Oct 21st 2019

The Middle East’s Dangerous New Hegemonic Confrontation 

by Joschka Fischer

Joschka Fischer, Germany’s Foreign Minister and Vice Chancellor from 1998 until 2005, was a leader in the German Green Party for almost 20 years.

 

BERLIN – In the old Middle East, a single overarching conflict – between Israel and the Arab countries – had many fronts, and it was the West’s prerogative to protect the flow of oil to the global economy. In the new Middle East, the defining conflict is a broader struggle among multiple players seeking regional primacy.

This new struggle began when former US President Barack Obama initiated America’s broader withdrawal from the region, but it has intensified under Donald Trump. Obama, at least, had a political vision for the region. With the 2015 Iran nuclear deal having forestalled a nuclear-arms race, he hoped that an easing of sanctions and faster economic growth would permit Iran’s gradual reintegration into the international community over the following decade. Trump, by contrast, has no strategy, and wants to disguise America’s retreat from the region, currently demonstrated in Syria by the open betrayal of the Kurds, with militant rhetoric and massive arms exports to US partners and allies in the Gulf.

For its part, Saudi Arabia, the region’s wealthy, predominantly Sunni power (if one doesn’t count Turkey), has long harbored ambitions for regional hegemony – at least in the Persian Gulf and on the Arabian Peninsula – and views predominantly Shia Iran as its main rival. For the past few years, Iran and Saudi Arabia have been waging a disastrous proxy war in Yemen, resulting in a massive toll of civilian casualties and a humanitarian catastrophe.

But the situation changed last month, when a nighttime attack targeting the heart of the Saudi oil industry sent shockwaves through the global economy. Several drones managed to cross into Saudi airspace undetected, where they launched precise attacks on key oil installations. The Saudi air defenses – if there were any – seem to have been fast asleep, suggesting that the attackers had intimate knowledge of local conditions.

A midnight attack without warning raises obvious questions. Who did it, and how did they pull it off? The Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen claimed responsibility, but they are in no position to carry out such an attack. Given the technology used and the logistics involved, the only plausible suspect is Iran, despite the Iranian government’s vehement denials. And in terms of motive and interest, it is clear that Iran has profited the most from the strike.

Saudi Arabia, after all, has been humiliated in the eyes of the world and exposed as a loud-mouthed paper tiger. In addition to the undeniable failure of Saudi counterintelligence to detect or avert the attack is the equally obvious fact that Saudi Arabia will lose the war in Yemen sooner or later. At that point, its hegemonic aspirations will become an even greater source of derision.

And so, in the final analysis, responsibility for the attack on Saudi Arabia almost certainly lies with Qassem Suleimani, the general who commands the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ foreign operations unit. With this attack, Iran has proven itself to be a major regional power with impressive technical and logistical capabilities that cannot be easily thwarted. That could fundamentally change the strategic calculus in the region. All the oil monarchies on the Arabian side of the Persian Gulf are doubtless already reassessing their foreign-policy outlook, interests, and loyalties.

Iran has also left Trump looking weak. Following his refusal to respond militarily to an attack on a cherished regional ally, Trump fired his national security adviser, John Bolton, an archenemy of the Iranian regime. No one should shed any tears for Bolton. But nor can one rule out the possibility that his ouster has invited this attack.

Trump’s foreign-policy dilettantism – his use of militant bombast to mask his lack of plausible options and strategy– seems to have played a crucial role in bringing about the current situation. His decision to abandon the Iran nuclear deal with no thought for what would come afterward has proven to be the height of folly and will be very dangerous.

But there is one other dynamic to consider. Following the G7 summit in Biarritz, France, in late August, there was talk of a possible meeting between Trump and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. The attack on Saudi oil facilities came just weeks later, shortly before both leaders were in New York City for the United Nations General Assembly, where they could have met. The question, then, is whether the attack was an outgrowth of a broader internal power struggle between Iranian radicals and moderates.

Whatever the case may be, with Saudi Arabia’s position already eroding, the region’s two real remaining military powers are Israel and Iran. Already, the two countries appear to be moving toward a dangerous confrontation. Israel is deeply worried about Iran’s apparent capacity to launch precise long-distance attacks with drones or ballistic/cruise missiles. And if that were not already a significant threat to Israel’s national security, Iran could try to supply Hezbollah or its other regional proxies with similar capabilities.

Were Israel to be attacked with the same precision and sophistication as the strike on Saudi Arabia, the Middle East would be plunged into war on a scale beyond anything it has experienced so far. Sadly (but happily for Russian President Vladimir Putin), that is the reality of a world in which the US has abandoned any pretense of global leadership.

