Opinion

Compass

In the Middle East, a bonfire of alibis

Nader Mousavizadeh
Feb 27, 2012 19:45 UTC

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.

The elephants in the Davos ski lodge

Nader Mousavizadeh
Jan 24, 2012 16:53 UTC

The epic global shifts of 2011 transformed the political, economic, and social landscape from Shanghai to Sao Paolo, Washington to Cairo. No leader (not even Vladimir Putin) is safe from the vagaries of social unrest; no economy (not even China’s) is unaffected by contagion from an over-leveraged, under-managed euro zone. No country (not even the United States) is immune from the threat of asymmetric attacks—anything from a terrorist bomb to cyber-warfare.

Volatility will be the rule, not the exception in 2012. What I call the emerging Archipelago World of fragmenting power, capital, and ideas is inherently unstable— as vulnerable to old conflicts and new threats as it is open to the dynamic entrepreneurship of rising powers and corporations remaking the map of the world.

A 20-year period of one-world, one-way globalization is being replaced by an era of competitive sovereignty. The walls are going back up. Developed and developing states alike are vertically integrating political and economic interests across public and private sectors in a global race for growth, employment and security.

Peril and paranoia in the new Middle East

Nader Mousavizadeh
Nov 28, 2011 17:47 UTC

The year of the Arab Awakening is drawing to a close with an ominous air of peril and paranoia hanging over the Middle East. A movement of genuine promise for more legitimate and accountable government for the peoples of the Arab world is in danger of being overwhelmed by the forces of tyranny, corruption, fundamentalism and conflict. From Syria to Egypt to Libya, Palestine, Israel and Iran, resistance to peaceful change is manifesting itself in ways new and old – and all in the context of a global re-alignment of power that few in the region yet recognize. Preventing the four central challenges of the Middle East – Iran, the Arab Awakening, Energy Security, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – from turning into conflicts with global implications will be a task far more for the countries of the region themselves than at any time in recent memory. For this new reality the parties are almost completely unprepared.

This was confirmed during a visit last week to the Gulf where the collapse of trust between adversaries – as well as allies – was on stark display. Arab leaders expressed as much distrust of each other as they did of their ascendant rivals, the Persians and the Turks. The minimum demands of the Palestinians are as distant as ever from the maximum on offer from the Israeli government. And for a number of regional leaders buffeted by the extraordinary changes forced by popular movements from Syria to Tunisia, a key lesson appears to be lesser, not greater, openness to representative government. The Middle East, more than any other region of the world, gives validity to the old joke that even paranoid schizophrenics have enemies. But to the very real perils arising from deeply divergent interests among Arabs, Turks, Persians and Israelis is now added a degree of heightened paranoia that threatens to multiply the perils with consequences reaching far beyond the region itself.

Critical to understanding the new strategic landscape is an appreciation of the degree to which the United States – since Suez, the arbiter of war and peace in the Middle East – is on course for a long-term disentanglement from the cares and conflicts of the region. While its commitment to Israel certainly – and to its Arab allies less so – long has been more than just a matter of security, it is evident that a Middle East less critical as a source of oil will be one less able to claim the extraordinary expenditure of blood and treasure made by America over the past half-century. As a consequence of technological advances leading to new discoveries and new sources of oil and gas, the next oil shock will likely be one more defined by the growing irrelevance of the Middle East to the United States – however much the region’s ability to disrupt international oil markets will remain.

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