Hizballah, Israel, and the Syrian Unrest

9 05 2011

Editor’s note: this article originally appears on the Foreign Policy Association website.

The protest movement in Syria continues to grow, with thousands of demonstrators taking to the street on Friday for a “day of rage”. We have seen similar days of rage in the other Arab countries that have undergone or are undergoing revolutions. The people of Syria, at first demanding reforms, are now openly calling for an end to Bashar Assad’s entire Baathist Alawite regime.

Syria is viewed by many as the linchpin of the Middle East. Damascus is involved in the Arab-Israeli conflict, the US-Iran conflict, and the Iraq War. When there is talk of regime change in Syria, many ears turn toward the conversation. On this topic there is no shortage of interested parties, but perhaps none more so that Israel and Hizballah.

Hizballah has counted on Syrian support for over 25 years. Syria’s previous leader, Hafez Assad, considered the group a tool to be used when necessary, but to be kept at bay and in check at all times. Under Assad Junior however, the Party of God has enjoyed much more influence and flexibility. Over the years Syria has used its formidable political power in Lebanon to ensure the interests of the group.

Iran also enjoys a close relationship with Hizballah. Hizballah Secretary General Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah has sworn allegiance to the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic. The group acts as Iran’s insurance policy against Israel and the West. In return, Hizballah is showered with weapons (light arms and medium-range rockets) and cash (reportedly in excess of $100 million per year). Cash is easy enough to move, but the weapons must come through Syria, so the whole arrangement is predicated on Syrian cooperation.

If the regime in Damascus is replaced by a Sunni group, the country is simply less likely to continue its close relationship with Iran, and this has to be troubling for Hizballah. A Sunni-led Syria, particularly with a moderate Islamist tone, would likely turn southwest towards Egypt in terms of regional associations. The two countries were actually united into one for a brief period of time in the late 1950’s under the banner of Pan-Arabism (the country was named the “United Arab Republic”).

When protests began to take their toll on Tunis and Cairo, Hizballah came out in favor of the protesters. After all, those movements were attempting to remove key US allies from power. The Party never anticipated that the Arab Intifada would spread to Syria, where Bashar Assad had touted his resistance to Israel and the West as the reason his people loved him and would never revolt.

Hizballah’s support for those movements is proving uncharacteristically short-sighted. Hizballah’s roots are in helping the oppressed and disenfranchised of Lebanon (historically, the position of the Shiites) and supporting Bashar Assad in his bid to oppress and disenfranchise the people of Syria seems incredibly transparent and self-serving.

After Hizballah successfully expelled Israel from Lebanon in 2000 (with help), the group was shown a rare degree of respect from Sunnis, who had been worn down by years of failure to do the  same from their own lands. That support spiked when Hizballah repelled the IDF for 34 days in 2006.  As the first Arab group to enjoy such success, it didn’t really matter that they were Shia.

But over the years, that glow has worn off. Now Hizballah is seen by many as a tool of the Iranians, who are both Persian and Shiite. Today, the Arab world is undergoing a major awakening of sorts, and Hizballah has chosen to fight against the tide of revolution. This is what Barak Obama refers to as “being on the wrong side of history”.

Hizballah risks looking hypocritical by supporting the Assad regime, yet it must consider what it would mean for the Shia of Lebanon to have Sunnis take over in Damascus. Israel is in the same boat: Assad might not be the optimal choice, but he is probably better than the alternative.

Israel has been at war with Syria since the Jewish State declared independence in 1948. In 1967, Syria lost Lake Tiberius and the Golan Heights to Israel, and the bulk of Syrian foreign policy over the years has been dedicated to getting it back. It’s the primary reason Syria supports Hizballah: to use the group as a tool against Israel. Land for Peace.

Syria is one of the few supporters of Iran, which has also been hostile to Israel over the years. Tehran refers to Israel as “the Little Satan” and supports groups like Hamas and Hizballah. Since 1979, the Ayatollah and Company have been under intense pressure from the West, and during that time Syria has been the only country standing between Iran and total global isolation.

It seems Israel would be on board with a change in leadership in Damascus: Syrian support is critical to Hizballah and Iran, Israel’s two greatest threats. However, the Israelis are understandably nervous about all of this.

Israel is already concerned with the intentions of the new leaders of Egypt, where the Muslim Brotherhood seems to be making solid gains. Will Eqypt’s peace treaty with Israel be reconsidered? It’s doubtful, but when combined with the potential blossoming of relations between Syria and Egypt, two historic foes, it’s unclear whether it is better to see Assad stay or go.

Israel can’t really support the protesters publicly, as doing so could paint the revolt as an Israeli invention, but it should not do anything to stand in their way. This includes closed-door meetings in Washington. Their fear of the unknown is understandable, but in the long run the spread of democracy in the Middle East should be good for Israel.

For now, Israel and Hizballah can only wait and see how far the revolution in Syria will go.

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Top 5 MEA Murder Mysteries

18 03 2011

*Editor’s note: Everything in this article is speculation, all evidence circumstantial.

5. Sayyed Abdul-Majid al-Khoei

Born/Died/Age 1962-2003 (age 40)

Base of Operations Iraq

Who Was He? Sayyed al-Khoei was a widely respected Shiite religious figure in Iraq who fought against the Saddam Hussein regime in the 1991 Shia uprising. He was forced to flee Iraq and settle in London, where he worked for the al-Khoei foundation to give the Shia a voice in the international community.  After the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, al-Khoei returned from exile and was promptly murdered. He was hacked to death by unknown assailants and died at Moqtada al-Sadr’s front door. When Sadr learned that al-Khoei was mortally wounded and bleeding to death on his doorstep, Sadr reportedly ordered is men to have al-Khoei moved to die somewhere else.

Location of Death Najaf, Iraq

Likely Suspects Moqtada al-Sadr followers, Sunni Baathists

Best Guess Moqtada al-Sadr’s followers possibly killed al-Khoei in order to eliminate a rival of their leader. It’s unclear whether Sadr ordered al-Khoei’s murder, but Sadr’s reported treatment of the Sayyed after learning that he was dying in front of his house raises suspicions.

Implications of Death Al-Khoei was considered a to be a moderate and respected voice among Iraqi religious leaders. His shocking death foreshadowed the violence Iraq was about to descend into. Had al-Khoei lived, he may have been able to prevent the cycles of violence that plagued Iraqis from 2003 to 2007, in which thousands were killed.

4. Abdullah Yusuf Azzam

Born/Died/Age 1941-1989 (age 47)

Base of Operations Afghanistan

Who Was He? Azzam was a Palestinian jihadi who led his forces against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. He was killed by a roadside bomb.

