The case of Bahrain

18 02 2011

by Patrick Vibert

As protests erupt across North Africa and the Middle East, the tiny island nation of Bahrain is seeing its share of unrest. Thousands of demonstrators have taken to the streets in the capital Manama to protest against a regime that is viewed by many as oppressive and discriminatory. Bahrain seems to be following the examples set by Egypt and Tunisia, who have each toppled longtime rulers.

As an Arab country seeking a democracy, Bahrain appears to have much in common with other nations in the region that are facing unrest. But its sectarian makeup and geographic position make it a special case, especially for the United States.

Bahrain is an island that sits off the coast of Saudi Arabia in the Persian Gulf.  It was a part of the Persian Empire until it achieved independence in 1783. Today, it is the home of America’s Fifth Fleet, which is responsible for patrolling the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea and the Arabian Sea. The country’s Sunni majority rules over a Shiite minority. For our purposes, these are the key facts.


Shia outnumber Sunnis in Bahrain 2 to 1. However, the country is ruled by Sunnis who occupy the upper echelon positions in military and government.  Sunnis are aware that toppling the regime means toppling their cushy position in Bahraini society and as a result, the protests have taken on a sectarian dimension.

Unlike Egypt and Tunisia, it is unlikely that the military will side with the protesters. In the past 24 hours, we have seen an up-tick in violence, with soldiers opening fire on demonstrators. The state-sponsored use of violence will likely only add fuel to the fire of the rebels, but don’t look for the regime to go down without a fight. As said, Egypt and Tunisia had the help of the military, and it is unlikely that any of the revolutionary movements taking place in the region today would get far without it. Right now, the protesters in Bahrain don’t have it and aren’t likely to get it.

Saudi Arabia

The Saudis are concerned with growing Shiite (and therefore Iranian) influence. As mentioned, Bahrain is two-thirds Shiite and Iran is almost entirely Shiite. Saudi Arabia has its own population of Shiites, though not as many as Bahrain and Iran. The problem is that Saudi Arabia’s Shia population lives in the oil-rich eastern provinces, which happen to border Bahrain. If the regime in Manama falls giving way to a Shia dominated government, Iran is clearly a beneficiary, as the Islamic Republic would then have an ally right off the coast of its biggest rival in the region.

Saudi Arabia was already concerned with creeping Iranian influence before this mess, going as far as taking sides with Israel against the Persians and supporting the Yemeni government in their war against Shia Houthi rebels near their common border.  The current unrest has to be deeply troubling for The Kingdom, and it is rumored that Riyadh has dispatched security/intelligence advisors to Bahrain to aid in the crackdown and to report back events on the ground.

United States

The United States is in a tricky position. The Obama administration wants to be “on the right side of history”, but Washington has proved over the last few weeks that it has a hard time deciding what exactly that is. When it comes to old allies, the United States prefers the status quo.

This was true in Egypt, but when it became clear that the Mubarak regime was falling America had to readjust to the reality on the ground and support the protesters in their pursuit of democracy. Washington will take the same approach to Bahrain, as the American public has a soft spot in their hearts for the image of besieged patriots trying to overthrow a king.  But the strategic implications of the Shiite majority taking power in Bahrain is likely causing sleepless nights for the officials who are paid to worry about such things.

As mentioned, America’s Fifth Fleet is parked in Bahrain. The Fleet represents US power projection in the region and sends the message to state actors and non-state actors alike that American bombers, fighters, warships, and Marines are never that far away. If a Shiite regime that is allied with Iran takes power in Bahrain, the Fifth Fleet will quickly find itself in need of relocation, with few options*.

*Slim pickens here. Saudi Arabia is out, because stashing US warships in the Custodian of the Two Holy Cities of Mecca and Medina is controversial to say the least. Iran is out for obvious reasons, though it would be funny to ask. Oman or Qatar could do it, but they wouldn’t be happy about it. Kuwait is the most likely choice, as “they owe us one” for repelling Saddam Hussein in Gulf War I.

Along with Bahrain and the Saudis, the United States is also concerned with creeping Iranian influence (see Lebanon and Iraq). The US economy depends on the free flow of oil, much of it originating in the Persian Gulf, and maintaining the flow of oil is a key national security goal of the United States.  America is playing a zero sum game with Iran, where any gain by Tehran is seen as a loss for Washington. And a Shiite revolution in Bahrain would be seen as a huge win for Iran.



Calls for a post-sect Lebanon

3 05 2010

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

There have been at least two odd scenes in Beirut over  the last couple of weeks. The first was a soccer game played by MPs which was supposed to demonstrate cross-sectarian cooperation, and the second was a fairly large march & rally whose participants called for a more secular Lebanon. Both events reflect the sentiment of a Lebanese public that has grown weary with institutionalized sectarianism and all that is has to offer.

The soccer match was played in an empty Beirut stadium, which is closed off to the fans out of fear of violence between the various groups of fans (Sunni, Shia, etc). The scene was probably less symbolic of cross-sectarian teamwork than it was of just how far Lebanon is from being “post-sect” in the same way that the US is supposedly (but not really at all) “post-race”.

Playing a soccer game in an empty stadium will probably be just as effective as electing a minority as President of the United States was in terms of getting people to forget their historical differences. The difference between the two is that electing Barak Obama was not a shallow, political PR stunt, but at least the soccer match indicated that the people in government are hearing what a growing number of Lebanese are calling for: a Lebanon free from state sanctioned sectarianism.

