Return to the Arc of Crisis

NEW DELHI – Thirty-three years ago, then-US National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski spoke of an “arc of crisis” coursing through the Middle East and into Central Asia. Today, events in Syria and Pakistan, as well as the recent bombings in Bangkok and New Delhi, which some are linking to Iran, suggest that Brzezinski’s arc is more salient than ever.

Among the many dangers lurking along it today, the most ominous concerns the response of Israel and the United States to the question of when Iran’s nuclear facilities will become impregnable, creating, in Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s phrase, a “zone of immunity.” Some think that this point has already been reached, with Iran placing its enriched uranium underground, near the holy city of Qom, beneath many layers of granite – and thus beyond the destructive power of anything short of a nuclear bomb.

Israeli hawks argue that the time to strike is now, before Iran is able to make a fully operational nuclear weapon. Not so fast, warns the US: sanctions may still achieve their aim. Such differences are real, with US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta expressing concern that Israel might launch an attack on Iran in the spring.

Moving eastward along the arc, Pakistan is descending ever deeper into domestic turmoil. Its government convened a tripartite meeting in Islamabad with Iran and Afghanistan this February to discuss “peace and security” in the region. But the country’s internal disarray precludes the government’s ability to influence events positively. For now, Pakistan seems consigned to the role of destructive spoiler, particularly in Afghanistan, where the Taliban and Haqqani network are free to launch attacks from Pakistani territory.