Iran 1 Israel 0 in turmoil
The two regional powers most affected by the turmoil in the Middle East are going to be Iran and Israel. Life sometimes offers strange parallels. There is much in common between the two intractable adversaries.
These two non-Arab countries appear curiously "stable" in a region caught in a maelstrom. No one points an accusing finger at either as the "hidden hand" behind the turmoil in their
neighborhood - not even their worst detractors. In fact, both seem taken by surprise by the torrential flow of events and are figuring out how to assimilate the as-yet unfathomable meaning of what is unfolding.
Both are astute enough to know that small things ignite volcanic eruptions - a sealed train running from Germany to Russia, a sermon given by an old imam in exile under an apple tree on the outskirts of Paris or a conscientious police officer refusing an order to fire on agitators on a Tirana street. And neither can quite divine what secrets the heaving streets of Cairo are still to yield.
But there is also a fundamental difference. For Iran, it all boils down to how big a winner it is going to be. For Israel, though, it is about cutting losses. But then, it is also a see-saw where the winner cannot take it all.
Iran rides the wave
Tehran has been quick to speak out in support of the popular uprising in Egypt. It has also been the lone voice in the region to do so. Religious, political and military circles in Tehran and the Foreign Ministry have spoken.
The most significant statement so far came from Majlis (parliament) speaker Ali Larijani, who announced Iran's support for the popular uprisings in Tunis and Egypt, describing them as having a "spark" for other movements in the Middle East. Larijani said, "The evolutionary trend of that regional revolution has surprised the dictatorial governments" and the revolution of the "free-hearted" has transcended the boundaries of nationalism.
A top military commander, deputy head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps General Hossein Salami, echoed the sentiments, "Egypt is the heart of the Arab world ... therefore, any political changes or socio-political revolutions in Egypt could repeat in many other Islamic countries." He said Egypt had become a backyard for Israel and "geostrategic back-up for the United States' policies toward Africa". Salami claimed Iran's ideological affinity with the Egyptian uprising, calling it a "manifestation of the Islamic Revolution [of 1979] in the Middle East and the world of Islam".
The religious establishment is obviously elated. Tehran's provisional Friday prayers leader Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami said the uprisings signified the birth of an "Islamic Middle East" based on principles of religion and democracy.
A statement by the Iranian Foreign Ministry said, "The demonstrations by the Muslim Egyptian nation are a movement seeking the realization of justice and the Egyptian people's national and ideological demands." It advised the Hosni Mubarak regime to listen to "this Muslim nation's voice", accept the "Islamic awakening" and submit to people's demands.
Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi added, "Today, Egypt and its people are drawing on the invaluable experience of the Middle East's contemporary history and getting ready to determine their own fate and reclaim their influential status in the region." He told the Majlis, "Vigilant regional nations inspired by religious teachings and Islamic awakening are seeking to free themselves of the domination of hegemonic powers and gain real independence."
Tehran estimates that the Middle Eastern region has reached a historic crossroads and the pent-up popular anger against the autocratic regimes has finally erupted. It reaches out to establish an overarching Islamic affinity with the popular movements but would be cautious not to be seen exhorting the Arab people to revolt. Tehran will use the emergent opportunity to make bridges with its Arab neighbors and to break out of the regional isolation imposed by the US.
The overall regional situation is moving in a direction favorable to Iran. A Tehran-sponsored government has begun working in Baghdad and a Hezbollah-dominated government is assuming power in Beirut. The al-Jazeera leaks regarding secret deals between the head of Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas and US and Israel boosts Hamas' status as the voice of resistance. Iran's ties with Syria remain strong and the harmony with Turkey is unprecedented.
On the other hand, the disarray within the Palestinian camp and the fluidity in Cairo become major obstacles for Washington to resume any peace process in the conceivable future, which means the Barack Obama administration's dismal record in the Middle East remains in full display, adding to its discomfiture on the Arab street.
It also works in Tehran's favor that the Obama administration has its hands full coping with the cataclysmic changes sweeping the region. The Iran nuclear issue gets relegated to the backburner by Washington's new priorities. Washington is going to be bogged down with the making of the "New Middle East".
Meanwhile, the entire US strategy to isolate Iran in its region by erecting a phalanx of "pro-West" Arab regimes plus Israel is withering away and Iran's influence as a regional power may touch a qualitatively new level.
Israel's Middle Eastern blues
The extreme nervousness in Tel Aviv stands out in contrast with the jubilation in Tehran. Israelis are generally garrulous and disdainful about their Arab neighborhood, but no longer so. They put up a brave face that the Mubarak regime will somehow weather the storm. "Mubarak is not Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, [Tunisia's deposed president]. There is a huge difference. The Egyptian regime is well-rooted, including the defense establishment. Their regime is strong enough to overcome the situation."
