Monthly Archives: June 2010

Saudi Arabia gives Israel flight corridor to attack Iran: Regional reasoning

On June 11th the Saudis merely shared with Israel a mutual distrust of Iran. On June 12th the Saudis leveraged this by going public with their plan to grant Israel an open flight corridor for airstrikes on Iran. This means, at least on the surface, that Israel would have an alternate route available if the Americans were not in agreement with an attack.

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If you don’t get this, do not panic

This was surprising to people whose only knowledge of Middle Eastern politics is that Arabs and Jews don’t tend to get on well. This move has its foundations in geopolitics, however, and geopolitical thinking tends to trump ethnic friction — even Jew-hating — at a policy level (it doesn’t stop individuals from being difficult about this, however). This announcement is Saudi’s public response to an Iranian statement which came a day prior that they would “inspect” ships in the Strait of Hormuz if ships bound for Iran were messed with. This, of course, was just a veiled threat to close the Strait if Iran feels too pressured. And Iran might be feeling a lot of pressure these days considering Russia’s announcement a day prior they are not only supporting the new round of American sanctions (toothless though they are) but also suspending S-300 missile sales to Iran. Russia now claims that the missiles are banned by the intent of the sanction resolution, despite the verbage Russia quietly inserted into the document which specifically exempts S-300 sales from the ban. This is a major reversal and has Iran feeling very isolated and alone.

The Iranians have Saudi (and the global economic recovery at that) by the balls in one very important respect: they can threaten the Strait of Hormuz. Around four fifths of the world’s oil supplies pass through the narrow waterway, making it one of the narrowest yet busiest shipping lanes in the world. If Iran were to start stopping ships to “inspect” them it would impact the price of oil, immediately causing a spike in general energy prices and thus threaten the global economic recovery by pushing already thin European margin expectations lower. [Link to Reuters story detailing some of this. It doesn’t get into much depth but does give a hint at the gravity of this threat.] If Iran wanted to be really mean it could drop (or merely act as though it has dropped) a few mines in the lane somewhere and even without an actual incident global shipping insurance would skyrocket, thus causing an even more massive spike in oil prices until de-mining operations concluded (which could take months depending on the situation). This — the very credible threat Iran poses to global oil supplies — is dictated by geography and therefore cannot be easily mitigated or averted. It is this sort of geographically dictated balance which forces a certain uneasy balance in the Middle East.

But what could upend the balance and force the location of a new one?

Turkey’s rise on the political scene poses problems for Iran as well as Egypt because it upstages both of them in their attempts to be the political face of the Middle East (Egypt is already the public face of the Arab countries). Turkey is still trying to stir the pot using the flotilla incident as a spoon in the Jew-hate stew, but how effective that will continue to be is questionable at this point as there are limits to the utility of Israel-bashing and that sort of play can be easily trumped by an Iranian threat to Persian Gulf shipping. But how to shift this balance entirely and create a new, more stable political power structure in the Middle East that would endure beyond a quick undercutting move by someone with geographic leverage?

Unfortunately for the Middle Eastern states, the geography of the region dictates that Turkey will be the only country with enough independent clout to not rely on a coalition, while Saudi will continue to have the big money clout and Iran will have the destructive power to threaten the whole system. So each is limited by another in some way but not in a stable or predictable way because each only has a single type of influence each: the influence of access (Turkey), the influence of generative power (Saudi), and the influence of destructive power (Iran). Of course, in all of this Saudi’s voice in international politics is already a fair bit smaller than Egypt — a gatekeeper state itself — whose voice is a fair bit smaller than Turkey.

So what is a way to decisively change the outlook in the region? It is impossible to remove Iran from the shores of the Strait, impossible to remove Turkey from being the access point (geographically as well as politically and culturally) between Europe and Asia as well as the absolute gatekeeper to Black Sea access, impossible to un-deposit the oil present in Saudi Arabia and impossible to revoke Egyptian control of the Suez Canal. The only way to significantly alter the balance would be to alter the implications of one of these geographic factors. The simplest of these to change would be the effect Iran can have by being on the shores of the Strait of Hormuz.

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The three regional choke-points which channelize shipping and offer threat leverage to the states that border them.

Currently the Strait is significant because most of the world’s oil flows through it. But what if that could be somehow avoided and an already strong (but usually muted) regional player were brought into the calculation from an unexpected angle? If Saudi were to fund the construction of a pipeline which bypassed the Persian Gulf entirely, but did not run to the Red Sea (which could merely create two new gatekeeper states if and when the political winds shift: Egypt on the north end with the Suez and Yemen or any number of African States on the other), but rather ran a much more secure route to the Mediterranean Sea through Israel.

