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The war between the Middle East wars

Conflict between Israel and Iran seems increasingly inevitable now the US has torn up the nuclear deal. But if – or when – it happens, who do the Sunni Gulf states and Egypt back?

 

It was said of Carlyle’s account of the French Revolution that it was like reading history by flashes of lightning. We read the contemporary Arab world by the flash of air and artillery strikes, and in the lurid glare of exemplary and extreme violence. The arguments that rage about the most recent Western air attacks on the Assad regime’s chemical weapons infrastructure, or Israeli attacks against the growing Iranian military infrastructure inside Syria – the latest a strike near Hama on 29 April targeting a large consignment of anti-aircraft missiles, in which upwards of 11 Iranians are said to have died – are part of this discourse. It is common ground that the former, at least, change nothing. Yet, we still miss the point.

What we see in the contemporary Middle East and North Africa is a classically Gramscian crisis, with the protracted and agonising death of the old impeding the birth of the new and producing instead widespread symptoms of social and political morbidity. One hundred years after the modern Middle East was created by the Sykes-Picot Agreement – as much a fantasy as any map of Middle Earth – political parturition remains incomplete, not simply in Syria or the other Arab Spring countries but also in the Gulf, Jordan, Morocco and Iraq. The same is true of Iran. 

This state of affairs stems from the failure of the late-imperial and post-colonial nation-building projects in the region. The states that emerged after the First World War from the wreckage of the Ottoman Empire, often in fractious relationships with London and Paris, tended to be elite, family- or clan-based, and conscious of the urgent need to develop basic welfare, social control and security systems in order to maintain their often fragile authority. This resulted in rapid demographic growth, but also the emergence of communally-based client groups and militaries that conceived of themselves as representing the general will more authentically than anyone else. After the Second World War, this produced a series of coups and conflicts that led to the highly securitised and repressive hereditary republics of Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Libya and Algeria. Their rigidity, harshness and incompetence led directly to the uprisings of 2011-13 – just as in Iran, the particular deformations of the Pahlavi monarchy led to the hijacking of the 1979 revolution by a vanguardist and reactionary part of the clerical class, who thus had their revenge on the constitutionalists of 70 years earlier. 

The impact of these developments on the Gulf monarchies was interestingly complex. Their more benign but still authoritarian neo-patrimonialism was partly a reaction to the instability and aggression of the militarised republics. Unlike them, they did not collapse under the pressures of the Arab spring. They had – and have – something that their regional competitors did not. This was not simply wealth: Iraq, Libya and Algeria are all rich in energy resources but their particular political sociologies led in different ways to disaster – in the case of the first two, accelerated, but not ultimately caused by, Western military intervention.

It wasn’t particularly a demographic issue either: there are 20 million Saudi nationals, for example, which makes the kingdom comparable to Iraq and Syria in population size, and in some ways also in diversity. And while the violence in Bahrain in 2011 reflected real grievances among elements of the Shia population of the island, it wasn’t an uprising of the sort we saw in Tahrir Square in Egypt, or in Syria’s Dera’a or Homs. And if you visit Dubai (or indeed Manama) and go beyond the tourist hotels of Jumeirah you will find vibrant communities from all over the Arab world who have sought refuge there in times of turbulence. That seems to me significant: 50 years ago, they would have gone to Beirut or Cairo.

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That the states of the Gulf Cooperation Council do not yet have is the collective ability to defend themselves adequately against the new threats that have emerged. These are sectarian mobilisation, sacralised conflict, revolutionary Islamism, Iranian Islamist-ethno-nationalist aggression, revanchism and subversion. And the slow ebbing of US interest both in the Gulf and the wider region – which began not with Donald Trump but with George W Bush and was made into a self-righteously foundational principle by the Obama administration – has made them think hard about how they cope with a world in which they will need to rely on themselves, and new partners, to guarantee their security. As a Gulf Arab friend remarked to me the other day, this world is still downloading.

