Jerusalem Post, 8/4/11.
First of all, it is necessary to restate an obvious truth. The “Arab spring” of 2011 has not served to alter the core strategic architecture of the Middle East. The Middle East in the long Arab winter that preceded this period was dominated by a standoff between the US-led dispensation in the region, which has held sway since the 1980s, and a challenge to that dispensation by an Iranian-led, largely Islamist alliance.
The Iranian challenge has been expressed through a sophisticated, patient strategy involving the creation of proxy organizations and the blending of subversive political and paramilitary activity.
Three months into the period of instability set in motion by the uprising in Tunisia, the Middle East is still dominated by this core process.
Once this is acknowledged, the strategic and diplomatic effect of the uprisings can begin to be rationally assessed. While not altering the essential picture, the uprisings have led to the departure of two significant players from the stage, both of them on the pro-Western side of the line: Zine El Abidine Bin Ali of Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak of Egypt.
The current indications are that Egypt, the far more significant of the two, is unlikely to return to its former role as a key bulwark against Iranian and Islamist regional ambitions. The Arab spring has also precipitated an incoherent Western intervention in the somewhat irrelevant state of Libya.
It is possible, and even likely, that the kinds of issues raised by the Arab uprisings will be central in the eventual defeat of the Iranian-led regional alliance. This is because on the crucial matters of societal development – the creation of working and representative institutions of government, providing jobs and opportunities and channeling the creative energies of a generation of young people in the Middle East – Iran and its allies have absolutely nothing to say.
Hence the attempts of both Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran and Bashar Assad of Syria to return the subject of conversation to Israel and its supposed hidden hand in the latest events.
BUT A 1989-style moment in which pragmatic civil society agendas sweep away decrepit anti-Western regimes is not yet upon us. The anti-Western regimes in Iran, Gaza and Lebanon continue to maintain power by force. Their ally in Syria also looks set to do so. Unlike the communists in 1989, these regimes are not yet in their dotage. Rather, they possess a vigorous and brutal will to live.
Meanwhile, with world attention focused on the intervention in Libya, Iran is moving ahead to exploit weaknesses exposed by the uprisings.
Iran has long been applying its skills in political/military subversion in locations across the region – from Afghanistan, via Iraq, to Lebanon and the Gaza Strip. But it is the Gulf area – the central focus of Iranian regional ambitions – that currently constitutes the central arena.
The Saudi intervention in Bahrain last month ensured, at least for the moment, that the reigning al-Khalifa family would survive. But it has also set the scene for a growing, open confrontation between Tehran, which wants to extend its influence and power into the energy-wealthy Arab monarchies and emirates of the Gulf, and Western-aligned Saudi Arabia, which sees itself as the protector of Sunni power in this area.
With Saudi troops ensconced in Bahrain, an escalating war of words is now under way between the official spokesmen and media outlets of Tehran and Riyadh.
Last week, the The National Security and Foreign Policy Commission of the Iranian Parliament (Majlis) accused Saudi Arabia of “playing with fire” and called on Riyadh to withdraw its forces from Bahrain. Iran said the Saudis were engaged in “pursuing US policies in the region.” Kuwait’s claims this week to have broken an Iranian-sponsored spy ring and Saudi fears of Iranian attempts to stir up unrest in the largely Shia province are adding to the tension.
Saudi statements dismissed the Iranian accusations in blunt terms. A Saudi official quoted in Asharq Alawsat newspaper said that Iran had “no right to breach the sovereignty of the Kingdom of Bahrain or to interfere in its affairs, or the affairs of any other Gulf State, or to attempt to deprive Bahrain of its legitimate right of seeking the help of the Gulf Cooperation Council [GCC] Peninsula Shield force.” THE SAUDI-Iranian standoff looks set to continue and probably escalate.
This rivalry is being played out around one of the most strategically vital areas of the world. It contains vital US air bases and the headquarters of the US Fifth Fleet. The security of world energy supplies depends on stability and the expectation of continued stability here.
This fact has evidently not entirely been lost on Western defense planners. On Monday, a NATO delegation held talks in Kuwait, discussing possible joint naval exercises in the Gulf area and closer cooperation.
The Iranians are experts at playing the long game. It is possible that they will prefer to maintain Bahrain as a generator of political legitimacy, in which they can present themselves as defending a beleaguered Shia majority from their Sunni oppressors. This may serve their interests more than a frontal confrontation at this stage, and can go hand in hand with continued efforts at subversion in Kuwait and eastern Saudi Arabia.
But the growing tension between Saudi Arabia and Iran is the first serious inter-state fallout deriving from the uprisings of 2011. It should serve to remind all those rhapsodizing about a new regional political age that springtime in the Middle East is a notoriously brief season, whose flowers have a tendency to fade quickly in the heat.