Daniel R. DePetris: The Political Docket

Democracy Delayed in the West Bank

Posted in Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, Middle East and North Africa by Dan on July 27, 2010

Hamas supporters celebrate their victory in 2006. Palestinians are still waiting for another election.

Palestinians in the West Bank were supposed to vote last week on a new set of local politicians.  To us Americans, municipal elections aren’t a big deal.  But for people who haven’t had a taste of democracy in years, just the slightest chance at waiting online to cast a ballot is an exhilarating experience.  For Palestinians- a people under persistent occupation, divided between two political factions, and separated in two geographical areas- this exuberance would have been even more fulfilling.

Sadly, those elections were cancelled by the Palestinian Authority, which argued that elections at the present time would have fragmented Palestine’s national identity and diverted attention away from the more pressing problem of Gaza’s humanitarian catastrophe.

Little do they know that Palestinian identity hasn’t been unified for quite a long time; Hamas and Fatah have been battling it out for the past four years.  1.5 million Palestinians are separated from another 2.5 million in the West Bank.  And if you want to get mired in technicalities, the Palestinians don’t even have a national identity.  The lack of a Palestinian state kicks the “national” right out the door.

Something else is at work here.  The cancellation had nothing to do with Gaza, and it certainly had nothing to do with efforts at unity.  Instead, fear of who would win and who would lose was most likely the culprit.  And in some strange way, the United States is partly to blame for Palestine’s increasingly authoritarian behavior.

Back in 2006, the United States encouraged Palestinians to come out and vote for their next national government.  At the time, it was an historic moment; the first elections since the death of longtime leader Yasser Arafat and the beginning of a new era in Middle East democracy.  But when the elections were over, and the winner was announced (Hamas), encouragement in Washington quickly turned into despair and disappointment.

The right thing for Washington to do was applaud the Palestinians for their trust in democracy- even if the U.S. didn’t necessarily like the results.  This positive response may have been able to serve as a precedent for further elections into the future.

Unfortunately, the Bush administration took the exact opposite approach. The same democracy that Washington trumpeted beforehand quickly turned into an embarrassment. Due to Hamas’ place on Washington’s terrorist list, the United States refused to declare the contest legitimate.  The U.S. dug itself deeper by not engaging Hamas at a low level, which would have at least shown Palestinians that the U.S. meant what it said about democratic institutions.

Four years later, what we have in the Palestinian Territories is a powerless legislative branch, a Palestinian President ruling by decree, and an authority that is divided internally between old-time technocrats and upwardly mobile moderates.

We are still suffering from that disastrous 2006 experience.  Just as the U.S. was afraid about the results back then, the P.A. is afraid about what’s on the minds of Palestinian voters today. Canceling the elections gives them more time to delay the inevitable.

-Daniel R. DePetris

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**Comments courtesy of Mustafa Barghouthi of the Palestinian National Initiative.  His article can be read at FP.com’s Middle East Channel**

Speaking of Iran and Nukes…..

Posted in Iran, Middle East and North Africa by Dan on May 19, 2010

Dr. F. Gregory Gause- a professor of political science at the University of Vermont and a man whose work I widely respect- has a great piece over at FP’s newly launched “Mideast Channel” about the Saudi perception of Iran’s nuclear program.  Take a look at it, because it’s certainly worth reading if you want to obtain an accurate depiction of how the Arab world assesses Tehran’s nuclear ambitions.

Considering that Iran’s nuclear program has been covered so extensively in the global media, I’m a bit surprised that more scholars haven’t studied or discussed what the Saudi Government- or Saudis in general- think of Tehran’s nuclear program.  After all, it’s Saudi Arabia that has the most to lose if the Iranians do in fact go nuclear; diminished stature in the region, an Iraq under the pro-Iranian umbrella, Shia power growing at the expense of Sunnis, etc.  Surely, the Saudis would want to respond some way, somehow, perhaps with their own nuclear program (although that is certainly up for debate).

