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    Middle East
     Apr 13, 2006
End of story: Israel triumphant
By M K Bhadrakumar

In Gabriel Garcia Marquez' novella Chronicle of a Death Foretold, virtually everyone in the town knows that Santiago Nasar is going to be murdered. Yet nobody can or will do anything to prevent it. The murder is motivated and inexorable. Yet no one quite knows why Santiago Nasar, a rich young swashbuckling fellow, must die.

There is a similar feeling of unforgiving inevitability about President George W Bush's desire to go to war with Iran. In its carefully woven plot and its inventive, non-linear structure that is intended to sustain dramatic tension, Bush's Iran war leaps out of the



pages of Marquez' metaphysical murder mystery.

But there is nothing mysterious about the general plot outline. Seymour Hersh, an investigative journalist for The New Yorker magazine, has now filled in the details of Bush's rush to war. Yet for all its sense of inevitability, the story line still has indeterminacies. Truth is continually slithering away from it - like a sly serpent determined to live for another day.

Three concentric circles have been forming for the past six years of the Bush presidency around the "Iran question". Bush administration officials can draw satisfaction that finally they are beginning to reinforce one another. The debate henceforth is less about the main objective; it has come down now to the details of the timing and execution.

Of the three circles, the one outside the perimeter concerns the various factors that the Bush administration is compelled to reckon with within the United States. Inside that lies another circle involving the factors at work in the Arab Middle East. At the center, at its very core, is the US agenda of dominating the region. Put another way, it is about securing Israel's dominant position in a New Middle East.

The most important information that Hersh put in his New Yorker article was not details of the presence of US intelligence operatives on Iranian territory, nor about the Pentagon simulating attacks on Iran. It was not even about the horrendous possibility that the Bush administration might use tactical nuclear weapons against buried nuclear sites. But it was the chilling reality that any military move directed against Iran would become a "bipartisan" matter in the US.

According to Hersh, Bush has included - implicated, one might say - opposition Democrats among the select group of legislators he has begun to brief about the imperative of attacking Iran. That may be why Democrats are either silent on a possible attack or are actually trying to position themselves to the right of the president.

The reluctance of senior Democrats to articulate anti-war sentiments was underscored last weekend when a student audience at Brown University in the state of Rhode Island heckled Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton. Being the front-runner among apparent Democratic presidential hopefuls in 2008, she apparently believes she can ill afford to articulate anti-war sentiments, even if they don't go over well on campus.

Support for Zionism
The support for Israel among the organized Christian groups in the US has increased dramatically in recent years. Christian evangelicals, who currently wield unprecedented influence in US politics, regard the return of the Jews to their ancient homelands as a prerequisite for the Second Coming. No serious politician in either the Republican or Democratic camp can ignore the resurgence of Zionism in US politics.

Iran has been implanted in the US evangelical consciousness as Israel's Enemy No 1. Also, Iran is equated with Islam, and that religion, in turn, is identified with terrorism in Bible Belt America. Conservative Christian ideologues routinely indulge in shrill condemnations of Islam, which is portrayed as a threat to the righteousness of Christian and Zionist principles.

Many US evangelicals believe that God gave the land of Israel to the Jewish people and that the Palestinians who live in the West Bank and Gaza should be removed to another Arab country. Some evangelicals believe that God punished assassinated former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin for offering to trade land for peace with the Palestinians.

Thus, curiously, the Bush administration is presented with a political "win-win" situation. The best way of rallying Americans behind the Bush presidency would be to go to war with Iran. That would boost Bush's overall popularity with the voters, which is currently so abysmally low that he may soon become a lame-duck president.

Looking beyond his own shores, Bush sees more opportunities to promote America's and Israel's agenda. Iraq is in the midst of a civil war that threatens to spread throughout the Middle East - paradoxically, on account of the mayhem in Iraq. The pro-American Arab regimes in the region see the Iraq situation with growing alarm.

Their vital interests increasingly overlap Israel's. The pro-American Arab regimes, especially Egypt and Jordan, and Israel alike realize that there is an Arab leadership void in the region. Egypt and Syria are pale shadows of what they used to be. Syria is badly isolated. And in the framework post-September 11, 2001, something has fundamentally changed in the previously tight Saudi-US relationship.

