Muslim World: The Offensive

Jerusalem Post- 12/02/2010

The days are ticking away before the start of a major new NATO offensive in southern Afghanistan. The offensive, which is set to involve thousands of members of the Afghan armed forces and police alongside US and NATO troops, is intended to end Taliban control of the town of Marjah in Helmand province.

Marjah is the largest location in Afghanistan currently under Taliban control. The area, with a population of 80,000, is also a major opium production center. Reports earlier this week depicted long convoys of civilians moving with a few belongings out of the area in anticipation of the expected attack. This followed a leaflet drop by NATO aircraft, warning local residents of the coming offensive.

The Mirjah operation is set to be the first major offensive since President Barack Obama announced the surge of 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan. The offensive, dubbed “Operation Moshtirak” (an Arabic-derived Dari word meaning “joint” or cooperation) is being seen as a major test of NATO’s strategy to build up the Afghan security forces, which would thus enable the beginning of the withdrawal of foreign forces next year.

The goal of the Marjah offensive, according to NATO commanders, is not merely to deal a military blow to the Taliban. Rather, according to Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top US commander in Afghanistan, the operation forms part of the larger counterinsurgency strategy being pursued by NATO. McChrystal told reporters earlier this week that the intention was to show residents of Marjah not only that the Taliban can be driven out, but also that an effective Afghan government is able to step in to replace them.

Much depends on the success of the offensive in Marjah. Failure, or even a large casualty rate among NATO forces, could lead to difficulties in maintaining the political will among NATO participant countries to continue the fight in Afghanistan.

These words are being written from an office in the NATO school in Oberammergau, Germany, following a meeting with officers from a number of member countries of the alliance – including individuals recently returned from Afghanistan.

IN A SPEECH in December in which he announced the deployment of an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan, Obama also gave the date of July 2011 as the time when the US would begin to “draw down” its forces in the country. US officials were keen to clarify in the days following Obama’s speech that this did not mean the immediate beginning of withdrawal of US forces on that date. Rather, according to CENTCOM commander Gen. David Petraeus at the time, the date would trigger “a beginning of transition to Afghan security forces and, over time, a beginning of transition of tasks to Afghan governmental elements as well.”

Defense Secretary Robert Gates said that “the plan is to begin transferring areas of responsibility for security over to the Afghan security forces with us remaining in a tactical and then strategic over watch position, sort of the cavalry over the hill. But we will begin to thin our forces and begin to bring them home.”

The clarifications mean one thing: The policy is really unclear. It raises the obvious question of why the Taliban should not simply make a decision to lay low and wait out the clock until July 2011, and then launch a renewed bid for power against whoever is left in control in Kabul? This point might be made with added strength given the weakness and unpopularity of President Hamid Karzai’s government, which reputedly has scant authority outside the capital.

Sure enough, this is exactly what the Taliban appear to be doing. Taliban commanders in the Marjah area quoted by NBC News spoke of their intention to “shake hands as civilians” with the incoming forces, after which they were expected to leave. Certainly, despite these statements, some Taliban action may be expected in Marjah. But overall, this strategy appears to be too obvious to be resisted.

The idea of a time-limited counterinsurgency raises a larger issue. What vital interests, if any, hinge for the West on this policy? The answer given is that stability in Afghanistan is essential to prevent the return of al-Qaida to the country. But, given that al-Qaida – or manifestations of it – is making its presence felt in a number of regional states – such as Yemen, Pakistan and others – is it the intention of the West to give the entire region a makeover? Or might it not make more sense to conduct pinpoint operations against al-Qaida where it raises its head, preferably in cooperation with local allies on the ground?

In Afghanistan, where one way or another everyone seems to accept that the Taliban are not going to be entirely vanquished, such an approach might seem even more advisable. Isn’t that what the West is going to end up doing there, anyway?