But thankfully, Dr. Gause sheds some light on the Saudi perspective.  Contrary to the overhyped American view of a messianic Iranian president waiting to launch a nuclear weapon at a second’s notice, the Saudi view is much more pragmatic and even-keeled.  Saudis are concerned about an Iranian nuke no doubt, but not because they fear that the ayatollahs would destroy Riyadh and overpower the Saudi armed-forces.  Rather, they view a nuclear weapon as a piece of leverage in the Iranian toolbox that could be used to further expand Persian influence in the Middle East.  And one way to achieve this goal is by using a nuclear bomb’s symbolic effect, which could empower other groups- like Tehran’s Hezbollah and Hamas proxies and the millions of Shias that are disenfranchised in the region- to rise up and challenge the Sunni governments of the Arab world.

This is a perspective that the United States should try to adopt, or at least try to add into the equation when evaluating what to do in the event of an nuclear-armed Islamic Republic.

Thus far, U.S. policy towards Iran has been far too limited in its orientation.  Both the White House and Congress, Republican and Democrat, seem to think that an Iranian nuke would mean the end of Israel, or the end of America’s regional clout.

Granted, Washington has an obligation to plan for all sorts of possibilities.  An Iran with a nuclear weapon would certainly act differently in the Middle East than an Iran without a viable nuclear program. But even this planning- however warranted- is redirecting government resources away from another very important aspect of the Islamic Republic…its ties to Islamic militant groups from Iraq to Lebanon.

In many ways, ties to proxies are much more effective than a nuclear weapons capability. I know it’s hard to swallow, but think about it. Proxies can be used anywhere at any time, whether it’s for the purpose of meddling in the affairs of another state (like Iraq) or diminishing the power of a rival government.  A nuclear weapon, on the other hand, cannot be used for this purpose. Of course, you can always blow up Tel Aviv, or Beirut, or Sana’a, or Baghdad to achieve your aims, but such an irrational act would bring about absolute destruction to the country that launched it (in this case, Iran). The very objectives that Iran would want to achieve would be destroyed, along with the entire country’s military establishment.

Today, a nuclear-free Tehran is able to hide behind the actions of Hezbollah and Hamas, reaping the benefits of the relationship while largely avoiding the costs that come with direct support. It’s the most valuable tool in the Iranian arsenal, and one that can be exploited without a devastating response by the United States or the international community.

None of this is to say that Iran’s strategic thinking wouldn’t change if the final screw was turned in the nuclear plant.  Nor is this to suggest that an Iranian bomb wouldn’t change the calculus of their proxies (some analysts, in fact, have argued that Hezbollah and Hamas may cause more trouble if protected under an Iranian nuclear umbrella).  What this does suggest is that the indirect value of a bomb may be more valuable to Iran’s foreign-policy than the direct use of the bomb itself.

-Daniel R. DePetris

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Egypt’s Many Problems

Posted in Middle East and North Africa, Uncategorized by Dan on May 3, 2010

Shadi Hamid has an eye-opener over at democracyarsenal.org, which by the way, is actually an official blog of the National Security Network (I had no idea).

I highly recommend that you take a full look at his post, because the topic he discusses- U.S. democracy assistance in the Middle East- is more than a bit relevant.  But just in case you didn’t want to scroll through the whole thing, Hamid raises a few key points about how contradictory and inadequate American democracy promotion is in the Middle East.

Here’s a quote that really jumped out to me:  “The whole idea of “democracy assistance” is a bit odd and more than a bit hypocritical. We fund autocracies with billions of dollars of aid, then we fund some small NGOs so that they can oppose autocracy.”

This, I fear, is something that the average Middle East watcher here in the United States neglects to pay attention too.  For all of its love and dedication towards democratic values and human rights, Washington is still pouring billions upon billions of dollars into regimes that are nowhere near…well…”semi-free.”  Saudi Arabia and Jordan are major players in this respect, both of whom continue to reign repressively at home while reaping the rewards of American taxpayer dollars.  Don’t even get me started on Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, or Uzbekistan.