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The pipeline would have branches running from the countries over which Saudi needs to gain influence; most notable are Kuwait, Iraq UAE and Qatar.

Israel sounds like an unlikely choice, and it is, but that is one reason it would be a very secure relationship for the Saudis. Pushing oil through the port at Yaffo or Haifa would not cost very much as pipelines go, be much cheaper and less technically (and politically) challenging than the Nordstream project, instantly undercut the Iranian’s Hormuz threat and easily pay for itself over the life of the project. It would also secure but not empower Israel without undercutting the Egyptian position. If the pipeline were built with regional instead of just Saudi oil export in mind, Iraq, the UAE, Qatar, Yemen, etc. would all suddenly find their interests in line with the Saudis and Israelis on many issues because of the cheap, secure route now available for their oil. The pipeline route would be the preferred route for European and American oil exports in the best of times and a ready alternative in the worst.

But wouldn’t that give Israel a lever in the Arab states and undue influence? A lever, yes. Undue influence? No. The traditional Persian Gulf route would continue to exist. It would be as easy for Saudi to shut Israel out of the loop as it would be for them to shut the Iranians out. The difference is that Iran is a threat to Saudi, but Israel is not. As the formerly combative states neighboring Israel have found in the past forty years or so, there are significant benefits to cooperation with Israel and no real downside. Egyptian and Israeli policy are in lock-step, the Jordanians get their ocean access through Israel (not Syria and Lebanon), and even Syria coordinates most of what they are up to with Israel. There are social frictions but no concrete geopolitical reasons to move against this — and the social frictions are easy to overcome by subtly slowing or stopping the anti-Jewish media propaganda, a move which costs nothing.

Cutting Iran out of the influence game and removing the teeth from its threats could significantly shift the balance of the region. This could happen in a way that would likely avert widescale military conflict because it would promote a more stable situation. Turkey would now be in competition against a Saudi/Israel/Egypt bloc while Iran merely attempted to focus on Iraq and affecting a re-alignment with the US. Of course, Iran’s Iraq control plays would be made more difficult by the new influence Saudi could exert by lording its control of Iraq’s new Mediterranean pipeline access over it, but this represents a profitable diversity of options for Iraq, not further limitations.

Altering this energy export situation would force a realignment across the region which would, over the long term, promote stability because it merely increases creative options while limiting destructive ones. It would diversify the political economy instead of raising barriers to competitive entry — to put it in power game terms.

So will we see something like this? Possibly. But who knows. Never underestimate the Arab states’ ability to never miss a chance at missing a chance.

Iran trying to steal anti-Israel spotlight from Turkey

As I mentioned in my hasty article about the fallout of the Gaza blockade stunt, Iran is not likely to let the anti-Jewish scoreboard alone at Turkey-31,457 Iran-31,456. I had mentioned Hezbollah as a likely conduit for their publicity garnering impulses, but perhaps that was a bit hasty of me. Hezbollah is, after all, a semi-independent organization which has various power factions of its own pulling in different directions (some of them possibly away from Iran).

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Hezbollah’s existence being technically independent of Iran makes Hezbollah a great vehicle of Iranian terror while being very much a tool of political plausible deniability. This is the largest reason the previous Bush administration labelled “state sponsors of terror” to be just as bad as the terrorist groups themselves — because the terrorists generally cater to the sponsoring nation’s foreign policy goals or are, in fact, direct tools of that nation’s policy.

That being the case, however, the whole purpose of having a surrogate militant organization is to not be seen as directly doing bad things yourself. It’s all right and fine for Iran to talk about wanting to murder every Jew on the planet and that the-Holocaust-never-happened-but-it-should, but actually having your military go out and murder Jews is another thing altogether. You can sponsor all the racism rallies you want but the moment you start shooting people is where lines start getting crossed (accept in Africa). For example, the sanctions efforts against Iran would look quite different were the IRGC to be seen landing on the beaches of Tel Aviv in uniform shooting kids. Instead they stand up and sponsor a surrogate organization to do those things and they therefore have a solid layer of political deniability for those actions.

And herein lies the flaw in my thinking. A political layer of deniability is precisely what Iran does not need when it comes to stealing center stage back from Turkey in the anti-Jewish tragedy. Iran needs to make itself appear to be doing things which are very direct and deliberate. And those things can’t be seen as directly targeting the Israeli civilian population. Targeting the Israeli civilian population is something that can happen on a routine basis, but not when the world’s media is focused in on Israel. Most people around the world see the relatively affluent, educated (gorgeous) Israelis and the relatively destitute Palestinians (well, specifically the Gazans, the West Bank variety are doing quite well these days) and assume something horribly unfair must be going on. Instead of making the boring, easy to support assumption that Israeli business and social practices work better than backward death cult superstition, they instead take the much more exciting and difficult to substantiate tack that the Jews are somehow screwing the Arabs out of something. Attacking Israeli civilians right now would cast the anti-Jewish camp in a surprisingly negative light globally in the West and undermine the global sympathy which has been so carefully sown through years of media use and is currently being reaped to great reward by the Turks.