There are no easy answers, and once again with Western forces heading into danger in Marjah, one can only wish them success in their mission. But properly prioritizing enemies is not a luxury the West can afford to dispense with. Middle East analyst Lee Smith recently referred to Western policy in Afghanistan as one of “chasing ghosts,” while emphasizing that a far more real, state-led coalition in the region – spearheaded by Iran – is currently posing a grave threat to the West, its allies and their interests. This, however, is not the main priority, as at this moment, the West is pouring resources into Afghanistan with the intention, ultimately, of avoiding a sense of humiliation at the hands of al-Qaida.

Certainly, challenging the trans-state Sunni jihadis is vital. But there is an Iranian brand of Islamic radicalism which already possesses sovereignty and resources, and which is currently banking on the West to remain focused on other things as it rolls its power across the region. It would be a shame if the US and its allies were to oblige.

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Gulf Regimes: The real Game – Saudi Arabia

Jerusalem Post- 11/03/2011

From a strategic point of view, the Iran-led regional axis has until now emerged as a net earner from the “Arab Spring” of 2011. In Egypt and Tunisia, two stable, pro-Western Arab regimes have fallen, giving way to ambiguous and potentially chaotic situations in those countries.

Among the countries of the “resistance axis,” meanwhile, protests have been brutally suppressed or stillborn, at least for the moment.

Attention is now turning to the vital Persian Gulf area. Bahrain is in the midst of an uprising by the country’s majority Shi’ite population. But the main question is whether instability will spread to Saudi Arabia – the key US ally in the area, and in many ways the linchpin of US regional strategy.

Here, Tehran stands to play a more active role than that of lucky bystander. The Gulf area is the central focus of Iranian ambition. It wishes to fulfill a long-standing strategic ambition of emerging as the dominant power in this area. The breakdown of order in Saudi Arabia would offer it a major opportunity to advance this cause.

Iran lacks conventional military ability and real economic power. It is adept, however, at turning political chaos into gain. The regime has developed tools and practices for political warfare which have so far delivered it domination of Lebanon, a competing franchise in Palestinian nationalism and key influence in Iraq.

If the Gulf regimes fail to effectively navigate the current unrest, Iran is fair set to begin to apply these practices in this area. The potential implications are enormous. The rulers of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states are aware of the risk, and are energetically trying to keep these areas closed to Iranian political-military subversion.

Bahrain is the test case. Here, the Iranians are best placed to make gains. The population of this tiny kingdom is 70 percent Shi’ite. The ruling Sunni al-Khalifa family has failed to address the socioeconomic needs and demands of this section of the population. The kingdom is currently roiled by a Shi’ite uprising. A formerly London-based cleric with Iranian connections, Hassan Mushaima, recently returned to take part.

Bahrain is small but vital. It is the base of the US Fifth Fleet, which ensures the security of the Gulf states in the face of a conventional military threat. Still, the real game is in Saudi Arabia.

Iranian potential depends largely on the volume of the Shi’ite population in a given country. In Saudi Arabia, Shi’ites constitute only 10%-15% of the population, around 2 million people. Scope for subversion there is limited, but potent.

They are found largely in the areas of al- Hasa and Qatif, in the oil-rich eastern province of the kingdom. Saudi Shi’ites are distrusted by the monarchy, and have long been subject to a repressive, restrictive regime and to economic marginalization.

The Wahhabi rulers of the kingdom despise Shi’ism, which they regard as heretical.

Like Egypt before the fall of Hosni Mubarak, Saudi Arabia is facing an inevitable succession crisis. King Abdullah is 88 years old. Despite the vast oil wealth of the kingdom, there are significant social problems among Saudi citizens, both Shi’ite and Sunni. These include high youth unemployment and a shortage of available housing. So the potential for crisis, and for external exploitation of it, is considerable.

The solution the kingdom has traditionally found is a combination of repression and throwing money at problems. The recent announcement of $37 billion in benefits for Saudis, combined with the pronouncements of senior clerics forbidding participation in demonstrations, suggests that a similar approach will be tried to hold off the current regional unrest.

