While America has been absorbed by the Afghan election imbroglio, a
less-noticed event slid into place in the Middle East. It is less dramatic than
President Hamid Karzai's near removal; but this event tilts the strategic
balance: Turkey finally shrugged off its United States straight-jacket; stared
past any beckoning European Union membership; and has fixed its eyes toward its
former Ottoman Asian and Middle Eastern neighbors.
Turkey did not make this shift merely to snub the West; but it does reflect
Turkey's discomfort and frustration with US and EU
policy - as well as resonate more closely with the Islamic renaissance that has
been taking place within Turkey.
This "release" of Turkish policy towards a new direction - if successful - can
be as significant as the destruction of Iraq and the implosion of Soviet power
was, 20 years ago, in "releasing" Iran to emerge as one of the pre-eminent
powers in the region.
In the past months, a spate of new agreements have been signed by Turkey with
Iraq, Iran, Syria and Armenia, which suggest not just a nascent commonality of
political vision with Iraq, Iran and Syria, but more importantly, it reflects a
joint economic interest - the northern tier of Middle East states are in line
to become the principal suppliers of natural gas to Europe - thus displacing
Russia as the dominant purveyor of gas to central Europe. In short, the
prospective Nabucco gas pipeline to central Europe may gradually eclipse the
energy primacy of Saudi oil.
What is mainly symbolic in the prospective passing of the baton of energy
"kingpin" - at least for Europe - from Saudi Arabia to the "northern tier",
however, is given substance, rather than symbolic form, in the simultaneous
weakening of the "southern tier" - Saudi Arabia and Egypt - both of which have
become partially incapacitated by their respective succession crises and
The weakening of the "southern tier" comes at a sensitive time. The region sees
the drift of power from erstwhile US allies, Egypt and Saudi Arabia towards the
northern tier, and, as is the way in the Middle East, is starting to readjust
to the new power reality.
This can be most clearly seen in Lebanon today, in the growing procession of
former US allies and critics of the Syrian government, making their pilgrimage
to Damascus. The message is not lost on others in the region either.
The US administration sees these changes too. It additionally knows - as
writers on the elsewhere have made clear - that any sanctions on Iran over its
nuclear program ultimately will fail. They will fail not only because Russia
and China will not play ball but precisely because the much touted "moderate
alliance of pro-Western Arab states" is looking increasingly to be a paper
tiger: the "moderates" are not seriously going to confront Iran and its allies.
Hopes by those, such as John Hannah, writing on foreignpolicy.com, that the
Saudi bombing of the Houthi rebels in Yemen would mobilize a sectarian Sunni
hostility towards Shi'ite Iran have not been realized. On the contrary, the
Saudis' action has been clearly seen in the region for what it is - a partisan
and tribal intervention in another state's internal conflict.
But if sanctions on Iran are widely acknowledged - at least in private within
the US administration - as destined to fail, this must be provoking some
interesting self-questioning within the White House: The US is in the process
now of withdrawal from Iraq, it is looking for the exit in Afghanistan and the
Israeli-Palestinian conflict is getting messier. None of these events seems
likely to become particularly glorious episodes for the administration.
It is not hard to imagine White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emmanuel and White
House senior adviser David Axelrod asking themselves, "why the president should
want to risk another perceived failure" - as sanctions on Iran surely will be.
"Why", they may ask, "do sanctions and open ourselves to persistent Republican
jeering at their inevitable failure and then ultimately force us to have to ask
... well, what do we do next, Mr President"?
"Worse, will we," they may ask, "be going into mid-term congressional elections
with the Republicans raising that old Vietnam taunt that the ‘US Army did not
lose in Vietnam - it was the politicians who stabbed the military in the back'
but with that same mantra now being used by our political enemies to depict
Iraq and Afghanistan as failures of political nerve? Do we want to go into the
midterm elections with failing Iran sanctions hanging like an albatross around
our necks too?"
No doubt in this discussion one of the White House staffers will point out
that, in the case of Iraq, sanctions were indeed pursued, despite the
likelihood of their failure, but for one reason only: to entice the Europeans
on board; to go through the diplomatic motions - so that the Europeans would
have no choice but to accept the consequences of their failure. But this does
not apply in the case of Iran, the officials might point out: Britain and
France, and to a lesser extent Germany, are, on this issue, more committed to
"imploding" the Iranian state - by "soft" war, if not by "hot" war - than is
Washington - so what would be the purpose of sanctions now?
