Crucial game for Middle East players

The Iran ‘terror plot' drama involves four countries that have much to lose from Arab self-determination.

Updated - August 04, 2016 01:37 am IST

Published - October 15, 2011 02:14 am IST

The drama of the Iranian plot to assassinate the Saudi Ambassador in Washington features four players who, whatever the allegations, are engaged in a series of proxy battles for control of their interests in the Middle East. Three of the four — Saudi Arabia, the U.S. and Israel — are struggling to contain and deflect the tidal wave of democratic protest known as the Arab spring. While mouthing support for it, each have genuine reason to fear Arab self-determination. The fourth, Iran, sees in the same events a challenge to its stewardship of the Shias and the loss of the regional influence it was unexpectedly handed when the U.S. invaded Iraq.

Between them, they could kill off the Arab spring, just as its first fragile shoots are beginning to poke through. In Egypt, registration opened this week for candidates for the first election since the fall of Hosni Mubarak. Tunisia will hold its first election in 10 days. Its current Foreign Minister, Mouldi Kefi, said Tunisia's election would be a bellwether for the region. But it must be sounding more like the bell for the final round of Arab absolute monarchies.

Let's start with the House of Saud. That the horror film of street protest is soon to play in cinemas near them, the ageing and feuding princes can now have little doubt. The Sunni regime tried to stop the rot of revolt in neighbouring Bahrain by sending in troops, but the revolt has migrated over the bridge that separates the two kingdoms to the eastern, predominantly Shia, city of al-Qatif, where there were armed clashes on Sunday between police and protesters.

Just as important is the evidence of Sunni dissatisfaction with one of the most repressive regimes in the Arab world. The government denies holding political prisoners, but admits to arresting around 5,700 “military extremists.” Human rights organisations put the real figure of political detainees much higher. These include peaceful opponents of the regime such as Dr. Saud al-Hashimi, or Mohammed Saleh Albejadi, the co-founder of the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association.

Dissatisfaction is being voiced more openly in Riyadh and Jeddah. The independent religious leader, Sheikh Salman Aloda, who expressed support for the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia on his popular weekly programme on a Saudi-owned TV channel, has been taken off the air and banned from leaving the country. The Saudi kingdom needs a script to quell unrest. The Interior Ministry blamed an unnamed foreign country for the unrest in al-Qatif — a coded reference to Iran.

The kingdom's closest ally, the U.S., also needs a new way of re-establishing itself in a region so central to its interests. Once the power behind many thrones, it finds itself in the unusual position of bystander to events rather than their shaper. Its stated support for Arab democracy is riven with inconsistencies. It has gone seamlessly from supporting Mr. Mubarak and Tunisia's former president, Ben Ali, to supporting their ousters, without even trying to explain its relationship to these dictators.

U.S. President Barack Obama has instead tried to wrap the Arab spring into a narrative of his own aspirations. This is not destined to have a long shelf life. U.S. allies who are expendable in Tunisia and Egypt are not in Bahrain. Still less would they be in Jordan, Saudi Arabia, or Palestine if that rose up against occupation. Let the Arab spring continue, and core U.S. oil and military interests would be affected. The gap between stated policy and national interest will go from being latent to something that has to be bridged. What better way to do that than a conflict with Iran? It is evident that Israel thinks its date with destiny is not with the Palestinians but with Iran's as yet untamed nuclear programme. Apologising to Egypt for deaths of Egyptian soldiers in hot pursuit of attackers in Eilat, and reaching a deal with Hamas over Gilad Shalit, can be interpreted in many ways. But one of them is clearing the tables in preparation for an attack on Iran.

The street battles in Syria between government forces and opposition forces are a major threat to Iran. If it lost Syria, it would lose not just its closest ally, but the conduit of arms, missiles and money to Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas, whose external leadership is in Damascus. Hamas avoided the strategic error that Hezbollah's Hasan Nasrallah made when he urged Arabs to end the unrest in Syria. But Hamas's external leadership may well have to find a new home as a result of staying on the fence. The biggest deterrent card that Iran has left to play is Iraq, a country that U.S. troops are intent on leaving, and whose rulers have announced their support for Syria's Bashar Assad.

The final part of a bleak jigsaw is time. There is only a limited window of opportunity for readjusting the furniture in the region before Egypt forms a government and begins to play once again a seminal role. The options being mulled now may not be available in a year's time. Let us hope they never are. — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2011

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