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February 17, 2006

A Perfect Geopolitical Storm Taking Shape


The ingredients: Iraq, Iran, Hamas, and blasphemous cartoons

by Leon Hadar

The best thing you can say about Vice President Dick Cheney's recent "hunting incident" is that, to the relief of members of his family, Cheney didn't shoot himself in the foot.

Unfortunately, you cannot say the same thing about the policies that officials in Washington and Jerusalem seem to be devising these days as part of their common strategy to deal with Iran's nuclear program and the electoral victory of Hamas in Palestine.

According to news reports, Americans and Israelis are working on a plan to "starve out" the Hamas-controlled Palestinian Authority (PA). The idea is that denying economic resources to the PA would force Hamas to give up terrorism and recognize Israel, and that if the ruling Islamic movement elected by a landslide in a free and open election refuses to submit to the outside pressure, it would be forced to do so by the Palestinian people.

At the same time, as it's becoming clear that the Iranians are not willing to reach a compromise with the U.S. and its European allies on taking steps to end its nuclear program and that the United Nations will probably not be able to force Tehran to do so, experts are suggesting that the Americans and Israelis will have no other option but to use military force and bomb some of the Iranian nuclear facilities in order to slow down Iran's drive to acquire nuclear capability.

But if they take such action, the Americans and the Israelis will end up transforming problems they had helped to create in the first place into dangerous international diplomatic and military crises bound to intertwine with Clash of Civilizations incidents such as the recent "cartoon war" and produce a geopolitical perfect storm.

Political Saviors

It was the Israeli strategy, backed by the Bush administration, aimed at isolating and weakening the late Yasser Arafat and his secular and more moderate Fatah movement, which had recognized Israel's right to exist, that created the conditions for the Hamas victory in an election that was promoted by Washington as another step in the U.S.-led "March to Freedom" in the Middle East.

If anyone had to draw in 2000 an outline of a plan to ensure that Hamas would come to power, he or she would have had only to propose the same kind of policies that were advanced by the Israelis and the Americans and that helped radicalize the Palestinians and encourage them to turn to Hamas as their political saviors.

Similarly, much of the U.S. policy in the Middle East and specifically toward Iran has helped produce a regional and international environment in which Tehran finds itself now with more diplomatic and military cards to help it resist American pressure. First, Washington has rejected the proposals by realist strategic thinkers to engage Iran and attempt to conclude a "grand bargain" with it that would have included not only the nuclear issue but would have dealt with the common interests the two governments share in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Instead, the Americans "contracted" the Western diplomatic services of the European governments to press Iran to make concessions. Ironically, while doing their best to isolate Iran, the Americans also took steps to enhance Iran's power. Indeed, the ouster by the U.S. of the Taliban in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein in Iraq benefited Iran's national interests and led to the election in Iraq – again, promoted as part of America's efforts to spread democracy – that brought to power in Baghdad a Shi'ite clerical political bloc with ties to Tehran.

The Iranians have decided that nuclear military power could provide them with the ability to deter the Americans (and the Israelis) from challenging their influence in the Persian Gulf. And they are aware that the combination of Iranian petro-power and an overstretched U.S. military would make it very difficult for Washington to threaten Tehran with economic and diplomatic sanctions or invade the country.

But the Americans know that a failure to prevent the Iranians from asserting their power in the Persian Gulf would be a major blow to the hegemonic U.S. strategy in the Middle East and encourage regional players like Saudi Arabia to make deals with Tehran, which seems to be now in a position to emerge as the leader of a "Shi'ite Crescent" that could include the Hezbollah in Lebanon, Shi'ite minorities in the Arab Gulf states, and – thanks to U.S. policies – a Shi'ite-led government in Iraq.

The Israelis view the Hamas electoral victory as a major blow to their long-term strategic interests, since it could lead to the establishment of a Palestinian entity committed to the elimination of the Jewish state and will complicate their plans to keep Israeli control over parts of the Palestinian territories after a unilateral withdrawal from other parts of the West Bank.

