Time and history may be moving in Iran’s direction when it comes to its ambition to fill the power vacuum in the Middle East.
On February 10, at the end of an extraordinarily violent week, the Israeli military shot down an Iranian drone that crossed into Israeli airspace, and then bombed the drone launch site in Syria. One of the Israeli F-16s bombers crashed near Haifa after Syrian anti-aircraft missiles locked onto the plane. More Israeli strikes followed against Syrian military, Iranian and Hezbollah targets inside Syria. Both Syria and Iran have sent messages to the Israelis that they do not want this event to signal an escalation.
However, the hawks in Tel Aviv and Washington are calling for further moves against Iran. Many Israelis and Americans see the Iranian regime as a threat to the survival of Israel, especially if Iran were to acquire a nuclear weapon. Iran is on course to become the dominant military and political player in the region by harnessing the combined power and strategic depth of Lebanon, Syria and Iraq. An Israeli nightmare is that their national morale will collapse if this actually happens. As most Israelis also have US passports, a very substantial proportion of the Jewish population might quickly desert the country in this scenario.
The regime in Saudi Arabia shares a similar fear of an Iranian-led power block, as do the ruling families of Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates. They point not only to the Iranian gains in Iraq and Syria, but also to Iranian influence in Yemen. This common fear of Iran is the genesis of the unlikely coalition of Israel, the Saudis and UAE. The alliance is based on a belief that we are in the middle of an historic struggle between the Sunni states plus Israel on one side, and the Shia-ruled or Shia majority states on the othe.
This interpretation of affairs misses a historical reality. We are actually witnessing just the next chapter in the ongoing and protracted wars of the Ottoman succession, which also gives the Turks, the Kurds, the Russians and various other regional players major or minor roles. The winner of these wars will eventually replace the Ottomans as the dominant Middle Eastern nation — an issue unresolved since 1922 when the last sultan was deposed.
Iran has seen the demise of British and French attempts to replace the Ottomans, and now senses that the successive attempts of Egypt, Iraq and Saudi Arabia to be the leaders of the region have also run their course. Iran aims to fill the power vacuum. Time and history may be moving in Iran’s direction. The leading Sunni nations, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, have deep and worsening social, political and economic problems that they try to blame on Iran. Bahrain is on the ropes as its Shia majority bitterly resents being governed by the unelected Sunni al Khalifa family — a revolt against the rulers that they blame Iran for inciting. The UAE may have more internal cohesion, but it too is a police state where the indigenous citizens are a minority in their own country.
The theory that Iran is the cause of these countries’ problems is a dangerous fallacy. Israel and the Sunni states have well-equipped military forces and are only too willing to use them, although unimpressively in the case of the Saudi performance in Yemen the Egyptians in the Sinai. The Sunni alliance and Israel’s hope is that the US will come to the rescue and curb Iranian expansionism. While the Trump White House is ready enough to swallow the Israeli and Saudi version of current events and point the finger at Iran, the US appetite for yet another Middle Eastern war is limited.
After 15 years of fighting in Iraq and 17 years in Afghanistan, there is war weariness in the US. An additional factor is that the US is no longer dependent on Gulf oil supplies and no longer has a strategic economic or military reason to intervene, although Israel may suck the US in regardless. The Russians and Turks have more limited ambitions, but are determined to come out on the side of the winners. The interests of all the Middle Eastern states, the Europeans, the Russians and the US are to make a balanced regional peace — to include the Iranians.
The Israelis will also eventually come to the same conclusion, and, when they do, we will be back in a world not unlike the strategic balance pre-1978. We could work to reach that point by negotiation rather than with further bloodshed. It is more likely there will have to be another battle in the long war first.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.