The Status of the Middle East Balance of Power

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Context
250_Saddam_statue_pulled_downAs the US continues to withdraw its combat troops from Iraq it is pertinent to take a step back and look at the current state of the region. With skirmishes between Israeli and Lebanese forces, new dynamics arising between Syria and Iran and an aggressive Russian posturing in the region there is no shortage of fault lines to keep those with vested interests in the Middle East concerned. The evolving Sunni-Shiite dynamics are also being tested as the cold tussle between Iran and the US plays out in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East. Iran and Saudi Arabia are also speeding up their efforts to assist the flood-impacted people of Pakistan.

Analysis

150_haririLebanon-Israel

The classic neighborly dispute over fences and hedges took on a sinister turn in early August as an Israeli tree-trimming along the Lebanese border dissolved into an exchange of fire which left three Lebanese soldiers, one journalists and one Israeli officer dead. Typically both sides claim the tree was on their side of the border. The minutiae of whose tree it was and where the tree was growing aside, the escalation of tensions over such a small issue is a stark reminder that the Lebanon/Israel conflict is far from resolved.

In 2006 an uneasy peace was achieved after a month of heavy violence between Israel and Hezbollah which claimed over 1000 lives, primarily on the Lebanese side. Hezbollah declared victory at the time simply due to the fact of its survival and Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah enjoyed supreme popularity throughout both the Sunni and Shiite Middle East. At the time the Lebanese Army stayed out of the fray, perhaps vainly hoping that the Israelis might succeed in ridding Lebanon of the Iran backed Hezbollah. After seeing the overwhelming support Hezbollah garnered within Lebanon and the region at large for taking on Israel in a ‘David and Goliath’ type struggle the Lebanese Government seems to have understood that Hezbollah is more than just a foreign-backed organization, but has real roots in Lebanon.

At the time of the border clash on August 5, Hezbollah remained restrained, not joining the Lebanese forces. However if any such occurrences happen again, Nasrallah has vowed he will not stay on the sidelines a second time.

These events coincide with the accusation by Hezbollah that Israel was involved in the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005. At the time the popular opinion was that Syria was behind the attack, but Hezbollah maintains that while Syria had some to gain from Hariri’s demise, it had more to lose. Israel, on the other hand had much to gain, according to Hezbollah and various unpopular voices such as German journalist Jurgen Cain Kulbel in his book “The Hariri File: Silenced Evidence in Lebanon.” Hariri’s rise to power was seen as a beacon of hope for many that a stable, liberal Lebanon was on the horizon once again but the glimmer of unity between the many Lebanese political factions also died with Hariri. This is what many see as the Israeli rationale for the assassination.

Ironically the charge from Nasrallah of Israel’s involvement comes just as a UN report into the 2005 assassination is set to be released-the report is thought to link Hezbollah to the assassination. If the report places blame on Hezbollah’s shoulders then it further implicates Hezbollah backer Iran, because on all sides there is agreement that the assassination was too sophisticated to have been carried out without the support and expertise of well-trained, government-supported individuals. Whether they were Iranian National Guards or Mossad agents may never be fully understood.

The current danger with the implication of Hezbollah in the attack is that it may spark a renewal of tensions, if not violence, between the Sunni backers of Hariri and the Shiite supporters of Hezbollah let alone rekindling tensions with Israel. By suggesting Israel’s involvement, Nasrallah may be trying to mitigate the fallout from the pending UN report because enmity against Israel has proved to be a uniting force in Lebanon.

The Troubled Iranian Security Belt

As the inflammatory accusation was passed by Nasrallah, Iran made it clear that its full support was behind Hezbollah by declaring that: “Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan are Iran’s security belt.” If being on the Iranian “security belt” list means being in political turmoil, rife with internal disharmony and a playground for larger world powers, it’s not a list any country should be proud to be on-one wonders why Pakistan wasn’t included, as it certainly fits the bill. But in all seriousness, the declaration was more than just a show of support for Nasrallah: it was a thinly veiled “thumb-to-nose” at the US and Israel. After years of conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan, the US would hardly be happy to hear that their efforts have served none of the goals they intended and created exactly the opposite scenario they want: a strong Iran, confident that the chaos on two of its borders is keeping it secure. As for Lebanon, the Iranian ‘piece de resistance’ is Hezbollah.