Location of Death Peshawar, Pakistan

Likely Suspects Pakistani Intelligence, CIA, Mossad, Afghani Rivals

Best Guess Mossad is a likely suspect because, by 1989, the war had been won by the jihadis in Afghanistan, and Azzam was a strong advocate for the fight to be taken to Israel next.

Implications of Death Azzam was a mentor of Osama bin Laden throughout the anti-Soviet jihad. By brining bin Laden to Afghanistan, Azzam introduced him to the people and the land he would later use as his base of operations from which to attack the United States. Azzam’s opinions were published and widely read among jihadis.


3. Imam Musa Sadr

Born/Died/Age 1929 to 1978 (age 49 when disappeared)

Base of Operations Lebanon

Who Was He? Musa Sadr was an influential Shiite cleric who can be credited with starting the current Shia revival in Lebanon and throughout the Muslim world. Sadr used his influence to build hospitals and schools and established badly needed social services in poor Shiite neighborhoods in Lebanon.  Sadr went on to form the Shiite militia Amal.

Location of Death Disappeared on a visit to Tripoli in 1978; may not be dead

Likely Suspects Muammar Qaddafi

Best Guess Muammar Qaddafi  is the main suspect, as Sadr disappeared on a visit with the Libyan despot. Sadr may not technically qualify for this list as he might still be alive, but it is highly unlikely. Out of the recent chaos erupting in Libya came conflicting reports about the fate of Imam Sadr, with one saying he was being held deep in a Libyan prison, the other saying he had been killed and buried out in the desert. Sadr would be 82 today.

Implications of Death Sadr was a uniting voice in Lebanon, as well as an advocate for respect and harmony between country’s multiple religious sects. It’s been said that had he lived, Lebanon would have avoided the bloodiest parts of its Civil War (1975-1990). Even today, the mention of Sadr provokes a strong reaction among Lebanese Shia. His posters still adorn walls in every Shiite neighborhood throughout Lebanon as believers wait, one way or another, for his return.

In the recent measure passed by the UN Security Council regarding Libya, Lebanon was one of the few Arab countries that supported Western intervention. This is still a raw wound for many in Lebanon.



2. Imad Mugniyeh

Born/Died/Age 1962 to 2008 (age 45)

Base of Operations Lebanon

Who Was He? Considered an arch-terrorist by Western intelligence agencies, Imad Mugniyeh was a Palestinian Shiite from southern Lebanon. He started out in the PLO, eventually working his way up to become a bodyguard to Yassar Arafat. He has been linked to many events, including the 1983 bombing of a US Marine barracks in Beirut, the 1985 high jacking of a TWA airliner, the 1992 bombing of the Israeli embassy in Argentina, the 1996 bombing of Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia, and numerous kidnappings throughout the Lebanese Civil War.

Mugniyeh was involved in the formation of Hizballah in the early 1980’s. He was a particularly shadowy figure, even for the world of international terrorism. He worked with Hizballah, the PLO, Syrian intelligence, and Iran’s Revolutionary Guards (IRGC). Mugniyeh is usually remembered as a member of Hizballah, but that may not be entirely accurate. He worked closely with the IRGC and his position may have been something closer to the Ayatollah’s black ops commander; Tehran (or Damascus) could use him when they wanted, but Hizballah would get all the blowback.

Mugniyeh had been in hiding for the better part of 15 years when he was killed, and his use by Hizballah during that time is questionable. This coincides with the transition (phasing out kidnapping and international terrorism while focusing on Israel) the group was undertaking after Hassan Nasrallah was named Hizballah Secretary General in 1992. He was killed by a car bomb.

Location of Death Damascus, Syria

Likely Suspects CIA, Mossad

Best Guess Mossad

Implications of Death Few outside of the PLO/IRGC/Hizballah community were sad to see him go. Hizballah continues to vow revenge for the “martyred” Mugniyeh. Although Nasrallah has made many public statements to the contrary, it’s conceivable that Nasrallah, while saddened by his death, was slightly relieved by it. Mugniyeh represented a link to Hizballah’s ultra-violent past as an international menace, and his death removed a big hurdle  for The Party of God in terms of legitimacy. Much more on Mugniyeh below.

1.  Rafik Hariri

Born/Died/Age 1944 to 2005 (age 60)

Base of Operations Lebanon

Who Was He? Hariri was a former Prime Minister of Lebanon who was assassinated on Valentine’s Day 2005 as his car passed through the Beirut seaside. He was a popular Sunni politician, a billionaire who was close friends with the president of France and the King of Saudi Arabia. During the latter years of the Syrian occupation of Lebanon, Hariri was growing in influence and represented an increasingly formidable rival to Syria’s President Bashar Assad. In Syria, Assad’s Alawite regime rules over a Sunni majority, and the last thing he wanted to see was a powerful Sunni political presence in Lebanon to challenge his authority. For Syria, a strong Sunni Lebanon is bad news.

Location of Death Beirut, Lebanon

Likely Suspects Hizballah, Mossad, Syrian Intelligence

Best Guess My best guess is that Syrian Intelligence arranged the Hariri hit. They had motive (Hariri’s growing influence) and opportunity (Syria had thousands of troops and intelligence operatives stationed in Lebanon).  It also seems likely that Hariri’s death is linked to that of Imad Mugniyeh, a theory I have not heard anyone else present.

Syria is likely behind Hariri’s death, and soon after people connected with the hit began to turn up dead. It’s obvious that whoever killed Hariri would want to cover their tracks. Furthermore, it is widely believed (as Hassan Nasrallah himself stated) that members of Hizballah would be named when the UN tribunal tasked with investigating Hariri’s murder releases its findings.

Hizballah as an organization had little or nothing to gain by killing Hariri, and it is believed that Hariri had good relations with Nasrallah just before he was killed. It doesn’t make sense that “Hizballah” would kill a man whom the group was friendly with, but that doesn’t mean that “rougue members” of Hizballah weren’t involved.

This is where Mugniyeh comes in, as there was no one more rogue than he. If you were a high level Syrian intelligence official in Damascus and you wanted Hariri gone, who would you use? The logical choice is Mugniyeh: as a black ops veteran, he has proven that he is capable, and as a man (rightly or wrongly) associated throughout the world with Hizballah, he provides plausible deniability, which is always important in an assassination. Also, Mugniyeh is believed to be behind the spate of assassinations of journalists and politicians that were critical of Syria that came in the mid-2000’s.

