JERUSALEM – The Middle East is a region where predictions go to die. And the region’s recent turbulence has made forecasting the course of events there even more treacherous. But, as became increasingly clear in 2013, the main source of the Middle East’s crises is not a “clash of civilizations,” but a clash within Islam, centered on the Sunni-Shia divide.
The civilian death toll from this struggle is staggering. The combined figure for Afghanistan, Egypt, Iraq, Libya, and Syria is now approaching many hundreds of thousands – perhaps ten times the total death toll of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict since 1948 – while millions more are leading squalid lives as refugees.
With the Arab Spring now frozen over, the regional outlook for 2014 appears gloomy. Some opportunities are still on the table, and more will surely emerge during the coming year. But seizing them will demand global leadership, strategic clarity, nuance, and decisiveness – almost all of which were absent in 2013.
Indeed, there is a spreading perception among world leaders and publics, adversaries and allies alike, that the longtime incumbent global leader, the United States, has been significantly weakened. Consider President Barack Obama’s failure to defend his “red line” after Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime used chemical weapons this past summer; Egypt’s return to military rule; Iran’s post-election protests in 2009; or the instability in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.
As a result of American uncertainty, the radical axis of Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah feels emboldened, and will certainly try to leverage its achievements in the year ahead. Assad ended up using the shock caused by his chemical-weapons attack as a bargaining chip in a disarmament deal – still to be executed and verified – that bought him a valuable pause in the efforts to topple him, if not salvation.
Assad will seek in 2014 to delay the actual implementation of the chemical-weapons deal, in order to gain time to split and weaken his opponents further. He could then muddle through until the US mid-term elections in November, when attacking him would be politically impossible. There is a good chance that he will get away with it.
Hezbollah will support Assad to the end, because his continuing hold on power is critical to its own survival. The Syrian rebels, weakened by infighting, have also been victims of the growing rift between the US and its closest Arab allies. Short of a successful attack on Assad himself, the chances of a rebel triumph on the ground are slim.
Renewed peace negotiations in Geneva next year can succeed only if Assad comes to the table substantially weaker, which probably will not happen. Israel will continue to act proactively to prevent the transfer of heavy missiles or advanced air-defense systems from Syria to Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, which of course carries the risk of a military showdown. But such pre-emptive measures could also promote Lebanon’s survival by preventing Hezbollah from gaining absolute dominance over the country.
Though Assad may survive for now, Syria, like Iraq and Libya, faces creeping disintegration into more ethnically homogenous sub-entities, either completely separate or very loosely tied together, similar to post-Tito Yugoslavia, where communal rage filled the political void left by the dictator’s iron fist.
Paradoxically, disintegration in the Arab world is taking place just when Iran is emerging from its decades-long diplomatic deep freeze. Following the six-month interim agreement on its nuclear program reached in Geneva in November, Iran’s military nuclear program may be stopped temporarily. But Iran got relief from crippling international sanctions at a low price; and, because the two-phase structure of the interim agreement delays verification of its success or failure, the true test for Iran – and the world – is still to come.
The immediate risk is that Iran still possesses the capability to enrich uranium, as well as a substantial amount of low-enriched uranium. The decision about how to proceed is Iran’s, and its rulers will most likely simply wait for an opportunity to charge ahead toward nuclear capability when the US is unable, for whatever reasons, to respond. This might take 6-12 months, with some risks from the Iranians’ point of view; but once they have enough weapon-grade material, nothing could be done to stop Iran from becoming a military nuclear power.
Both Pakistan and North Korea took that path. And, following America’s Syrian zigzag, the Iranians are convinced that, for the time being, a physical attack (at least by the US) is not on the table.
The consequences of a nuclear-armed Iran could be devastating for regional order and global stability. Saudi Arabia might have nuclear weapons within weeks, with Turkey and Egypt feeling compelled to follow. The international non-proliferation regime would collapse. Hegemonic Iran would intimidate its Gulf neighbors, sponsor terrorist activities abroad, and feel immune from international intervention.
Of course, if negotiations on a permanent agreement collapse, Israel and probably even the US might feel compelled to contemplate further action. But, for now, Iran’s leaders clearly believe that they have bought themselves time. Moreover, in six months, Iran might propose another slightly modified interim agreement with a further loosening of sanctions, leveraging once again the paralysis imposed by election-year dynamics on American decision-making. Such a strategy could drag the permanent phase of the agreement far beyond 2014.
Iranians are chess players; they know what a gambit is. They have not given up on winning the game. The only solution – for which there is still time – is to find a way to tell the Iranians unequivocally: “We respect your needs. We will not embarrass you in public. But you should understand that we mean business. You will have to dismantle the military nuclear program in the coming few months, or face the consequences.”
Such a message has never reached Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Without hearing and believing it, there is no way that he will yield.