The Middle East is Now a More Flammable Tinderbox Than Ever
by Conrad Black (March 2015)
The world has been largely anesthetized by the endless, fruitless negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program. The regime of Non-Proliferation in nuclear affairs has been dying a slow death with each new nuclear-empowered country (with the exception of South Africa, which developed the capability but abandoned it under F.W. de Klerk in 1989 in anticipation of African National Congress government and in parallel with the Angola withdrawal agreement with Cuba).
Stalin redoubled efforts to develop an atomic bomb when advised by President Truman at the Potsdam Conference in July 1945 that the United States had successfully tested such a weapon and would soon use it on Japan if that country did not surrender. The British, even under the relatively pacifistic Labour government of Clement Attlee, felt that Britain must have such a weapon too. When restored to power in Paris in 1958, General Charles de Gaulle wasted no time developing atomic weapons, a threshold Mao Tse-tung crossed with the People’s Republic of China in 1964. India determined that it required such a weapon to assure its defence against China, and Pakistan developed what it called an “Islamic bomb” to deter India. Israel silently and tacitly developed a nuclear weapon as a necessity to provide a last ditch protection for the Jewish state, while it was still governed and largely populated by survivors of the almost successful attempt to kill every Jew in Europe.
What has made an Iranian nuclear military capability so terrifying is that it has regularly threatened, throughout the theocracy of the Islamic Republic in 1979, to obliterate Israel, and to avenge the Shiite Muslims on the Sunnis who have, the Shiites claim, abused their position and treated Shiite Muslims with condescension, and often barbarously, for centuries. As the Iranians have pursued nuclear weapons, they have also heavily infiltrated Israel’s northern border, from the Mediterranean to the Golan Heights, through their client terrorist organization Hezbollah in Lebanon and in Syria, where it is a central prop of the tottering Assad Regime. The Iranian leader, Ayatollah Khamanei, and Iranian general officers have spoken publicly of amassing a force of 130,000 Iranian-financed Hezbollah militants, trained and armed, near the Golan Heights, where the disengagement line has been relatively calm since it was agreed in 1974. This frontier strike force will include a very large contingent of the Iranian Qods and Bajlis forces, the bully boys of the country who suppress any resistance that arises to the fraudulent elections and other authoritarian acts of the regime in Tehran.
The proportions of Iran’s design are impressive for their scale and extremely worrisome for the danger they pose of a general regional conflict. There has been abundant discussion of Iran’s nuclear program, but until very recently, there was no reason to connect that displeasing prospect with up to 200,000 heavily armed Iranians and their Hezbollah allies on Israel’s northern border. Hezbollah successfully resisted a full-scale Israeli intervention against them in 2006, when the world was cheering Israel on for once.
Iran is not, in fact, a strong country, though it is imbued with a bowdlerized and grandiose historical self-view that romanticizes the empire of the Cyruses and Dariuses, before Alexander the Great laid the Persian Empire low at Gaugamela in 331 B.C. (allegedly killing 500,000 Persians in one day with his arrows, spears and swords). Ancient masters of the Middle East — before the Macedonians defeated them, and the Romans muscled them back beyond the Euphrates, and the rise of the Turks — the Persians appear to be painfully asserting the ancient division of control of the region (before Western intervention) between themselves and the Arabs, led by the Egyptians and the petro-state of the Saudis. A carve-out for Israel and perhaps its Bedouin (Jordan), Maronite (Lebanon), and Palestinian neighbours will have to be agreed, after considerable further violence and unimaginable threats and blood libels.
One of the most absurd chapters in the thoroughly unsatisfactory history of arms control was the alleged agreement between Turkey’s duplicitous, corrupt, and posturing (then) premier, Recip Tayyip Erdogan, the egregious former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmedinejad (whom even Khamanei dismissed as a mountebank), and the former president of Brazil, Luis Inacio Lula da Silva, which was supposed to have resolved the Iranian nuclear issue in 2010. Erdogan naively imagined that he and Iran could both cut a nice figure professing the utmost fraternity with the Arabs, whom both countries have despised and frequently oppressed for thousands of years. But while he romanced Tehran and postured as the champion of the Palestinians, Iran was asserting a stranglehold of influence over the government of Syria, led by Alawites, who only have about 10% of the Syrian population, and bankrolled and supplied Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon, which induced the effective collapse of the always precarious state of Lebanon.
Turkish regional policy has been completely ineffective, and Erdogan’s slide has been accelerated by domestic political blunders, including construction of a $350-million mansion for himself and his routine suppression of mass demonstrators, in what is still more or less a democracy. With Turkey’s vapid posturing, the withdrawal of the United States from the region, and Egypt distracted (grappling with the 900-pound gorilla of the last 75 years of its history, the Muslim Brotherhood), it has devolved upon the medieval petro-kingdom of Saudi Arabia to put a restraining rod on the backs of the Iranian ayatollahs.
By slicing the price of oil by more than half, the Saudis have imperilled Iran’s ability to finance all its ambitions, which have included installing its own faction in control in Yemen, at the south end of the Red Sea athwart the traffic to and from the Suez Canal, and sponsorship of one of the violent fundamentalist factions in Afghanistan. Iran effectively dominates the Shiite 60 per cent of Iraq, reducing the great American nation-building effort there to a sanguinary fiasco, and is asserting a very direct and malignant influence across the region, from the Mediterranean almost to Pakistan, and from Beirut to Aden. There have been plenty of informal threats by the Iranians to close the Straits of Hormuz, squeezing the oil revenues of Iraq and the Gulf states, and even (though less overtly) to attack the main Saudi oil refinery on the Persian Gulf, to return the Saudi’s favour for cutting the oil price so drastically by over-production.
The nuclear talks have taken the place of the former solemn Western determination to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons at all, and confirm that Iran stands on the threshold of becoming a nuclear power, able to attain that status secretly in about three months. The most disturbing scenario is that as it does so, Iran could unleash a general assault along the Lebanese, Syrian, and Gaza borders of Israel. This would make Israeli air intervention against the Iranian nuclear program even more complicated, as close air support would be required to defend its own borders. It would also imperil the relatively peaceable kingdom of Jordan, with its Palestinian majority, which Israel is supporting by selling it natural gas at cut rates from its newly opened off-shore reserves. The wild card of ISIS cuts across all lines, and is approved by Turkey because it opposes Assad, but is opposed by everyone else. The Turks may also try to take advantage of everyone else’s preoccupations to cuff the long-suffering Kurds, who have effectively seceded from Iraq and would like to do the same from Turkey.
Two consecutive American administrations have made a horrible mess of the always volatile Middle East. The vacuum created by American withdrawal and Turkish posturing has increased the possibility of general war in the region, a state of affairs made infinitely more dangerous by the approaching spread of nuclear weapons. The Middle East is now a more flammable tinderbox than ever. Very few of these acute complexities ever surface in the largely puerile debate in Washington over ISIS.
First published in the National Post.
Conrad Black is the author of Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom, Richard M Nixon: A Life in Full, A Matter of Principle, Flight of the Eagle: The Grand Strategies That Brought America from Colonial Dependence to World Leadership and Rise To Greatness: A History of Canada from the Vikings to the Present.. He was the chairman of the Telegraph newspapers in Britain, 1987-2003, and founded the National Post in Canada, where he remains a columnist. He also writes in the National Review Online and Huffington Post. He has been one of Canada's best known financiers for 35 years and has returned to that occupation, and has been a member of the British House of Lords since 2001.
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