So how does Iran put itself back in the limelight without provoking a massive Western backlash? By simply copying the Turkish playbook, that’s how. To that end Iran has settled on doing three things (today’s news links to each):

  • Offering military escort to Gaza-bound ships. This would guarantee a military (and likely short, one-sided) confrontation with the IDF. The confrontation would not go in Iran’s favor — and for this reason this course of action is highly unlikely to be actually carried out — but the public sympathy generated could potentially be enormous.
  • Offering the Iranian Red Crescent to deliver aid. This would also guarantee some sort of military confrontation, and while the result would not be as spectacular (in the sense that fireworks are spectacular) the media effect would likely be only slightly less than the Turkish experiment was. This is a potentially wise move, but for the fact that Hamas is not entertaining the idea — perhaps not willing to be seen standing between Turkey and Iran and thereby polluting the issue.
  • Being the first to press with maritime Gaza news. When you’re first to press you can spin the story a certain way. Today the Israelis interdicted an unusual maritime Hamas attack effort, killing four or five infiltrators at sea. By any national security standard this is a good thing, but the way it was spun in the Iranian press was brilliant. The stories carried the headline “Israel kills four Palestinians off the shore of Gaza” instead of “IDF interdicts terrorist attack squad at sea” — a natural and easy twist of words. This is something Iran is already expert at, and also is something most folks disregard out of hand. Accept that right now the world is enthralled by anything said about Israelis and water.

So that’s about it. A second hasty article. I still believe the possibility of eventual Hezbollah involvement in the issue is very high, but that it will come at a later time. Iran is currently very uncomfortable with the way the Russians have pulled away from them in their American sanction-dodging efforts and is feeling very threatened by the sudden spike in Turkish popularity with the global anti-Jewish political base.

This should be interesting to pay attention to.

Flotilas and the Wars of Public Opinion

Here is a report from Stratfor about the Turkish convoy incident. It covers most of the same ground that I did while the event was still unfolding, but is far more concise (and benefits from a rigorous review and revision process whereas my pile of words was a once-through speed write/brain dump). This article includes some historical parallel in the body of the Operation Exodus concept, but leaves out most of the response scenarios I mentioned. Its fallout scenarios focus instead on the potential long-term trend of Israeli political isolation and its effects.

Stratfor is, as usual, on the ball and as usual George Friedman demonstrates that he is a far more elegant writer than I am (and he better be, this is his job, not hobby). Enjoy.

This report is republished with permission of STRATFOR

By George Friedman

On Sunday, Israeli naval forces intercepted the ships of a Turkish nongovernmental organization (NGO) delivering humanitarian supplies to Gaza. Israel had demanded that the vessels not go directly to Gaza but instead dock in Israeli ports, where the supplies would be offloaded and delivered to Gaza. The Turkish NGO refused, insisting on going directly to Gaza. Gunfire ensued when Israeli naval personnel boarded one of the vessels, and a significant number of the passengers and crew on the ship were killed or wounded.

Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon charged that the mission was simply an attempt to provoke the Israelis. That was certainly the case. The mission was designed to demonstrate that the Israelis were unreasonable and brutal. The hope was that Israel would be provoked to extreme action, further alienating Israel from the global community and possibly driving a wedge between Israel and the United States. The operation’s planners also hoped this would trigger a political crisis in Israel.

A logical Israeli response would have been avoiding falling into the provocation trap and suffering the political repercussions the Turkish NGO was trying to trigger. Instead, the Israelis decided to make a show of force. The Israelis appear to have reasoned that backing down would demonstrate weakness and encourage further flotillas to Gaza, unraveling the Israeli position vis-à-vis Hamas. In this thinking, a violent interception was a superior strategy to accommodation regardless of political consequences. Thus, the Israelis accepted the bait and were provoked.

The ‘Exodus’ Scenario

In the 1950s, an author named Leon Uris published a book called “Exodus.” Later made into a major motion picture, Exodus told the story of a Zionist provocation against the British. In the wake of World War II, the British — who controlled Palestine, as it was then known — maintained limits on Jewish immigration there. Would-be immigrants captured trying to run the blockade were detained in camps in Cyprus. In the book and movie, Zionists planned a propaganda exercise involving a breakout of Jews — mostly children — from the camp, who would then board a ship renamed the Exodus. When the Royal Navy intercepted the ship, the passengers would mount a hunger strike. The goal was to portray the British as brutes finishing the work of the Nazis. The image of children potentially dying of hunger would force the British to permit the ship to go to Palestine, to reconsider British policy on immigration, and ultimately to decide to abandon Palestine and turn the matter over to the United Nations.

