Middle Eastern power struggle threatens Arab popular revolt

An alleged­ly Iran­ian plot to assas­si­nate the Sau­di ambas­sador in Wash­ing­ton has brought into sharp relief the threat posed to the pop­u­lar revolt sweep­ing the Mid­dle East and North Africa posed by a momen­tous pow­er strug­gle that pits the Unit­ed States, Sau­di Ara­bia and Israel against Iran. 

The murky plot that US offi­cials admit has the mak­ings of a Hol­ly­wood movie offers the Unit­ed States and its two Mid­dle East­ern allies an oppor­tu­ni­ty to reassert them­selves at the expense of pro­test­ers on the streets of Arab cities seek­ing to ensure a demo­c­ra­t­ic tran­si­tion in Egypt and Tunisia and an end to auto­crat­ic rule in a swath of land stretch­ing from the Atlantic coast of Africa to the Gulf. 

At stake is the future of the region, with the Unit­ed States, Israel and Sau­di Ara­bia hav­ing a vest­ed inter­est in con­tain­ing the explo­sion of pop­u­lar dis­con­tent with repres­sive, cor­rupt gov­ern­ment and eco­nom­ic mis­man­age­ment and Iran strug­gling to pre­serve the ben­e­fits it reaped from the US inva­sion of Iraq and the Arab revolt that restored Shi­ite Mus­lim pre­dom­i­nance in that coun­try and allowed it to project its influ­ence in the region wit­ness post-Mubarak Egypt’s seek­ing of clos­er ties to the Islam­ic republic. 

The stick the Unit­ed States, Sau­di Ara­bia and Iran are wield­ing involves a Texas used-car sales­man alleged­ly try­ing to hire a hit­man in Mex­i­co to kill the Sau­di ambas­sador in Wash­ing­ton, Adel al-Jubair. The sales­man claimed that he has ties to Iran’s Quds Force, the covert arm of the Islam­ic Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Guards that is con­sid­ered a force to be reck­oned with. The sales­man was nabbed because the hit­man he approached turned out to be a US gov­ern­ment informant. 

Iran has denied the alle­ga­tion, sug­gest­ing they were a pre­text for fur­ther build­ing an inter­na­tion­al con­sen­sus against the Islam­ic republic. 

The charge, whether or not the alle­ga­tion is true, is on the mark. The Unit­ed States is using the alleged plot to fur­ther iso­late Iran while Sau­di Ara­bia insists that Iran must pay a price. Israel, mean­while, appears to be clear­ing its deck by final­ly agree­ing with Hamas on a pris­on­er swap that would bring cap­tured Israeli sol­dier Gilad Shalit home from five years in Pales­tin­ian cap­tiv­i­ty and apol­o­giz­ing to Egypt for the acci­den­tal killing in August of five Egypt­ian when Israeli forces were pur­su­ing mil­i­tants near the Egypt­ian-Israeli border. 

By the same token, Hamas’ agree­ment to a deal allows it to claim a vic­to­ry at a time that Pales­tine Author­i­ty Pres­i­dent Mah­moud Abbas has lit­tle to show for him­self. It also enables it to cosy up to Egypt, which medi­at­ed the deal, as an insur­ance pol­i­cy should the group’s main bene­fac­tor, Syr­i­an Pres­i­dent Bashar al-Assad fail to sur­vive mass anti-gov­ern­ment protests demand­ing his depar­ture and West­ern eco­nom­ic sanctions. 

Sau­di-Iran­ian ten­sions have been mount­ing this year with the king­dom accus­ing the Islam­ic repub­lic of fuelling anti-gov­ern­ment protests in Bahrain as well as in its oil-rich East­ern Province. Sau­di-backed efforts bru­tal­ly quelled the upris­ing in Bahrain ear­li­er this year but failed to stamp it out. The protests were effec­tive­ly pushed out of the Bahrain cap­i­tal Man­a­ma and into the vil­lages and this month briefly spilled over into the East­ern Province. 

Sau­di forces quick­ly con­tained the protests that nonethe­less drove home the fact that the king­dom is unlike­ly to remain unaf­fect­ed if the wave of protests is allowed to con­tin­ue. Sau­di Arabia’s efforts to iso­late itself are fur­ther com­pound­ed by the kingdom’s inabil­i­ty to medi­ate an end to the cri­sis in neigh­bour­ing Yemen that is tee­ter­ing on the brink of civ­il war and dis­in­te­gra­tion and could send thou­sands of Yeme­nis flee­ing to the kingdom. 