The secularist rally this past Sunday was more genuine. The event was organized using (increasingly valuable) social networking websites, and what was originally expected to be a gathering of a few hundred people mushroomed into a crowd of thousands with the help of some beautiful weather.

The large turnout and diversity of the group was shocking to many, including the organizers. The protesters called for the end of sectarianism and the beginning of secularism. But what exactly this means, as well as how the change would occur, and what the future implications were, was less clear.

One of the major demands was the start of civil unions.Though Lebanon is perceived as more modern and liberal (read: Western) than many of its neighbors, people are still required to marry in their mosque or church, depending on what sect they are registered to. Cross-sectarian marriage is not possible in this system, so some couples are forced to travel to neighboring countries (Cypress, for example) to get married.

There are at least seventeen recognized religious sects in Lebanon, with the  Shia, Sunni, Maronite Christians, and Druze make up the lion’s share. Over the years, the country has managed to develop a tenuous balance between the groups, but periodic bouts of inter-sectarian violence have ranged from worrisome to devastating. As a result, the state has institutionalized the notion that every group must be represented and have their say, no matter how stifling to progress, lest there be more violence.

Today, there is a system in place that allocates parliamentary seats between the groups and distributes the various government offices between the sects. The president must be a  Maronite, the Prime Minister a Sunni, the speaker a Shiite, and so on. This pattern extends to the business world, with companies adhering to set quotas. As mentioned, one’s sect is printed right on their ID card (although just recently the option of striking your sectarian designation from the ID has been allowed).

The system permeates nearly all levels of life in Lebanon. When I was living in Beirut, my roommate (a Lebanese student at the AUB) would indicate every person’s sect that he brought over to the apartment. While he may have been seemingly overly conscious of sect, it did not seem to matter too much to him. Perhaps this is indicative of the modern greater Lebanese condition: everyone might be conscious of sect, but it’s questionable how much it matters on a person-to-person level. And while this may be the case today, it has not always been this way.

In the 1970’s tensions between the sects were starting to heat up as the power sharing system at the time no longer reflected the true demographics of Lebanon. At a time where Muslims outnumbered Christians because of differing birthrates, parliamentary seats were split between Christians and Muslims 6:5, respectively. Due the explosiveness of the issue, an official census has not been taken in Lebanon since 1932.  This condition led to frustration among the people who felt underrepresented in what was supposed to be a democracy, and led to fear in those that did not want to lose power. The arrival of the PLO eventually set the country ablaze in 1975, leading to fifteen years of civil war at a cost of over 150,000 lives and immeasurable economic damage.

So when people talk about ending sectarianism in Lebanon, the notion must not be simply deemed correct for this particular situation because of the prevailing notion in the West that the separation of church (or mosque) and state is a good thing. For the West it is a good thing, but it might not be in every case.

In a perfect world, state and religion would not mix, but it should be considered that perhaps sectarianism is the glue that holds Lebanon together at the moment. Over time, Lebanon should absolutely work towards this goal of ending institutionalized sectarianism by shifting towards a meritocracy and eliminating sectarian quotas from business and government. But right now, Lebanon is not ready.

Lebanon had a very strong year in 2009, when inter-regional political breakthroughs led to stability (or vice versa), which in turn led to significant economic advances. But one good year does not mean that Lebanon is ready to take the training-wheels off. Right now and however poorly,  sectarianism works in that it is a large contributing factor to stability.

6:5 was the rule until the country couldn’t take it anymore. A civil war was fought and it went to 1:1 to more accurately reflect the modern demographics. Then the Shia started asserting themselves as  the largest sectarian block and they got veto power in the president’s cabinet. The point is that there is a system in place that can  be tinkered with to assuage anxieties. What would happen if that system were abolished today?

From the Guardian, “Recent polls have shown that there is significant public support for abolishing the confessional system in Lebanon, but, like many issues, this is also influenced by a sectarian calculus: most of the support lies among Lebanese Muslims, whose numbers relative to the Christian population have grown over the past several decades. Many fear that trying to impose sweeping changes on the country without the support of a majority of the Christian community could have severe repercussions.”

As much as sectarianism is an instrument for stagnation, it is also an instrument of stability. While some  may argue that it accentuates the differences between the sects, the consensus-based system also ensures that every voice is heard. The Lebanese must ask themselves, one, do they believe sectarianism adds to or decreases stability, and two, what price are they willing to pay to see an end to it.

Currently, there are just too many factors that could  contribute to instability in Lebanon without changing the entire system of government. The real and constant threat of attack from Israel, the presence of a well-armed sub-state organization in Hizballah, the presence of 400,000 frustrated and disenfranchised Palestinian refugees, the  constant meddling and creeping influence of Syria…any one of these could be enough to destabilize Lebanon, but all four are here at the surface at all times. Perhaps sectarianism is the rusty ship that is carrying Lebanon through these troubled waters.

Another question to ask is how the secularists will convince those in power (even the ones playing in cross-sectarian soccer games) to give up the source of that power. As written in Time Magazine, “Changing Lebanon’s sectarian system, however, would require that a political class led mostly by sectarian warlords and their families dismantle the very source of their power.” While they may be willing to participate in transparent PR team building exercises, getting them to abandon the very system that keeps them in power could prove to be difficult. The good news is that perhaps when they are ready, Lebanon will be ready too.

Lebanon certainly isn’t ready for it this week or this year, but it is a goal worth working towards in the future. A peaceful and stable post-sect Lebanon would be a good example for the Middle East and the world in general.

