26th November 2017
Recent events in the Middle East have brought the threat of a wider armed conflict in the region closer than ever. Jane Green considers the issues and the current balance of forces.
Peace in the Middle East has, for many decades been a rare commodity. The flow of oil, gas and minerals, which has seen the development of some of the richest states on the planet, has not brought with it a rush of democratic control. On the contrary, from the controlling input of the oil transnationals under British colonial rule, to the dynastic dictatorships sold to the Western public as ‘royal’ families, the mineral wealth of the region has been ruthlessly exploited to benefit a select few.
Over recent decades the power balance has ebbed and flowed with different allegiances being fashioned to suit the needs of the West, in order to ensure that oil supplies kept flowing and rival economies were kept at bay. The dictatorship of the Shah of Iran suited the needs of British and US interests in Iranian oil fields in the decades that followed WWII. The West was quick to back Saddam Hussein in Iraq when it was clear that Western interests could still be protected. Saudi Arabia, in spite of being a single family dictatorship, is nevertheless fawned over by presidents and princes, keen to keep the oil flowing one way and arms sales the other.
The revolution in Iran in 1979, followed by the unexpected seizure of power a few years later by adherents of a ruthless theocracy, which resulted in the establishment of the reactionary Islamic Republic, was the key point at which relationships began to change significantly.
Not only did the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran marked a significant break in guaranteed allegiances with the West, it also exacerbated differences within the Muslim world between the Shia and Sunni strands of Islam. The Western inspired Iran-Iraq War (1980-88) was a significant attempt by the West, through backing Saddam Hussein’s attack upon Iran, to restore the pre-revolutionary balance in the region.
Inevitably, as with most efforts by the West in the region, the plan backfired and Iran emerged stronger in the eyes of many looking for a focal point for opposition to Western interference in the Middle East. That such a reactionary regime could be seen as remotely anti-imperialist is both an irony and a contradiction. The reality of Iran’s human rights abuses against its own peace activists, political opposition, trade unionists and women should have put paid to any illusions that the regime represented anything progressive long ago.
However, for some Muslims, the alternative Saudi led interpretation of Sunni Islam is regarded as infinitely worse than anything Shia Iran has to offer. The anti-Western feeling in the region has been heightened by the failure to curb Israeli brutality in Palestine, the post 9/11 invasion of Iraq and interventions in Afghanistan and Libya. More recent Western efforts to stoke civil war in Syria, as well as supporting the Saudi blockade and bombardment of Yemen, have added to the feeling that the adage, ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend’, may have some mileage.
Significantly, much of the military equipment used by the Saudis in Yemen comes from the UK, while the effective Saudi blockade of Yemen’s borders has not been challenged by either the US or the EU.
The recent bizarre resignation of Lebanese Prime Minister, Saad Hariri, can only be understood in the context of the wider power play unfolding in the region. Hariri was called to the Saudi capital Riyadh where, upon his plane landing, his mobile phone and those of his bodyguards were confiscated.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman’s “Night of the Long Knives” began only hours after Hariri’s arrival in Riyadh and has seen the house arrest of 11 princes, including the immensely wealthy Alwaleed bin Talal. Four ministers and scores of other former government lackeys have also been arrested along with the freezing of up to 1,700 bank accounts.
The power play by bin Salman in taking out rivals in Saudi Arabia appears to include an attempt to destabilise Lebanon, with the removal of Hariri effectively throwing down the gauntlet to Cabinet partners Hezbollah, backed by Iran. This is borne out by the fact that Hariri, on Saudi owned TV, has read out a script announcing his resignation as Prime Minister of Lebanon, calling for the disarming of Hezbollah, while accusing Iran of interference across the region.
However much of this Hariri actually believes, the words clearly follow closely the positions taken by bin Salman and appear to announce a new power play in the region from the Saudis.
Over the same weekend Houthi rebels, suffering relentless Saudi bombardment in Yemen, launched a missile attack upon Riyadh airport. While the Saudis managed to intercept the missile before it hit the ground they have nevertheless proclaimed the attack as ‘an act of war’ by Iran. Saudi Foreign Minister, Adel bin Ahmed al-Jubeir, has threatened to take “appropriate” action when the time is right.
Al-Jubeir claims that the missile was made in Iran and smuggled in parts into Yemen, where he claimed “operatives from the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and Hezbollah” helped put it back together again and then launch it.
The wider context to recent events must also include the 2015 nuclear deal brokered with Iran, which President Trump is keen to tear up, and the repeated position of the US to keep all options on the table when dealing with Iran. While those options may not necessarily mean a direct attack by the US upon Iran, it seems increasingly likely that a US proxy, such as Israel or Saudi Arabia, could be the conduit for such an action or the orchestration of a regional crisis involving Iran.
To suggest that the escalation of such a conflict would be a threat to world peace is no exaggeration. As the recent years of conflict in Syria have shown, alliances in the region rarely take account of the needs of the people but are geared towards the control of the rich oil and mineral resources the Middle East can still boast.
While the rhetoric of fighting for democratic freedoms will still be deployed when deemed useful, the reality remains that little, if anything, democratic has emerged from Western interventions in the Middle East in the past decades.
There is every prospect that the West however, particularly the Trump White House, may regard intervention against Iran as in some way as necessary. The defeat of Islamic State forces, across Iraq and Syria, has involved Iranian trained fighters on the ground. Iran now controls a significant land corridor, running from Tehran to Tartous in Syria, providing an important access route to the Mediterranean.
The Islamic Republic of Iran’s designs on extending its influence across the region aim to ensure that political developments in the Middle East take account of the continued supremacy of theocratic rule. The Saudi’s and Israel claim that the extension of Iranian influence in the region represents an existential threat. As unlikely as they may seem as allies, both the Saudis and Israel are backed by the US, itself struggling to retain its hegemonic foothold in the region.
Recent events do not augur well for the people of the Middle East, who are inevitably caught in the crossfire. The Saudi blockade of Yemen alone, which relies on imports for 90% of its food supply, is creating a humanitarian crisis of major proportions. The people of Iran continue to suffer under a theocracy dominating all spheres of life from the economy and politics to the social and cultural spheres. The dictatorship in Saudi Arabia remains a barrier to any form of individual or democratic freedom.
With both the Iranian regime and the Saudis digging in their heels, the need for democrats in the West to put pressure upon their governments not to intervene and not to exacerbate tensions is urgent. Addressing the humanitarian crisis in Yemen is one area in which pressure can be applied, backing the groundswell of opposition to arms sales to Saudi Arabia is another.
Western warmongering has done much to inflame the Middle East and the desire to protect corporate interests has been behind much of the rhetoric. Taking the same path will not provide a solution and the people of the Middle East will not thank us for continuing down that route.
Jane Green is National Campaign Officer of CODIR, the Committee for the Defence of Iranian People’s Rights and can be contacted at email@example.com. For further information on Iran visit: http://www.codir.net/