Gamble on the Gulf
Israel is spoiling for a war to reassert its regional dominance. With Iran as a neighbour, it is a dangerous time for Arab Gulf states, writes Ayman El-Amir*
Israel is using the United States as the cat's paw to attack Iran's nuclear facilities at the risk of igniting a major conflagration in the oil-rich Gulf region. The flurry of hostile exchanges in recent weeks between the US and Israel on the one hand and Iran on the other has exceeded the stage of psychological warfare to the threat of war planning. In 2003, George W Bush showed little patience, and needed less argument, to invade Iraq on the pretence of cleansing it of weapons of mass destruction that could not be found. Israel needs no excuse whatsoever. With its aggressive right-wing government, and a compliant US Congress brought to heel by Jewish funding, mobilisation or intimidation, Israel is anxious to launch a pre-emptive strike against Iran's strategic assets. Iran is calling for a return to the negotiations table but vowed never to give up its nuclear development programme to please Israel or the US.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has recently upped the ante, declaring that the Gulf was a strategic asset that Washington was committed to defend by deploying and activating an anti-ballistic missile system. Added to several US announcements that it will not allow Iran to develop nuclear weapons, the statement is the most serious threat to date to any country engaged in nuclear energy research and development. Neither India nor Pakistan, which did not sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), faced such threats of military action. On the contrary, Pakistan received light US congressional sanctions when it began to develop its nuclear bomb capability in the mid- 1970s. However, those sanctions were conveniently ignored by the Reagan administration in return for Pakistan's cooperation in acting as a conduit for Saudi- funded volunteers and weapons across Pakistan to Afghanistan to fight the Soviet invasion in 1980. Israel was an exception. It declined to sign the NPT but specifically because it wanted to develop a nuclear arsenal, which was against the spirit and the letter of the NPT. So, there is an international system of hypocrisy presided over by the US.
Caught in-between are the oil and gas-rich Gulf States that host seven major US military bases. The emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani said that in case hostilities break out between the US and Iran, the US base in his country would not be used against Iran. It is doubtful that Qatar, or for that matter other Gulf Arab countries with US bases, know, let alone control, what goes on inside these bases. Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait and Oman have bought into US protection of their ruling regimes and promoted the Iranian-Shia threat to their countries to justify US military presence. In return, their stand against Israel, apart from some delicate criticism in Arab summit conferences, is a reward for US protection. The chances are, if the US decides to attack Iran, the military focus will be on the Strait of Hormuz, which is the passageway for about 35 per cent of the world's seaborne oil exports.
In 2011, 90 per cent of the Gulf's oil exports transited the Strait, which makes it a strategic target for Iran to block. In an extended warfare, the US's priority will be to unblock the Strait of Hormuz to restore the flow of oil to importing countries and pre-empt an oil crisis of supply, demand and sky-rocketing prices. Iran would also consider US bases a legitimate target and the war would escalate. In case of a US-sanctioned Israeli strike, Israel would carry it out with vengeance, not only to put Iranian nuclear facilities out of commission but also to destroy as much as possible of Iranian infrastructure with the aim of retarding Iran's development for years to come. The US did this to Iraq nine years ago and no one raised a serious question about the consequences of this carnage or made a case for compensation. However, Iran is not Iraq and the Iranian mentality in war relishes martyrdom for the cause of God and the homeland.
Towards the eventuality of war, the US has been arming some of the Gulf's Arab countries to the teeth, particularly Saudi Arabia. For one thing, it is good business; the Gulf Arabs have too much money to be absorbed in serious development activities for the benefit of meager populations. Militarism is a tradition that is usually built over decades of planning, training and engaging in military strategy and wars. In the Middle East, only Egypt and Israel have developed this tradition. The wealthy Arabian states on the Gulf were little more than warring tribes that were known as the Trucial States from 1853 until they successively became independent from British colonial rule, starting in 1970. In the early 1980s, Kuwait started to buy an arsenal of American weapons to help the ailing American economy and to ingratiate itself with then president Ronald Reagan. Most of the weaponry, worth tens of billions of dollars, were beyond the absorption capacity and training of the Kuwaiti military and were eventually left to rust in the desert. The case was demonstrated when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990. The elite staff of the Kuwaiti military raced to Saudi Arabia for safety, leaving the defence of the country to cadets of the military academy.
Israel is obsessed with the possibility of Iran's getting close to the simplest nuclear technology. Iran's nuclear programme is a threat to Israeli hegemony over a wealthy but politically fragile region. The outbreak of the long-dormant Arab rebellion is not a cause of celebration for Israel, even when democracy is the most cherished quest for which tens of thousands of young Arabs continue to die. It does not make Israel, which has long been promoted by the American Zionist lobby as the only democracy in the Middle East, any closer to the post-revolutionary Arab regimes. If anything, new regimes in several Arab countries, particularly in Egypt, are voicing more hostile demands against Israel, which could not have been possible under the defunct Mubarak regime. With its time-honoured practice of killing, incarcerating Palestinians and plundering what is left of their land in historic Palestine.
As a result of Israeli agitation and US acquiescence, the situation in the Gulf is turning increasingly risky. It is reminiscent of the build-up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003. While the invasion and destruction of Iraq should have raised some moral questions with the American public, and with the precepts of international law, Zionist propaganda in the present case of Iran, and intimidation of US circles of power turned the argument upside down to make Iran appear as a lethal threat to the region and to the world. No one in the US dares to question the Israeli nuclear threat, its continued occupation and settlement of Palestinian territories or the menace of its militarism.
Israel is a state that has been built on aggression and expansion. Iran, by comparison, has not launched war against its neighbours as Israel or Saddam Hussein did. The Gulf Arab States are counting on a US anti-ballistic missile shield to protect them as part of defending US bases in their territories. And Israel is spoiling for a regional war that would not only inflict severe damage on Iran but also would restore US-Israeli control of the region and help reshape its future, far from the threat of the burgeoning Arab Spring. That is a tall order that Arab Gulf states should ponder before they are confronted by Israeli militarism and US ambition.
* The writer is former corespondent of Al-Ahram in Washington, DC, and former director of the UN Radio and Television in New York.