Nasrallah vs Muqtada

19 02 2010


Sadr and Nasrallah

After the fall of Saddam Hussein, the United States found itself battling a tough and stubborn Shiite insurgency. This resistance was led by a young militant named Muqtada al-Sadr, and before long, Middle East analysts and scholars began drawing comparisons to another Shiite resistance leader, Hizballah’s Hassan Nasrallah.

Before the US-led invasion of 2003,  the Shia of Iraq were what the Shia of Lebanon were 25 years ago: the poor and disenfranchised underclass. The Shia had always made up a significant portion of the population in Lebanon, but the country was dominated by Sunnis and Christians, and the Shia were politically and economically marginalized  as a result.

Under Saddam Hussein, the Shia of Iraq had it much worse. There, they made up the majority of the population, and were feared by the Sunni Baathist minority who rule Iraq with an iron fist. As a result, the Shia were marginalized and oppressed, and any hint of rebellion was met with swift and brutal violence.

As a side note, this is how the Shia have historically existed: marginalized and oppressed under Sunni regimes that mostly viewed them as heretics, or at least threats to their power. The only country where the Shia were the dominant majority was (and still is) Persia . Only recently have the Shia began to climb out of the social-economic pit that they were buried in for so long.

During the Civil War in Lebanon, the Shia there began to assert themselves more and more. (This equality-seeking attitude dates back to the 1960’s when Sayyed Musa Sadr returned from religious study in Najaf, Iraq and began preaching a Shiite resurgence.) After the invasion of Israel in 1982, Hizballah was formed with the assistance of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). During the war with Israel, a charismatic and intelligent young man named Hassan Nasrallah quickly proved his skills fighting on the battlefield, and organizing in the villages. Nasrallah became Secretary General of the organization in 1992 after his mentor, Abbas Mussawi, was killed by the Israeli Defense Force (IDF).

Muqtada al-Sadr took a different path to get where he is today, as head of the Mehdi Army in Iraq. He came from a highly prominent Shiite family, but was reportedly not originally considered to be much of a warrior. After the  Iran-Iraq War, Muqtada’s father, Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr, a hero amongst Iraqi Shia, continued to lead the political development of his people. When he was killed in 1999, a 26 year-old Muqtada took over as leader of the movement. Outside of Iraq, Muqtada remained an unknown until 2003, when he led the Mehdi Army against the invading Western nations. Today, Muqtada al-Sadr is a respected hero in his own right, amongst his people.

With Nasrallah and Sadr both rising from obscurity to give Western (US) or Western-backed (Israel) fighting forces of superior resources and firepower massive headaches, it is natural to compare the two. This is useful because by studying the evolution of Hizballah and its leader, perhaps we can extrapolate what the Mehdi Army might look like and be capable of in the coming years, and this could give analysts a better picture of what to expect from Iraq over that same time period.

Starting at the beginning, Hassan Nasrallah was born in 1960 and is about 50 years old today. Muqtada al-Sadr was born in 1973, which makes him about 37.  Nasrallah is 13 years older than Sadr. They both have the title of Sayyed which means that they are recognized as descendants of the Prophet Mohammed.

Nasrallah came from a family uninvolved in politics, religion, and war. His father was a vegetable vendor with no influence or connections, and everything  that Nasrallah has he had to earn himself. He wanted to study religion from a young age. His potential was quickly recognized, and he was sent to Najaf to continue his studies under Abbas Mussawi, one of the founders of Hizballah. As mentioned, after Mussawi’s death in1992, Nasrallah was chosen by his peers to lead Hizballah.

Muqtada had a more direct path to power. His father was a Grand Ayatollah and a hero to the Iraqi Shia. His father-in-law also held the rank of Grand Ayatollah and is highly respected in Iraq. Muqtada’s father and two brothers were killed in 1999 by Saddam’s security forces, who left Muqtada alone at the time because he was thought to be somewhat dim-witted. But Muqtada had been underestimated, and he would eventually go on to lead the Mehdi Army.

Both the Mehdi Army and Hizballah receive considerable patronage from Iran. Iran helped form Hizballah in the early 1980’s during Israel’s occupation of Lebanon. Along with Syria, Iran directs large amounts of weapons and cash to Hizballah in an effort to blunt Israeli aggression. Iran uses a similar strategy in Iraq, where the Islamic Republic assists Sadr and his militia in order to give the US-led coalition forces a significant amount of resistance so that the United States doesn’t  train its sights on Iran next.

Iran actually backed two horses in this race: the Sadrists, and also the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC). The SIIC is led by Sayyed Ammar Hakim, of the powerful Hakim clan. The leaders of the SIIC fled to Iran during the Iran-Iraq War, and plotted their return with the help of the Islamic Republic. Iran supported this group, but it also hedged its bets and backed the Sadrists as well, presumably because they were worried that those leaders, who had fled during what was a time of incredible suffering for most Iraqi Shia, might be resented upon their return*. It proved to be a shrewd move by Iran. The SIIC did face some resentment by their brothers that stayed behind, but they also came back to strong support as well. As a result of Iran betting on both horses so-to-speak, they now wield considerable influence in the new Iraqi government that is dominated by the Shia.

*During the Iran-Iraq War from 1980 to 1988, many Iraqi Shia, especially those with the means to do so, fled to Iran.

