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Words often mean the opposite of what they appear to mean in the Middle East. When Jordan’s King Abdullah demanded a speedy solution to the Israel-Palestine issue to quell the outbreak of multiple civil wars in the region, he meant the precise opposite: the Arab world has something more pressing on its mind than the plight of the Palestinians. The emergence of an Iranian threat to Saudi Arabia makes Palestine the odd man out. The Palestine problem has dropped to the bottom of the Arab priority list, and the fate of the Palestinians is to become cannon fodder for proxy wars.
By the same token, King Abdullah’s warning of multiple civil wars meant the opposite of what it appeared to. What formerly were civil wars (or prospective civil wars) in Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine have become three fronts in a Sunni-Shi’ite war, in which the local contestants are mere proxies. This is obvious in Lebanon, and becoming so in Palestine, particularly after Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh’s meeting with Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad in Qatar on Saturday.
As historian Niall Ferguson observed in his November 27 Los Angeles Times column, “some civil wars never end,” although he neglected to add why this is the case: it is because someone on the outside keeps adding fuel to the fire. The classic example is the great German civil war, namely the 30 Years’ War of 1618-48. The Catholic and Protestant Germans, with roughly equal strength, battered each other through two generations because France sneakily shifted resources to whichever side seemed likely to fold. I have contended for years that the United States ultimately will adopt the perpetual-warfare doctrine that so well served Cardinal Richelieu and made France the master of Europe for a century (see How I learned to stop worrying and love chaos, March 14).
“There are two sorts of rat/The hungry and the fat,” wrote Heinrich Heine. The fault line between hungry Iranians and the fat Saudis may take precedence over the civilization divide between Muslims and the West, at least for the time being. That is why the Israelis have rediscovered the 2003 Saudi peace plan. The Saudi kingdom has threatened to intervene on the side of the beleaguered Sunnis of Iraq, and Iran (through Hezbollah) is seeking to overthrow the Saudi-allied government of Lebanon, as well as dominate the rejectionist wing of the Palestinians.
Iran, I warned on September 13, 2005, is running short of oil and soldiers (Demographics and Iran’s imperial design). Its oil exports could fall to zero within only 10 years, according to new studies reviewed in the December 11 Business Week. Iran’s circumstances appear far more pressing than I believed a year ago, when the consensus estimate gave Iran another 20 years’ worth of oil exports. Apart from oil, Iran exports only dried fruit, pistachio nuts, carpets, caviar and, more recently, prostitutes (Jihads and whores, November 21).
Iran covets the oil reserves of southeastern Iraq, southern Azerbaijan, and northwestern Saudi Arabia. With 30% youth unemployment, 10% inflation, epidemic prostitution and drug addiction, Iran’s fraying social fabric depends on an oil-derived government dole. Within a generation it will have half as many men of military age, and four times as many pensioners. As currently configured, Iran faces economic and demographic collapse eventually. If, as Business Week reports, Iran’s oil exports are falling by one-seventh each year, the reckoning might come sooner rather than later. The theocratic regime is a wounded and dangerous beast, prone to hunt outside its own preserve.
Saudi Arabia’s quasi-official threat of intervention in Iraq should be read in this light. On November 28, a Saudi strategic adviser, Nawaf Obaid, warned in the Washington Post of “massive Saudi intervention to stop Iranian-backed Shi’ite militias from butchering Iraqi Sunnis,” if need be. “To be sure, Saudi engagement in Iraq carries great risks – it could spark a regional war,” Obaid added. “So be it: the consequences of inaction are far worse.” I do not mean to deprecate Saudi concern for the welfare of Sunnis, but the kingdom faces an existential threat.
Thanks to The Sunday Times of London, we know that Prince Bandar al-Sultan, the Saudi official closest to the US administration, met with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert as early as last September. In late October, Israeli officials, starting with Defense Minister Amir Peretz, cited the 2003 Saudi peace plan as a possible “basis for negotiations.” It amounted simply to recognition of Israel by Saudi Arabia and other Arab states in return for Israel’s withdrawal to 1967 borders. All this occurred prior to the US elections and the advent of the James Baker-Lee Hamilton Iraq Study Group.
On balance the Israelis should be pleased at the development. As Diana West wrote in her December 1 TownHall column, “Imagine: Sunni Saudi Arabia vs Shi’ite Iran – and nary an American soldier ordered to pull his PC [politically correct] punches in the crossfire.” More precisely, Iran has sufficient influence among the Palestinians to ensure that Hamas rejects a Palestinian national-unity government, leaving Israel no one with whom to negotiate, and a relatively free hand for the occasional raid. Jerusalem can stretch one hand in peace toward the Saudis, and hammer Iran’s ally Hamas with the other.
A long war of attrition against Iran will succeed unless Iran can break out of encirclement, which in practice means acquiring nuclear weapons. I do not know how close Iran might be to obtaining a deployable nuclear weapon. If it appears close to that goal, either the United States or Israel will attack Iranian nuclear facilities. But if the West as well as the Saudis is confident that nuclear weapons remain out of Iranian reach, the Richelieu strategy of slow and bloody attrition might be just as effective.