Mugniyeh was living under Syrian state protection in Damascus when he was murdered. If the presence of the Syrian intelligence apparatus is strong in Beirut, it is omnipresent in Damascus. The Assad regime knew where Mugniyeh lived and he wouldn’t have been able to stay without permission.

So why the change of heart from Assad?  There are two, possibly three, reasons: One, Assad was likely concerned with the growing risks of harboring a known and widely-wanted international terrorist in the post 9/11 world. Two, he wanted to wipe out the mastermind behind the Hariri operation. And three, Assad was entering secret negotiations with Israel at the time of Mugniyeh’s death. What better way to eliminate a such a massive national security liability and offer a symbol of good faith to Israel than to turn over Mugniyeh to Mossad?

Mugniyeh’s death always bugged me. He was protected in Damascus, and the intelligence services no doubt kept a close eye on him. In addition to Syrian intel watching out for him, Mugniyeh was also a security mastermind in his own right. He eluded capture for years and only a handful of pictures and almost no written records exist of the man. A guy like this isn’t taken down unless someone sells him out, and the only ones in a position to do so were Assad’s people.

I keep coming back to it: if the regime in Damascus was behind the Hariri hit, who would they use? Most likely Mugniyeh, a man used many times before. The problem for Imad Mugniyeh is that he just became too much of a liability for Syria and it was time to go.  Whoever ordered the hit on Hariri is likely the same person that arranged or allowed for Mugniyeh’s death as well.

Implications of Death Lebanon still lives under the cloud of Rafik Hariri’s murder. After his death, massive protests erupted forcing Syria to end its 30 year occupation of Lebanon. It was a particularly tumultuous time for Lebanon, when people took sides with Syria or against Syria.

This is still the dominant political fault line today. Rafik Hariri’s son, Saad Hariri, went on to replace him as the head Sunni politician in Lebanon. The UN’s Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) is still in the process of investigating Hariri’s murder, with findings expected to be released in the coming months. If Hizballah members are indicted by the Tribunal, the result could be a deeper, more serious rift between Sunnis and Shia of Lebanon and beyond.

It’s not known who the STL will name specifically, but is unlikely that it will be major players. Maybe someone who drove a car or used a cell phone in the operation, but probably not whoever planned it and almost certainly not whoever ordered it. Though it’s unlikely, Hizballah may very well have been behind the hit- meaning that upper leadership, including Nasrallah, approved the operation- but like I said, that is not likely. In any case, Hizballah seems to be taking the fall on this one, even if against their will.

Perhaps Hizballah members did participate in the hit, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t working at the direction of Syria. In this corner of the world, where sometimes the only way to get things done is with guns, bombs, and spies, who someone really works for is never quite clear.  However, maybe that’s all part of the bargain for Hizballah: in exchange for money and weapons from Syria and Iran, The Party of God has to provide political cover for its generous patrons every once in a while.

It seems to be a high price to pay.






Hariri and Hizballah

17 03 2011

Editor’s note: this article originally appears on the Foreign Policy Association website.

Last Sunday, Saad Hariri’s March 14 coalition held a rally in Beirut to commemorate the six-year anniversary of the group’s founding. In front of a crowd of thousands, Hariri questioned the usefulness of heavily armed non-state actors in Lebanon, and said that the Lebanese state should have a monopoly on the use of force. Hariri was referring to Hizballah, the only Lebanese group to retain its weapons after the Civil War ended in 1990.

The issue of Hizballah’s arms is highly controversial in Lebanon. Lebanon has a sizable population of Shia Muslims (estimated around 40% of the country’s total population), a historically disenfranchised lot who credit their recent political ascension in large part to Hizballah, its strategies, and its weapons. Lebanese Shia might agree that no other group should be allowed to have weapons in competition with the state, but when it comes to the Party of God, they find the concept acceptable.

Lebanon’s Shia did not get where they are today by the goodwill of the Christians and the Sunnis; they got there by Hizballah’s use of force, cunning, and ruthlessness. However, the amount of MP’s allocated to the various sects is still skewed in favor of the Christian parties and, all things considered, the Shia still have a long way to go to achieve an equitable share of seats in parliament in relation to their numbers.

Lebanon’s whole political system, from the National Pact (1943) to the Taif Accords (1989) to the Doha Agreement (2008) is based upon harmony between the sects. As time has gone by, it has become clear that these are only band-aids to Lebanon’s real political problem: the system does not reflect the demographic reality. The Christians (and to some extent the Sunnis) know their numbers have dwindled (due to emigration and lower birthrates), yet they are reluctant to change the Lebanese government to reflect this shift because they will be the ones to lose out.

The Daily Star’s Michael Young recently wrote an interesting article on this topic, proposing that March 14 should offer the Shia additional political powers in exchange for Hizballah relinquishing their weapons. Young stopped short of calling for a one-man-one-vote system, where each sect would have an accurate representation in the government, but the move could force Hizballah to choose between its weapons and its people.

Young calls Hizballah’s weapons “the elephant in the room”, but in Lebanon elephants abound*. The outdated and unfair political allocations are the deeper problem, because as long as there is a disparity between population and power, there will always be insecurity in the form of weapons to make up the difference.  This mis-allocation will continue to haunt Lebanon until a more representative system takes its place.

*The STL is one, Syrian influence is another.

Saad Hariri’s call for Hizballah to disarm occurs when March 14’s power and influence is at a low point. Hizballah, fearing some of its members would be fingered by the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (the hybrid UN-Lebanese body tasked with investigating the assassination of Rafik Hariri), wanted Hariri to withdraw his support for the Tribunal. When Hariri refused, Hizballah and its allies maneuvered to oust him as Prime Minister. Ironically, up until the time he was pushed out of office, Hariri’s government publicly supported Hizballah’s weapons as an integral part of Lebanon defenses.

The time to call for Hizballah to disarm was when March 14 was in power, when dealing from a position of relative strength. However, March 14 had only won by a slim majority in the June 2009 parliamentary elections, and without a clear mandate from the people, they needed the help of the opposition to form a government. Hariri knew he needed Hizballah’s help and it would have been political suicide to make enemies with them straight away after taking power.

Throughout his term in office however, that reality never changed. Now Hariri is fighting for his political life and calling for Hizballah to lay down their arms will likely sit well with his constituents as he tries to re-energize his base.

In light of the unrest sweeping the region, it is interesting to ponder what the current state of Lebanon’s Shiites would be today had Hizballah never existed (if Israel and the PLO had never invaded). It is not hard to imagine this marginalized group taking to the streets and to demand reform, similar to the Bahraini Shia today. Would then Lebanon be in a more stable position in which to reform, or would the powers that be use force to maintain the status quo? As with current day Bahrain, the answer is probably closer to the latter than the former, with the reason being that any political advancement by the Shia is seen by Sunnis and the West as a win for Iran, a preconception that has led to disaster in the region for the United States.

