The Pentagon is building a missile-defense radar station at a secret site in Qatar and organizing its biggest-ever minesweeping exercises in the Persian Gulf, as preparations accelerate for a possible flare-up with Iran…
The Middle East of today is abuzz with a frenzy of political brinkmanship, zero-sum games and delicate strategic manoeuvrers, the likes of which the region has seldom seen before – a hefty statement, but one with basis nonetheless. Elections have been held (somewhat successfully I might add) in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt; more gentle and subdued renditions of political reform have been called for in states such as Jordan, Algeria and Morocco. Yet despite this significant progressive movement in one of the most politically stagnant regions of the world, there remain regimes determined to “ignore” calls for reform through force, coercion and bloodshed. Such a regime in Syria has caused the deaths of many thousands of people and is responsible for the countless bloodcurdling images plastered across our 24/7 news channels. The Iranian regime on the other hand seems to be getting its thrills from its nuclear program. Whether the program is strictly civilian in nature or has a more sinister goal is yet to be proved beyond any doubt; however what is certain is that the Iranian’s are not allowing themselves to be bullied by the West. A comprehensive list of sanctions and embargos have been imposed by the USA, European Union and the United Nations which have had a somewhat crippling effect on the Iranian economy at large but seem to have had little effect on the attitude of the most powerful men in Tehran; instead these men threaten to shut the Strait of Hormuz. This political brinkmanship has created a point of conflict between the pro-US Israel, who see a nuclear-armed Iran as an immediate threat to its existence, and the more “independent minded” Iranians, who claim the right to a peaceful nuclear program and emphatically deny nuclear weapon aims. The potential for this situation to go from simmering to explosive is extremely alarming for all involved in the region, thus the US has decided to take a more proactive approach through an increased military presence in the Gulf, most recently as mentioned above, through the construction of a missile-defense radar station in the Gulf Emirate of Qatar. Additional complications are uncovered when one explores the conjoined interests of Iran and Syria on one side and the US and Qatar on the other. All-in-all, as ever, the Middle East and its players have concocted a stunningly complicated and perplexing situation whose outcome could have extremely serious geopolitical implications not only for the immediate region, but for the rest of the world.
Iranian-Israeli hostilities have been a near constant issue plaguing the region since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. On this point it must be pointed out that the USA have been accusing the Iranians of constructing a nuclear weapon since the 1980s – before I was even born! Thus the latest accusations and escalation of the situation must be taken with a sizeable grain of salt. Nonetheless Iranian-Israeli antagonism has been the source of much angst in the region and around the world resulting in the international community imposing extremely restrictive sanctions on the Iranian regime in response to what is perceived to be a nuclear weapons program within the state. The problem here is that, as far as I have read, no weapons program has been found, proved-to-exist or otherwise, and thus the Iranian people are being punished for, as yet, an unconfirmed offence. The logic of this is indisputably twisted yet is allowed to take place in the full view of all due to the imperfect international system. This is not to dismiss the deep suspicions of many that the Iranians are building a nuclear weapons program, but since when did suspicion prove to be evidence for punishment?
To try and untangle the Iranian quagmire one must look not only at the situation in the Gulf but at the international system as a whole. It is clear that, for reasons I will not go into, the USA and Israel have a ‘special relationship’. Thus, put at its simplest, the US are willing to do the bidding of Israel at international organisations such as the UN while wielding their unparalleled influence to pressure other similarly powerful states to adopt similar dim views on the situation in the Persian Gulf. This contention, combined with the economical reasoning that a serious nuclear standoff in the Gulf would cause world oil prices to skyrocket, leaving an already frail global economy in a much worse condition, has undoubtedly motivated the West to act harshly on suspicions about Iranian nuclear policy. In return the Iranian regime has lashed out with threats of its own: shutting the Strait of Hormuz and letting loose their significant proxy forces on the region are just some of many such threats. As a result, the US has been pushed into proactive action, cementing its already significant strategic position in the region to deter an Iranian outburst. The latest news of the US Navy shooting dead an Indian fisherman off the coast of the UAE is a mere signal of the increased prominence of US forces in the Gulf and constitutes a symptom of the rise in tensions in the region.
The big news story coming out of the Middle East at the moment is that of the Syrian Civil War. In typical Middle Eastern style, this conflict convolutedly ties in with issues involving Iran, in particularly the decision from the US to station a missile-defense radar station in Qatar. Since the 1979 revolution Iran and Syria have cultivated ever closer strategic ties. This relationship has been fostered by similar feelings of animosity towards Saddam Hussein, the USA and Israel. Today the two have a relationship which makes Syria Iran’s closest key strategic ally – and thus an ally Iran cannot afford to lose at such a pivotal and fragile moment in regional politics. Thus Iran has been proactively arming and aiding the Assad government through any means it can to keep the regime in power and therefore retain its closest and most important ally; in this Iranian national interest goals are clear. On the other side of the scale Qatar (along with Saudi Arabia) has called for, been accused of, and for all intents and purposes has been, arming the Syrian opposition – in direct contradiction to the national interest and thus the wishes of their large northern neighbour. Arguably, this leaves Qatar vulnerable to the wrath of the Iranian regime, which despite having once cordial relations with the extremely wealthy Emirate, will surely look on their involvement in Syria with some disdain. In addition to this, the lifeblood of the Qatari economy – its LNG production capacity – is not only extremely vulnerable to Iranian attack, but is actually shared with Iran through the North Pars Gas Field. Therefore the Americans – who already operate a significant military base in Qatar – are capitalising on this vulnerability by assuring the Qatari’s of their physical and economic safety from their northern neighbour while simultaneously shoring up their strategic military position in the region through a new missile-defense radar station. Such a station will undoubtedly prove useful to their staunch Israeli allies should Iran ever decide to strike – nuclear or not – against the Jewish state. It seems the ball is now, temporarily at least, in the Iranian’s court, their forthcoming decision could be one which determined the course of the future of the Gulf region.
The complexity of the relationships between the aforementioned key players of the Middle East cannot be understated, and thus the above discussion is merely a scratching of the surface in its simplest form. It is this interconnectedness that makes Middle Eastern geopolitical relations so charming and captivating despite its often serious implications. In spite of my recognition that predicting the future in such a volatile environment is a fool’s game, perhaps I can leave you with a scenario which seems, to me at least, to be either the most likely or at least realistically the most desirable:
The collapse of the Assad-regime is almost unavoidable, what the regime will be replaced by is impossible to predict. This being said, due to the large Sunni Muslim population in Syria it is more than likely that the new Syrian administration will likely consist of a large Sunni segment which understandably will not be as amicable with Iran as was the Assad regime. In Iran the current stagnated situation may continue for some time, however with the departure of their Syrian allies life may begin to get a whole lot tougher. In addition to the lack of allies, the continued imposition of economic sanctions and embargos will serve to slowly erode the notably patriotic spirit of the Iranian people who may, at some point revolt in a similar fashion to the 2009 election protests. Whether such a popular revolt serves to topple the current Iranian regime or whether a similar end-game to that of 2009 plays out is beyond the bounds of sensible conjecture. However one thing can be ascertained, just like the situations in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia the future truly is in the hands of the Iranian people.Follow @SimonPapaG