We do not know the outcome to this hypothetical debate. We do not yet know that
negotiations with Iran will fail; although it seems that the debate within the
administration seems to be hardening against the idea of Iran retaining any
enrichment capacity. If this does become the administration's position, then
failure of negotiations is assured. Iran will not abjure its right to a nuclear
fuel cycle for power generation - even at the risk of war. This is the essence
of the dilemma: if sanctions seem likely to lead to nothing more than
Republican sniping and taunts of weakness, how does the president display
"toughness" on Iran - against the backdrop of withdrawal from Iraq, Afghanistan
and abstention on the Israeli-Palestinian political process?
It is clear that Israel must be reading the region in the same fashion.
Israelis are acutely sensitive to US politics, and the Israeli media already
express understanding for the acute dilemma that will face the US president if
sanctions do not succeed in persuading Iran to abandon all enrichment (the
Israeli objective). How might Israel see the way to help President Barack Obama
resolve this dilemma - given the improbability that Israel will be given any
"green light" to attack Iran directly, with all the consequences that such
military action might entail for US interests in the region?
A recent article by the veteran and well-connected Israeli columnist, Alex
Fishman, in the Hebrew language newspaper, Yediot Ahronoth, perhaps offers some
insights into how Israelis may be speculating about such issues when he warns
about "the approaching December winds”. These winds, Fishman tells us, will
bring more and new revelations - not about Iran's nuclear ambitions - but about
Syria's nuclear projects: the departure of Mohamed ElBaradei from the chair at
the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), he states, will open the door to
new IAEA demands to inspect two suspected nuclear sites in Syria.
Fishman notes that, following the surfacing last month in Germany of stories
that Israeli special forces had been on the ground covertly in Syria, no one
should be surprised if more evidence and photographs of the nuclear reactor,
destroyed by Israeli air attack in September 2007, come to dominate the
headlines in the Western press this December.
The "star" turn in this prospective public relations campaign is to be evidence
proving a direct Iranian nuclear connection and finance for Syria's alleged
Fishman suggests that it suits "Israel's internal as well as foreign PR
efforts" for the time being to play along with talk of peace between Israel and
Syria; but that both the December campaign against Syria's alleged Iranian
nuclear cooperation in the Western press, and the playing along with the Syrian
peace track "are directly linked to negotiations" that the US is conducting
with Iran. Fishman concludes that these could end in confrontation with Iran -
"and also lead to a military strike", in which case, "whomsoever is in the
Iranian camp will also get a pounding" - a reference to Syria.
Does this piece truly reflect Israeli thinking? We do not know; but Fishman
certainly is well connected. Does the Israeli security establishment really
conceive that the road to military action against Iran passes through Damascus?
For those who recall the tacit support given by Europe and the US to Israel's
2007 surprise military attack on Syria, Fishman's scenario is not as unlikely
as it may seem.
That earlier episode could easily have escalated to a wider war. More likely is
that this is but one of a number of "game changing" scenarios that Israel is
considering, but which ultimately all have Iran as the "end game".
In the past, Israel's political parties of the right had a reputation for
conceiving unconventional military actions, which sought to transform and
invert the political paradigm of that time. Such actions did not always wait
on, or seek, a US "green light". There was not direct collusion with the US.
Israeli leaders looked more to the direction of the political wind in
Washington. It was viewed by Israelis historically as finding a creative way to
help a US president "get to yes" - to borrow Obama's own phraseology - by
creating the public support and momentum to let a US president feel pulled
forward by sentiment from a need to "hold Israel back".
Is a new scandal of Iranian nuclear malfeasance and proliferation into Syria to
serve as the pretext? Will a repeat of the 2007 air strikes on Syria lead to a
wider conflict? Does the Israeli leadership think to ease Obama out of his Iran
dilemma, by using the supposed "provocation" of a "Syrian-Iranian nuclear
partnership" for a widening conflict? Perhaps we should beware these December