Speaking of which, no discussion of Hizballah’s arms is complete without mentioning Iran. Hizballah is part of Iran’s national security strategy. The group’s stronghold of South Lebanon abuts with Israel and represents the “tip of the spear” for Iran should Israel attempt military action on Persian soil. The reality is, whether true or not, Israel and Iran represent existential threats to each other and their foreign policies reflect this. As a result, Iran has supported Hizballah with hundreds of millions of dollars in cash and arms since helping to form the group in the early 1980’s.

If Hizballah were to disarm, it would be effectively abandoning its duty to keep Israel in check, thereby increasing the likelihood of Israeli military operations against Iran. For Tehran, losing Hizballah would be a nightmare. For Hizballah’s part, the group would be hard pressed to replace the financial support of Iran, nor does it want to. One of Hizballah’s stated “pillars” of existence is to resist Israel, and the group has many times pledged its allegiance to the Ayatollahs of Iran.

Right now, Hariri is trying to rally his political base by calling for Hizballah to disarm. He knows this is what a large portion of the people want to hear. But what good is having a huge rally for your cause when Hizballah could do the same the very next day. We already know Lebanon is divided and that each side can produce large crowds at their rallies. If Hariri really wants to disarm the group, he would have to create to space between Hizballah (the Party of God) and the Shiites themselves.

Michael Young’s aforementioned strategy is closer to this: offer Hizballah weapons for power and let the Shia watch The Party make their choice. If Hizballah chooses to disarm, great. If they choose to keep their weapons at the expense of increased political power for their people, then their hand will be played for the world to see.

The problem is that both the Christians and the Sunni will have to give up power in order the achieve it. Unfortunately, no one in March 14 seems to be thinking about what makes Lebanon more stable in the long run and every day that goes by sees Hizballah increase its power.

In the past, Lebanese politicians have called for Hizballah’s arms to be folded into the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF). If major political concessions and adjustments aren’t made in the near future,  one day we could be hearing Hassan Nasrallah calling for the LAF to be folded into Hizballah.





Lebanon enters “very serious phase” with STL

26 07 2010

Rafik Hariri

Editor’s note: This article originally appears on the Foreign Policy Association website.

Hizballah leader Hassan Nasrallah announced in a press conference Thursday that he expects Hizballah members to be charged in the investigation into the 2005 assassination of Rafik Hariri, and that as a result, Lebanon was now entering a “very serious phase”.

Depending on who is charged within the group, the indictments could be extremely damaging for the Party of God and could push Lebanon into instability.

Nasrallah dismissed the forthcoming charges as an Israeli plot, linking the United Nations Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) to a wave of Israeli espionage that has been continuously uncovered since 2009.

Charges that the STL investigation is a politically motivated Israeli plot are less believable in the wake of the UN’s Goldstone Report regarding Israeli’s Operation Cast Lead  in Gaza in 2009. The scathing report accused the IDF (as well as Hamas) of war crimes, exhibiting the UN’s capacity for carrying out a seemingly neutral investigation.

Saad Hariri

Current Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri (son of the aforementioned slain Rafik Hariri) has, as reported by Nasrallah, declared that he will make a public distinction between Hizballah as an organization and “undisciplined members” who might have been involved in the plot.

While this may be just a way for Hariri to keep his ties with March 6 alive, the move may also be to keep Lebanon from tearing itself apart. If Hariri shows no public animosity towards Hizballah after the charges are released, it will be difficult for any other party to show it either.

Since Hariri took office, he has made it apparent that he values Lebanon’s stability over almost anything else. His reconciling with Bashar Assad, his seemingly endless trips abroad to garner support for his small nation in the face of Israeli aggression, and now his handling of the STL results…every move made is with one end in mind: stability.  Whether that quest for stability is out of love for his country or some personal interests is anyone’s guess, but his commitment is beyond question.

In his own effort to diffuse tensions, Sayyed Nasrallah has gotten way out in front of the issue. From political blogger Elias Muhanna, as reported by the AFP, “By the time that the STL gets around to indicting Hezbollah members a few months from now… the development will be old news, already dissected, analyzed and picked over by Beirut’s punditocracy…No one will be surprised and (if Nasrallah and others get their way), no one will really care.”

Sandwiched between “What happened to Imam Musa Sadr?” and “Who killed Imad Mugniyeh?”, “Who killed Rafik Hariri?” remains one of the Middle East’s most intriguing mysteries. Syria  had the most to gain from Hariri’s death, as well as the intelligence and technical capabilities to pull it off, but it is also unlikely that Damascus could have undertaken such sophisticated operation without getting the attention (an perhaps the approval) of Hizballah.

Hassan Nasrallah

It is hard to see where Israel would fit in to all of that. I suppose, in this land of smoke and mirrors and castles made of sand, that anything is possible. But when Hizballah takes to blaming everything on Israel, the charge kind of loses its effectiveness. Just like not everyone that criticizes Israel is an anti-Semite, not every problem in Lebanon is caused by the Jewish State. In this case, attempting to dismiss the STL investigation as an Israeli ploy sounds childish coming from a warrior like Nasrallah.

Nasrallah’s actions aside, the big question going forward will be how this news affects the stability of Lebanon and the greater Middle East. At first glance, this is an internal dispute- a Lebanese killed by Lebanese- but it is sure to have repercussions for the surrounding states and beyond.

Damascus has to be secretly smiling right now. As long as those charged do not start giving up names of Syrian intelligence operatives, President Bashar Assad has dodged a bullet for now. However, don’t be surprised of those charged “turn up missing” for good measure.

Israel must also be enjoying this moment, as there is little doubt that many there relish seeing Nasrallah in such a predicament. But it is likely that they are also wary that, with Hizballah in such a tight spot, the group may do something unexpected.

Iran cannot be happy with the news, as it could make the Islamic Republic seem to be a more active and nefarious meddler in Lebanon than ever before.

Indictments against Hizballah members could also have an effect on regional relations. Rafik Hariri was an immensely popular figure in the Sunni Arab world, and charges linking the Shiite organization to his death could be damaging within Lebanon and without. For example, Hariri’s assassination destroyed Saudi Arabia’s relationship with Syria, which took four years to rebuild to where it is today.