Browse articles by author

More Current Affairs

May 17th 2022
EXTRACT: "But even a resounding Russian defeat is an ominous scenario. Yes, under such circumstances – and only such circumstances – Putin might be toppled in some kind of coup led by elements of Russia’s security apparatus. But the chances that this would produce a liberal democratic Russia that abandons Putin’s grand strategic designs are slim. More likely, Russia would be a rogue nuclear superpower ruled by military coup-makers with revanchist impulses. Germany after World War I comes to mind."
May 8th 2022
EXTRACT: "For citizens of states that are members of NATO, taking all possible steps, short of all-out war, to ensure that Russia does not conquer Ukraine is not even an altruistic sacrifice. It is a long-term investment, for themselves and their children, in freedom, democracy, and the international rule of law."
May 4th 2022
EXTRACT: ".....a remarkable transformation is taking place in Ukraine’s army amounting to its de facto military integration into Nato. As western equipment filters through to the frontline, Nato-standard weaponry and ammunition will be brought into Ukrainian service. This is of far higher quality than the mainly former Soviet weapons with which the Ukrainians have fought so capably. The longer this process continues and deepens, the worse the situation will be for the already inefficient Russian army and air force."
May 3rd 2022
EXTRACT: " The conventional wisdom among students of the Russian arts and sciences is that Russian culture is “great.” The problem is that, while there are surely great individuals within Russian culture, the culture as a whole cannot avoid responsibility for Putin and his regime’s crimes." ---- "Russianists will not be able to avoid examining themselves and their Russian cultural icons for harbingers of the present catastrophe. What does it mean that Fyodor Dostoevsky was a Russian chauvinist? That Nikolai Gogol and Anton Chekhov were Ukrainian? That Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was an unvarnished imperialist? That Aleksandr Pushkin was a troubadour of Russian imperial greatness? May these writers still be read without one eye on the ongoing atrocities in Ukraine?"
Apr 29th 2022
EXTRACT: "The following day Lavrov met his Eritrean counterpart, Osman Saleh, in Moscow. Eritrea was the only African country to vote against the UN resolution condemning the invasion. In this refusal to condemn Russia, Eritrea was joined by only Belarus, North Korea and Syria. Even longstanding allies such as Cuba and China abstained. It’s an indication of Russia’s increasingly limited diplomatic options as this war continues."
Apr 24th 2022
EXTRACT: "Although the milestone lasted only for a brief time, it points to a future in which California runs on 100% wind, solar, hydro and batteries, a future that will certainly arrive even faster than the state plans. As it is, California is ahead of its green energy goals." ...... "A world of 100% green energy and electric cars is not only a healthier and more comfortable world, it is a world where oil and gas dictators like Vladimir Putin are defunded."
Apr 17th 2022
EXTRACT: "Kazakhstan’s authorities have also showed uncharacteristic leniency in allowing public rallies in support of Ukraine. Thousands of protesters holding banners reading “Russians, leave Ukraine”, “Long Live Ukraine” and “Bring Putin to trial” marched across the capital, Almaty, wrapping monuments to Lenin and other Soviet-era figures with yellow and blue balloons symbolising the Ukrainian flag."
Apr 15th 2022
EXTRACT: "People’s identification with the Soviet Union appears to have a clear and growing basis in Russian public opinion. Surveys we have conducted throughout the Putin period show that Soviet identification among the general population – something that had been steadily declining after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 – began to increase in 2014, when the Russian government annexed Crimea and supported rebellions in the Ukrainian regions of Luhansk and Donetsk. By 2021, almost 50% of those surveyed identified with the Soviet Union rather than the Russian Federation."
Apr 13th 2022
EXTRACT: "Worse yet, the Hungarian government has effectively been helping Putin by prohibiting the shipment of weapons to Ukraine across its borders. Hungarian public TV spreads Russian disinformation day and night. The day before the election, an assembly of ordinary people expressing solidarity with Ukraine was framed on state television as a “pro-war rally.” "
Apr 13th 2022
EXTRACT: "It may well be that the Russian army’s fate has already been sealed in what is likely to be a long war. The single qualification to this may be that Russia could default to escalation using “weapons of mass destruction” of one form or another – whether tactical nuclear warheads or chemical weapons."
Apr 13th 2022
EXTRACTS" "Ukraine and Russia produce a substantial amount of grain and other food for export. Ukraine alone produces a whopping 6% of all food calories traded in the international market. At least it used to, before it was invaded by the world’s largest nuclear power." ...... "When it comes to cereals like wheat, corn, rice and barley, the big players talk about millions of metric tonnes, or MMTs. A single MMT of wheat contains about 3.4 trillion food calories,." ....."Ukraine produced about 80 MMT of grain (a category that includes wheat, corn and barley) in 2021, and is expected to harvest less than half of that this year. A shortfall of 40 MMT is enough missing calories that a country like the UK could only make it up by having everyone stop eating for three years. That’s the thing about tonnes of grain: a million here and a million there and pretty soon you’ve got a real issue on your plate."
Apr 11th 2022
EXTRACT: "I don’t even know the little girl’s name. All I do know is what a friend of a friend wrote on Viber: that her relative, a senior nurse in one of Kyiv’s hospitals, “saw in the morgue a child with 20 varieties of sperm on her small body.” Since this information was conveyed in a private conversation, there is no reason to doubt its veracity."
