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Thursday, March 26, 2015

Saudi Arabia versus Iran

          The Shia-Sunni civil war is increasingly a war between Iran and the Gulf States--particularly Saudi Arabia--over whether Iran can establish a regional hegemony. David P. Goldman has been warning about war with Iran for at least 10 years. In his book How Civilizations Die, he observed that the Iran's falling birth rates were pushing it into a corner--either attempt a break-out war to establish its empire, or, like Europe, recede quietly into history. In a March 4, 2015, article entitled "The World Bows to Iranian Regional Hegemony," Goldman wrote:
The problem with Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu’s address to Congress March 3 was not the risk of offending Washington, but rather Washington’s receding relevance. President Barack Obama is not the only leader who wants to acknowledge what is already a fact in the ground, namely that “Iran has become the preeminent strategic player in West Asia to the increasing disadvantage of the US and its regional allies,” as a former Indian ambassador to Oman wrote this week.

For differing reasons, the powers of the world have elected to legitimize Iran’s dominant position, hoping to delay but not deter its eventual acquisition of nuclear weapons. Except for Israel and the Sunni Arab states, the world has no desire to confront Iran. Short of an American military strike, which is unthinkable for this administration, there may be little that Washington can do to influence the course of events. Its influence has fallen catastrophically in consequence of a chain of policy blunders.
 
* * * 
Most of the world wants a deal, because the alternative would be war. For 10 years I have argued that war is inevitable whatever the diplomats do, and that the question is not if, but how and when. President Obama is not British prime minister Neville Chamberlain selling out to Hitler at Munich in 1938: rather, he is Lord Halifax, that is, Halifax if he had been prime minister in 1938. Unlike the unfortunate Chamberlain, who hoped to buy time for Britain to build warplanes, Halifax liked Hitler, as Obama and his camarilla admire Iran. 
China is Chamberlain, hoping to placate Iran in order to buy time. China’s dependence on Middle East oil will increase during the next decade no matter what else China might do, and a war in the Persian Gulf would ruin it. 
Until early 2014, China believed that the United States would guarantee the security of the Persian Gulf. After the rise of Islamic State (ISIS), it concluded that the United States no longer cared, or perhaps intended to destabilize the region for nefarious reasons. But China does not have means to replace America’s presence in the Persian Gulf. Like Chamberlain at Munich, it seeks delay. 
* * * 
Apart from its nuclear ambitions, the broader deal envisioned by Washington would leave Iran as a de facto suzerain in Iraq. It would also make Iran the dominant power in Lebanon (via Hezbollah), Syria (via its client regime) and Yemen (through its Houthi proxies). Although Sunni Muslims outnumber Shi’ites by 6:1, Sunni populations are concentrated in North Africa, Turkey and South Asia. Iran hopes to dominate the Levant and Mesopotamia, encircling Saudi Arabia and threatening Azerbaijan.
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The Israeli prime minister asserted that the alternative to a bad deal is not war, but a better deal. I do not think he believes that, but Americans cannot wrap their minds around the notion that West Asia will remain at war indefinitely, especially because the war arises from their own stupidity. 
Balance of power in the Middle East is inherently impossible today for the same reason it failed in Europe in 1914, namely a grand demographic disequilibrium: Iran is on a course to demographic disaster, and must assert its hegemony while it still has time.
Game theorists might argue that Iran has a rational self-interest to trade its nuclear ambitions for the removal of sanctions. The solution to a multi-period game – one that takes into account Iran’s worsening demographic weakness – would have a solution in which Iran takes great risks to acquire nuclear weapons.
 
Between 30% and 40% of Iranians will be older than 60 by mid-century (using the UN Population Prospect’s Constant Fertility and “Low” Variants). Meanwhile, its military-age population will fall by a third to a half. 
Belated efforts to promote fertility are unlikely to make a difference. The causes of Iranian infertility are baked into the cake – higher levels of female literacy, an officially-sanctioned culture of sexual license administered by the Shi’ite clergy as “temporary marriage,” epidemic levels of sexually-transmitted disease and inbreeding. Iran, in short, has an apocalyptic regime with a lot to be apocalyptic about. 
Henry Kissinger is right: peace can be founded on either hegemony or balance of power. Iran cannot be a hegemon for long because it will implode economically and demographically within a generation. In the absence of either, the result is war. For the past 10 years I have argued in this space that when war is inevitable, preemption is the least damaging course of action. I had hoped that George W Bush would have the gumption to de-fang Iran, and was disappointed when he came under the influence of Condoleezza Rice and Robert Gates. Now we are back in 1938, but with Lord Halifax rather than Neville Chamberlain in charge.
          Unfortunately, Obama's decision to disengage from the Middle-East and support Iran has dangerously undermined Saudi Arabia's influence in the region. On March 16, 2015, Goldman wrote in "Iran as Regional Hegemon: Tehran’s Success and Riyadh’s Failure":
A sign of Saudi Arabia’s waning influence was Pakistan’s decision March 15 to refuse a Saudi request for Pakistani troops to deploy on its border with Yemen, now controlled by pro-Iranian Houthi rebels. A senior Pakistani official told the local press, “Pakistan would not rush to join the anti-Iran alliance that is being forged,” in the wake of Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s visit to Saudi Arabia last week. “We cannot afford to involve ourselves in the disputes among the Muslim countries,” the official said, adding that Pakistan could spare no additional troops for Saudi Arabia. 
That is a serious rebuff for Riyadh, which reportedly financed Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program as a last-ditch guarantee of its own security. ...
Unfortunately for Saudi Arabia, as Goldman notes, the bet has not paid off (and he wonders if the United States and/or China influenced Pakistan to not provide troops). However, Goldman notes that the stars have not aligned for Saudi Arabia in other ways: the rise of militant Sunni Islam threatens China and Russia, driving both those powers into Iran's camp. Saudi Arabia's export of Wahhabism may have been Saudi Arabia's death warrant.

