Dogs of war incline toward caution, which after all is how they grew up to be dogs. More worrisome are puppies, who do not know what danger is. Gavrilo Princeps, the Serbian gunman who shot Archduke Franz Ferdinand dead in June 1914, was a puppy. So are the Hamas kidnappers, who at this writing still hold Israeli Army Corporal Gilad Shalit, and the Mehdi Army shooters who reportedly disposed of several dozen Sunni civilians in Baghdad on the weekend. The North Koreans, by contrast, are just nasty old dogs who long ago got loose from their leash.

Wars start because no one wants to disown his dog. If your dog bites a neighbor, your neighbor well might come after you with a shotgun. Nicholas II of Russia, I observed recently, did not want war in 1914 and until the end of July insisted that no war would break out. [1] But the Serbian puppies supported by his secret service dragged him into it willy-nilly. The past week’s events in the Middle East have a disturbing feel of July 1914 about them.

Hamas, for that matter, cannot disown the hotheads who provoked the Gaza crisis by kidnapping the Israeli corporal, or the rocketeers who incited the Israeli attack on northern Gaza by targeting Israeli towns, any more than Iran can disown the butchers of the Mehdi Army, a Shi’ite militia loyal to the anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. It is not clear either whether Saudi Arabia can disown Hamas, nor the Somali Islamists who seized the country from the warlords last month. Saudi cash smuggled in through Gaza has kept the Hamas regime afloat in the face of a boycott by Western powers, and the US State Department complains that Saudi Arabia is funding the Somali Union of Islamic Courts. [2]

The old dogs in Tehran and Riyadh can do nothing to satisfy the deeply felt and long-frustrated aspirations of their pups in the Gaza strip or Baghdad’s Sadr City, no more than Nicholas II could requite the nationalist hopes of Serbia without going to war with Austria and Germany. In fact, nothing can dampen the Palestinians’ existential outrage against the misery of their circumstances, or fulfill the ambitions of Iraq’s Shi’ites without the reduction of the Sunni population.

That leaves Tehran in a dilemma. Iran’s power rests on its ability to threaten destabilization, especially in Iraq, and it is counting on this to keep the Bush administration at bay. Even the greatest military autocrat, though, is constrained by the character of his army, and the standing of the region’s little powers depends on the outcome of the puppy fights now in progress. The logical result is continued escalation until America and Iran stand off in earnest.

Saudi Arabia, by the same token, cannot abandon its Sunni brethren in Iraq by acquiescing to an Iranian power play, which in the long run threatens the kingdom’s own security. Dallas Morning News editor Rod Dreher spoke to Saudi Minister of State Abdullah Zainal Alireza on June 28, who stated “that the US cannot allow Iran to get the bomb.” Dreher asked him, “What if it happens anyway?” The Saudi minister, Dreher reported, “repeated, firmly, that it must not be allowed to happen. Period. The end.” [3]

This declaration to a prominent US journalist should be assigned high significance. As I observed earlier this year, “Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have the most to lose from a nuclear-equipped Iran. No one can predict when the Saudi kingdom might become unstable, but whenever it does, Iran will stand ready to support its Shi’ite co-religionists, who make up a majority in the kingdom’s oil-producing east.” [4]

It should be no surprise that Western governments are watching the events in Gaza slack-jawed and confused. Not only the dogs, but the dogs’ owners, have plunged into the melee. The divisions inside Hamas make matters more complicated still.

Hamas’ military wing in Gaza takes orders from the Syrian-based Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal, “because he distributes the funds received from Iran and the Gulf States,” as the Guardian of London reported July 4. The region’s governments blame each other for failing to persuade Meshaal to free the Israeli corporal.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who has the most to lose, blames Syria for ignoring Egyptian requests to arrange the soldier’s release. But the Palestinian negotiator Nabil Shaath told the Saudi daily Al-Watan on July 9 that both Egypt and Saudi Arabia were blocking Western efforts to convince Iran and Syria to use their good offices to free Shalit.

Iran’s President Mahmud Ahmadinejad and his Revolutionary Guard supporters are the puppies of the Iranian revolution. Western diplomacy presumes that the old dogs, specifically Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and former president Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, will kennel their curs before the US takes military action of some kind. But that is harder to do than some Western analysts suppose, for Iran’s influence over Shi’ite militias in Iraq represents the Islamic Republic’s most important source of leverage over the United States.

The Bush administration needs to show progress toward stability in Iraq in the advent of the November Congressional elections, when control of both Houses of the American legislature will be in play. On July 8, US and Iraqi government forces in Baghdad staged their first attack in many months on the Mehdi Army, Tehran’s most important asset in Iraq. On July 9, Mehdi Army fighters reportedly entered a Sunni neighborhood in Baghdad and killed 42 Sunni Arabs.

The United States will not submit to Iranian blackmail, as the June 8 offensive in Sadr City made clear, and Iranian-supported Shi’ites will not submit to the American whip, as the next day’s massacres of Sunnis make just as clear. Tehran cannot be seen to abandon its Iraqi assets the moment American soldiers begin shooting at them. The likely Iranian response will include more bloodletting in Iraq, as well as the use of Iranian influence to stoke the fire in Gaza.

As I wrote on June 27 Prisoner’s dilemma in Tehran:

Tehran finds itself in a variant of the “prisoner’s dilemma.” If it accepts the US proposal to suspend uranium enrichment while negotiating with Washington – assuming that this can be verified to Washington’s satisfaction – time will be on the side of the Americans. As the Iraqi situation unravels, Iran’s leverage over Washington will erode and Iran will have lost crucial time in creating a nuclear-weapons capability. Iran’s only logical response is the one that Ahmadinejad already has offered: neither accept nor reject the proposal, but play for time.

Washington cannot accept this proposal. It will indicate its impatience to Tehran through various gestures, for example by inciting Iran’s national minorities or dissidents. But the effect of such action will be to reinforce Tehran’s conviction that it has nothing to gain by accepting US terms.

In the midst of the present escalation, I cannot see Iran abandoning uranium enrichment, and I cannot imagine Washington responding with anything but extreme severity.


[1] Why war comes when no-one wants it May 1, 2006. Asia Times Online

[2] US claims funds flow in from Saudis to Somalia

[3] I meet a Saudi minister

[4] Why the West Will Attack Iran Asia Times Online, January 24, 2006

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