I understand why the United States is doing this.  There is, after all, an overarching strategic value of pumping money into these regimes.  The general equation is quite obvious; the more money the U.S. sends to places like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan, the more likely these countries will ally with us on issues of primary importance.  And for the most part, money does buy allies.  Cairo, Riyadh, and Amman are all supportive of a comprehensive and nonviolent path to Palestinian statehood; all three want to scale back Iran’s nuclear program; and two out of the three hold peace agreements with the Israelis.

I’m just wondering what President Barack Obama (and President Bush, President Clinton, President Bush Sr., President Reagan, President Carter, blah blah blah) is sacrificing in order to gain leverage over these regimes.  And unfortunately, you don’t’ have to look hard to see what we are sacrificing; American values, transparent government and the most basic civil liberties.

I do disagree with Hamid on one point he makes in his post.  He seems to imply that Egypt is not yet at the point of full authoritarianism.  To his credit, he does recognize that Egypt is descending further “into full-blown autocracy.”  But facts on the ground seem to indicate that the Egyptian Government is already there.

Hosni Mubarak has ruled by executive decree for the past thirty years, crushing any and all opposition to his administration. His political survival is essentially dependent on the martial law order that was originally created in 1981 after Anwar al-Sadat was assassinated by Islamic extremists. Yet decades after the assassination, Mubarak continues to extend the law to serve political purposes, like destroying any opposition movement that surfaces as an alternative to his administration.

The Egyptian Government has to sign-off if you want to start an NGO for the population or if you want to participate in politics as a member of the opposition. Otherwise, you can forget about campaigning (as if that will do much good anyway).

This doesn’t even mention the Egyptian Regime’s grotesque human rights record, or the fact that an inexperienced son is ready to take the post after his father leaves.

The one shining light in Egyptian politics today is the emergence of Dr. El’Baradei as a possible contender for the 2011 presidential election. But even that isn’t set in stone.

So I say again, how is Egypt not an autocratic country today? It’s one of most autocratic in the broader Middle East. Even Iran- the quote on quote most repressive country in the region- has replaced their president at least four times in the past two decades.

-Daniel R. DePetris

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Rumors Building Up About A New Obama Peace Push

Posted in Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, Middle East and North Africa by Dan on April 21, 2010

Boy do I love rumors.  And if there is anything I love more than rumors, its rumors that originate inside Washington, which usually has the effect of spreading around town and taking on a life of their own once newspapers get a hold of them.

Such is the case with a rumor now circulating in the Beltway that President Barack Obama is working feverously on a new Middle East peace plan.  And God knows that we need it…the process has been stalled for the past decade.

Israel’s policy of unconditional settlement building, along with Mahmoud Abbas’ refusal to even sit down with the Israelis, has made peace some sort of alien concept for the past ten years.  The United States hasn’t helped the situation either, partly due to its taken-for-granted support of Israel and partly due to President Obama’s inability to take provocative steps (like sanctions and termination of the American aid pipeline) to get talks started.

So for obvious reasons, an American-imposed peace plan is generating a lot of excitement in the blogosphere…and on the twitter feeds for that manner.  But we should be cautious that such a move is actually taking place within the White House, because let’s face it, the administration hasn’t been all that united on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to begin with.  Dennis Ross, Obama’s chief Mideast Policy advisor, is staunchly pro-Israeli (so much so that some people are starting to question whether he is more sympathetic to Israel than the United States), while VP Joe Biden is probably still hot under the collar over his embarrassing trip to Israel last month.  And of course there’s George Mitchell, who is the administration’s point man on current negotiations (or lack thereof) and who seems to be enduring a level of frustration that even a patient diplomat like himself cannot bear.

Is this supposed peace plan actually a real thing?  Well, yes and no.