Apr 8th 2022
EXTRACT: "Russian society has so far failed to stop Putin, just as German society failed to stop Hitler. And so, like a poisoned chalice, that task has fallen to the West, as it did in 1939. The West must now treat Putin and his regime the same way that Winston Churchill treated Hitler: Don’t talk to him, just defeat him. Dead-enders such as Putin are too fanatical and desperate to be reliable negotiating partners."
Apr 3rd 2022
EXTRACT: "From 1807 to 1814 on the Iberian peninsula, Napoleon had to fight Spanish, Portuguese and British armies while beset by ubiquitous, ferocious insurgents. He described this war as his “bleeding ulcer”, draining him of men and equipment. It is the west’s aim to make Ukraine for Putin what Spain was for Napoleon. In the absence of a negotiated settlement, Ukraine and Nato will continue to grind away at Russia’s army, digging away at that bleeding ulcer and prolonging Russia’s agony on the military front, as the west continues its parallel assault on its economy. If Putin’s plan is to proceed with the Korea model, he will fail. There is a strong possibility that Putin has only a limited idea of how badly his army is faring. So be it – he’ll find out soon enough that there is now no path for him to military victory."
Apr 1st 2022
EXTRACTS: "Policymakers expected that the country would be able to secure its energy supply entirely from renewable sources, so they resolved to phase out coal and nuclear energy simultaneously. The last three of Germany’s 17 nuclear power plants are set to be shut down this year." ---- ".... the share of wind and solar power in Germany’s total final energy consumption, which includes heating, industrial processing, and traffic, was a meager 6.7%. And while wind and solar generated 29% of the country’s electricity output, electricity itself accounted for only about a fifth of its final energy consumption." ----- "If Germany suddenly halted Russian gas imports, gas-based residential heating systems – on which half the German population, approximately 40 million people, rely – and industrial processes that rely heavily on gas imports would break down....."
Apr 1st 2022
EXTRACT: "For Putin, the past that matters most is the one the dissident author and Nobel laureate Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn exalted: the time when the Slavic peoples were united within the Orthodox Christian kingdom of Kievan Rus’. Kyiv formed its heart, making Ukraine central to Putin’s pan-Slavic vision. ---- But, for Putin, the Ukraine war is about preserving Russia, not just expanding it. As Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov recently made clear, Russia’s leaders believe that their country is locked in a “life-and-death battle to exist on the world’s geopolitical map.” That worldview reflects Putin’s longstanding obsession with works of other Russian emigrant philosophers, such as Ivan Ilyin and Nikolai Berdyaev, who described a struggle for the Eurasian (Russian) soul against the Atlanticists (the West) who would destroy it. ---- Yet Putin and his neo-Eurasianists seem to believe that the key to victory is to create the kind of regime those anti-Bolshevik philosophers most detested: one run by the security forces. A police state would fulfill the vision of another of Putin’s heroes: the KGB chief turned Soviet General Secretary Yuri Andropov."
Apr 1st 2022
EXTRACTS: "Ukraine, known as the breadbasket of Europe, is struggling to export last year’s harvest, and may be unable to produce much this year either. In addition, the war has caused a global fertiliser shortage, which will push up food prices around the world too. Coming at a time when the global pandemic had already increased food insecurity and depleted resources around the world, many countries may not be resilient to a major food crisis brought on by the war. Back-to-back global catastrophic events like this have not happened for close to 100 years." ----- "Another useful analogue is the case of Germany during the first world war. When war broke out in 1914, the German authorities had anticipated a short conflict – not too dissimilar to Russian assumptions a few weeks ago. Just like in Ukraine now, the first world war severely disrupted German farming."
Mar 31st 2022
EXTRACT: "The horrors of World War II – the death camps, slave labor, and inhumane experiments on people – produced a global commitment never to permit such crimes to be repeated. This began a transformation of international politics whereby appreciation of the value of every person’s life and dignity ensured that even most authoritarian governments at least paid lip service to human rights.  ----- But the Soviet Union and many of its successor states, particularly Russia, never internalized this change. More than three decades after the USSR collapsed, most post-Soviet countries are still governed according to the old “imperial” paradigm. So, it should come as no surprise that we are now witnessing a clash between fundamentally different sets of values and ultimate goals for statehood."
Mar 26th 2022
EXTRACT: "Referencing past legacies as a justification for present-day political decisions is often effective – such appeals trigger emotional reflexes and contribute to thinking about politics in terms of rivalry and defence. The irony within the tragedy of the current situation is that Putin will assuredly go down in history as the figure that did more to unite the Ukrainian people (albeit against Russia) than any other in recent memory."
Mar 24th 2022
EXTRACT: " Despite the death and destruction that Russia rains down daily on them, the vast majority of Ukrainians are bullish about the future: 77% believe the country is moving in the right direction, 93% think they can beat back Russia, and 47% expect to win in the next few weeks.  Ukrainian policymakers are no less bullish, driving a hard bargain in negotiations with the Russians. Several factors account for this remarkable optimism."