Will it work? The current indication, as oppositionists plan a “day of rage,” is that it may well, in the sense that the monarchy is unlikely to fall any time soon. The implications of such an eventually would be of such seismic proportions – above all to the global oil industry – that it may be assumed that the Western backers of the Saudis, if need be, will countenance all measures necessary to prevent this – unless a truly disastrous naivete prevails in the West, of course.

Whether or not the upcoming day of rage proves a damp squib, the Shi’ites of Saudi Arabia cannot by themselves pose a threat to the monarchy. They are too minor a section of the population. And the main focus of anger is likely to be this community. But this does not render them without use from Iran’s point of view.

It may be assumed that the Kuds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps is well-entrenched among the Shi’ites of Saudi Arabia. If they can cause disruption in the oil-rich eastern province, they will attain a major new card in building their status as the key power broker in the Gulf. And if Saudi Arabia suffers from disruption beyond the boundaries of the Shi’ite community, Iran will also benefit from the simple zero sum equation that its enemy’s loss is its gain.

Thus, as the initial euphoria of the Arab uprisings begins to fade, the familiar contours of the regional standoff begin to return to visibility and assert their relevance.

Rival forces are attempting to make use of the sudden eruption of popular unrest for their own preexisting purposes. The game for Iran is promoting internal dissent in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf. The objective for the West must include promoting the same against the brutally repressive Iranian regime. The Iranians have so far proved adept at suppressing their own protesters. The Al-Sauds are now determined to prove no less able practitioners of the art of staying alive and in power.

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Arab World: Kings and Pawns

Jerusalem Post- 17/09/2010

The scheduled visit by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Lebanon in the coming weeks represents the latest move in the Iranian leader’s attempt to declare ownership of what he regards as the struggle of the Muslim world against Israel. The much-remarked-on reports in the al-Khaleej newspaper that he may visit the southern border area cannot yet be confirmed. But if this aspect of the visit does take place, it will serve to highlight in bold relief this most central aspect of the regional strategy of Ahmadinejad and those around him.

The visit is also the latest sign that Lebanon as a whole is in the process of being drawn into de facto membership of the Iran-led regional axis. It may herald the launching of a major new initiative to provide arms to the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF).

The reasons for the centrality of Israel in the strategy of Ahmadinejad and his comrades have been much rehearsed, and are by now familiar.

The Iranians are twofold outsiders in the Arab world – as non-Sunnis and non-Arabs. Yet the regime in Teheran wants to make of itself the hegemonic power of the region. One factor stands to trump the Iranian status as strangers. This is the cause of the Palestinians, which remains the flagship political cause for the Arabs. The Iranians established and groomed Hizbullah precisely to give themselves their own stake in the fight against Israel.

The investment has paid dividends.

The Iranians like to contrast the supposed successes of their own long proxy war against Israel with the proclaimed failures of the diplomatic path. This has a resonance and relevance beyond the arena of Israel. It enables Teheran to claim that it represents the effective, uncompromising wave of the future – in contrast to the ineffectual practices of the Arab states. Teheran currently maintains the two active fronts of the conflict between Israel and Islam (as Iran sees it) – namely, Gaza and south Lebanon. With endless peace talks between the PA and Israel once more under way, it is an opportune moment for the Iranians to remind the world and the region of their opposing strategy of endless war.

But the Ahmadinejad visit may well also have a more immediately practical element. The visit is likely to reaffirm Teheran’s related takeover bid of Lebanon.

Lebanon enjoyed a brief moment of optimism following Syrian withdrawal in 2005. It was hoped that the country would succeed in developing representative institutions and return to the status it once enjoyed as a commercial hub in the Middle East. From the outset, however, this vision was challenged by an alternative, Iran inspired ambition which envisaged Lebanon as a militant front line state locked in endless conflict with Israel.