From what I’ve heard so far, it looks as if the Obama administration is going to wait a little longer before they decide to implement an American-led peace push. Some officials in the administration, particularly those involved in U.S. Middle East policy, are saying that the President’s main priority is still getting “proximity talks” forward, which would probably be a dismal failure anyway. Of course, I take everything that the White House says with a grain of salt, because the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is one of those issues that can create deep schisms between high-ranking administration officials. Actually, it seems like this is occurring already, with Envoy George Mitchell calling an American plan “premature.”

Whatever the administration decides to do, I hope they wait for the proximity talks to fail first. You can only use the most important tool at your disposal after all others are exhausted, and a unilateral peace plan by the United States is the sharpest tool the country has.  Doing it now, just as Mitchell and Clinton are trying to get indirect talks back on the table, simply doesn’t make sense.

Patience is the key here. Look what happened when the President rushed earlier on in the process…he got rebuffed and humiliated by Benjamin Netanyahu over settlements, and lost a whole lot of credibility with Arabs at the same time.

-Daniel R. DePetris

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**Comments courtesy of Marc Lynch at FP.com**

The Libya-Iran Connection That Should Be Taken Advantage Of

President Barack Obama is experiencing his first sigh of relief in quite a long time when it comes to the Iranian nuclear stalemate.  Chinese President Hu Jintao, who has been the main bulwark against western pressure defender on Iran, has finally agreed to sit down and discuss the possibility of further economic sanctions.

This could not have come at a better time for the White House.  Let’s face it; the United States hasn’t been all that successful when it comes to bringing the world together.  Key players, like Turkey, Brazil, and Lebanon, don’t have the same worry about Iran’s nuclear program as western powers do.  To them, Iran is exercising their international right to civilian nuclear energy.  Even if these countries were suspicious about Iran’s nuclear program, they would be hard pressed to actually do something about it; all three have extensive commercial ties with Tehran that they surely don’t want to destroy (especially in today’s sour economic environment).

But with China on board- at least for now- the possibility of stronger economic sanctions at the U.N.S.C. may be edging closer than anyone imagined.  But let’s not get our hopes up; these are only discussions, and Beijing as a long history of opposing economic sanctions as a legitimate foreign-policy tool.  After all, the Chinese are still selling products to North Korea, Burma, and Sudan, states that are hardly democratic and respectful to their own people.

Yet high hopes aside, this got me thinking about economic sanctions (it’s ok, call me a nerd).  And I arrived at a pretty pedestrian conclusion; sanctions are not an end in itself, but they can work depending on the country being targeted and the environment in which its used.

History is indicative of sanctions falling short of their main objective, which is to weaken an adversary or at least change regime behavior. Despite three decades of strong economic sanctions on the Iranian economy, nothing beneficial has resulted for the United States. In fact, these same punishments have only emboldened the Iranian regime to act in a more provocative fashion. Iran’s support for terrorist groups in the Middle East continues unabated, and of course, Tehran’s nuclear program is still pressing on without any difficulty (and no, technical problems don’t count).

And you can’t forget about other examples, like Iraq, where an unsuccessful sanctions regiment was used as an excuse to start drawing up plans for a preemptive invasion.

But sanctions aren’t all bad (and here is where country and environment come into play). What about the Libyan example, where economic pressure essentially forced Muammar Gaddafi to abandon his WMD program? Sure, it took close to thirty years of U.S. saber-rattling to finally get Gaddafi to clean up his act, but a persistent campaign did eventually work.

I’m not naïve; sanctioning alone wasn’t the only factor in squeezing Gaddafi. The Libyan Government was already feeling the heat from decades of international neglect, partly due to Gaddafi’s support for terrorism and partly due to Libya’s crumbling domestic infrastructure. But sanctions put his whole predicament over the edge. And the result was nothing but transformative…an end of nuclear proliferation in North Africa.

None of this is to say that unilateral sanctions on Iran will work. In fact, I don’t even think that sanctions at the U.N. level will work, unless they are strong and wisely implemented.  The Iranians are intent on building a nuclear capability, and it appears that nothing will deter them from taking the next step. But before we totally insult economic sanctions as a national security policy- which I have done on this blog before- maybe we should take an in-depth look into history.

