A Perfect Geo-Political Storm Taking Shape
The ingredients are Iraq, Iran, Hamas and cartoons
deemed blasphemous by Muslims
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.
you cannot say the same thing about the policies that officials
in Washington and Jerusalem seem to devising these days as part
of their common strategy to deal with Iran's nuclear program and
the electoral victory of Hamas in Palestine.
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 US and its European allies on taking
steps to end its nuclear program and that the United Nations will
probably not be able to force Teheran 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 "cartoons
war" and produce a geo-political perfect storm.
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 US-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 polices 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.
much of the US policy in the Middle East and specifically towards
Iran has helped produce a regional and international environment
in which Teheran 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
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 US of the
Taliban in Afghanistan and of 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
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 an Iranian petro-power and an overstretched US military
would make it very difficult for Washington to threaten Teheran
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
US strategy in the Middle East and encourage regional players like
Saudi Arabia to make deals with Teheran that seems to be now in
a position to emerge as a leader of a "Shi'ite Crescent"
that could include the Hizbollah in Lebanon, Shi'ite minorities
in the Arab Gulf states, and – thanks to US policies – a Shi'ite-led
government in Iraq.
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 would 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 US and Israeli interest in having a dominant US in the
It is this
complex regional reality which explains why both the Americans and
the Israelis have concluded that they need to "do something"
ASAP so as 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's 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 Teheran, 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 US.
And while US
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 US and help mobilize support
for Iran's cause among Arabs and other Muslims.
It won't be
surprising if governments in the pro-American oil-producing states
in the Arab Persian Gulf, notwithstanding their antipathy towards
Iran, will come under pressure from their people to join in some
form of an oil embargo against the US.
One could also
imagine how a confrontation between Iran and the US and Israel could
radicalize the Hizbollah in Lebanon and play into the hands of an
angry and isolated Syria.
and pundits are hoping that, unlike the Iraq War, when the EU refused
to join the US 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 US or Israel decides to attack Iran's
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.
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
observers would dismiss such forecast as gloom-and-doom worst-case
scenario. But the recent violent demonstrations by Muslims around
the world who were angry at the publication of the cartoons in the
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
of Civilizations from an academic exercise in theory formation
into a real conflict between the US and governments in the Middle
Hadar [send him mail] is
Washington correspondent for the Business
Times of Singapore and the author of Sandstorm:
Policy Failure in the Middle East (Palgrave Macmillan). Visit
© 2006 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. All rights reserved. Reprinted
with permission of the author.