To put all this in context: In the Persian Gulf and in Israel/Palestine, radical forces opposed to the American-Israeli axis are on the march. Indeed, from the perspectives of both Washington and Jerusalem, Iran is poised to achieve nuclear capability and head a "Shi'ite Crescent," and a resurgent anti-Israeli Hamas is serving as a model to Muslim Brotherhood groups in Egypt and other Arab-Sunni countries. A radical "Sunni Crescent" would be regarded as a strategic threat to common U.S. and Israeli interests in having a dominant U.S. in the region.

It is this complex regional reality that explains why both the Americans and the Israelis have concluded that they need to "do something" ASAP to prevent the war in Iraq and the unilateral Israeli withdrawal from Gaza from turning out to be the first stages in a losing strategic game for them.

But the policies that are now being discussed in Washington and Jerusalem are only bound to aggravate the situation and end up achieving what could amount to scoring own-goals in a soccer game. Trying to isolate and punish the Palestinians with economic sanctions will probably only help enhance Hamas' popularity in Palestine and the Arab world, in addition to proving an ineffective policy tool.

It's not difficult to conceive of how the images of starving Palestinian kids being broadcast on al-Jazeera could ignite anti-American demonstrations in Tehran, Damascus, and elsewhere, and make it even more likely that the Iranians and the Arab oil-producing states, as well as many Western NGOs, would end up channeling economic assistance to the West Bank and Gaza to replace the canceled aid from the European Union and the U.S.

And while U.S. and/or Israeli bombing of Iranian nuclear sites could in theory slow down Iran's nuclear program, it could also help President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the militant clerics rally the Iranian people, including secular and liberal Iranians, against the U.S. and help mobilize support for Iran's cause among Arabs and other Muslims.

Anti-U.S. Oil Embargo

It won't be surprising if governments in the pro-American oil-producing states in the Arab Persian Gulf, notwithstanding their antipathy toward Iran, come under pressure from their people to join in some form of an oil embargo against the U.S.

One can also imagine how a confrontation between Iran and the U.S./Israel could radicalize the Hezbollah in Lebanon and play into the hands of an angry and isolated Syria.

American officials and pundits are hoping that, unlike the Iraq War, when the EU refused to join the U.S. in the military adventure, many of the European governments will back an American drive to punish Iran and isolate Hamas. But while the EU will probably be ready to continue raising the diplomatic pressure on the Iranians, it's not clear that it will side with Washington if and when the U.S. or Israel decides to attack Iran's nuclear facilities.

And when it comes to Hamas, it's quite likely that European governments, including France, will refuse to join an all-out effort to "starve out" the PA and will be more inclined to "engage" a Hamas-led PA even if refuses to renounce terrorism and recognize Israel.

The Russians and the Chinese, whose policies are driven by the need to shore up their economic interests in the Middle East, are certainly not on the American team when it comes to Iran and Palestine.

But with the Bush administration unwilling to consider other, more pragmatic policy options to deal with these two issues – and with pro-Israeli Democratic figures, including Hillary Clinton, sounding even more hawkish than the leading neocons – Washington's approach will probably become more confrontational in the coming weeks and could generate that geopolitical storm.

Some observers would dismiss such forecasts as gloom-and-doom worst-case scenarios. But the recent violent demonstrations by Muslims around the world who were angry at the publication of the cartoons in a Danish newspaper reflect the kind of powerful anti-Western sentiments in the Middle East and the Muslim world that could be mobilized by governments and movements that are interested in turning Samuel Huntington's Clash of Civilizations from an academic exercise in theory formation into a real conflict between the U.S. and governments in the Middle East.

Copyright © 2005 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. All rights reserved.

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  • Leon Hadar is the author of Sandstorm: Policy Failure in the Middle East (Palgrave Macmillan). He is the former United Nations bureau chief for the Jerusalem Post and is currently the Washington correspondent for the Business Times of Singapore. Visit his blog.

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