The rivalry between Amal and Hizballah is similar to the rivalry between the Sadrists and the SIIC. Amal was founded in 1975 by the forefather of the historic Shia resurgence, Imam Musa Sadr (a distant cousin of Muqtada). Syria, Lebanon’s neighbor, supported Amal as a way to gain leverage against Israel after it lost the Golan Heights in the 1967 War. In 1982, Hizballah was founded by Amal members (with the help of IRGC advisers) who wished to take a less secular and more Islamist approach. The two militias experienced a violent sibling rivalry as they fought for control of Beirut, but eventually the two made peace and today they cooperate regularly.

Whether it be Lebanon or Iraq, all four groups (Hizballah, Amal, the Sadrists, SIIC) preach nationalism and all are backed or assisted by foreign entities, and it’s unclear just how much influence those governments have over their so-called proxies. Hizballah often claims publicly that it’s guided by Iran, but it is questionable whether it would sacrifice itself for the sake of Iran.  It’s conceivable that Iran has significant influence with the SIIC, as Iran gave the group refuge during the latter Saddam years and helped it prepare the group for its return to power.

The Sadrist are the biggest question mark. Muqtada Sadr is reportedly currently living in the Shiite holy city of Qom,  Iran, studying to increase his religious rank, and therefore his leadership credentials. He may or may not be actively meeting with the IRGC during this time. Another thing to consider is that even though their fellow Shia were suffering terribly under Saddam, Iran did relatively little to aid them during these years after the Iran-Iraq War and before the US invasion. This must have been frustrating to the Sadrist, and it’s doubtful they would have forgotten it.

In summation, Hassan Nasrallah has no real rival in Lebanon amongst his fellow Shia, and Muqtada Sadr has a capable and powerful rival in Ammar Hokim. The battle between Amal and Hizballah has run its course and Hizballah has come out on top. But the rivalry between Hakim and Sadr is still very much in play, and the outcome is not so clear. The SIIC tends to represent the more influential and wealthy Iraqi Shia, but the Sadrists represent the poor and hungry, who are far stronger in number.

In his article on this very topic, Syrian Middle East political analyst Sami Moubayed itemizes the differences and similarities between the two men. He states that, while Nasrallah and Sadr come from very different backgrounds, their main difference is in their charisma and projection of influence.

Moubayed writes that Sadr may be respected in Iraq, but he and his personality are virtually unknown outside the country, whereas Nasrallah, through Hizballah’s far reaching Al-Manar television station, is broadcast all over the world. At least weekly, Nasrallah’s fiery speeches are televised throughout the Arab world and beyond as he lays into Israel and the United States and gives the Arabs, who have become so disillusioned with defeat and  incompetent leadership, a powerful, energetic, and capable champion who espouses their values and vents their frustration for them. Muqtada Sadr has none of that, and whether this is by strategy or by circumstance, his influence is that much less because of it.

While Nasrallah operates on the world stage and Sadr operates underground in the shadows, something that the two have in common is that they are both highly respected Shia leaders that are irreplaceable to their movements. In Moubayed’s article, he grades the two men, giving Nasrallah an “A+” and Sadr a “D-“. This may be an accurate assessment in the absolute terms of the present day, but let’s not forget that Nasrallah is 13 years older than Sadr. If we look at where Hizballah was as an organization 13 years ago, it’s probably not all that different to where the Sadrists are today. This is impressive considering the difference in political climate that the two were operating in, with Lebanon being far more open to Shiite political development than Iraq, where everything had to be organized in secret using only whispers.

Also, many have criticized Sadr’s Mehdi Army as being a bunch of uneducated thugs who only joined the militia for personal gain. While this may have  been true at first, the Mehdi Army is believed to be currently undergoing a  process of purging those who are not pious, religious, and dedicated to the party. If this is the case, we could see a far more refined and disciplined fighting force  and political party in a few years once they have weeded out the unscrupulous bad seeds.

Hizballah may be the more mature of the two organizations, but the Sadrists have time to catch up and are in a good position to do so vis-a-vis the Shiite dominance of Iraq going forward. Today, Sadr is believed to be polishing his religious credentials, and while he won’t make the rank of Ayatollah, he might learn just enough to be a respected military, political, and religious leader in Iraq. Hassan Nasrallah may be very powerful in Lebanon, but the position of the Shia in the sectarian demographic breakdown of the population inherently limits his power there. Muqtada Sadr faces no such challenge in Iraq, where the Shia dominate the Sunni and the Kurds, so his power ceiling is higher than that of Nasrallah.

In Lebanon and Iraq, Hassan Nasrallah and Muqtada Sadr are heavyweights, and it’s interesting to study them both to see what we can learn from their similarities and differences. The Shia revolution that started under Musa Sadr in 1960 and exploded in Iran in 1979 continues to this day, and these two men are right in the middle of it, at the forefront of history.

During the Iran-Iraq War (1980 to 1988), many Iraqi Shia, especially those with the means to do so, fled to Iran.

Israel reiterates Lebanese culpability for Hizballah

27 11 2009


Ehud Barak

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak reiterated on Tuesday his nation’s grim warning that Israel will hold all of Lebanon accountable for the actions of Hizballah.

The statement came the day before the newly formed Lebanese cabinet was to make an announcment regarding the government’s official stance on Hizballah’s weapons.

On Wednesday, it was declared by the government that it supports Hizballah’s right to its weapons, as they are necessary for defending Lebanon against Israel.

Hizballah has been at war with Israel since 1982, when Israel invaded Lebanon. The two armies faced off in fierce battles over the years, with Israel being forced to withdraw completely in 2000.

