"Financial Times":Fragile power balance in Middle East is under threat
Friday 12/May/2017 - 01:09 PM
By David Gardner: The past week has seen plenty of talk about de-escalation zones in Syria — a Russian-designed plan to freeze the fighting in the four areas where rebels still pose a potent threat to the Assad regime، which Russia and Iran have kept alive. There is less talk about the escalation of Israel’s attacks on what it says are Iran-supplied arms convoys and depots in Syria destined for Hizbollah. The Lebanese Shia paramilitary movement has come to serve as Tehran’s spearhead in the Levant and، since 2013، a decisive strike-force in the Syrian civil war. In the past six months، Israel has stepped up the tempo of its air strikes on these alleged Hizbollah assets in Syria. At the same time، it has warned of a new Lebanon war.
The geopolitical as well as regional context of this current escalation is ominous.
Despite their deep antagonism towards Iran، an Israel under the hard right government led by Benjamin Netanyahu، and the erratic US administration of Donald Trump، have grudgingly concluded that the nuclear deal Iran and international powers reached in 2015 — which both men vowed to undo — is better left in place. Unpicking the deal would not just prompt Tehran to forge ahead with a nuclear programme now largely mothballed and internationally invigilated. It would alienate the European powers، Russia and China، all signatories to what is a UN-endorsed agreement.
The White House is instead looking at other ways to hit back at Iran. It wants to curb what the US، Israel and Sunni Arab powers in the Middle East، led by Saudi Arabia، see as Tehran’s drive to consolidate an arc of Shia power in Iraq، Syria، Lebanon، and down into the Gulf.
Israel has stated it will not tolerate Iran and allies such as Hizbollah establishing a power base in Syria. In January 2015 its air force killed Hizbollah commanders and an Iranian general near the Israeli-occupied GolanHeights.
The US policy review will tighten the screw on Iran. The sanctions related to Iran’s nuclear programme were lifted last year but the US Treasury keeps in place robust “secondary sanctions” on “designated” individuals and entities Washington accuses of “state-sponsored terrorism”. Chief among them is the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps، the regime’s enforcer at home and the engine of its regional adventurism. Sanctions experts in Washington now expect significant new “designations” against Iran، Hizbollah and their allies، as well as new sanctions for، as an example، Tehran’s missile testing.
Taken together، these efforts to keep Iran cut off from the international banking system may have the same effect as tearing up the nuclear deal. This is already the overarching issue in next week’s presidential election in Iran، with hardliners، egged on by the IRGC، saying the west has swindled the country، because expected investment has not materialised. “If economic relief is limited the deal could die anyway،” says Adam Smith،a former sanctions adviser to President Barack Obama.
But the US administration is not the only actor on sanctions. Ed Royce، Republican chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee of the US Congress، is understood to be drawing up sanctions against Hizbollah allies in Lebanon. These include Michel Aoun، the Christian installed as president after a long crisis that left the country rudderless for almost three years، and the speaker of parliament، Shia leader Nabih Berri.
Coming on top of a barrage of US sanctions a year ago، which targeted not just Hizbollah but its vast welfare network، and disrupted the vital remittance flows that keep Lebanon afloat، this could finally destabilise the country. Lebanon hangs on to what stability it has by its fingernails. Only its own history of sectarian war is acting as a partial antidote to the poisonous conflict raging next door in Syria.
Yet there is a real worry that nothing the US does will deter Iran from pursuing its ambitions. Tehran insists that but for its intervention، Isis jihadis would be in Baghdad and Damascus، bursting through to the Mediterranean.
At that point، the concern will be that، since there is little the US or Israel — much less Saudi Arabia — can do to hit Iran directly، by default President Trump will greenlight a new Israeli attempt to destroy Hizbollah.
Unlike the last war in 2006، in which Hizbollah held Israel’s forces to a score-draw، the Party of God boasts of a massive arsenal of rockets that can target all of Israel. There is، in other words، a balance of terror across the Israel-Lebanon border. If it does not work، a new war could be spectacularly destructive، especially for Lebanon، and yet a new blight to a region on its knees.