The question for policymakers now is whether Iran will follow the Libyan path.

-Daniel R. DePetris

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**Comments courtesy of Lara Friedman of at Americans for Peace Now**

A LAX Arab Summit Is Actually A Good Thing

Posted in Middle East and North Africa by Dan on April 1, 2010

When international summits creep up the calendar, a tremendous amount of excitement among political leaders often follows suit.  Whether the issue concerns climate change, economic development in Africa, women’s rights, or nuclear nonproliferation, the world’s most powerful men and women are quick to step into their private jets and whisk away to a convention of enormous proportions.  Summits and regional meetings are often categorized as the best opportunity to solve some of the world’s most pressing problems.  And with good reason; with hundreds of global politicians in the same square block, it would seem logical to think that an agreement of historic proportions would eventually be signed.

So when the dictators and statesmen of the Middle East failed to engage in any real constructive dialogue on Jerusalem, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Iranian hegemony, and counterterrorism, there was a fair-share of disappointed among everyone involved.

But it gets worse.  On virtually every major issue, the Arab world is divided between moderate and radical factions.  The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is just one example of such division, with Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa calling for resumption of negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad demanding that the Palestinians drop negotiations altogether and fight the Israelis head-on.

In other words, political fragmentation plagued the entire summit.  Nothing substantial resulted from the talks, and western leaders are particularly annoyed that Arabs cannot even agree on something as important as Iran’s nuclear program.

Yet, I’m surprised that the west is so disappointed by the lack of Arab action. Historically, large conventions like these rarely produce anything worthwhile, and even if a summit does draft a proposal, the principles embodied in the document are hardly sustainable in the long-term.

It is true that Arab Summits have been particularly pointless as of late, with one side arguing touting modernity and the other arguing for confrontation.  But the Arab world is hardly the only area experiencing this type of stalemate. The Organization of Latin American States is another regional forum riddled with its fair share of problems.  Peru, Columbia, and Chile (and possibly Argentina and Brazil) continues to advocate free-market reforms and closer ties with the West, while countries like Venezuela, Cuba, Bolivia, and Ecuador are more comfortable forging an anti-American alliance based on populism.

Frustration is understandable, especially when powerful leaders are unable to make a unified decision, despite their cultural and political similarities.  But perhaps this is for the best; after all, two powerhouses were absent from the talks altogether (Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Saudi King Abdullah), not to mention delegates from six other Arab countries.

It sounds strange, but perhaps this year’s Arab Summit was a blessing in disguise.  It’s far better to wait and make sure all parties are on board before anything is signed.

-Daniel R. DePetris

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What Happened to Yemen?

Posted in Middle East and North Africa by Dan on March 4, 2010

Last week, the Pentagon unveiled its plan to send $150 million in direct military assistance to the Yemeni Government.  Most of this will be used to expand Yemen’s air-force, the branch of the Yemeni Military that has done the most work thus far against the country’s main enemies.  Yemeni warplanes have been particularly useful against the al-Houthi insurgency, a tribal group that has battled the state for close to six years (right now, Yemen and al-Houthi are at a much needed ceasefire).

From the Pentagon’s standpoint, the logic of this plan is pretty straightforward; give the Yemenis a few million dollars in exchange for a resurgent campaign against Al’Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).

The problem with this line of thinking is its unwarranted optimism.  Will President Ali Abdullah Saleh actually find it in his interest to crack down on AQAP?   And with so much money is Saleh’s pocket, who is to say that the funds won’t be diverted to another conflict…say, to Yemen number one threat, the Shia rebellion?

Most of these questions remain unanswered, yet the Pentagon is still content with handing over hard-earned taxpayer dollars.  Unfortunately, this is the same exact policy that the United States endorsed before an American jetliner was almost brought down on Christmas Day by a Yemeni-based Al’Qaeda cell.