After a cross-border raid by Hizballah into Israel in 2006, Israel launched a massive air assault on Lebanon. Having sustained substantial damage to its infrastructure, much of Lebanon was left in ruins in the wake of the 34-day war. Road, bridges, and entire neighborhoods were completely destroyed by Israeli bombs.

UN resolution 1701 eventually brought an end to the hostilities. The agreement calls for Hizballah to disarm and for Israel to respect Lebanese sovereignty. Though the agreement stopped the fighting, neither side has adhered to the additional guidelines.

Hizballah continues to stockpile weapons near the Israeli border and Israel continues to violate Lebanese sovereignty with flyovers and other activities.

Lebanese frustration was sparked earlier this year with the discovery of a massive Israeli spy ring operating within its borders. So far, dozens  of alleged spies have been arrested in the plot.

Over the years, Hizballah has been playing an increased role in the government. In the June parliamentary elections, though its coalition failed to win the majority, Hizballah did very well in its own districts. In the current government, Hizballah holds two seat in the cabinet. Israeli doesn’t accept Hizballah’s position in the new government.

Defense Minister Barak stated that Lebanon would answer for Hizballah’s transgressions for letting the Shiite resistance movement operate on its soil. The United States used a similar pretext for invading Afghanistan, as the Afghans had allowed al-Quaeda to operate within its borders when the terrorist organization planned its 9/11 attack on the US.

Hizballah has made clear that its weapons are not up for debate.

The Lebanese government likely made its policy for lack of a viable alternative. In May 2008, the government attempted to disable Hizballah’s communications system. As a result, Hizballah stormed the western half of the city and reasserted its dominance over Lebanon’s other security forces, including the  police and the army.

Over a year later, it’s still doubtful that the government could disarm the group even if it really wanted to. The last time they tried, Lebanon came dangerously close to falling back into civil war.

With its aggressive posturing, Israel puts the Lebanese government in the awkward position of possibly suffering for a group’s crimes that it has almost no control over.

By all accounts Hizballah is even more well armed than the last time the two faced off, having stockpiled tens of thousands of rockets all over southern Lebanon. But it is highly unlikely that the group would launch a large-scale assault againt Israel unless it was faced with another monumental assault from the Israeli air force.

It is likely that Israel  knows that Hizballah is not likely to attack, and Israel is also likely well aware of the Lebanese government’s inability to control the group. So all this aggressive rhetoric might be just to warn Hizballah- and the  world- what costs will be incurred by Lebanon if they are attacked. This way Hizballah is well aware of the challenges it will face if it provokes another war on Lebanon.

After all, Hizballah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah famously stated back in 2006 that if he had known how the Israelis would have responded to his raid, he never would have done it. Well now he knows.

On a more regional level, Israel is also facing off with Iran, Hizballah’s financial and military patron. If war breaks out between the two countries, Hizballah would already have plenty of warning of what it will face if it decides to get involved.

Another possibility is that Israel might use an attack from Hizballah to justify and  attack on Iran. In 1982, Israel used the attempted assassination of Israeli diplomat Shlomo Argov in London as casus belli for invading Lebanon.

While no government wants an independent army operating within its borders, it seems that Lebanon is comfortable to table to problem for now. The situation will likely not be addressed comprehensively until the government, the economy, and the military are all much stronger. Until then, there is little choice in the matter.





Saudi border war with Yemeni Shia

24 11 2009

by Patrick Vibert

Saudi Arabia, in cooperation with the Yemeni government, is waging a quiet and fierce war against Shia tribesmen located near their shared border in the Saada region of northwest Yemen.

Tensions have been building for months, but the conflict erupted after two Saudi border guards were allegedly murdered by Yemeni Houthis in a cross-border raid in the remote region of southwestern Saudi Arabia. Since then the Saudi air force has been pounding  Houthi rebel sites across the border in Yemen.

The rebels have criticized the Yemeni government for allowing Saudi Arabia to violate Yemen’s territorial sovereignty, but the government likely welcomes the help from the Saudis as it struggles to gain the upper hand in the situation.

As a result of the bombardments, thousands of Yemeni citizens from the region have been displaced and are now caught between the Yemeni Army, the Houthi rebels, and the Saudi air force in a conflict with a high potential for escalation.

The Houthis are part of Yemen’s Shia, which make up about 40% of that countries total population. The rebels accuse the  government of sectarianism, while the Yemeni government considers the conflict political in nature.

While the Houthi rebels are clashing  with the Yemeni military, and Saudi officials claim that they are only trying to keep the conflict from spilling over onto Saudi soil. The Saudi-based Al-Sharq Al-Awsat has reported that nearly 1000 Houthi rebels have been taken prisoner by the Saudi military.

For years the conflict had been between the rebels and the Yemeni government, but recently the escalation of violence has led to Saudi involvement, with Iran and even Al-Quaida being dragged into the mix.  As a result, the conflict has taken a more regional tone, with both Iranian and Saudi governments trading barbs.

The Saudi’s accuse Iran of aiding the Houthis in a way to gain a foothold in another country that is politically dominated by Sunni, such as it did in Iraq and Lebanon. Tehran has denied aiding the rebels, but has expressed concerned for the safety of the Shia in that country.

This week, protests erupted in Tehran in support of the Houthis, as hundreds of students reportedly rallied in front of the Saudi and Yemeni embassies there.

Relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia have been particularly frosty in recent years, as Riyadh grows increasingly weary of expanding Persian influence in the region.