King Abdul­lah has so far been able to large­ly insu­late the king­dom by invest­ing in excess of $100 bil­lion in social wel­fare at home and else­where in the region. Human Rights Watch called this week on Sau­di Ara­bia to halt the arbi­trary arrest of hun­dreds, if not thou­sands, on charges of being mil­i­tant extremists. 

The Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion increas­ing­ly is being cor­nered by the gap between its declared sup­port for the Arab revolt and the fact that the upris­ing threat­ens its strate­gic rela­tion­ship with oil-rich Sau­di Ara­bia. The US has a vest­ed inter­est in ensur­ing that the revolt does not hit the king­dom full force, a devel­op­ment that would not only sig­nif­i­cant­ly under­mine its strate­gic inter­ests region­al­ly as well as glob­al­ly, but also those of its clos­est ally in the Mid­dle East, Israel. 

Already, the Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion is find­ing it dif­fi­cult to wield its influ­ence in the region with a more assertive Arab pub­lic opin­ion demand­ing that it put its mon­ey where its mouth is with regard to the revolt as well as its declared sup­port for an inde­pen­dent Pales­tin­ian state. US sup­port for the revolt under­mines its ties to key auto­crat­ic allies like Sau­di Ara­bia while sup­port­ing Pales­tin­ian inde­pen­dence with deeds rather than words would put it on a col­li­sion course with Israel. 

The solu­tion to the US, Sau­di and Israeli dilem­ma is focus­ing atten­tion on Iran at the expense of the Arab pop­u­lar revolt. The strat­e­gy is also designed to pre­vent pow­er in the region shift­ing from Israel and the Gulf to Turkey and Iran. Turkey’s star has been ris­ing with its emo­tion­al sup­port for Pales­tine, its dete­ri­o­rat­ing rela­tions with erst­while ally Israel and its per­ceived sup­port for the revolt. 

The fact that Turkey is ruled by an elect­ed Islamist gov­ern­ment cou­pled with its pro-Pales­tin­ian stance and denun­ci­a­tion of the bru­tal Syr­i­an crack­down on anti-gov­ern­ment pro­test­ers has shield­ed it from crit­i­cism that it like the Unit­ed States has an inter­est in main­tain­ing the sta­tus quo in the Gulf and else­where in the region. 

Syr­ia could well prove to be a cru­cial flash­point in the emerg­ing pow­er strug­gle in the Mid­dle East and North Africa. The fall of Mr. Assad would deprive Iran of its fore­most Arab friend and a key con­duit to its Lebanese Shi­ite ally, Hezbol­lah. With­out Syr­ia, Iran would be left with Iraq, which has joined Iran in sup­port­ing Mr. Assad, but is unlike­ly to be as com­pli­ant and strate­gic a friend as Syr­ia is. 

US and Sau­di efforts to fur­ther iso­late Iran on the back of the alleged plot to kill the Sau­di ambas­sador com­pound­ed by calls by Syr­i­an oppo­si­tion ele­ments to respond with armed strug­gle to Mr. Assad’s bru­tal­i­ty that has so far cost some 3,000 lives could cause the Islam­ic repub­lic sig­nif­i­cant pain. 

At the same time, the mor­ph­ing of the Syr­i­an protests into a civ­il war much like what hap­pened in Libya would put the Unit­ed States, Europe and the Sau­di-led Gulf coun­tries between a rock and a hard place. There is lit­tle appetite in the US and Europe for a rep­e­ti­tion of the six-month mil­i­tary cam­paign in Libya that ensured the oust­ing of Moam­mar Qaddafi by Libyan rebels. A West­ern and Arab fail­ure to ful­ly sup­port an armed Syr­i­an revolt would offer Iran a bad­ly need­ed opening. 

Whichev­er way it goes, the peo­ple pow­er revolt across the region has the most to lose and could find itself in the grinder as the Unit­ed States, Sau­di Ara­bia, Israel and Iran jock­ey for pow­er and seek to con­tain what pos­es a short-term threat to their inter­ests but long-term offers the best hope for greater sta­bil­i­ty in a geo-strate­gic part of the world. 

About The Author:
James M. Dorsey is a senior fel­low at the S. Rajarat­nam School of Inter­na­tion­al Stud­ies at Nanyang Tech­no­log­i­cal Uni­ver­si­ty in Sin­ga­pore and the author of the blog, The Tur­bu­lent World of Mid­dle East Soc­cer.

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