Before the attack was conducted, Yemen was viewed by the United States as a failed state on the Saudi Peninsula that could be largely contained through intelligence sharing and covert operations. The fact that the U.S. relied on drone-strikes over Yemeni territory time and again is a testament to how simplistic American policy towards the country was prior to last Christmas. The hope was that a few targeted strikes and a few well placed bombs could magically eviscerate Al’Qaeda from the scene. But as everyone now knows, such a limited approach failed to accomplish this goal.

Now, the U.S. and the international community is donating billions upon billions of dollars to President Saleh’s government, in the hopes that all of the funds will be used to curtail some of Yemen’s most serious problems. From the beginning, I applauded this effort. The War on Terrorism cannot be won by military force alone. Economic development, local government that is free and fair, the creation of jobs, and (above all) the rise of education are also required for the fight. But in a nation as decentralized, poor, and fragmented as Yemen, is this effort a lose-lose for Barack Obama?

President Saleh may seem sincere in his desire to start clamping-down on Islamic extremism, but appearing sincere is not the same thing as actually backing words with concrete action.

In the past, Yemen routinely partnered up with Sunni militants (like Al’Qaeda) against Shia groups that the state deemed an existential threat. The Saleh-AQ alliance was a mutually beneficial relationship; AQ fighters were promised immunity and the freedom to operate in exchange for killing Shia rebels along the Yemeni-Saudi border.  And from what I can gather, this alliance is still holding firm.  What on earth would prompt Saleh to suddenly alter this dynamic?

The first priority for Saleh is defeating the Houthi rebellion. The second concern is suppressing a secessionist movement in the south that is rapidly growing. Battling Al’Qaeda is a distant third. At this point in time, the Yemeni Government may not want to embroil itself in a third domestic struggle.

-Daniel R. DePetris

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Who Assassinated a Senior Hamas Commander in Dubai?

Posted in Middle East and North Africa by Dan on February 17, 2010

UPDATE:  The British Government has asked the Israeli Ambassador to the U.K. for a meeting in order to discuss the assassination case further.

Close to a month ago, a group of hit-men in Dubai killed a senior Hamas commander in his hotel room.  Apart from the obvious question of why UAE authorities had absolutely no idea that their country was hosting an assassination plot, one has to wonder who actually conducted the attack.  Was this assassination ordered by a government, or a non-state organization?  Was the killing payback for something we don’t yet know about, or is there something deeper to the entire affair?

There are a couple of possibilities here.  The first and obvious party that could have sponsored and ordered the assassination is Israel’s Mossad.  Over the last decade- indeed over the last few years- Israel has been responsible for a number of targeted killings, both against Hamas militants and against Hezbollah commanders.  The assassination of a top Hezbollah figure in Damascus in 2007 is the most recent example of Israeli fortitude.  If Mossad can infiltrate into a hostile Arab country and successfully carry out a national-security mission, there is no challenge that the Mossad can’t meet.  The fact that 7 out of 11 passports used by the hit-men were traced back to Israel only adds some more skepticism to the equation.  Evidence seems to have the markings of a typical Israeli operation; use fake passports, assemble an effective team and execute the killing on foreign soil, away from Israeli territory.

The Palestinian Liberation Organization or perhaps Fatah could also be a possibility (either with or without Mahmoud Abbas’ blessing).  Fatah is already carrying out an extensive campaign of sabotage against Hamas, particularly in the West Bank where secular Palestinians desperately want to exert control.  Islamic preachers sympathetic to the Hamas movement are being arrested by the dozens, and mosques that are considered headquarters for militants in the West Bank are being shut down.  And of course, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that there is an extreme rivalry between Hamas and Fatah in Palestinian politics.  Each side is trying to one-up the other, and perhaps killing a top Hamas military commander is part of the game.  It’s cynical, but again…within the realm of possibility.

Maybe the hit-men involved in the murder were just rogues taking matter into their own hands, for whatever reason.  But this seems too simplistic.

A business deal gone bad?  Who knows, I suck at economics.