With the decision of Mahmoud Abbas not to seek reelction and the apparent dissolution of the Palestinian Authority, the situation is entering a new phase.

End of PA

Hamas Quiet

Quote about Jews living under persecution for 4000 years

Clear that Israel has no intention of leaving the Palestinians enough territory to make a state

Obama fails, is called out by Nasrallah

World may still be concerned, but is fed up with Palestinian leadership

What awaits: passive acceptance, or third intifada?

Saudi Arabia, in cooperation with the Yemeni government, is waging a quiet and fierce war against Shiaa tribesmen located near their shared border. Tensions have been building for months, but the conflict erupted after a Saudi policeman was murdered by Yemeni Houthis in a cross-border raid in the remote region of southern Saudi Arabia.

Israel to attack Iran?

18 11 2009

by Patrick Vibert

There has been a lot of talk recently in certain circles about America going to war with Iran.

The train of thought is this: the US doesn’t want to go to war with Iran, but Israel is so afraid of Iran having nuclear weapons that they will draw the US into the conflict by bombing Iran. The US will then be dragged in because Iran will certainly try to close the Strait of Hormuz (through which 40% of all traded oil passes) and the US simply cannot let this happen because of the effect that the ensuing skyrocketing oil prices will have on the world’s fragile economic state.

Israel bombs Iran to prevent them from getting nukes, Iran closes the Strait of Hormuz in retaliation, the United States is forced to get involved to prevent a global economic calamity. That whole scenario sounds plausible on the surface. After all, given all that has happened involving the United States and the Middle East in the last ten years, I suppose anything is possible. However, we should take a closer look at that course of action for the parties involved and walk through the likely outcomes.

But first, let’s examine the implications of Iran successfully acquiring the ability to make some nuclear weapons…because, of course, the second that they acquire a nuclear weapon, they will no doubt immediately launch it at Israel.


Let’s say Iran secretly makes half a dozen nuclear weapons, attaches them to long range missiles (which they already possess), and launches them all at Israel. Then they somehow manage to strike targets in such a manner that they completely disable Israel’s ability to respond in kind.

Then what?

Iran would have just incinerated hundreds of thousands of people – a large portion of which would have been Muslims – and completely contaminated the entire Holy Land in the process. Israel is not very big, and it wouldn’t take much to completely poison the entire country. And let’s not forget that Islam’s third holiest site is located in Jerusalem, which would also be rendered uninhabitable.

So Iran has successfully vanquished their Zionist enemies, then what? The Palestinian diaspora is supposed to flood back to their ancestral lands waving the Iranian flag and praising the Ayatollah for his great victory because they now get to return to a toxic wasteland? Unlikely. And as a consequence, Iran has now greatly harmed countless Sunnis Arabs, which historically have been at odds with the Persian Shia.

So Iran has destroyed Israel with it’s brand new nuclear weapons, then what? They reap a bunch of imaginary Muslim “street cred” and then go back to business as usual?


First, the United States would be very upset at Iran for destroying one it’s closest allies. If the US didn’t immediately launch a full scale invasion of Iran on it’s own, they would certainly have the backing of the entire United Nations Security Council to do so, as well as to implement whatever sanctions it wanted.

If the United States were able to halt the supply of gasoline into Iran, many experts think that this alone would be enough to plunge the country into chaos. (Iran, while sitting on a sea of oil, has precious few refineries that can turn that oil into gasoline, which forces them to rely heavily on imports.) The United States, if finally able to implement a full array of sanctions, might not have to drop a single bomb in their effort to see regime change there. And it would all occur with the backing of the free world.

All this for what? So the Iranian regime can cement itself on the throne of Muslim warriors forever? It is unthinkable that the Ayatollah and his people would risk their survival for this reason. For one thing, they are already at the forefront of Israeli agitation, and they can stay there without challenge  just by making fiery anti-Zionist speeches and continuing to not-so-covertly aid Hamas and Hizballah.

So why all the fuss? Many in Israel are generally frightened over the prospect of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons which, given Jewish history, is to be expected. But for Israel’s policy makers, perhaps all this talk of the Iranian threat is useful to shape the debate and how the US deals with Iran, which Israel views as its greatest threat.

Indeed it seems extremely unlikely that Iran would launch a nuclear strike against Israel if given the opportunity.


Now let’s examine the situation from the Israeli point of view. If Israel launches a strike against Iran, there is a strong chance for events to escalate quickly to a level that Israel would not be comfortable with.

There is always the possibility that Israel could send bombers to Iran to take out their  nuclear installations and face no retaliation. Though highly unlikely, there is some precedent for this. In 2007, Israeli jets quietly flew into Syria and destroyed that country’s nascent nuclear energy program (which Syria was legally entitled to). There was no overt retaliation and Syrian officials barely mentioned the matter publicly, but its almost unfathomable that Iran would exercise that same restraint.

Iran’s main area of power and negotiation on the world stage is its nuclear energy program, and destroying that would not sit well with Tehran at all. In the case of Syria, their nuclear energy program was not as important to them publicly as Iran’s is, and anyway there was very little that Syria could do to Israel in response.

But Iran is not Syria. Iran has a substantial military, as well as countless proxies that the Revolutionary Guard has been training for the last thirty years. Hizballah and Hamas are only two. Tehran has many ways to strike back against Israel.

There is also the sentiment that, while the United States is the biggest player, Israel is the one with their finger on the trigger in this situation, and they are the ones who will decide the outcome. If Israel moves, the United States will be forced to move to.

