Taboos break and alliances form: Netanyahu hurries to Moscow and the Iranians to Beijing

The pantomime is in full swing, but no one knows the end of the script. 

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Amid the severe tribulations afflicting the Middle East – horrendous clashes on the Gaza border, missile exchanges between Iran and Israel, the surprise success of the hard-line Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr in Iraqi elections and the perpetual wars in Yemen and Syria – one could be forgiven for missing an event that took place recently in Saudi Arabia, named (perhaps aptly) “The Greatest Royal Rumble”.

The stars of World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) arrived in Jeddah for a show that saw them condemned for acceding to Saudi demands to leave their female performers behind and a willingness to voice Saudi state propaganda. Four aspiring but unknown Saudi wrestlers were pitted against the perfect villains, in the form of the Iranian-American wrestling star Ariya Daivari and his brother Shawn. The Daivaris, native Minnesotans, took to the ring waving the Iranian flag and began to trash talk the Saudis, only pliantly to accept a good beating in front of the baying crowd.

As absurd as this spectacle was, it says something that the Saudi state was willing to pay so much for it. Behind the pantomime propaganda, a jostling for psychological superiority is under way across the Middle East in the midst of a proxy war that is getting hotter every week. The Saudis and Iranians are two of the most active protagonists – having taken to flooding YouTube with computer game-style war simulations in which one vanquishes the armies of the other with a potent display of military force – but they are by no means the only ones taking part.

In recent weeks, a Twitter account that purports to be run by Mossad has been trolling some of Israel’s enemies, including Iran’s supreme leader. Although it turns out the account is a parody, this has not stopped some significant players in the region from taking the bait, with Hamas’s official account responding directly to the provocation. The showy way in which Israel has deployed its intelligence in the international arena – from Binyamin Netanyahu’s drawing of a cartoon bomb at the UN in 2012 to the recent PowerPoint presentation in which he accused Iran of bad faith in hiding its pursuit of nuclear weapons – has been much derided, but it has had a significant influence on US policy.

Some suggest that Donald Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton, a long-term advocate of “regime change” in Iran, has a steering hand in settling a radical new policy approach at the White House. But if any such ambitions to replace the mullahs exist, they run into the challenge of Trump himself, who has shown a profound disinclination towards any further Iraq-type ventures in the region. He prefers a foreign policy that is quick, cheap and gratifying.

When Trump announced the decision to withdraw from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), he made some appeals over the head of the regime to the “long-suffering people of Iran”, with whom he expressed solidarity. The implication here was that Barack Obama had failed in his duty to do so during anti-regime protests in 2009, preferring to focus on non-proliferation negotiations with the government.

However, Trump’s feelings of democratic solidarity are unlikely to rank particularly high in his calculations beyond the core belief that he can negotiate a better deal. It is notable that he ended his Iran speech with a get-out clause directed at the leadership in Tehran, opening the door to renegotiation. In his words, Iran’s leaders “will naturally say that they refuse to negotiate a new deal… and that’s fine. I’d probably say the same thing if I was in their position. But the fact is, they are going to want to make a new and lasting deal… When they do, I am ready, willing, and able.” As the veteran US Middle East diplomat Dennis Ross (a supporter of the JCPOA) has observed, that does not suggest that Trump is a natural regime changer in the style of Bolton.

Other sources in the White House suggest that “regime behaviour change” is the real goal for now. That means pushing back against Iran on a series of matters unaddressed in the original nuclear negotiations, such as its attempt to expand its sphere of influence – through a combination of its Qods forces and proxies such as Hezbollah – in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Lebanon. It implies a willingness to interfere openly in Iranian internal affairs by providing encouragement to the opposition and sowing disharmony and dissent – and that is where the dry tinder is most profuse.

For the US, it also means leaving behind one camp (that of the pro-deal Europeans, with a further layer of legitimacy provided by the support of Russia and China) to join a new unlikely coalition which – whisper it quietly – has brought Israel and Saudi Arabia closer than ever before in a shared commitment to rolling back the influence of Iran.

It could be said that Trump did not have a fully thought out strategy on North Korea before he raised the stakes with Kim Jong-un and then calmed things down again. And yet the frozen wars of the Asia Pacific are markedly different from the active volcanoes dotted around the Middle East. Last week, Iran and Israel exchanged missile fire for the first time since the Iranian Revolution. Iran’s Qods forces fired 20 rockets at Israeli military positions on the Golan Heights in response to Israeli attacks on Iranian installations in Syria.

The same day, Iranian-backed Houthis in Yemen fired another volley of missiles at Riyadh. Netanyahu hurried to Moscow to seek Vladimir Putin’s acquiescence in bloodying the nose of Iran; Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister, rushed to Beijing in an attempt to lessen the blow from a new round of US sanctions. Taboo after taboo is being broken as these shifting alliances take shape. The pantomime is in full swing, but no one knows the end of the script. 

John Bew is Professor of History and Foreign Policy at King’s College London and is leading a project looking at Britain’s place in the world for Policy Exchange. He is a New Statesman contributing writer and the author of Citizen Clem, an Orwell Prize-winning biography of Clement Attlee. 

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Israel and the impossible war