Bashar Assad

But are Hizballah’s dismissals entirely unfair? As no entity in the Middle East has a monopoly on the truth, Hizballah’s counter charges must be addressed. While it is most improbable that Israel was involved with Hariri’s assassination, it is far less improbable that both Israel and the United States did not at least try to influence the findings of the STL.

Obviously Israel, whose last 18 months seem to have been a never ending public relations nightmare, enjoys Hizballah’s implication in the plot. But as for the United States, the situation is more opaque. Washington has been courting Damascus’ assistance in both containing Iran and helping the stability of Iraq. It is conceivable that Washington used its influence to direct the STL away from a Syrian indictment. But just how likely or possible that scenario is remains to be seen.

Though the names of those charged have not been released, it’s hard to imagine the men named would be anything other than low level conspirators. If Hassan Nasrallah, Bashar Assad, or even former Syrian intelligence chief Rustom Ghazaleh were charged, that would be truly astounding.

In the mean time, Nasrallah’s tone in his press conference was threatening (in text). In his speech, the Secretary General stated, “There is a dangerous project that is targeting the resistance…We are not at all afraid, nor are we worried. We know how to defend ourselves.”

Such rhetoric has been an interpreted to be a not-so-subtle hint warning the STL that it should tread carefully in the coming months, as their actions could have a disastrous impact on the future of Lebanon. Such talk is a stark reminder of the chaos that ensued in May 2008, when government forces clashed with Hizballah and Lebanon nearly went back into the abyss.

It is an interesting theoretical exercise: is knowing the so-called truth about Hariri’s assassination worth all the harm it could do? Unfortunately for the people of Lebanon, it looks like we are going to find out.





Is El-Baradei the next Mousavi?

22 07 2010

Mohammed El-Baradei

Last month, there was a rally in Alexandria attended by some 4,000 Egyptians protesting the death of Khaleed Mohammed Saeed, allegedly at the hands of Egyptian police. Eye witness accounts say Saeed was dragged from the street by police to a building where he was then beaten to death. Egyptian police claim that the man died after ingesting drugs, but postmortem photos of Saeed tell a different tale.

However, the story here is not the abuse of power by Egyptian police , but the fact that the rally was led by former IAEA chief Muhammad El Baradei. Such a high-profile and anti-establishment appearance by El-Baradei represents a big step forward for the man whom many want to run for president. The situation that exists in the run-up to the 2011 Egyptian presidential election is reminiscent of that which existed in Iran in 2009, when reformer Mir Hussein Mousavi ran against incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and it might be useful to compare the two.

To start, Mir Hussein Mousavi and Muhammad El-Baradei are sort of similar in appearance. Bespectacled and quiet, at first glance the men look more at home on a university campus.  Both men were born in 1942, making them 68 years old, and each are considered to be “reformers” in countries that seem to be democracies in name only. Both men have strong appeal with the urban and educated. After that, it is less clear how much these men share both in terms of personal style and political will.

Mr. El Baradei’s position in the Egyptian political scene is a relatively new phenomenon. After serving for years with the IAEA, he had hoped to retire to a quiet life in south of France, but he returned to Egypt to find that he was the new hope for a generation of Egyptians who have grown ever more tired of the regime of Egypt’s current president, Hosni Mubarak.

Mubarak took power after the assassination of Anwar Sadat in 1981. Immediately after taking office, Mubarak instituted “emergency law”, which gives the government sweeping powers to enforce security. But nearly 30 years have passed since those measures were taken and still the rules of emergency law remain in effect. Over that time, the government intelligence service has vigilantly snuffed out dissent, and Mubarak’s rule has be uninterrupted. That is, until now.

Hosni Mubarak

Hosni Mubarak, 82 years old, is believed to be of weak health, and it is unclear whether he will “run” for reelection in 2011 (It is speculated that his son, Gamal, is the chosen successor). If Mubarak does indeed retire, Egypt could have its first new leader in thirty years.

Even in the best of times, succession in any state is a tricky proposition and is never a given.  In the United States, every four to eight years, power is transferred from incumbent to elected in an orderly and predictable fashion that is steeped in tradition. This is true for many developed democracies, and it means that while the power of one regime chosen by the people is handed over to the next regime chosen by the people, the rights and values of the country will remain the same.

Egyptians are not used to this. Since 1954, Egypt has had only 3 leaders: Gemal Abdul Nasr, Anwar Sadat, and Hosni Mubarak.  Three leaders in 56 years. Nasr died in office and Sadat was assassinated by Islamic extremists. It’s unclear how Mubarak’s time in office will come to an end.

Egypt’s propensity for long-serving leaders dates back before the Ottoman Empire, to the Pharaohs. It could be argued that Egyptian society is not accustomed to regularly choosing new leaders and therefore might not be ready for it, but Egypt has been a faux democracy for nearly sixty years and its people are  clearly familiar with it’s tenets, including an active civil society and an independent judiciary.

Iran is in a similar situation. For centuries, it was ruled by kings (shahs) and the people had little power. Iran flirted with a full-fledged democracy in the 1950’s, yet was thwarted by the nascent CIA in 1953, when Kermit Roosevelt orchestrated a coup allowing Shah Pahlavi to return to power. With the help of the United States, the Shah ruled with an iron fist until 1979. That year, the Islamic revolution swept the nation and the Ayatollah Khomeini took charge.

In the 30-plus years since the Islamic Revolution, the military and intelligence establishment exercised its control of the country. Today, elections (like the presidential election of 2009) are a predetermined farce. Sound familiar?

Mir Houssein Mousavi

In both Iran and Egypt, the elites maintain a stranglehold on power, information, and decision-making. In both countries, voter apathy remains high and the potential for change remains low. Still, few people predicted the massive outpouring of protests in response to Iran’s elections last year. And it is not outside the realm of possibility that the same could happen in Egypt.

The protests in Iran came from mostly dissatisfied educated urban elite, whose values were not necessarily shared with the conservative citizenry of the more rural parts of the country. In Egypt, there is certainly a large group of “educated urban elites” that would like to see a change in leadership, but there is also the discontent of the popular Muslim Brotherhood to be considered.

The biggest difference between Muhammad el-Baradei and Mir Hussein Mousavi is in there ability to credibly criticize the regime in power. Mousavi got in on the ground floor of the revolution, and is one of the Islamic Republic’s founding fathers. Mousavi was very close with Khomeini, and this background gives his opinions and criticisms substantial weight while making it very difficult for the regime to try to silence him.

El-Baradei, on the other hand, is a complete outsider. He spent most of his career outside of Egypt, working for the United Nations. He is neither a military man, nor an Islamist. The biggest weapons that he brings to the table is his international name recognition and his potential as a reformer. In Egypt, this will not be enough. Any presidential candidate needs the approval of parliament to run, which is controlled by the Mubarak clique. So it is unlikely that his name would ever appear on the ballot.