So Israel bombs Iran, Iran tries to close the Strait of Hormuz, and the US is forced to intervene. Israel has just started a fight with one of the largest armies in the Middle East.

Iran was instrumental in forming Hizballah and has been contributing hundreds of millions of dollars to the group since the early 1980’s. If Iran finds itself under attack, there is little doubt that they will call in a big favor from Hizballah, meaning an assault from Israel’s northern border.

And Israel’s publicly stated policy with Hizballah is that if they harm a single Israeli, then they will take it as an act of aggression from the entire country of Lebanon, and Israel will respond as such. Israel nearly destroyed Lebanon in 2006, where Israel said that it acted with restraint because of a memo they received from President Bush at the time. Israeli officials have stated that in the event of a future attack, they would exercise no such “restraint”.

So Israel bombs Iran, Iran responds, and the US is forced to intervene. If we follow the scenario through, Hizballah would likely attack Israel. (Here, Hizballah would miss the genius arch-terrorist General Imad Mugniyeh, but there is probably some other man or men that could pick up where he left off. ) Then Israel would attack and destroy Lebanon. Now, not only is Israel at war on multiple fronts (Israel’s historic nightmare), but now it has lost the only thing it gained from the 2006 War: a stable northern border. And with all the ensuing chaos unfolding, its not hard to imagine Bashar Assad in Syria taking a swipe at the Golan Heights during Israel’s moment of weakness.

As previously stated, Iran is not Syria and a quick one time strike there without repercussions is highly unlikely.  Israel would be drawn into a potentially lengthy conflict. Maybe they could avoid this by the United States stepping in, but betting on that is both risky and foolish.

Israel, a nation of 7 million people, would most likely find itself at war with a nation of 66 million people, a third of which are fighting-aged men. A force that large could travel down through Syria (Iran’s close ally) and easily overwhelm the tiny nation.

Not to mention that a prolonged war with Iran would be incredibly destabilizing for Israel. Israel is a nation of the “citizen soldier on leave for 11 months a year”. They have a standing army, but in the face larger threat, the whole country mobilizes into wartime mode. People have to leave their jobs and productivity plummets. Their absence from the workplace saps the Israeli economy. While it may not be as bad as in past years, a prolonged engagement with Iran could likely destroy the Israeli economy for decades to come.

Another thing to consider is that Israel’s population is  25% Arab. This part of the country’s loyalty to the Israeli government is questionable, and it is unclear how they would respond in the event of their country going to war with a Muslim nation. How would the Arab Israelis react? At the very least, it would be unwise for the government to count on their full support.

Israel would also have the West Bank and the Gaza Strip to worry about while fighting Iran. If they rose up in a third intifada while Israel was at war with Iran, it would complicate matters significantly. If the situation spins out of control for Israel, we could see jihadists coming from all over the Muslim world to battle the “Zionist occupiers”, like we saw during with the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. Of course, none of these scenarios are guaranteed, but they must be considered by Israel’s policy makers.


So the United States attacks Iran to keep the Strait of Hormuz open in order to insure the continued flow of Gulf oil and to avert the world from an economic catastrophe.

At this time, it’s not even clear that Iran is capable of “closing” the Strait, but it could certainly significantly disrupt it. Is it worth it then for the United States to get involved in order to prevent this disruption?

The US is already fighting two very costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Those countries don’t even have armies, and it’s still very tough going for American forces there. Iran, on the other hand, has a sizable and formidable military. Even if the US and Israel manage to destroy Iran’s air force with a surprise attack, Iran can still make an extraordinary amount of trouble for the two countries.

For example, the United States could kiss goodbye all the progress it has made in Iraq over the last couple years. Contrary to popular belief, the calming down that occurred in Iraq in 2008 was not so much due to Bush’s troop surge as it was due to help from Iran.

For five years after the initial invasion, Iraq was plagued by sectarian violence and Iran was behind much of this. Washington’s aggressive posturing towards Iran directly resulted in the rising violence in Iraq. And soon after the Bush administration toned down its rhetoric, Iran acquiesced in Iraq.

Some of the most fearsome fighters in Iraq were Muqtada Sadr and his Sadr Militia. Sadr gave the US a tremendous amount of trouble in the slums of Sadr city and he could  not be vanquished. But one call from Tehran and he was back in Qom studying the Koran and out of  America’s hair.

Then, also with Iran pulling the strings, Iraq’s sizable Shia population was suddenly willing and eager to participate in the new government that was being formed. Iran had removed one half of the sectarian violence equation and it wasn’t long before Washington was talking about a withdrawal. None of this would have been possible without Iranian cooperation and it could all be unraveled with one word from Tehran. All of that would have to be weighed against a possible strike on Iran.

Also, the United States couldn’t just launch a few dozen Cruise missiles at Iran and be done with it. They would have to see it all the way through to regime change because there would be no going back. The Iranian regime would likely unleash everything it has in its nasty arsenal if faced with an existential threat like that. We could see the return of 1970’s level international terrorism.

The US would be at war on a 2000 mile front with three countries. This might have seemed possible under George W. Bush, but with Obama it’s muchless likely. The military is already greatly overextended in Iraq and Afghanistan and the economy is in a very fragile state. Going to war with Iran in order to ensure the flow of oil and to keep the world economy stable doesn’t really make much sense when you consider the implications of such actions. If Israel attacks Iran with the hope of American intervention, I hope they are sorely disappointed.