I’m relying on CNN, the New York Times, Newsweek, and ForeignPolicy.com to start providing some details in the next few days.

-Daniel R. DePetris

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**Comments courtesy of Newsweek’s Declassified**

Yemen’s Problems Run Deep

Posted in Middle East and North Africa by Dan on January 11, 2010

With details over the botched Christmas bombing continuing to surface, U.S. intelligence officials are finally beginning to understand the full extent of the Yemeni problem. The only problem is that it took an ambitious assault on a passenger airliner to get Washington’s attention.

With all of the domestic turmoil that Yemen has faced for the past four decades, it would be rational to think that western governments are working long and hard to contain the its explosive civil conflict. After all, with U.S. forces fighting in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan (albeit covertly), the last thing the U.S. Military needs is another committment requiring a substantial troop presence. Yet, despite the history of violence and Islamic radicalism that has persisted for years in the Yemeni countryside, western powers are still reluctant to devote significant resources in order to counteract the tide.

If there is anything to learn from the latest terrorist attempt against the United States (despite improving security coordination), it is the fact that governments around the world must rely on preventive measures. It is once thing to boost airport security after an incident has already happened. It is an entirely different thing to act before plots are executed.

The great part about counterterrorism is its dynamic and innovative nature. As the U.S. and Great Britain has learned from Iraq and Afghanistan, fighting terrorism does not necessarily require a over-dependence on military force. Soft-power is also key to the anti-terrorist crusade. The building of infrastructure, economic reconstruction, and political transparency can be just as vital as tactical drone-strikes on enemy camps. This could be especially successful in Yemen; a country whose population struggles to find the most menial of work.

I am not totally advocating the elimination of military strikes. In many cases, it is absolutely vital for the U.S. Military to launch operations against terrorist organizations when the opportunity arises. Defending the American homeland is often contingent upon successful operations overseas. But just as raids can bludgen a network, so too can civilian aid and a willingness to address the root causes of political violence; poor education, a lack of resources, corruption, joblessness, and drug addiction.

Yemen faces all of these preconditions. No wonder why Al’Qaeda and other jihadists with similar aspirations continue to pour into this country. Surrounding by two insurgencies, the Yemeni Government is virtually powerless to stop them. This will cease to be the reality unless the international community helps the Yemenis in every way possible, both for the short term and for the long-haul.

The Cold War in the Middle East

Posted in Middle East and North Africa by Dan on September 2, 2009
A covert war is escalating between Saudi Arabia and Iran

A covert war is escalating between Saudi Arabia and Iran

In a short and concise, yet well-written piece, Robert Haddick of the Small Wars Journal raises the question of whether Yemen is becoming the new front in a possible Iranian-Saudi covert war in the Middle East.  Of course, what Mr. Haddick is referring to is the Yemeni Government’s most recent clash with Shia-militants on Yemen’s northern-most border; a domestic conflict that is only escalating in scale and ferocity.  Thus, it is understandable that Yemen’s domestic situation is drawing its fair share of worries from regional powers.

Although the death of hundreds of soldiers, civilians, and militants on all sides is an obscene development on its own accord, such figures do not accurately reflect the hidden and adverse dynamics of the Yemeni insurgency.  With the Islamic Republic of Iran acquiring a tremendous amount of clout and influence in the Middle East, and with the Saudi Royal Family attempting to buttress this Iranian resurgence, analysts and policymakers are correctly labeling Yemen as the third theatre in a wider Tehran-Riyadh Cold War.  It does not take a rocket scientists or an academic to recognize the hostility that has historically plagued relations between both countries…frosty engagement that has only become more strained since the power-vacuum in Iraq has widened after Saddam Hussein’s removal.

As Mr. Haddick writes, the Sunni-dominated Yemeni Government has charged Iranian agents with covertly funding and training the Shia insurgency.  So the reasoning goes, a successful Shia revolution would pave the way for Iran to take full control over valuable sea lanes in the Persian Gulf.  Such an assessment is especially realistic when one considers the declining value of crude oil in the world market, a natural resource that has virtually kept the Islamic Republic afloat despite Ahmadinejad’s sub-par fiscal policies (more Iranian sea-routes translates into more revenue for Tehran’s coffers).