Another difference is in their respective levels of international support. The West, particularly the United States, wished desperately for the protests in Iran to morph into a revolution that would have swept both Khamenei and Ahmedinejad out of power. This is not the case with Egypt.

Egypt is a powerful and populous Arab nation that has been an ally to the United States for decades. It is also one of the few Muslim nations to recognize Israel and sign peace with the Jewish State. It is easy to understand why both nations would want to ensure continuity in Egypt, and the best way to do that is not the inconvenient and unpredictable use of the ballot box, but through predetermined succession.

In this regard, the United States, Israel, and the Egyptian military establishment are on the same page, as neither would like to see a popular Islamist movement take power that might threaten their interests and prior agreements.

Still, as the aftermath of the 2009 Iranian parliamentary elections have shown us, succession, especially in counties with a deeply dissatisfied citizenry, does not always go as planned.

The protests that took place in Iran have yet to precipitate any major change in leadership, but that hand has yet to fully play itself out. The kinetic energy of such massive displays of civil disobedience do not simply evaporate into the air like a pipe blowing off steam. Instead, these actions could have long-term effects that will ripple through Persian society for generations. Where it all will lead is unclear, but Iran’s protests will likely be reflected upon in the future as the catalyst of something major that has yet to occur.

Is a similar situation possible in Egypt next November? Probably not, but one never knows. The Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s most significant opposition group, is lying low for the time being. The group is rumored to be in support of El-Baradei’s candidacy, but their real motives are uncertain, as they would likely support any alternative to the current regime. They are a wild card in all of this.

For El-Baradei, the political, military, and intelligence establishment- as well as the United States and Israel- are against him. With such internal and external hurdles in the way, it is unlikely that his candidacy, if he so chooses to run, would inspire anything other than intense public debate. However, in Egypt as in Iran, perhaps for now that is enough.





Nasrallah to Turkey

16 06 2010

Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah

Editor’s note: this article originally appears on the Foreigh Policy Association website.

The Kuwaiti newspaper As-Siyassah is reporting that Hizballah Secretary General Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah has been invited to Ankara to meet with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Neither Hizballah nor the Turkish government have confirmed the story, but if it is true, it marks a significant deterioration in Turkey’s relationship with Israel in the wake of last month’s botched flotilla raid.

Hizballah is one of Israel’s greatest foes, and Erdogan inviting its leader for a high-level meeting would show that the once close bond that existed between the two countries is in worse shape than most people previously thought. Relations between Turkey and Israel have been strained lately, stemming from January 2009’s Operation Cast Lead, in which Israel assaulted Hamas forces in Gaza, killing hundreds of Palestinian civilians in the process.

Erdogan

Turkey’s ruling AKP party is said to be more Islamic in nature than previous regimes, and it has been increasingly difficult for the party to maintain close ties with Israel, which many Muslims consider to be waging war on the Palestinians. The result is that the AKP benefits greatly both regionally and domestically when it takes sides against Israel.

Asharq al-Awsat’s Tariq Alhomayed characterized Turkey as “pulling the rug out” from under Hizballah and Iran in terms of supporting the Palestinian resistance, but it is unclear just how much this popularity contest actually means to either party. Mr. Alhomeyed’s statement was made in regards to Turkey’s stern condemnation of Israel after the flotilla raid.

Turkish television’s NTV reported that the alleged future meeting between Nasrallah and Erdogan was suggested by Hamas’ leader-in-exile Khaled Meshaal. The report also stated that Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps would facilitate the logistics of Nasrallah getting to Ankara, out of fear of IDF assassination attempts.

Such a summit between  Erdogan and Nasrallah would further represent Turkey’s reassertion of power in the region, as it tries to maintain productive ties with the West while also embracing its post-Ottoman role in the Middle East.

If Erdogan welcomes Nasrallah to Anakra, Tel Aviv and neoconservatives in Washington will no doubt be furious, as such a meeting would indicate Turkey’s continued alignment with the Resistance at the expense of Israel.





America and Iran

28 05 2010

Last week Iran announced an arrangement, brokered by Brazil, where the Islamic Republic would ship out uranium to have it enriched in Turkey. The deal, similar to one offered by the United States last year, was denounced by Washington as a means to delay United Nations Security Council (UNSC) sanctions against Iran.

Iran was offering to have a large portion of its uranium enriched abroad to levels that are consistent with nuclear energy and not nuclear weapons. Once the uranium is turned into rods for nuclear reactors, it cannot be further enriched to be used for nuclear weapons.

The problem that Washington had with the deal is that Iran would still be holding onto a significant portion of its uranium that could be used some day to make a nuclear warhead, and Tehran has stated that it has no intention of halting its current enrichment program.

The Prospect of Sanctions

Russia and China

The battle over Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons program has been slowly escalating over the last year or so, encompassing Obama’s entire presidency. To date, the Obama administration has opted to take a confusing, passive-aggressive, diplomatic course in dealing with the Iran: make offers and talk about diplomacy while arranging sanctions and preparing the Gulf for war.  This strategy only seems to be “diplomatic” in the absence of a battle.But, as mentioned, one battle has been raging for months: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s political wrangling to arrange sanctions on Iran in the UNSC.

If you don’t know how the UNSC works, it has fifteen members, five of which are permanent and have veto power (the P-5: USA, UK, France, Russia, China) and ten members selected on a rotating basis for a period of two years. Usually, the United States can impose its will on the majority of the non-permanent members of the council, but the P-5 members sometimes must be aggressively courted to produce a “yes” vote. In the current situation with Iran, the UK and France were not hard to win over, but Russia and China have been.

Generally speaking, Russia loves to exploit any situation where the United States needs Russian assistance, but at the end of the day it is unlikely that they would veto something that is obviously so important to Washington. In return for their support (if tepid), however, America had to scrap a missile defense system that it was planning on installing in Russia’s sphere of influence in Poland and the Czech Republic.

And just recently, it seems that China has come aboard the USS Sanctions. Traditionally, China will do business with anyone as long as it benefits China and as long as the other country doesn’t criticize the government in Beijing. Iran fits nicely into this mold: China buys millions of barrels of oil without facing any condemnations from Iran regarding communism or human rights (the same goes for Burma and Sudan). The oil goes on to fuel economic growth that China needs to stave of domestic instability. (I guess the theory is that as long as people are being productive, they will not demand freedom of the press or the right to vote.)