The Iran-inspired vision now has the upper hand. This is reflecting itself in practical ways. The almost certainly Hizbullah-inspired border incident last month, in which an IDF officer was killed, led to the freezing by the US of $100 million which had been approved for transfer to the Lebanese army. This sum was the latest segment of more than $720 million provided by the US to the army of Lebanon since 2006.

Iran saw an opportunity, and the Iranian ambassador met with the Lebanese chief of staff following the incident, pledging that Iran would cooperate with the Lebanese army in any area that would help the military in performing its national role in defending Lebanon.

It may well be that Ahmadinejad intends to use his visit to announce further practical steps in Iran’s attempt to step in and make itself a major supplier to the LAF.

An additional reason for the visit will be to indulge in some flag-waving and sloganeering to distract attention from current problems. Ahmadinejad has concerns on a variety of fronts.

Sanctions have begun to bite at home, with worse to come. Restrictions on shipping and banking services are reducing Iran’s ability to sell the crude oil that is vital to its economy.

There are reports of divisions between Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, and more broadly between the clerics who have ruled Iran since 1979 and the clique of militants and Revolutionary Guardsmen represented by Ahmadinejad.

His own difficulties are paralleled by concerns among Iran’s Hizbullah clients as it seeks to deflect attention from possible indictments against movement members for involvement in the murder of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri. Hizbullah’s chosen method in this has been to seek to blame Israel for the evidence against it and seek to portray supporters of the investigation into the murder as enemies of the “resistance” to Israel.

At such a time, it is easy to see why Ahmadinejad, both for his own purposes and to help his regime’s main clients, might feel inclined toward a little saber rattling and refocusing of the conversation on the hated Zionist enemy. Whether he stays in Beirut or ventures further south, one may expect much huffing and puffing about the “victory” of 2006 and presumably enthusiastic reminders of the Iran-financed rebuilding efforts in devastated Maroun a-Ras and Ait a-Shaab.

The bravado will reflect the real strategic gains made by Iran and its clients in Lebanon in recent years, and the centrality Teheran affords the issue of Israel and the struggle against it. It will also, however, serve as a rallying point for the faithful in the face of current tactical uncertainties.

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Analysis: Ahmadinejad to issue Warning in Lebanon

Jerusalem Post- 13/10/2010

Preparations are complete for the visit of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Lebanon. Iranian flags and portraits of the distinguished visitor have been placed along the road from Rafik Hariri International Airport to Beirut. A soccer stadium in the southern suburbs of the Lebanese capital is ready to receive the thronging mass of Shia Lebanese well-wishers who will greet the Iranian president. In Bint Jbail, a large replica of the Aksa Mosque in Jerusalem has been constructed, with an Iranian flag atop it.

The speeches Ahmadinejad will give in Beirut and in Bint Jbail will no doubt contain the requisite exhortations to “resistance” and blood sacrifice. There will be much trumpeting of the “divine victory” of 2006 and tribute to the “martyrs.”

But the trip’s purpose is not merely ceremonial. Beyond providing Ahmadinejad with a venue where he can speak without being heckled – a luxury not so easily available to him in his own country anymore – the Iranian president is coming to Lebanon to deliver a warning.

As Fares Soueid of the Lebanese March 14 alliance put it, “The message is that Iran is at the border with Israel… Ahmadinejad, through this visit, is saying that Beirut is under Iranian influence and that Lebanon is an Iranian base on the Mediterranean… The Iranian president is here to say that Lebanon is a land of resistance and to reaffirm his project of a continuous war with Israel.”

With regard to Israel, this merely confirms an existing reality. The border has been in a state of heightened tension since the killing of an IDF lieutenant-colonel by a Lebanese army sniper two months ago.

The area has played host to furious Iranian-financed civil and military construction over the last four years. This has taken place under the noses and with the tacit acquiescence of both the Lebanese Armed Forces and UNIFIL.