However apocalyptic this argument seems to be to the ordinary observer, Mr. Haddick’s conclusion is right for reasons he fails to touch upon in his article; with Ayatollah Ali Khamenei losing respect in the wider Middle East, and with his regime consistently being bombarded by international isolation over its nuclear program, Tehran may be viewing Yemen as a nation that could be exploited.  Obviously, a full-scale invasion by Iranian soldiers is not what I am talking about (such a direct use of force would be angrily denounced by international organizations ranging from the European Union to the U.N. Security Council).  Rather, what I am referring to is the Islamic Republic’s efforts in establishing a pro-Tehran government within Yemeni territory, through covert activities.  Such an action would provide the Ayatollah with multiple advantages; both in terms of territorial gains and Islamic values.  Not only would a Yemeni-proxy provide Iranian hardliners with a strengthened position against Israeli occupation…it would also mitigate Khamenei’s image as a weak and illegitimate supreme political authority (both at home and abroad).

As projected, Iran has a rebuttal to Yemen’s many accusations, namely by citing Saudi Arabia’s direct assistance to the Yemeni Security Services in its fight against the pesky insurgency.  Although statistics and evidence on the ground fail to confirm Tehran’s remarks, confirmation is not needed to reasonably assume that an ongoing Iranian-Saudi rivalry is strengthening in Middle Eastern politics.  This rivalry has been known for quite some time, going back decades to when Saddam Hussein rose as Iraq’s leading authoritarian.

Saudi Arabia, a country with a large Sunni majority, prides itself on being a primary defender against a belligerent Iranian power intent on developing the world’s most devastating weaponry.  Sunni and Shia differences aside, Arabs worldwide routinely admire the tenants of the Saudi Kingdom, supporting Riyadh’s many endeavors to defend the Arab community against the “dangerous” interests of Persian “aggressors.”  In retrospect, Tehran loves to build itself up as the one and only nation devoted towards fighting for the rights of Shias on a global scale…whether through the regime’s indirect support for Hezbollah in Lebanon or through its military alliance with Shia groups inside Iraq.  As the common Iranian mantra goes, ‘Shia Islam will not allow itself to be repressed and defeated by the apostate Sunni majority.’

In short, the Middle East is headed for a war between Saudi Arabia and Iran; the same type of cold war that existed between the United States and the Soviet Union for more than fifty years.

Is Mr. Haddick’s piece really all that surprising?  When an analyst uses words as frightening as “cold war, covert,” and “nuclear,” one might think this is the case.  Such phrases certainly do not help construct a more peaceful and safe global order.  After all, how is the United States supposed to encourage dialogue between the Israelis and Palestinians when a potential conflict between the region’s two heavyweights is creeping up on the horizon?  While these questions are certainly credible, people must understand that this “cold war” has been heating up for quite a long time…as I have made apparent in previous blogs concerning Iran’s interference in post-Saddam Iraq.  Like I have predicted in the past, and as Robert Haddick appears to be predicting now, Americans and Arabs alike should expect a radical transformation in the coming years; sparked by a mounting hatred between Riyadh and Tehran, Sunnis and Shias, Arabs and Persians.  The fact that this proxy-war turbulence is already engulfing Lebanon and Iraq should give us all a sense of the coming calamity.  When adding nuclear weapons to the mix, the Saudi-Iranian proxy war could easily turn into a nuclear arms disaster (reports reveal that Saudi Arabia is developing an indigenous nuclear program, in response to Iran’s enrichment capability).

-Daniel R. DePetris

-Information from Robert Haddick of the Small Wars Journal contributed to this blog.  His full article can be accessed at:  http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2009/08/28/this_week_at_war_the_middle_easts_cold_war_heats_up