These Arab regimes (and Israel) harbor deep misgivings about the Shi'ite ascendancy in Iraq and the likelihood of its spilling over its borders. Also, they equate the Shi'ite ascendancy with an expanding Iran. King Abdullah of Jordan has warned about the specter of an emergent "Shi'ite crescent" in the region. Lately, President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt has sounded a similar alarm. "There are Shi'ites in all these countries who are significant percentages [of the population], and Shi'ites are mostly loyal to Iran and not to the countries where they live," he said.

Mubarak's statement calls attention to the heightening sectarian divide across the Middle East. But that is its side0effect. A seasoned politician like Mubarak would speak with deliberation. He was addressing Washington on behalf of fellow Arab rulers who harbor a deep sense of disquiet over the planned talks between the US and Iran over the future of Iraq originally scheduled to begin this weekend. Israel of course is perennially nervous about any US-Iran face-to-face dialogue of any kind.

Specifically, Arab rulers such as Mubarak are terrified of the prospect of the US keeping them out of the loop on decision-making in Iraq. On April 5, Cairo hosted a ministerial meeting of Arab countries to exchange views on these very concerns. Earlier, the intelligence chiefs of these Arab countries also met in this regard. (Syria is excluded from these hush-hush parleys.)

Israel shares the unease of these Arab regimes that the "Sunni Arab core is becoming a political periphery relative to the new core, which has moved eastwards to Iran", to quote Asher Susser, a prominent Israeli strategic thinker. He added: "Saddam Hussein's Iraq was once the Arab bulwark in the east, but its removal has opened the floodgates for Iranian regional ascendancy, for which nothing positive can be said from an Israeli standpoint."

Furthermore, Iraq's possible breakup is a nightmare for the Arabs (and Israel) since southern Iraq would come even more under Iranian influence. That could trigger massive Arab street protests, jeopardizing the very existence of the Arab regimes by further strengthening the forces of radicalism such as Hamas, Hezbollah and Muslim Brotherhood. (There is a method after all in Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad's seemingly outrageous statements.)

Beyond these regional equations in the Middle East lies the inner core, the first circle, of the Bush administration's strategy toward Iran. It is, and has always been, securing Israel's regional dominance. Here any unfinished business is simply impermissible since it can have catastrophic effects on Israel's security. Let's see what has been achieved so far since the invasion of Iraq three years ago.

Saddam Hussein's removal brought Syria under sustained pressure - weakening it, containing it somewhat and even rolling it back from Lebanon. Syria can no longer challenge Israel on Lebanese soil. Israel may still have some way to go to seize the strategic initiative along its northern border, but a beginning has been made. On the other hand, Syria's territorial integrity remains intact, and that is a fundamental roadblock to any redrawing of the map of the Middle East. A fragmentation of Iraq could have the "positive" outcome of disintegrating Syria.

Meanwhile, Syria is hardly in a position anymore to undermine and humiliate Jordan. To that extent, Israel can still hope to shape its strategic environment further in cooperation with Jordan. But Iraq's future is bound to affect the strategic balance in the Middle East profoundly. This also hampers the optimal utilization of Jordan's secret cooperation with Israel.

Ideally, of course, if Jordan can replace Iran as the main influence over the Iraqi Shi'ites, that would enable King Abdullah to wean the south Lebanese Shi'ites away from Iran as well. In such a scenario, the Jordanian king can be of real help to Israel in bringing the Lebanon problem under control.

But for all this come to fruition, Iran needs to be contained. Once Iranian influence is rolled back, the Shi'ites in Iraq and Lebanon will naturally gravitate to the Hashemites of Jordan. An orderly transition becomes possible even in Saudi Arabia.

Finally, Israel has come some way already toward forging a new relationship with the Palestinians on its terms. Israel no longer has any obligations under the old Oslo agreements. But here again, much work lies ahead. Jordan could have helped Israel in cultivating Palestinians willing to work with Israel in the era post-Yasser Arafat. Instead, Israel today has to contend with the rise of Hamas (with Iranian backing) as the alternative to the Fatah's base of power. Any way you look at the equation, Iran stands in the way.

Israel's interests today are, of course, radically different from what they were in the past. Israel has made peace with the key countries of the "Arab core" - Egypt and Jordan. Israel has contained its foes. But Israel is still far from transcending the Arab-Israeli conflict and becoming the most important element in the history of the Middle East, which would lead to a truly New Middle East.

M K Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-98) and to Turkey (1998-2001).

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From Baghdad to Beirut (Feb 17, '05)

Shi'ite challenge to US policy (Jan11, '06)

 
 



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