          Anyway, as recent events have shown, the U.S. efforts (and perhaps we should question how much effort was actually made) to support Yemen in the face of the Iranian backed Houthi rebels have failed, with the Yemeni president having to flee the country for safety. Now, Saudi Arabia is taking direct military action. Al Arabiya reports:
Saudi Arabia waged early Thursday “Operation Decisive Storm” against the Houthi coup in Yemen and in support of legitimate President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi.
A Saudi air campaign was launched overnight which has already resulted in the elimination of several Houthi leaders.
 
Yemen air space is currently under full control of the Saudi Royal Air Force.
As the operation continues, a coalition of all GCC countries, barring Oman, is taking part in the campaign, including Sudan, Egypt, Morocco, Jordan and Pakistan.
 
Saudi Arabia has deployed 100 fighter jets, 150,000 soldiers and other navy units, Al Arabiya News Channel reported. 
Meanwhile, Yemen shut its major seaports on Thursday while Saudi Arabia halted flights to seven airports south of the Kingdom, Reuters news agency reported.
Fox News' report on the strike indicates that Iran is upset:
A coalition of Arab nations led by Saudi Arabia launched airstrikes against military bases held by Shiite Houthi rebels in Yemen early Thursday, as Iran warned that Riyadh was taking a "dangerous step." 
The statement Thursday from Tehran's Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Marzieh Afkham did not name Saudi Arabia but called the airstrikes an "invasion." The statement went on to claim that the campaign would worsen the already deteriorating security situation in Yemen.  
Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya News reported that the kingdom had deployed 100 fighter jets, 150,000 soldiers and other navy units. News footage of the strikes aired by Saudi-owned Al-Hadath TV showed flashing lights and what sounded like machine gun fire. 
Some of the strikes hit positions in Yemen's capital, Sanaa. In response, the Houthis, were calling on their supporters to protest in the city's streets on Thursday afternoon, Yemen's Houthi-controlled state news agency SABA reported. 
The airstrikes were announced in a rare news conference late Wednesday, Eastern Time, by Saudi ambassador to the U.S. Adel al-Jubeir, who said the Saudis "will do anything necessary" to protect the people of Yemen and "the legitimate government of Yemen." Al-Jubeir said his government had consulted closely with the U.S. and other allies but that the U.S. military was not involved in the operations.
 An article in The Guardian, "Iran-Saudi proxy war in Yemen explodes into region-wide crisis," notes:
Like a ticking timebomb left unattended for too long, Yemen’s undeclared civil war has suddenly exploded into a region-wide crisis that will have far-reaching, unpredictable international consequences, not least for Britain and the US. 
The conflict, spreading outwards like a poison cloud from the key southern battleground around Aden, pits Saudi Arabia, the leading Sunni Muslim power, plus what remains of Yemen’s government against northern-based Houthi rebels, who are covertly backed by Shia Muslim Iran. 
What has until now been an unacknowledged proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia, the two great powers of the Middle East, has now burst into an open confrontation that appears to be escalating rapidly as other countries and players are sucked in. The primary Saudi aim is to pacify Yemen, but its wider objective is to send a powerful message to Iran: stop meddling in Arab affairs.
* * *
Iran is widely believed to have trained Houthi fighters and supplied arms since the insurgency began. But this is flatly denied in Tehran. Iran has nevertheless kept up a constant barrage of criticism of Saudi and western efforts to forge a political settlement in Yemen. It appears to see the country in terms of a region-wide struggle for power and influence between itself and Saudi Arabia, a struggle that in turn reflects the Sunni-Shia schism across the Muslim world. 
Its first reaction to Saudi-led air strikes overnight was to condemn them as “US-backed aggression”. The foreign ministry in Tehran described the intervention as a dangerous step with unpredictable consequences. “Iran wants an immediate halt to all military aggressions and air strikes against Yemen and its people … Military action in Yemen, which faces a domestic crisis … will further complicate the situation … and will hinder efforts to resolve the crisis through peaceful ways,” the ministry spokeswoman, Marzieh Afkham, said. 
It seems possible that the success of the Houthis’ drive south, and the dramatic Saudi reaction in mobilising an international intervention, has taken Iran by surprise. It is unclear how much control Tehran exercises over the rebels. 
The long-running rebellion has been a useful, low-cost way for Iran to keep the Saudis off-balance and under pressure in the regional power battle. Now the puppet may have broken loose from the puppeteers. Iran is facing off against Saudi Arabia on other fronts in Syria, the Gulf and not least in Iraq, where the Shia-led government in Baghdad is widely seen to be under Tehran’s influence. 
Iranian-backed militia are also leading the current fightback against Sunni Muslim Islamic State forces north of Baghdad, whom Saudi Wahhabi hardliners and groups are said to have funded.
         I don't believe that Iran will let itself be drawn directly into the war in Yemen, at least in a military sense. Rather, it's role, if any, may end up being as a peace broker, increasing its influence in the region and further undermining Saudi Arabia. Meanwhile, Obama's fecklessness will have created yet another failed state.

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