Ahmadinejad’s visit will showcase and confirm this. It may even have the effect of briefly focusing rare media attention on it. But beyond this, for Israel the trip consists, as one newspaper put it, of a largely “symbolic visit” by the “man who calls the shots” in south Lebanon.

Ahmadinejad’s arrival is of greater significance, however, with regard to the very tense internal Lebanese situation.

The UN-backed special tribunal investigating the murder of former prime minister Rafik Hariri is rumored to be preparing to issue indictments against Hizbullah members for involvement in the killing. There are real fears that this could ignite renewed political violence in Lebanon.

Nawwaf al-Moussawi, a Hizbullah MP in the Lebanese parliament, recently warned that any Lebanese who accepts the international tribunal’s indictment findings would be killed as a “collaborator” with Israel and the US.

The Ahmadinejad visit is a show of support for Hizbullah from its Iranian patron, in the buildup to possible renewed internal strife.

Iranian security personnel are currently present in Lebanon, and are working in cooperation with Hizbullah.

There have been suggestions that the visit could herald the beginning of an attempt by Hizbullah to seize control of Lebanon. Hizbullah has, in its own inimitable way, sought to simultaneously calm these fears and remind its opponents of their helplessness. The group’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, said recently that if Hizbullah had wished to take over the country, it could have done so in 2005 or 2006, but that it had no such desire.

The reports of an upcoming coup are probably overblown. But Ahmadinejad’s appearance on the scene will exacerbate fears. This is undoubtedly what the Iranian president wants. The charged atmosphere around his visit will serve as an ominous warning to opponents of the local Iranian franchise, at a particularly tense time.

The casting of Iran as the sponsor of “resistance” is a core part of Ahmadinejad’s regional strategy. Financing, arming and maintaining the two remaining active fronts of the Israeli-Arab conflict (the Hamas enclave in Gaza being the second) despite Iran’s non-Arab and non-Sunni nature is a key part of Teheran’s bid for regional leadership.

The Islamist regime in Teheran is today rocked by sanctions and internal dissent. But the regime will be determined to allow nothing as nebulous as international law to interfere with the franchise on the Mediterranean in which it has invested so much.

So Ahmadinejad is in Lebanon as a reminder of who really dominates that country – in possible anticipation of a further, more direct reminder if and when the Hariri Tribunal issues indictments.

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Global Affairs: Why a brazen N. Korea is Israel’s Concern

Jerusalem Post- 26/11/2010

The sudden North Korean artillery attack on a South Korean- controlled island this week has returned the secretive “Democratic Peoples’ Republic” of North Korea to world headlines. A casual observer might assume that the drama on the Korean peninsula is of little relevance to the strategic process in the Middle East. A casual observer would be wrong.

This latest evidence of the North Korean regime’s unique approach to its relations with the rest of the world matters a great deal to the Middle East, and particularly to Israel. This is because Pyongyang is a key armorer and facilitator of the Iran-led “resistance axis.”

North Korea is a militarily-advanced state which has placed itself outside of the boundaries and the rules of the international system.

The fact that it is willing to provide weapons and knowledge to anyone that can pay for it is a key element in facilitating the Iran-led axis’s challenge to order in the Middle East.

Earlier this month, a UN report revealing North Korean provision of nuclear and ballistic materials to Iran and Syria was published. The report had been compiled and completed in May. China, which acts as Pyongyang’s protector on the international stage, acted to prevent its publication.

Until now.

The report indicated that North Korea has employed clandestine means, including the use of “multiple layers of intermediaries, shell companies and financial institutions,” to “provide missiles, components and technology to certain countries, including the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Syrian Arab Republic.”

The report went on to detail how North Korea uses a range of “masking techniques” to conceal transactions, including containers with false declarations of contents and ships with false routes and destinations. It contended that four specific cases “not in compliance with the law, involving the export of arms” have surfaced since the last round of sanctions was imposed on Pyongyang in June 2009.

