At the heart of the international struggle is a concerted attempt by the United States and its allies to bring down the ruling regimes in both Iran and Syria. Iran’s “crime” has been to refuse to submit to U.S. hegemony in the oil-rich Gulf region and to appear to pose a challenge, with its nuclear program, to Israel’s regional nuclear monopoly. At the same time, Iran, Syria and Hizbollah – partners for the past three decades – have managed to make a dent in Israel’s military supremacy. They have in recent years been the main obstacle to U.S-Israeli regional dominance.
Israel has for years demonised Iran’s nuclear program as an “existential” threat to itself and a danger to the entire world, and has repeatedly threatened to attack it. Its fevered gesticulations have pressured – some might say blackmailed – the United States and the European Union into imposing crippling sanctions on Iran’s oil exports and its central bank.
The real issue, however, is one of regional dominance. Iran’s nuclear program poses no particular danger to Israel. With its large nuclear arsenal, Israel has ample means to deter any would be aggressor. Nor would Iran willingly risk annihilation in a nuclear exchange. However, a nuclear-capable Iran – even if it never actually built a bomb – would limit Israel’s freedom of action, notably its freedom to strike its neighbours at will.
Israel is therefore at pains to restore its regional dominance, which has recently been somewhat curtailed. Its invasion of Lebanon in 2006 failed to destroy Hizbollah, while its 2008 to 2009 assault on Gaza failed to destroy Hamas. Worse still from Israel’s point of view, the war attracted international opprobrium and damaged Israel’s relations with Turkey. The rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt has put at risk the 1979 Israel-Egypt peace treaty which, by removing the strongest country from the Arab line-up, guaranteed Israeli dominance for 30 years.
Israel’s current strategy has been to get the United States to cripple Iran on its behalf. But the U.S. has also suffered grave setbacks in the region: its catastrophic war in Iraq; its unfinished conflict in Afghanistan; the violent hostility it has aroused in the Muslim world, particularly in Pakistan, Yemen and the Horn of Africa. It, too, is striving to retain its pre-eminence over the oil-rich Gulf States.
Because of their own apprehensions over Iran, the Arab states of the Gulf have allowed themselves to be drawn into the conflict. They seem to fear that Iran may endanger the existing political order by stirring up local Shia communities. With Qatar in the lead, they joined the United States and Israel in their assault against Damascus and Tehran. However, perhaps belatedly aware that a regional war could be catastrophic for them, there are signs that they are having second thoughts.
At last weekend’s Munich Security Conference, Qatar’s Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Khalid al-Attiyah, declared that an attack on Iran “is not a solution, and tightening the embargo will make the scenario worse. I believe we should have dialogue.” That is the voice of reason in an increasingly fraught regional situation.
Patrick Seale is a British writer on the Middle East and author of 'The Struggle for Syria' and 'Asad of Syria: The Struggle for the Middle East'. He has reported for Reuters and The Observer among other publications.