This is why over the last decade we have seen a willingness by Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar in particular to project influence and power and (in the case of the first two at least) to seek to restructure themselves to meet the challenges of a new sort of Middle East, without losing domestic control. 

In turn, the withdrawal of the US from what had become an exclusive sphere of influence after the collapse of the Soviet Union created space for a renewed push by Iran. This prospect was contained until the collapse of the Taliban in Afghanistan and the fall of Saddam in Iraq, but then resurged following the assassination of the former Lebanese prime minister, Rafic Hariri, in 2005 and the apparently neo-imperial US governance project in Iraq. This created an opportunity for Putin’s Russia to reassert its own lethally cartoonish muscularity, not just in Syria but also in theatrical flirtations with Egypt, the Kurds of both Iraq and Syria and indeed some of the Gulf states.

This dialectic is reshaping the contours of the modern Middle East and North Africa in ways we can still only dimly discern. Syria, which for 40 years made a virtue of its frozen politics, its isolation and its brutal and kleptocratic authoritarianism, is now wrecked. And it is being remade into an outpost of Iranian power. 

Iraq, which acted as a bulwark against Iranian penetration of the Levant and the Arab Gulf, has become a regional vehicle for Iranian influence: consider the country’s role in helping Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shia militia, transfer weapons and military technologies to Bahraini dissidents, and in acting as the platform for the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ training and brigading of Afghan and Pakistani Shia militias inside Syria.

Arab Gulf solidarity, which was always more apparent than real, has fractured under the pressure, with the UAE and Saudi Arabia turning on Qatar for what they see as its unilateral opportunism and disruptive self-promotion. That relationship is probably beyond repair, as Abu Dhabi and Riyadh look decisively in the direction of the most populous and historically strong Arab state, Egypt. These three do not always see eye to eye: the war in Yemen is an example. But they need each other and seem to have decided to stick together in the face of what they consider the loss of the greater Levant, and the ideological and physical threat from Iran and violent Sunni Islamists.

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Saudi Arabia and the UAE have also concluded that they need serious social and economic reform if they are to meet the external challenges that they face. Iran has not, in spite of serious and visible unrest. Recent polling there suggests discontent over the economy remains high: the response by the authorities has been to tighten crowd control procedures and ban the encrypted messaging app Telegram. That is the real lesson of the rise of Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), the 32-year-old Saudi crown prince. Whatever you think of the chances of success, he and Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed (MBZ), the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, have identified the problem in a way few others in the region have: forget Iran, look at the political sclerosis of Algeria, the cul-de-sac of Sisi’s neo-Nasserism in Egypt, the paranoid catatonia of Abu Mazen’s Palestinian Authority or Hamas’s threadbare Islamo-nationalism. And the moves that the two Mohammeds make are often wildly popular domestically. 

Whatever their ambitions, Turkey and Iran, both outsiders in different ways, cannot remake the region – although by seeking to control certain parts they can permanently destabilise it. And they have no more interest in political freedoms than anyone else. Riyadh and Abu Dhabi have decided they cannot meet the Iranian threat directly, and so they need to strengthen their domestic position through reform and build a Sunni-led bloc to act as an external counterpoise. This may not be the realignment Western leaders wanted, but it’s what they’ll get. 

That leaves Israel. The traditional view that it could use the absolute dominance of its armed forces to control its strategic environment by periodic interventions seems to me no longer to hold. This is something many Israeli strategists themselves have concluded. For them, this period will not be wasted; it is instead the war between the wars, when the Israel Defence Forces and the country’s intelligence community plan, train and re-equip themselves kinetically for new and more serious challenges. 

With Iran and Hezbollah now established on Israel’s borders to the north-east, and seeking to hook up with Hamas and destabilise Jordan, the threat, for the first time since the 1960s, is of a war on three fronts involving Israel’s most dangerous enemies. Western policy on Syria has failed, partly because Barack Obama’s lack of enthusiasm for any real attempt to shape events meant there wasn’t one. We have just seen this illustrated vividly again with the decision to close the US ground operations command in Baghdad. Hoping that a small amount of inconsistently applied and heavily conditional support for elements of the Syrian armed opposition, an excessive reliance on the Kurds of Syria or Iraq, or half-hearted threats and exhortations would be sufficient, was either delusional or self-serving.

