Playing with fire in the Middle East

As relations between Iran and Syria and the west deteriorate further, what are the possible outcomes of this escalation in the diplomatic crisis?

The Middle East has on many occasions in the past been aptly referred to as a powder keg, but never before has said powder keg been so close to blowing up.

The “Arab spring” brought down several seemingly stable dictatorial rules in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and more are almost certain to follow. Popular unrest is on the rise, civil wars are looming in Yemen and Syria, and Islamist fundamentalists are jockeying for state power. Worst of all, preparations for yet another war in the region appear to be under way.

Of all these different theatres of conflict, none rivals the case of Iran and by extension its main ally Syria.  Having so far failed in forcing Iran to stop its nuclear enrichment programmes, the US, Israel and their allies can no longer hide their intentions, and have raised their level of threats of bombing Iran. Severe sanctions are increasingly hurting the Islamic regime and are pushing it further and further into a corner.  Mysterious incidents and sabotage in various Iranian military installations continue.

The fact that the failed policies of the US in neighbouring Iraq and Afghanistan have enormously strengthened Iran is an increasing source of tension to the west and their Arab allies. Hopes of softening the positions of the Islamic regime and a more moderate faction coming to power have also been dashed.  Encouraged, or indeed pressured by their Arab allies, the US and other western governments now follow the strategy of severely reducing or eliminating the threats posed by the Islamic regime. Right wing Israelis, taking advantage of continuous hate remarks by Ahmadinejad, have declared Iran an “existential threat” and are pushing for military intervention. 

As a result, the Islamic regime feels more and more isolated and violent moves like the orchestrated invasion of the British Embassy in Tehran only reflect its desperation.

The Iranian regime is also internally under extreme duress. In-fighting in the ruling bloc has reached unprecedented heights. The majority of the Iranian public, disgusted with rampant corruption, the incompetence of the clerical oligarchy, outright human rights violations, and the country’s social, economic and political degradations, are waiting for an opportunity to revolt again.  

Adding to the regime’s desolation is that its most important ally, Syria, is facing a very real existential threat from inside and outside the country. When the winds of change reached the Syrian people and many rose up against the dictator, Assad’s Arab League 'brothers' did not come to his rescue, as they did in response to the Bahraini dictator crying wolf about the Iranian threat. When they could not convince Assad to discard the Iranian connection, they expelled him from the League, imposing severe sanctions on Syria in coordination with the US and western allies. As the revolts spread and defections in the military expand, the chances of civil war in this multi-ethnic and multi-religious country increase.

In Libya, the west could easily arrange for a no-fly zone and mobilize more and more people to join the anti-Gaddafi campaign; it cannot do so in Syria, at least not with the same ease. First, part of Syria is under Israeli occupation and an attack on Syria, particularly if some Arab states get involved, would be seen by many Arabs as taking Israel’s side. Second, the Syrian military and defense capabilities are far greater than that of Libya. The Assad clan still has lots of support, not only among Alawis and the military, but also among different minorities and secular forces who are afraid of the Muslim Brotherhood and the increased Saudi influence. Most importantly, the Syrian regime also has some friends in the region that it can count on.

In both the Iranian and Syrian cases different scenarios are imaginable, ranging from the most optimistic to the most pessimistic. 

In Syria, if Assad gives up his regime’s connections with Iran, the Arab League may rally to help him find a way out of the crisis and survive.  Alternatively, if the insurgency expands and the Assad regime gives in to internal and regional pressures and agrees to an exit strategy, crisis can be averted. However, these scenarios seem to be less likely by the day. Past experiences show that dictators are incapable of learning from history and the final destiny of their counterparts.

There remain other scenarios, including the most dangerous one. Since sanctions would not stop the Syrian killing fields, no-fly-zones might be imposed. Syrian air force and air defense systems would not abide by this, leading to an escalation of aerial combat, and the possibility of engaging western and some Arab countries in bombing Syrian installations.  The Syrian regime may not wait for its own downfall, and could try to provoke Israel and launch missiles on Israeli targets and also to engage Lebanese Hezbollah to do the same; the Hezbollah, knowing that much of its strengths are derived from its links to the Syrian and Iranian regimes, might involve itself in the war.  Unlike the Iraqi invasion of 2003 when the US ’stopped’ Israel from responding to Iraqi missile attacks, the Israeli government would most probably immediately retaliate by force.

If Israel entered the scene, the picture would change dramatically.  No Arab country, even Saudi Arabia, the UAE or Qatar would dare stay on the side of Israel. This could quickly drag western countries deeper and deeper into a major regional war.  Finally, the Iranian regime, seeing its two most important friends threatened with elimination, and knowing that it would be next on the list, might engage more actively in supporting its allies, which in turn would expedite the bombardment of Iran by Israel and the US.

The optimistic scenario for Iran would obviously be that the Islamic regime, under immense internal and international pressures, gives up its enrichment programmes and abides by the IAEA measures. Alternatively, since sanctions would not stop Iran’s nuclear ambitions, the west may resort to surgical bombings of nuclear and defense installations, which might scare the Islamic regime and force it to agree to stop enrichments.  Such scenarios, however, are less than likely, as they would severely weaken the position of the Supreme Leader and the factions surrounding him who run the show.

The more likely scenario is that following an attack the regime would immediately move to retaliate.

The more the war escalates, the more Iran would use its many available cards. Closing the Hormuz strait by simply sinking a ship would block the passage of about 15 million barrels, or 40 percent of internationally traded oil, per day. The new Abu Dhabi pipeline that bypasses the strait and is expected to be operational in December 2011, will only be able to carry about 2 million barrels per day, and would not be able to counter the enormous negative impact on the global supply and price of oil. The Iranian regime may also engage its very close allies among Iraqi Shiites, and the Afghani Hazaras  in the conflict.

A new Middle East war, unlike any other before it, would be a long and protracted regional war. Iran cannot be compared to Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya.  The Islamist regime has much wider fighting capabilities. It is a much larger country with a huge double-decker army, and still has capabilities of mobilizing a section of the population as well as strong and dangerous regional connections.

If we recall the failures of the west in the comparatively much simpler wars of Iraq and Afghanistan, and how their ‘missions’ have not been accomplished, we can only imagine for the outcomes of a much bigger and more complex war.  Without a doubt the Islamist regime would eventually be defeated, but the end result would be a ruined and disintegrated Iran, and chaos in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Afghanistan. No one will benefit if this particular powder keg is blown up.  The first casualty of a regional war would be the Iranian opposition movement and the ‘Arab spring’.  But the present Canadian government, no more than the US, British, and French governments, don’t seem to have learned from these bitter lessons of history.

There are many illusions concerning the Iranian situation: the west thinks that bombing certain installations would make the regime back down; the Iranian regime believes the west cannot afford to start a new war; it also thinks that in the case of foreign attack, Iranians would rally behind the regime; it assumes that China and Russia will support Iran regardless; and perhaps most naïve of all, one section of the Iranian opposition thinks that with the help of the west it can implement some version of a Libyan scenario in Iran.  All sides are simply wrong. 

The corrupt, inept and brutal regimes in Iran and Syria will surely fall sooner or later, but this should happen not by foreign military intervention but at the hands of the Iranian and Syrian peoples. As assuredly as this is an uphill task, it will happen and these dictatorial regimes will eventually fall. 

About the author

Saeed Rahnema is Professor of Political Science and Public Policy at York University, Toronto