In the Middle East, a Bonfire of Alibis
27th February 2012
Syria can set fire to Lebanon at the wave of a hand. Hezbollah can be ordered into battle with Israel at the command of a call from Tehran. Lebanon’s sectarian politics are a plaything of outsiders whose every whim determines the fate of the country. These are among the conventional wisdoms that have long held the fate of Lebanon hostage — assumptions as widely held within the country as outside it. But a closer look suggests that it is high time these preconceived notions are challenged — not because they lack a basis in reality, but because they are rooted as much in what the country’s enemies, from Damascus to Tehran, wish to be the dominant narrative as what the far more complex conditions on the ground merit.
Today, as Syria’s civil war gains speed and severity, and the crisis of Iran’s nuclear program escalates by the day, Beirut is holding its breath — too fearful and too scarred by a war-torn history to imagine anything but the worst-case scenario. And yet, the reality as acknowledged by a growing number of Lebanese observers is more complex. If Assad really could create the distraction he needs from renewed conflict in Lebanon with such ease, would he not already have done so? If Hezbollah is nothing but an arm of Iran’s forward defense, would it not have been the first agent called into action, as opposed to Tehran’s other alleged responses — from the plot to assassinate the Saudi envoy to Washington to the recent attacks on Israeli diplomats in Delhi, Bangkok and Tbilisi? As Tom Fletcher, the British ambassador to Lebanon, pointed out to me on a recent visit to Beirut, just as Sinn Fein and Hamas discovered in their time, Hezbollah’s role in the current government means that it is having to make compromises and shift from the comfortable politics of opposition.
What is true of Lebanon is true too — and far more consequentially so — when the conventional wisdom about the aims and motivations of the region’s other players are examined. At this moment of looming conflict with worldwide implications, it is time to give far greater scrutiny to the claims made by the principal protagonists about the merits of their policies — and the ways they diverge from the global interest in the security and stability of the region. This is most evidently the case with the threat of Iran’s nuclear program and the trade-off between war and containment that ultimately faces the international community.
Iran claims that it is pursuing a purely civilian interest in nuclear technology and that as signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty it is being held to an unjust double standard. The reality is that Iran has done little to reassure the outside world of the accuracy of this assertion and that much evidence exists to the contrary. As a repressive, deeply illegitimate regime, Tehran is using all the levers available to it, conventional and unconventional, to sustain its power and destabilize its enemies as it seeks to overwhelm its own popular uprising that began, but did not end, with the 2009 Green Movement.
Israel insists that Iran’s nuclear weapons program represents an existential threat from a regime that would seek its destruction. The reality is that this assumes the regime is not only homicidal, but suicidal. An Iranian nuclear deterrent would in reality represent a change in the regional balance of power away from Israel’s near-total military dominance over its neighbors, a prospect that it may find only slightly less concerning. That the question of Palestine is pushed further to the back burner of the global agenda is to Jerusalem a secondary, but not insignificant, benefit of the global focus on Iran.
Saudi Arabia and its Gulf Cooperation Council allies — cheerleaders as avid of a military confrontation with Iran as Israel these days — allege that Iran is the font of a rising, revolutionary “Shia crescent” that will upend the entire region. The reality is that the Gulf Arabs — with U.S. backing — have come to enjoy a dominance of the Persian Gulf unattainable in the days of the Shah and are using the very real threat from Iran to divert attention from their own domestic economic and political deficiencies. If Iran is able to stoke Shia rebellions in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, it may have something to do with the fertile ground created by the policies of the regimes toward their minorities.
Behind all these claims and pretexts, excuses and diversions lies the expectation that the United States, backed by Europe, will have to finish a war that Israel may start and the Gulf Arabs will quietly endorse. For this reason, if no other, it is incumbent upon the friends of Israel and the Gulf Arabs to engage them more creatively on their legitimate security concerns — acknowledging the very real challenge of containing a regime in Tehran that is an enemy to its own people as well as to the world’s interest in avoiding a nuclear arms race. These friends need to call their bluff on seeking support for agendas that are at best unique to their narrow interests and at worst destructive to the wider aim, which is to ensure that the challenge to Iran’s nuclear program doesn’t metastasize into a military conflict with little prospect of achieving longer-term security. This is not — or shouldn’t be — a matter of the West’s commitment to ensuring the security and stability of key allies in the face of a rising threat. It is — and must be — about applying the necessary judgment on the utility of force, and the potential for containment, when no good option exists.
Ten years after the war in Iraq was set in motion — an immensely costly war variously justified on the grounds of Saddam’s WMD, his support for Al Qaeda, the certain welcome of his long-oppressed people and the transformation of Iraq into a beacon of democracy — it is well worth re-examining the claims made by the region’s interested parties about the need for another war in the Persian Gulf. When it comes to the Middle East today, a bonfire of alibis is overdue. There is no time like the present to strike the match.