China

This is why it has been so hard for America to convince China to go the sanctions route: one, China needs the cheap oil; two, China thinks its domestic policies are no business of foreigners; and three, if Iran did acquire a nuclear weapon, they would not be using it against China anyway. So why should they care enough to upset such a crucial trading partner?  This is the question that Hillary Clinton has been trying to answer since she took office.

China can’t be threatened with force; it has a very large army and scores of nuclear missiles. China can’t be bullied economically; it is the United States’ largest trading partner and holds over a trillion dollars in US currency and debt.  So figuring out the right mixture of carrots and sticks has been understandably difficult for the Obama administration. But it appears something has worked, because just after Iran announced its plans with Turkey and Brazil (both of which are emerging powers that are starting to assert themselves in the diplomatic arena), the United States announced that it had reached an agreement on sanctions with both Russia and China.

Why did China change its mind? While Beijing’s first impulse might be to do the opposite of what the West wants it to do, it doesn’t change the fact that China’s relationship to Europe and the U.S. is very important as it represents two massive markets that buy Chinese goods, which in turn fuels the economic growth that fosters domestic stability. And once Russia was aboard, it was that much more difficult for China to stand alone.

As for the sanctions themselves, it is difficult to say whether they will have any real impact on Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons program. Historically, the effects of sanctions in guiding rogue nations to the right course have been spotty at best, as sanctions usually only serve to strengthen the position and resolve of the regime while only the citizens of the sanctioned nation suffer.

In order to make sanctions work, you need to make the regime suffer. In this case most analysts agree that, while imposing certain banking and trading restrictions on Iran might be at most an inconvenience, they will likely not achieve the desired result.

For Iran, the key weakness is in its gasoline imports. Iran may have a lot of oil, but years of sanctions have crippled its ability to refine oil into gasoline (score one for sanctions). As a result, Iran must import a large portion of its gasoline, mostly from Russia. This is where Russia could have played a key role: if Russia agreed to halt gasoline exports to Iran, the Iranian economy would have ground to a halt and would have easily inflamed the anger of a public that is already visibly discontented with the regime in Tehran.

But the current UNSC resolution makes no mention of gasoline imports, and it looks like the price of having Russia and China on board was that the resulting resolution would be devoid of teeth. Perhaps the Obama administration thinks that it is more valuable to have their support to give the resolution the appearance of a multilateral consensus than it was to have a resolution that could actually have a direct effect.

Iran Gets Nukes: So What?

Enriched Uranium

With all this talk about what’s to be done with Iran, it is easy to get lost in the rhetoric. When such a big deal is made about a particular issue, and everyone has strong opinions on all sides, but they don’t really disagree, the question must be asked: why do we care?

(My personal policy is this: there should be no nuclear weapons anywhere in the world, and the international community should work hard towards that goal. But if Russia is to have one, the United States is to have two.)

The list of countries with (known) nuclear weapons is long: US, UK, France, Russia, China (the P-5), India, Pakistan, Israel, and North Korea. Really, aside from being counter non-proliferation, what is one more country?  The problem isn’t so much of “what” as it is “who”.The country in question has been hostile to the United States for over 30 years, continuously referring to the America as “the Great Satan” (with Israel being the “Little Satan”).  But that’s not really it either, as the United States was not nearly as aggressive towards North Korea’s nuclear weapons program (a rogue regime if there ever was one, one that actually fought a war with the U.S. in the 1950’s). Perhaps it was because Pyongyang’s possession of nuclear weapons came as a surprise and by the time the world knew about it, it was too late: because they had nuclear weapons.

No, America’s interest in Iran is different and its concerns are two-fold: the first is Iranian hostility towards Israel; the second is Iran’s direct challenge to American hegemony in the Middle East.

Tehran makes no bones about its dislike of Israel. The regime’s leaders constantly denounce Israel to gain support from the masses. For any nation, it helps to have an adversary for which to rally domestic support. North Korea has South Korea, Israel has Iran (they have each other), America had Communism, and now it has Terrorism. The question is whether this hostile rhetoric goes beyond mere speeches.

For Iran and Israel, it certainly does. Iran has been funding and training Hamas for years, and in 2006, Israel fought a 34-day war with Hizballah, an Iranian proxy. But what came first, the chicken or the egg? It’s difficult to say. On the surface, it would appear that Israel would have no problem with Iran if Iran had no problem with Israel. However, the Iranian revolution of 1979 was Islamic in nature, and one of the claims of the new regime in Tehran was that Zionism was evil, as it oppressed Muslims. Whatever you believe, one thing that’s true is that Israel worked closely with the hated former leader of Iran: the Shah. As it turns out, something that Iran’s three greatest enemies (US, UK, Israel) have in common is their ties to Reza Shah Pahlavi, the former King of Iran.

Since the Islamic Republic came in to being, it has been hostile towards Israel. And while Israel might have one of the most advanced militaries in the world, it is still a very small country in relation, and is understandably afraid of one of its greatest enemies acquiring weapons of mass destruction, particularly nukes. However, this doesn’t explain why the United States is so concerned. Or does it?

It is extremely unlikely that Iran would make a nuclear weapon, attach it to a missile, and launch it at the United States, because America would respond in kind and that would the end of the regime in Tehran. (The same goes for Iran attacking Israel for that matter.)  While not usually on the same page with the international community, it is safe to say that Iran is led by rational actors in that they value regime survival beyond anything else.

Let’s just say that Iran manages to build a nuclear weapon and launches it Israel the next day. Israel would likely reciprocate and the regime in Tehran would be toast. But even if they weren’t, Khamenei and Ahmedinejad would likely face a level of international isolation that they had never dreamed existed. Not only would they have been responsible for the Holocaust Part II, thousands of fellow Muslims would have been killed in the process. Adding another layer is that those Muslims would be Arabs, which would further widen the chasm between Arabs and Persians. The average (surviving) Persian, thoughtful and literate, would likely be appalled and ashamed of their government’s course of action. And not only would Tehran be destroyed, but likely Qom, the Shiite Vatican, along with it. Without exaggeration, it could very well mean the end of Persian civilization.

So while Israel would likely not ever face an Iranian nuclear assault, when you combine Iran’s hostility to Israel, as well as the two nations’ proximity, Israel’s concern is understandable.

And when Israel is concerned, America is concerned. This is a factor of the Zionist lobby’s power in Washington, especially as the U.S. heads into midterm election season. Congressmen from both sides of the isle draw support from pro-Israel advocates, and therefore we see Israel’s needs being quickly addressed. (Witness the recent Scuds to Hizballah scenario; a week later President Obama is clamoring for a $200 million missile defense system for Israel.) So if our “close ally” is threatened because it “lives in a tough neighborhood”, then the U.S. will  respond, as it has been for the past 43 years.