But the Iranian’s may have been premature in declaring Lebanon a part of the dubious ‘security belt’ as Saudi and Syrian actions have recently put their stamp on the political landscape. Syria remained rather ‘hands-off’ regarding Lebanon after the withdrawal of its troops following the Hariri assassination and the so-called ‘Cedar Revolution’ which followed; it now looks to be moving into a hegemonic role once again.

In mid-August King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia visited Lebanon accompanied by Syrian President Bashar Al Assad. The two parties met with current Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri and there appears to be a tacit agreement that Syria, with the backing of the Saudis and other Sunni Arab states is to take a more dominant role in Lebanon once again-to the detriment, of course, of Iranian influence.

This new development is likely to complicate relations between Syria and Iran. It is not immediately foreseeable that the relationship will be severed-Syria still has strategic reason’s of its own to maintain ties with Tehran-but it will serve to caution the Iranians that Syria may not be counted on as deeply as once thought. The Syrian move also consolidates the Sunni bloc of Arab states and is most likely a bid to counter the growing perception that Shiite Iran is the regional heavyweight.

200_Ahmadinehad_and_PutinA Nuclear Iran and Russia’s New Stance

Iran’s nuclear ambitions continue to garner the condemnation of the international community, even though Russia-a party to the new round of sanctions-is going ahead with fuelling the Bushehr Iranian nuclear reactor. The Bushehr plant is to be Russian-operated, so is of less concern than the Iranian’s own enrichment programs. But the Bushehr plant has been plagued with upsets leading up to the fueling date of August 21, 2010. Three UAV’s reportedly crashed into the plant on August 1, after which the head of the Iranian drone program was killed in a mysterious bomb blast at his house, effectively stalling the drone program for the foreseeable future. On August 17 an Iranian jet crashed just six kilometers outside of the plant but all of these incidences have been in one way or another written off by Iranian officials. What is intriguing about these occurrences is that they all seem to hint at internal conflict and no fingers have been pointed at any outside forces.

Russia appears to be backing Iran in more than just the Bushehr operations. Russian S-300 interceptors now line the shores of the Black Sea-the same missile interceptors previously promised to Iran. There is speculation that contrary to Moscow’s line that the S-300 were moved into Abkhazia to counter possible trouble from Georgia, the defense system has been set up to ensure any Israeli/US launch against the Bushehr reactor in Northern Iran would be promptly dealt with by the S-300 interceptors. The S-300 batteries are in close proximity to two large American air bases, which Israel has used to practice tactical training operations for touch-and-go attacks. This move by Russia may also be to counterweigh the US defense systems in place in the region and the possibility of a new NATO missile defense system under contemplation at this year’s Lisbon Summit scheduled for November.

The reaction from the US to both the S-300 and the fuelling of Bushehr has been quite mild. This has more to do with the fact that the US is presently trying to ‘reset’ relations with Russia than it not being concerned with the support Iran is receiving. On the contrary anything emboldening Iran would be of the utmost concern to the US, especially as the withdrawal of combat troops will at this stage be leaving a government-less Iraq ripe for Iranian influence.

While Syria and Saudi seemed to have nipped Lebanon from the triumphant ‘security belt’ for the Iranians, Iraq still remains at great risk of a resurgence of violence and chaos, especially if sectarian tensions between Sunnis and Shiite are aggravated. If there is one place in the world where it is easy to ignite such tensions, Iraq is it, and Iran is in a supremely confident place that it can pull the strings in Iraq if need be.

The connection between the current events in the Middle East is also the Sunni-Shiite divide: if tensions flare up in one part of the region there is every likelihood that this will spill over into others and it won’t take much flare to kindle the sectarian tensions in Iraq. On the other hand as Pakistan deals with the social, economic and political aftermath of the devastating floods, the Iranian position is likely to get stronger in the AfPak region, and should be a cause of great concern for Saudi Arabia and the United States.

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