An Israeli official told Agence France-Presse, "It is in the fundamental interests of Egypt to maintain its privileged ties with the West, and maintaining peace with Israel." An Israeli researcher took a fallback position. "Even if the Muslim Brotherhood, who have criticized 'illegal ties with Israel' come to power, the army and Egyptian security services would oppose it with all their might."
Israel's best bet is that the newly appointed Egyptian Vice President, General Omar Suleiman, (who used to be the intelligence chief and worked closely with the Israeli security establishment) somehow establishes himself on the debris of the Mubarak regime.
But Tel Aviv is not taking chances. Israeli diplomats based in Cairo were quietly evacuated by helicopter and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has ordered government spokesmen not to make comments. As a leading politician put it, "Israel cannot do anything about what is happening there. All we can do is to express our support for Mubarak and hope the riots pass quietly."
Israel didn't anticipate the uprising. On Tuesday, although protests had erupted in Cairo, Israel's new chief of military intelligence, Aviv Kochavi, told the Knesset (parliament) committee on foreign affairs and defense that Mubarak's government was not under threat and the Muslim Brotherhood wasn't organized well enough to threaten the regime.
What is the worst-case scenario for Israel? Israeli fears appear on several templates. Without doubt, the strategic challenge is that Israel may face acute regional isolation. A commentator in the Israeli daily Ha'aretz newspaper noted, "The fading power of ... Mubarak's government leaves Israel in a state of strategic distress. Without Mubarak, Israel is left with almost no friends in the Middle East; last year Israel saw its alliance with Turkey collapse. From now on it will be hard for Israel to trust an Egyptian government torn apart by internal strife."
The 1979 peace treaty with Egypt not only brought peace dividends to Israel by allowing it to slash its disproportionately high defense expenditure but also gave the armed forces the latitude to concentrate on the so-called "northern front" - Syria, Lebanon and Iran - and the Palestinian settlements. The uncertainties in Egypt necessitate a major redeployment of forces in the south, especially on the Philadelphi Corridor between Sinai and Gaza, which Palestinian guerillas use to source supplies.
There are choppy waters ahead. Will a successor regime in Cairo be cooperative with Israel as much as Mubarak used to be - notwithstanding the "cold peace"? If the Muslim Brotherhood comes into power in Cairo, will the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt become a relic of history?
Again, what if the unrest spreads to the West Bank and consumes Abbas? Suleiman provided Israel a "back channel" to Hamas. The Islamic fervor enveloping the region greatly strengthens the two "non-state actors" that pose a grave threat to Israeli security - Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas. The political changes in Beirut strengthen the hands of Hezbollah, Syria and Iran.
Beyond that lies the existential challenge of Iran's surge. The US will be preoccupied with salvaging its own regional influence. Washington may take its eyes off Iran for a while to single-mindedly deal with the West's bread-and-butter issues - the Suez Canal, political transition in Saudi Arabia, oil, Iraq, a troop drawdown in Afghanistan and the historic imperative to try to steer the massive popular upsurge toward democratic revolution rather than down a radical Islamist path.
Israel endeavored to divert the US's attention from the Middle East peace process and take it toward Iran's nuclear program. This ploy has worked well so far, but the Middle Eastern crisis brings the Palestinian issue back into the vortex of regional politics. It is the camel in the tent that cannot be ignored.
Western pressure, especially European, will incrementally mount that unless the fundamental crisis of the Israeli-Palestinian problem is addressed, there can be no durable stability in the Middle East and Western interests will be in serious jeopardy. Israel may not easily get away with its rejectionist policies.
The heart of the matter is that US and Israeli interests significantly diverge. There is no "anti-US" slant yet in the uprising. However, the successor regimes will seriously oppose the US's seamless support of Israel and it can't be business as usual. Israel's biggest worry will be that the new Middle Eastern realities may finally compel the US to reset its regional sights.
The people who reportedly briefed Obama on the Middle Eastern fires over the weekend didn't include a single specialist - National Security Advisor Tom Donilon, chief of staff Bill Daley, Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes, National Security Advisor to the Vice President Tony Blinken, National Security Council chief of staff Denis McDonough, assistant to the president John Brennan and Deputy Director of National Intelligence Robert Cardillo. Indeed, as Helena Cobban blogged, it is a first-rate policy breakdown of the "blind leading the blind and the blind advising the blind" in the Oval Office.
The time may have come for the "State Department Arabists" who were kept in the wilderness on ideological grounds to replace the long-time pro-Israel activists who surround Obama as advisers.
Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.