Friday, April 18, 2014
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Middle East Security in 2014

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.

Read more from "2013: Reversing Gears" here, or on Kindle and iBooks.

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  1. Commentedtemesgen abate

    nothing but a zilch is said on the Israeli-Palestinian laments and displaces the regional woes on the lose of a ``free-ride`` on the US ``global`` leadership. .the reckoning day seems fast pressing when Iran comes out of its seclusion , the Shia- arc convergence gets pace and the Al-Qaeda scare begins to wield power.

  2. Commentedj. von Hettlingen

    Mr. Ehud Barak is deeply concerned about the turmoil in the Middle East. Most of all he is haunted by the spectre of a "nuclear-armed Iran". He also urges Iran "to dismantle the military nuclear program ........or face the consequences" , something Iran will no doubt dismiss, as it has always claimed that its nuclear programme were for civilian purposes.
    Mr. Barak asserts that this "message has never reached Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Without hearing and believing it, there is no way that he will yield".
    If he maintains the "Iranians are chess players", he can't possibly underestimate them and say the supreme leader lives in an ivory tower. Ayatollah Khamenei is shrewd enough to realise how international sanctions had taken a toll on Iran's economy. He approved of Hassan Rouhani's election last June and empowers the president to bring the country in from the cold.
    Another thorn in Mr. Barak's side is "President Barack Obama’s failure to defend his “red line” after Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime used chemical weapons this past summer". He seems reluctant to acknowledge the war-weariness of the American public and President Obama's position.
    Further more Mr. Barak underscores the threat of the "radical axis of Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah". Last year strikes had been launched on Syrian targets, thought to be sophisticated weapons heading towards Lebanon, where they would be delivered to Israel's arch-enemy, Hezbollah.
    Israel had not formally claimed responsibility. In February Ehud Barak, defence minister then, hinted that his government was behind the January strike by saying the raid was "proof that when we say something we mean it". His message was clear: "We don't think [Syria] should be allowed to bring advanced weapons systems into Lebanon."
    Israel's actions were defensive. It fought a war with Hezbollah in 2006, and sees the Lebanese militant group as its key regional enemy. Israel also has its own dispute with Syria over the Golan Heights. The border had been relatively peaceful, now the increasing chaos in Syria is spilling over. No doubt Israeli military intelligence is monitoring the area carefully, as the country risks becoming a major factor in Syria's civil war.

  3. CommentedMarc Laventurier

    Iran should just get on with it and develop the Baruch Goldstein Memorial MIRV System. That should facilitate some technology transfer to their Flight 655 Plane-Spotting Club.

  4. CommentedRichard S. Stone

    We cannot blame anyone or even be surprised that Israel produces this kind of ridiculous Article. Official Israel views its existence as threatened by its neighbors, not without good reason, and in addition we know that their neighbors view Israel as a totem and as a means to distract their own people from domestic issues, caused by misguided governance. But really, in the end, isn't it all about power? The Sauds and the Supreme Leader both want to be on top of the heap, and there is only room for one, as they see it. This has nothing to do with any claimed American failure, and the term "Arab Spring" is kind of silly anyway. The US has been trying to somehow fix this problem for years now, with no perceptible result, except for being blamed for things that go wrong. I am not distressed that Israel has nuclear weapons, but I wouldn't trust the Iranians with them. It is not anything that Israel has done or not done that has caused this problem, and certainly it is not due to any failure or mistake by Obama or the US. The Arabs and the Iranians would be fighting for power even if Israel disappeared and moved to the middle of Australia.

  5. Commentedhari naidu

    For a former Labour Party PM, this is a most disturbing piece of double-think. Israel is the only state in ME with +300 WMD deployed in the desert, and there is not a word here about a nuclear free ME under NPT or even unilateral disarmament - which of course neocons of Israel will never consider.

    The nonsense about Iran and its nuclear ambitions have been more or less destroyed by US intelligence estimate that Iran is not developing WMD.

    Today we have the words from Rouhani on Iran's policy of moderation printed by Syndicate.

    The q's why is Israel propagating this propaganda and not facing the realpolitik of P5+1 on-going Geneva diplomatic negotiations to finalize a (NPT) deal under IAEA safeguards.