Mideast’s dan­ger­ous new hege­monic con­fronta­tion

The Korea Times - - OPINION - By Joschka Fis­cher Joschka Fis­cher, Ger­many’s for­eign min­is­ter and vice chan­cel­lor from 1998 to 2005, was a leader of the Ger­man Green Party for al­most 20 years. Copy­right be­longs to Project Syn­di­cate (www.project-syn­di­cate.org). We wel­come your ar­ti­cles

BER­LIN — In the old Mid­dle East, a sin­gle over­ar­ch­ing con­flict — be­tween Is­rael and the Arab coun­tries — had many fronts, and it was the West’s pre­rog­a­tive to pro­tect the flow of oil to the global econ­omy. In the new Mid­dle East, the defin­ing con­flict is a broader strug­gle among mul­ti­ple play­ers seek­ing re­gional pri­macy.

This new strug­gle be­gan when for­mer U.S. Pres­i­dent Barack Obama ini­ti­ated Amer­ica’s broader with­drawal from the re­gion, but it has in­ten­si­fied un­der Don­ald Trump.

Obama, at least, had a po­lit­i­cal vi­sion for the re­gion. With the 2015 Iran nu­clear deal hav­ing fore­stalled a nu­clear-arms race, he hoped that an eas­ing of sanc­tions and faster eco­nomic growth would per­mit Iran’s grad­ual rein­te­gra­tion into the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity over the fol­low­ing decade.

Trump, by con­trast, has no strat­egy, and wants to dis­guise Amer­ica’s re­treat from the re­gion, cur­rently demon­strated in Syria by the open betrayal of the Kurds, with mil­i­tant rhetoric and mas­sive arms ex­ports to U.S. part­ners and al­lies in the Gulf.

For its part, Saudi Arabia, the re­gion’s wealthy, pre­dom­i­nantly Sunni power (if one doesn’t count Turkey), has long har­bored am­bi­tions for re­gional hege­mony — at least in the Per­sian Gulf and on the Ara­bian Penin­sula — and views pre­dom­i­nantly Shia Iran as its main ri­val.

For the past few years, Iran and Saudi Arabia have been wag­ing a dis­as­trous proxy war in Ye­men, re­sult­ing in a mas­sive toll of civil­ian ca­su­al­ties and a hu­man­i­tar­ian catas­tro­phe.

But the sit­u­a­tion changed last month, when a night­time at­tack tar­get­ing the heart of the Saudi oil in­dus­try sent shock­waves through the global econ­omy.

Sev­eral drones man­aged to cross into Saudi airspace un­de­tected, where they launched pre­cise at­tacks on key oil in­stal­la­tions. The Saudi air de­fenses — if there were any — seem to have been fast asleep, sug­gest­ing that the at­tack­ers had in­ti­mate knowl­edge of lo­cal con­di­tions.

A mid­night at­tack with­out warn­ing raises ob­vi­ous ques­tions. Who did it, and how did they pull it off? The Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Ye­men claimed re­spon­si­bil­ity, but they are in no po­si­tion to carry out such an at­tack.

Given the tech­nol­ogy used and the lo­gis­tics in­volved, the only plau­si­ble sus­pect is Iran, de­spite the Ira­nian gov­ern­ment’s ve­he­ment de­nials. And in terms of mo­tive and in­ter­est, it is clear that Iran has prof­ited the most from the strike.

Saudi Arabia, af­ter all, has been hu­mil­i­ated in the eyes of the world and ex­posed as a loud­mouthed pa­per tiger. In ad­di­tion to the un­de­ni­able fail­ure of Saudi coun­ter­in­tel­li­gence to de­tect or avert the at­tack is the equally ob­vi­ous fact that Saudi Arabia will lose the war in Ye­men sooner or later. At that point, its hege­monic as­pi­ra­tions will be­come an even greater source of de­ri­sion.

And so, in the fi­nal anal­y­sis, re­spon­si­bil­ity for the at­tack on Saudi Arabia al­most cer­tainly lies with Qassem Suleimani, the gen­eral who com­mands the Islamic Revo­lu­tion­ary Guard Corps’ for­eign op­er­a­tions unit.

With this at­tack, Iran has proven it­self to be a major re­gional power with im­pres­sive tech­ni­cal and lo­gis­ti­cal ca­pa­bil­i­ties that can­not be eas­ily thwarted. That could fun­da­men­tally change the strate­gic cal­cu­lus in the re­gion.

All the oil monar­chies on the Ara­bian side of the Per­sian Gulf are doubt­less al­ready re­assess­ing their for­eign-pol­icy out­look, interests, and loy­al­ties.

Iran has also left Trump look­ing weak. Fol­low­ing his re­fusal to re­spond mil­i­tar­ily to an at­tack on a cher­ished re­gional ally, Trump fired his na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser, John Bolton, an arch­en­emy of the Ira­nian regime. No one should shed any tears for Bolton. But nor can one rule out the pos­si­bil­ity that his ouster has in­vited this at­tack.

Trump’s for­eign-pol­icy dilet­tan­tism — his use of mil­i­tant bom­bast to mask his lack of plau­si­ble op­tions and strat­egy — seems to have played a cru­cial role in bring­ing about the cur­rent sit­u­a­tion. His de­ci­sion to aban­don the Iran nu­clear deal with no thought for what would come af­ter­ward has proven to be the height of folly and will be very dan­ger­ous.

But there is one other dy­namic to con­sider. Fol­low­ing the G7 sum­mit in Biar­ritz, France, in late Au­gust, there was talk of a pos­si­ble meet­ing be­tween Trump and Ira­nian Pres­i­dent Has­san Rouhani.

The at­tack on Saudi oil fa­cil­i­ties came just weeks later, shortly be­fore both lead­ers were in New York City for the United Na­tions Gen­eral Assem­bly, where they could have met. The ques­tion, then, is whether the at­tack was an out­growth of a broader in­ter­nal power strug­gle be­tween Ira­nian rad­i­cals and moder­ates.

What­ever the case may be, with Saudi Arabia’s po­si­tion al­ready erod­ing, the re­gion’s two real re­main­ing mil­i­tary pow­ers are Is­rael and Iran. Al­ready, the two coun­tries ap­pear to be mov­ing to­ward a dan­ger­ous con­fronta­tion.

Is­rael is deeply wor­ried about Iran’s ap­par­ent ca­pac­ity to launch pre­cise long-dis­tance at­tacks with drones or bal­lis­tic/cruise mis­siles. And if that were not al­ready a sig­nif­i­cant threat to Is­rael’s na­tional se­cu­rity, Iran could try to sup­ply Hezbol­lah or its other re­gional prox­ies with sim­i­lar ca­pa­bil­i­ties.

Were Is­rael to be at­tacked with the same pre­ci­sion and so­phis­ti­ca­tion as the strike on Saudi Arabia, the Mid­dle East would be plunged into war on a scale be­yond any­thing it has ex­pe­ri­enced so far.

Sadly (but hap­pily for Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin), that is the re­al­ity of a world in which the U.S. has aban­doned any pre­tense of global lead­er­ship.

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