Of course, there is the other reason why Washington is taking such a firm stance with Iran: the continued defiance of Iran threatens American hegemony in the Gulf and symbolizes America’s deterioration as a superpower.

After WWII, the United States and Russia emerged as the only two superpowers (closely related to their own nuclear arsenals). The two engaged in the Cold War for nearly fifty years until the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. After that, America was the last man standing and for the next 20 years or so, what America said, went. But now, with the ascents of Russia, India, Brazil and especially China (referred to as the BRIC countries); America is losing in terms of relative power. In this zero sum game of power politics, the gains for the BRIC countries represent loses for the United States. This means that these countries will be competing more than ever for natural resources to either ensure their position in the world (in the case of the United States) or to ensure their continued growth.

The International Relations landscape is shifting to a multi-polar world where there is no clear superpower. In fifty years, we could see America, China, India, Brazil, and Europe (if there is such a unified body at the time) exerting similar levels of influence in the world (Russia is left off because of its declining population and its inability to reform economically). This transition could be rough or smooth. Intuitively, such an adjustment would create conflict and war, but the end of the Soviet Union came so swiftly and gently that it caught everyone by surprise. The point is that we as a nation should do whatever it takes to ensure a smooth transition.

BRIC Leaders

But right now we are going through the birth pangs of our transition to the new multi-polar world order, and Iran is at the center of that transition. The United States has chosen to make Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons program a priority. Washington has burnt a lot of calories and invested a lot of political capital in making sure Iran does not continue to enrich uranium, so much so that the whole situation has become symbolic of declining American power. This is why the U.S. is trying so hard to get it’s way: Iran’s position on the matter is the ultimate defiance of the West and if America can’t get Iran to change its ways after investing so much time and energy into it, it projects to the world that America’s time as captain of the ship is over, and its decline may be happening in a more precipitous manner than was once thought.

America’s (and Israel’s) interest in Iran’s nuclear capability is boldly hypocritical. The biggest behind-the-scenes cheerleader for sanctions has been Israel, who has an ambiguous nuclear arsenal of its own and refuses to sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), but you would never hear Washington criticize this. Also on the list of those with nuclear weapons is India, where the U.S. actually encourages proliferation. Then we have Pakistan, an incredibly unstable country with an active al-Qaeda presence, which should be ten times more alarming than the prospect of Iran acquiring “the bomb”. Rounding out the list is North Korea, at best an enigmatic nation (at worst, insane) which actually withdrew from the NPT in 2003, and soon after declared that it had nuclear weapons. Popular opinion characterizes Pyongyang as a rational regime, in that it values regime survival, but in reality we have no idea what Kim Jong Il is capable of.

Pakistan and North Korea are far more threatening nations that have nuclear weapons; the problem is that they already possess them. But Iran does not, not yet anyway, and many think that it only a matter of time before they do. Then what? Iran should not possess nuclear weapons for many reasons, but there are worse scenarios for the United States. One of which is  the prospect of going to war with Iran to forcibly prevent (delay) Tehran from attaining them, as the result could be catastrophic for the world: war, oil shortages, economic collapse, domestic instability, war, repeat.

The fear of proliferation resulting from Iran acquiring nuclear weapons is probably overblown.  America actually still has sufficient clout to make sure others in the region – Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Gulf States – do not follow suit. There will be a certain level of anxiety added to the region with a Persian nation having such a defensive leg up, but that will likely only push those countries closer to the United States for protection, with the bonus of significant additional arms sales. Also, if Iran becomes nuclear capable, the regime in Tehran might be more secure not having to face the prospect of an Israeli or American attack, which could make Tehran less reliant on the destabilizing use of proxies such as Hizballah and Hamas.

Long Term Strategy

One way or another, the United States needs to reconcile with Iran. It would be better if it happened before Iran acquired nuclear weapons, but it should surely happen afterward (though reconciling immediately after could set a bad example). A friendly relationship with Iran could be highly beneficial to the United States. Just think how useful they could be right now in Iraq and Afghanistan, not to mention America’s war with al-Qaeda. Also, if America had Iran, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia as allies, it could really make our nation’s transition to post-oil that much smoother. Like it or not, the U.S. faces heavy competition for resources from the emerging giants of Brazil, India, and China, and having the aforementioned Middle Eastern countries locked down as allies would secure America’s access to petroleum in the days after peak oil.

Another beneficial move would be to increase America’s ties with Turkey. Turkey is a large Muslim nation situated in a key geographic region between East and West. Turkey, a long time member of NATO, has always had a foot in both camps, but lately it seems to be shifting to the East as a way to assert itself. Turkey has proven itself over the years to be an honest broker of sorts when it comes to diplomacy, as it has facilitated negotiations between Syria and Israel, as well as brokering the current deal (with the help of Brazil) to enrich uranium for Iran. Turkey would be a strategic ally in ensuring Europe’s access to natural gas. This natural gas would come from Iran, which in turn would provide Europe with an alternative to Russian natural gas. This would weaken Russia’s hand strategically, which is always nice.

Today, Washington’s key ally in the Middle East is Israel, but that relationship is becoming more trouble than it is worth. This is not to say that Israel is not a friend of the U.S. or that we should not support the Jewish State as we would any ally, it’s just that the benefits that America gets for its special relationship with Israel need to be closely evaluated against other possibilities as we enter a critical juncture in American history. A closer relationship with Turkey and reconciliation with Iran would have many long term strategic benefits for the United States, and this needs to be weighed honestly against what Israel brings to the table. Also, closer ties with Turkey and Iran do not necessarily have to come at the expense of Israel. Obviously Israel loses by not having its American big brother take its side in every conflict, but prudent U.S. foreign policy should be guided by national interests and not by guilt or sentimentality.

The decisions that the United States will make over the next ten years will have a direct effect on the next hundred years in terms of America’s place in the world. The too-brief period when America was the lone world superpower is coming to an end and Washington needs to carefully evaluate how it proceeds from here. Who are our true friends? Who do we want to be our new friends? What do we have to gain by being hostile to certain states and not hostile enough to others?

It is easy to beat the drum of America being too dependent on oil, but it is. However, this is not the problem. The problem is that the rest of the world is too, and state competition for resources causes conflict. Sometime over the next fifty years or so we will likely start running out of oil, and America’s access to cheap, readily available energy is absolutely critical to United States national security. From here on out, it behooves us to proceed with great caution.