Alphen, Netherlands. 30 March. At the Arab League Summit this weekend in Egypt’s swanky Sharmh-el-Sheikh resort Egyptian President al Sisi said, “The Arab Nation has passed through many phases, none of which has posed as much a threat as the one we’re experiencing now”. He chose his words carefully. The leaders of Pan-Arabism and the states they represent believe they are facing two potentially existential threats – anti-state Sunni fundamentalism in the form of Islamic State and Iran’s Shia-inspired regional-strategic ambitions. The rebellion of Yemen’s Shia Houthi people may on the face of it appear to be a small war in a faraway country about which we know little. In fact, it could mark the start of the fourth Gulf War and a reckoning of power between Arab states and Iran that has long been in the making. Why now and what are in the implications?
There have been three Gulf Wars thus far. Between September 1980 and August 1988 Iran and Iraq fought out a bloody stalemate that cost at least 600,000 lives and possibly as many as a million. In 1991 a US-led coalition retook Kuwait from Saddam Hussein after he had invaded the small desert sheikdom in August 1990. In March 2003 the US led another coalition that defeated and occupied Iraq ostensibly to prevent Saddam acquiring weapons of mass destruction. The 2003 invasion proved so controversial that together it led in time to a profound loss of western self-confidence, a crisis in US leadership and the effective end of Britain and other Europeans as serious military powers.
Today all of those strands of ambition and irresolution are coming together to create the conditions for a new general Middle East war focused on the Gulf but with consequences that would reach far beyond it. Ever since Ayatollah Khomenei overthrew the Shah in 1980 the Islamic State of Iran has had ambitions to dominate the Middle East. However, as an essentially Shia Persian state in a largely Sunni Arab region Tehran found it difficult to export its creed of pan-Shia Islamism/statism.
To generate ‘credibility’ on the Arab Street Iran made Israel its target of choice and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict its casus belli. Tehran has been conducting a long proxy war against the Jewish State via Hezbollah in Lebanon and by supporting the Shia-leaning Alawhites in Syria to which President Assad belongs. With the 2003 collapse of Saddam’s Sunni-dominated Baghdad regime, the 2011 withdrawal of US forces from Iraq and the emergence of a Shia-dominated regime Iran has been able to extend its reach across much of Iraq and by extension the Gulf region.
On the face of it Tehran seems willing to accept a de facto, non-declared ‘alliance’ with the West and its allies to defeat Islamic State. However, the current struggle with Sunni fundamentalists only delays the coming power struggle for regional-strategic dominance in the balance-of-power tinderbox that is today’s Middle East. It is against that shifting kaleidoscope of power, weakness and allegiances that the Yemeni strikes must be seen. At the core of this struggle is the deepening stand-off between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
In 2014 Saudi Arabia surpassed Britain to become the world’s fifth biggest defence spender. For many years Riyadh’s expensive military was seen as boutique force, a plaything for the super-rich Saudi royal family. No more. Riyadh’s 2013 intervention in Bahrain to suppress discontent and the use of predominantly Saudi air power now to check Yemeni rebels suggest this powerful force will be at the forefront of an emerging Saudi-led coalition as Arab nationalists seek to both expel Iran from Iraq and Syria and defeat Sunni fundamentalism.
It will be an unlikely coalition with some even more unlikely fellow travellers. First, the Saudi-led the Gulf Co-operation Council is openly aligning itself alongside Egypt and Jordan. The purpose is twofold – to construct a coalition and to buttress weak states in the struggle against the Islamic anti-state and Iranian subversion. Second, although no such tie would ever be admitted, Israel is by extension a de facto fellow traveller with this group, at least until the Iranian threat is diminished.
It is in such a strategic context that this weekend’s Saudi air-strikes in Yemen, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s recent speech to the US Congress warning about an Iranian nuclear deal, and today’s critical talks in Geneva over that self-same deal must be seen. If the Geneva talks succeed there is a small, just a small chance that other regional arms control agreements could be fashioned that will help to ‘build-down’ tensions and de-escalate the growing military confrontation. Of course, such a ‘vision’ pre-supposes that a Geneva deal would also see a profound shift in the direction of Iranian foreign and security policy. As yet no such shift is apparent.
The West? Explicit in Riyadh’s use of air power in Yemen is an implicit move by Saudi Arabia to establish regional-strategic leadership. Riyadh is acting partly because like many Arab states that lean towards the West they have lost confidence in the United States to prevent Iran, its nuclear programme and its regional-strategic ambitions. As for the British and French, the former power-brokers in the Middle East, a conversation I had recently with a very senior Jordanian revealed the extent to which Amman believes London and Paris have lost the regional-strategic plot and the rest of Europe with them. Therefore, it is not just the battered peace of the Middle East that is hanging in the balance in Geneva today, but the tattered banner of the US and the wider West.
If the Geneva talks fail, or the ‘agreement’ to halt the Iranian nuclear programme is a temporary sham to provide President Obama with some form of foreign policy legacy, the strategic consequences will be profound. Indeed, if Iran moves to build the bomb the pressure on the GCC, Egypt, Syria, and even Israel, to launch a pre-emptive war against Tehran could become irresistible. That is the implicit message in the Arab League decision this weekend to create a new Arab Rapid Reaction Force.
Furthermore, a fourth Gulf War could well involve nuclear weapons and more likely than not drag in Russia, the West, and possibly even China.
Have a nice day!