The UN report appeared also to confirm earlier allegations that the North Koreans were responsible for building the Syrian plutonium reactor destroyed by IAF aircraft at al-Kibar in September 2007.

While not specifically relating to this facility, it states that North Korea has “provided assistance for a nuclear program in the Syrian Arab Republic.”

Iranian defector Ali Reza Asghari has said that Iran helped finance the participation of North Korean personnel in the destroyed Syrian reactor.

Iranian scientists were also present at the site, the goal of which was to produce weapons-grade plutonium.

North Korean assistance also plays a vital role in the Iranian missile program.

Teheran’s Shihab missile project is a product of the relationship.

The Shihab is based on North Korea’s Nodong missile series. Iran is reported to have purchased 12 Nodong missile engines from North Korea in 1999, beginning the development of the Shihab-3.

The Shihab-3, which has a range of 1,300-1,500 kilometers, places Israel within range.

Iranian officials were present at the testing of the advanced Taepodong- 2 missile in North Korea in July 2006. This missile is the basis for the Iranian development of the Shihab-6, which has not yet been tested.

These are intercontinental, nuclear capable ballistic missile systems, thought to have a range of 5,000-6,000 kilometers.

One report has also suggested that Iran and North Korea are jointly seeking to develop a reentry vehicle for the Nodong/Shihab-3, which would be intended to carry a nuclear warhead.

In addition, an Iranian opposition report in 2008 identified the presence of North Korean experts at a facility near Teheran engaged in attempts to develop a nuclear warhead to be placed on intermediate range ballistic missiles such as the Shihab-3 and the Nodong. The report was cited by Agence France Presse.

There have also been claims by serious researchers of a North Korean role in the construction of the Hizbullah underground tunnel network which played a vital role in the 2006 Second Lebanon War.

A wealth of evidence thus exists to indicate that Iran, Syria and almost certainly Hizbullah are direct and substantial beneficiaries of North Korean weaponry and know-how. North Korean involvement with Iran and its allies encompasses both the conventional and non conventional arenas.

The latest sensational disclosure of a North Korean uranium enrichment plant will serve to further concentrate minds regarding Pyongyang’s activities in the Middle East. While North Korea was known to have enough weaponized plutonium to produce six atomic bombs, this is the first evidence to have emerged of potential for a uranium- based weapons program.

North Korea is obviously not motivated by any ideological affinity with Iran and its allies. It might be argued that the regime shares certain common points with Bashar Assad’s Syria.

Both countries are republican monarchies, family dictatorships ironically ruled in the name of supposedly egalitarian ideologies.

But Pyongyang is not seeking partners for the construction of socialism in the Middle East. It is limping under UN sanctions imposed because of its nuclear program. So it is seeking hard cash, fast and with no questions asked.

The events on the border between the Koreas this week cast into bold relief just how bizarre and unpredictable this regime is. The strategic game in the Middle East is much bigger than North Korea, of course. But ending this regime’s ability to arm and train the most destructive forces in the Middle East must form a key interim goal in containing and rolling back the Iran-led “resistance axis” which is the key challenge currently facing Western policy in the region.

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Analysis: Notes from an undeclared Cold War

Jerusalem Post- 12/07/2010

The diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks earlier this week confirm that the key strategic process taking place in the Middle East is the push for regional dominance by the Islamic Republic of Iran.

The documents show that the Iranian nuclear program is only the most worrisome element of a broader effort, as there is additional evidence of Iranian involvement and interference in political processes across the region.

The method depicted and discussed is familiar: Local Islamist proxies are located, organized and exploited (the creation of “mini-Hizbullahs” in Saudi King Abdullah’s memorable words used in one of the cables), and influence is accumulated through the combination of ground-level brute force and Machiavellian maneuver.