Israel bombs Iran, and the United States intervenes. And all of this is supposed to be due to the possibility of Iran trying to make nuclear weapons. Even the most conservative estimates put Iran  a year away from refining enough uranium for making a weapon. Iran has recently agreed to allow International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors in to see their newly unveiled nuclear operation outside of Qom. This is their obligation under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation treaty that they have signed.

Now, everyone already assumes that Israel has nuclear weapons. So if Iran develops their own, why would they use them on Israel when their destruction is mutually assured? One may accuse the regime in Tehran of religious fanaticism, but they are not suicidal. When faced with an existential threat, they will chose regime survival over their religious commitments, and in this way they are logical actors.

It’s not logical for Iran to attack Israel, and it’s not logical for Israel to attack Iran. Some in Israel may be frightened of Iran, with the disturbing rhetoric regarding “driving the Jews into the sea”, but this is not what is on the minds of the Israel’s policy makers. Right now, Israel is the only nation in the Middle East to possess nuclear weapons, and Iran acquiring them would greatly complicate the geopolitical landscape of the region forever.

Incidentally, this is why the United States is so concerned with the issue of Iran’s nuclear weapons  program. It’s not because Washington thinks Iran would actually use them, but because of the way it complicates things for the US in the future. Iran would have to be dealt with differently  if they possessed nuclear weapons. This is scary to Washington.

Another thing to consider is the idea that if Iran develops a  nuclear weapons program, then Saudi Arabia will want to as well, and the whole thing leads to more proliferation in a historically unstable region. One could argue however that Iran having nuclear weapons makes the region more stable not less, as the region’s most disruptive actor, Israel, would be severely curtailed in its hostilities. Israel would have to think twice before taking on Hizballah and destroying  Lebanon like they did in 2006.


The United States has a relatively long history with Iran. In 1953, the newly formed CIA overthrew a democratically elected government to install a king who was more sympathetic to American business interests. (Before we go any further, think of the irony of the United States overthrowing a democracy to install a king. It’s amazing.)

For the next quarter century, Iran was ruled by the brutal and oppressive king. In 1979, the  people had had enough and they overthrew him. But in stepped the Ayatollah Khomeini, who was extremely hostile to the United States. He was seething with hatred after witnessing of what Iran had went through at the hands of America’s puppet monarch. What we have now in Iran is a nation where half the people are for the Ayatollah and angry at the United States for messing in its affairs, and the other half is against the Ayatollah and angry at the United States for overthrowing the only democratically elected government Iran ever had.

In his fascinating book on the subject of the 1953 coup, Stephen Kinzer writes about the folly of attacking Iran in the current day:

“A variety of prominent Americans have described President George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq in 2003 as the worst strategic blunder in their country’s history. Attacking Iran right now might prove even more disastrous. It would turn that county’s oppressive leaders, who are now highly unpopular at home, into heroes of the Islamic resistance; give them a strong incentive to launch a violent counter-campaign against American interests around the world; greatly strengthen Iranian nationalism, Shiite irredentism, and Muslim extremism, thereby attracting countless new recruits to the cause of terror; undermine the democratic movement in Iran and destroy the prospect for political change for at least another generation; turn the people of Iran, who are now among the most pro-American in the Middle East, into enemies of the United States; require the United States to remain deeply involved in the Persian Gulf indefinitely, forcing it to take sides in all manner of regional conflicts and thereby making a host of new enemies; enrage the Shiite-dominated government in neighboring Iraq, on which the United States is relying to calm the violence there; and quite possibly disrupt the flow of Middle East petroleum in ways that could wreak havoc on Western economies.”


Iran doesn’t have nuclear weapons right now, and it is unlikely that they would use nuclear weapons against Israel even if they did have them. The consequence of such an action would vastly outweigh the symbolic value of wiping Israel off the map for good.

Also, it would be unwise for Israel to launch an attack of it’s own under the assumption of either American intervention or of Iranian non-response. That scenario is similar to  a child taking a swipe at the class bully when he knows the teacher is present. The child is relying too heavily on either the bully not reacting or  the teacher’s swift intervention, and that is not smart the because the teacher will not always be around to intervene, and the bully will not forget. And neither would Iran.

For America, attacking Iran either on Israel’s behalf or to keep the flow of Gulf oil going doesn’t make much sense either. America is stretched to the brink both militarily and economically, and American intervention in a dispute between Israel and Iran would surely lead to more chaos in the region, not less. In addition, the United States would not want to jeopardize all the progress that has been made in Iraq.

Today, eight countries are known to possess nuclear weapons: USA, UK, France, China, Russia, India, Israel and Pakistan. That does not include all the weapons that went missing after the breakup of the Soviet Union. The United States is the only country to ever use a nuclear weapon in the act of war. At this point, the United States should be more concerned with Pakistan’s arsenal, as that country is far more unstable than Iran and is besieged by the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, two groups that would actually use them if given the opportunity. On top of that are all the USSR nukes that are missing. Those are the two areas of nuclear security that seem to demand more attention than Iran.

Finally, in each case, the consequences of an attack outweigh the benefits. For Iran attacking Israel, for Israel attacking Iran, and for the United States attacking Iran, in each case the world would be made drastically more dangerous by action than by inaction. Washington needs to make it clear to Israel that the United States will not be drawn into a conflict with Iran, and make it clear to Iran that the United States will respond dramatically to the harming of one of its allies.

Right now, events seem to be progressing at a rapid speed in the wrong direction for all three parties.  Hopefully cooler heads will prevail.