The same applies to the new/old idea of an Arab force to hold, stabilise and protect contested territory. That leaves some people with the pious hope that imperial overstretch will do for Iran as it did for Britain, France and the United States. But the lesson Iran learned long ago was to project power on the cheap through committed clients and ideologically aligned militias. It doesn’t look as if that’s going to fail any time soon, any more than it looks as if Russia is able or even willing to enforce restraint.

This is the background to Binyamin Netanyahu’s oddly stylised presentation on Iran’s nuclear programme on 30 April. He will know as well as anyone that none of the evidence he cited was essentially new. No serious Western observer has ever doubted that Iran was pursuing a nuclear weapons programme until at least 2003 (and some believe beyond that date). Netanyahu’s point was to frame the issue of Iran a matter of days before President Trump had to decide on a new sanction waiver under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), also known as the Iran nuclear deal. (The Israeli leader had been bolstered by the appointments of the realist Mike Pompeo as US secretary of state and the very hawkish John Bolton as national security adviser.)

After Trump announced on 8 May that he was pulling out of the JCPOA and reinstating all sanctions, the US and Iran will once more confront each other directly. And that will suit Israel, which does not want to face Iran and its allies alone, especially with an unreliable Russia on the sidelines. Netanyahu’s claim that Israel managed to exfiltrate tens of thousands of top-secret Iranian files was also doubtless designed to show the unique creativity and competence of Israeli intelligence in this uncertain new world.


Loud and clear: the Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, giving a presentation on Iran’s nuclear programme

 

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Even if this move doesn’t work, we have already entered a new Middle East cold war, with Iran and its allies and clients on one side and the Sunni-led states of the Gulf, Egypt and Israel in various alignments and with various degrees of enthusiasm on the other. Each group would prefer to have more allies – Russia and the US are the biggest prizes.

Yet at some point, as with Europe before 1914, existing imbalances, the absence of clarity and verification mechanisms, the presence of increasingly powerful non-state actors and profound and widespread distrust, will almost certainly mean hot war involving Israel. We are already seeing the beginnings of this in Syria, where Israel has started deliberately and publicly to target Iranian military sites, equipment and personnel. Senior Israeli politicians, including defence minister Avigdor Lieberman, have given public notice that Israel will not exercise any restraint if its national security is at issue.

When this conflict happens, the Sunni states of the Gulf and Egypt will have a choice: whom do they back? The context will not be the same as in 2006, when Hezbollah could still pose as the champion of Arabs and Muslims, and Islamic State existed only in embryo. This – not the essentially trivial issue of Qatar, the fantasy of diplomatic normalisation between Israel and the Arab Gulf States, the far more consequential but now perhaps unresolvable matter of a Palestinian state, or the appalling mass slaughter of Syrian civilians by their own government and its allies – seems to me the essential policy challenge for the US and Europe. 

Do we want to help prevent further conflict and shape a new security order, or do we simply leave this to the locals while we cultivate our own walled gardens – maybe reacting when war actually breaks out? If we want the former, we have to have a stake in the game, equity on the table, a dog in the fight. We also need a credible plan, collectively delivered, to contain and deter Iran.

Yet in the Middle East and North Africa at least, the West has provincialised itself. This is something that will delight subaltern studies scholars everywhere. But for those who believe we’ll miss the post-1945 world order when it’s gone, it’s hardly a good result: after all, if liberal interventionism is bad, illiberal interventionism is probably worse. It’s an outcome that our collective political failures of the last decade have all helped to produce. And with social media, wild gonzo journalism, more sober mainstream reporting, and the widely publicised visits of peers of the realm and former deans of St Paul’s, at least we’ll have a front seat from which to enjoy the lurid glare of the show.

John Jenkins is a former British ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Libya, Iraq, Syria and Burma

This article first appeared in the 11 May 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Israel vs Iran