The documents reveal that this Iranian effort is uppermost on the minds of the rulers of the Arab states that Iran is targeting. They suggest that the stronger Arab states are organizing political and intelligence warfare of their own to combat the Iranian effort. They also strongly indicate the absence of a corresponding sense of urgency among US administration officials.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, in a meeting with Sen. John Kerry, says that “Iran’s sponsorship of terrorism is well-known, but I cannot say it publicly. It would create a dangerous situation.”

His intelligence chief, Omar Suleiman, in a meeting with Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Adm. Mike Mullen, is more explicit regarding Egyptian efforts to counter Iranian subversion.

Suleiman noted that Iran is “very active” in Egypt and that it is granting $25 million per month to Hamas.

Suleiman asserts that Iran has tried to transfer payments to the Kassam Brigades in Gaza, which Egypt has prevented.

He also notes Egypt’s apprehending of what he describes as a large “Hizbullah cell” on its soil (the 49-man cell apprehended by the Egyptian authorities in April 2009), and reports Iranian efforts to recruit among Sinai Beduin.

Suleiman tells Mullen that Egypt has begun a “confrontation with Hizbullah and Iran.” He mentions that his service has begun to recruit agents in Syria and Iraq, and says that Egypt has sent a clear message to Iran that if it continues to interfere in Egypt, Egypt will interfere with Iran. Iran, Suleiman concludes, must “pay the price” for its actions and not be allowed to interfere in regional affairs.

Saudi officials quoted sound no less concerned than the Egyptians, but their remarks are notably less robust and more anxious.

In a meeting with White House counterterrorism chief John Brennan, for example, King Abdullah describes a conversation he had with with Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki, on the issue of Iran’s “interference in Arab affairs.” Abdullah challenges Mottaki on Iranian meddling in Palestinian politics and support for Hamas.

“These are Muslims,” he quotes Mottaki as responding.

“No, Arabs,” countered Abdullah, before adding, “You as Persians have no business meddling in Arab matters.”

The exchange ends with Abdullah giving the Iranians a year to improve matters, otherwise “it will be the end.”

In the discussion, Brennan responds by noting that the US is reviewing its Iran policy, and observing that the US and Saudi Arabia have a “lot of work to do in the Middle East together.” He then seeks to change the subject.

On two subsequent occasions, Abdullah tries unsuccessfully to return the focus to Iran. When the issue of Iraq emerges, he notes that “some say the US invasion handed Iraq to Iran on a silver platter,” before referring to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki as an “Iranian agent.”

The Brennan-Abdullah meeting is dated March 22, 2009. In the meantime, the king’s ultimatum appears to have run its allotted span, and Iranian activities have continued untroubled.

The cables also show how Iranian regional ambitions have placed Teheran’s fingerprints on myriad political processes across the Middle East. They detail Iran’s extensive interference in Iraq, quote the Saudi king’s assertion of Iranian aid to the Houthi rebels in Yemen, outline Iranian and Syrian involvement with illegal arms transfers from North Korea and describe the extensive involvement of Revolutionary Guards personnel in shipping weapons to Hizbullah during the Second Lebanon War (using the Iranian Red Crescent relief organization as cover).

So the leaked cables provide added and deepened color to an already existing picture of regional cold war. They do not require the altering of any of the main contours of that picture.

Iran is attempting a hostile takeover of the local system.

Regional states are concerned by this and are trying to organize in order to frustrate it. The US administration, meanwhile, appears to be failing to acknowledge this overarching reality in private conversation with its allies, just as it refuses to speak its name in public statements.

For as long as this state of affairs continues, the private conversations of US officials look set to be a (henceforth probably better guarded) repetition of the dialogue of the deaf available from the cables. The likely subject of the conversation, meanwhile, will be the latest example of successful subversion of the regional order by Iran and its allies.

