressive, misogynistic dictatorships that destabilize the region — so let them pursue their own struggle if they must. This is not our fight. Saudi Arabia has its own fighter aircraft and missiles; no need for it to fight to the last American.”

As this was being written, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had just been in the Middle East to build up a coalition with friendly nations to confront Iran and its putative missile strikes, and Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif was on CNN warning of the possibility of all-out war. Meanwhile, to keep the pressure on, the US had not yet issued the requisite visas for Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, Zarif, and their aides to arrive in the US for the upcoming UN General Assembly session. This is in apparent contravention of the international agreement about leaders’ unrestricted travel to the UN, given that its headquarters are in New York City.

Despite all the chest-beating, it really is not clear the Trump administration actually wants an open conflict with Iran. Rather, the logic of American politics points the other way, regardless of all that silverback-style posturing. The reason is actually pretty simple and it speaks to the US electoral calendar. Donald Trump ran, and won the presidency on the promise to draw back from all those wasteful deployments in the Middle East and South Asia (Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan). Probably one of the last things Trump wants to do, despite all the noise, is begin yet another combat deployment, this time fighting Iran.

The moment such a conflict were to commence, there would be no easy way to say how it would go, where it would go, and how it might end, let alone what would be the human and material toll from collateral damage. (Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery liked to say that the best plans go right out the window the moment the shooting starts.)

With such military uncertainties and casualties, there could come major economic hits too, including, among other things, dramatic spikes in oil prices, roiling further the US public’s growing unease with the Trump administration. And this would allow any Democratic presidential candidate to point to Trump as a deranged, geopolitical bull in a china shop. The problem, of course, is that no one can underestimate the possibility of an incident between, say, two opposing fighter jocks that leads to more. Much more.

Meanwhile, further to the West, Israel is now entering the immediate aftermath of its second general election in one year. The still-being tabulated results of its election have put Likud’s Binyamin Netanyahu and the Blue and White Party’s Benny Gantz nearly neck and neck, but with Gantz’s party slightly ahead. But neither party is close to gaining an actual majority of the 120-seat legislature and so negotiations, jockeying for position, and whispered (or shouted) backroom deals are now beginning.

One very knowledgeable Israeli observer of his country’s politics told the writer that while Likud would obviously be reluctant to support a left-leaning government, they can now hope for a government of national unity, although Gantz’s people have made it pretty clear that such a unity government can’t be accomplished with Netanyahu as prime minister because he is in the midst of a spread of criminal charges.

I believe,” our source said, “that in the end it will be the Blue and White, post-Bibi Likud and Lieberman, but that it won’t happen before November”.

Avigdor Lieberman, head of the Yisrael Beiteinu Party, had previously been a defence minister in a Netanyahu cabinet, but, in recent years, he has been gingerly edging towards the political centre, and now has strongly secularist policy positions, in opposition to the fanatical religious parties Netanyahu had counted on to put him over the top for a majority. That didn’t happen in the voting and some observers see in the results a kind of Netanyahu fatigue setting in for some voters, what with all the sturm und drang he has brought along with him over all his years in politics. Additionally, the Israeli-Arab political alliance, the Joint List, increased its seats in representing the 20% of the Israeli population that is Arab, and if that unity government comes to be, the Joint List could actually become the lead opposition party.

And of Donald Trump and his relationship with all this? As it has become clear, Netanyahu was very far from securing a majority (or even a majority with the support of the religious right), despite all the advertised support from Washington (such as moving the embassy and endorsing a change in the status of the Golan Heights), Trump has begun to edge away from his earlier conjoined twins-like relationship with Netanyahu. Instead, Trump has begun to speak of the US’s ties with Israel, instead of that Donald and Bibi bromance. Perhaps even that Jared Kushner-led, so-called Palestinian settlement could be returned to the box from whence it came.

If the Netanyahu era is actually over, and if a different kind of leadership cohort comes into power, it might even create possibilities for some modest progress over the things that have been so contentious for so long between Israelis and Palestinians.

By contrast, in the Persian Gulf theatre of potential conflict, the unpleasantness between Iran and Saudi Arabia/the US may well be heating up, even if the respective parties continue to say they, themselves, do not want hostilities, only their opponents do. DM

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