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Lebanon enters a Tunnel, the End of which can’t be Seen

Jerusalem Post-18/01/2011

The political crisis in Lebanon precipitated by the resignation last week of ministers affiliated with the Hizbullah- led March 8 bloc is now entering its second stage. The countdown has already begun toward the issuing of indictments for the 2005 murder of former prime minister Rafik Hariri.

The indictments are expected to implicate Hizbullah members, including senior movement figures, in the killing.

Hassan Nasrallah, as indicated by his speech earlier this week, is desperately trying to build a Lebanese political fence around his movement, to protect it as much as possible from the impact of its members being indicted for the murder of a popular, mainstream Sunni politician. The March 14 movement of current Prime Minister Saad Hariri is seeking to frustrate this effort by Hizbullah.

At present, the focus of the action is on internal Lebanese political procedure. Hariri has been invited by President Michel Suleiman to stay on as a “caretaker” prime minister. Parliamentary consultations are set to begin to determine the make-up of the next Lebanese government. The result of these consultations is far from certain.

The Hizbullah-led March 8 bloc has made clear that it will be putting forward an alternative candidate for the prime ministership.

Omar Karami, the candidate of this bloc, is a former prime minister, the scion of a prominent Sunni political family in Lebanon, and is closely aligned with the Syrians. Hariri, meanwhile, is at the moment standing firm and looks set to contest the issue.

The March 8 and March 14 (pro-Hariri) blocs are roughly evenly matched in the 128- member Lebanese parliament.

At the moment, therefore, all eyes are on Druse strongman Walid Jumblatt, who controls 11 seats, and who has not yet clearly indicated which side he will support.

The indications are that he will favor Hariri’s leading a renewed “unity” government, although it is not clear if circumstances will make possible the formation of such a government.

If the current consultations fail to produce a quick result, with Hariri continuing as “caretaker” prime minister, then the prospect will open up for increased pressure on the government from Hizbullah. It is at this point that civil unrest, demonstrations and possibly sectarian violence will become a possibility, as Hizbullah seeks to raise the stakes and force Hariri to distance himself from the tribunal.

If, on the other hand, the new government is formed by March 8, this will represent an entirely new situation – namely, the rise to political power of the pro-Iranian and pro-Syrian bloc in Lebanon.

This, however, is widely considered to be a less-likely outcome.

Hizbullah and its backers have little to gain from an open seizure of power. As this issue is decided, international efforts of various kinds are frantically taking place to avoid renewed internecine conflict in Lebanon. Turkey and Qatar are among the regional states involved in these efforts. Saudi-Syrian contacts have not ended, and it is possible that they will yet produce some type of compromise formula.

With all the current maneuvering, two points need to be borne in mind.

First of all, this process is about Hizbullah’s legitimacy, not its physical power. What is at stake is the movement’s attempt to present itself as a patriotic, Arab movement engaged centrally in fighting Israel.

Should it be tainted with the murder of Hariri, the movement will instead come to be seen by millions across the Arab world as an alien, Shia force supported by non-Arab powers and engaging in activities that place it far outside the Arab political consensus.

Hizbullah dreads this outcome, and the possibility of it underlies its present obvious discomfort.

At the same time, what is not at stake is Hizbullah’s real-life dominance of Lebanon.

Whatever the outcome of the present crisis, the undeniable reality that the Iranian-sponsored Shia Islamist movement is the strongest force in the country will remain.

Hizbullah thus finds itself in the unfamiliar position of being without peer in terms of its physical strength, and yet unable to translate this reality at the present time into a situation to its liking politically.

The result is that the irresistible force of Saad Hariri’s (current) refusal to abandon the Tribunal tasked with finding his father’s killers is currently set against the immovable object of Hizbullah’s physical domination of the means of force in Lebanon.

What will be the outcome? As speaker of the Lebanese Parliament Nabih Berri put it in an interview with Asharq al-Awsat, Lebanon is currently entering “a tunnel whose beginning we know but whose end we don’t see.”

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