There was in fact a ship called Exodus, but the affair did not play out precisely as portrayed by Uris, who used an amalgam of incidents to display the propaganda war waged by the Jews. Those carrying out this war had two goals. The first was to create sympathy in Britain and throughout the world for Jews who, just a couple of years after German concentration camps, were now being held in British camps. Second, they sought to portray their struggle as being against the British. The British were portrayed as continuing Nazi policies toward the Jews in order to maintain their empire. The Jews were portrayed as anti-imperialists, fighting the British much as the Americans had.

It was a brilliant strategy. By focusing on Jewish victimhood and on the British, the Zionists defined the battle as being against the British, with the Arabs playing the role of people trying to create the second phase of the Holocaust. The British were portrayed as pro-Arab for economic and imperial reasons, indifferent at best to the survivors of the Holocaust. Rather than restraining the Arabs, the British were arming them. The goal was not to vilify the Arabs but to villify the British, and to position the Jews with other nationalist groups whether in India or Egypt rising against the British.

The precise truth or falsehood of this portrayal didn’t particularly matter. For most of the world, the Palestine issue was poorly understood and not a matter of immediate concern. The Zionists intended to shape the perceptions of a global public with limited interest in or understanding of the issues, filling in the blanks with their own narrative. And they succeeded.

The success was rooted in a political reality. Where knowledge is limited, and the desire to learn the complex reality doesn’t exist, public opinion can be shaped by whoever generates the most powerful symbols. And on a matter of only tangential interest, governments tend to follow their publics’ wishes, however they originate. There is little to be gained for governments in resisting public opinion and much to be gained by giving in. By shaping the battlefield of public perception, it is thus possible to get governments to change positions.

In this way, the Zionists’ ability to shape global public perceptions of what was happening in Palestine — to demonize the British and turn the question of Palestine into a Jewish-British issue — shaped the political decisions of a range of governments. It was not the truth or falsehood of the narrative that mattered. What mattered was the ability to identify the victim and victimizer such that global opinion caused both London and governments not directly involved in the issue to adopt political stances advantageous to the Zionists. It is in this context that we need to view the Turkish flotilla.

The Turkish Flotilla to Gaza

The Palestinians have long argued that they are the victims of Israel, an invention of British and American imperialism. Since 1967, they have focused not so much on the existence of the state of Israel (at least in messages geared toward the West) as on the oppression of Palestinians in the occupied territories. Since the split between Hamas and Fatah and the Gaza War, the focus has been on the plight of the citizens of Gaza, who have been portrayed as the dispossessed victims of Israeli violence.

The bid to shape global perceptions by portraying the Palestinians as victims of Israel was the first prong of a longtime two-part campaign. The second part of this campaign involved armed resistance against the Israelis. The way this resistance was carried out, from airplane hijackings to stone-throwing children to suicide bombers, interfered with the first part of the campaign, however. The Israelis could point to suicide bombings or the use of children against soldiers as symbols of Palestinian inhumanity. This in turn was used to justify conditions in Gaza. While the Palestinians had made significant inroads in placing Israel on the defensive in global public opinion, they thus consistently gave the Israelis the opportunity to turn the tables. And this is where the flotilla comes in.

The Turkish flotilla aimed to replicate the Exodus story or, more precisely, to define the global image of Israel in the same way the Zionists defined the image that they wanted to project. As with the Zionist portrayal of the situation in 1947, the Gaza situation is far more complicated than as portrayed by the Palestinians. The moral question is also far more ambiguous. But as in 1947, when the Zionist portrayal was not intended to be a scholarly analysis of the situation but a political weapon designed to define perceptions, the Turkish flotilla was not designed to carry out a moral inquest.

Instead, the flotilla was designed to achieve two ends. The first is to divide Israel and Western governments by shifting public opinion against Israel. The second is to create a political crisis inside Israel between those who feel that Israel’s increasing isolation over the Gaza issue is dangerous versus those who think any weakening of resolve is dangerous.

The Geopolitical Fallout for Israel

It is vital that the Israelis succeed in portraying the flotilla as an extremist plot. Whether extremist or not, the plot has generated an image of Israel quite damaging to Israeli political interests. Israel is increasingly isolated internationally, with heavy pressure on its relationship with Europe and the United States.

In all of these countries, politicians are extremely sensitive to public opinion. It is difficult to imagine circumstances under which public opinion will see Israel as the victim. The general response in the Western public is likely to be that the Israelis probably should have allowed the ships to go to Gaza and offload rather than to precipitate bloodshed. Israel’s enemies will fan these flames by arguing that the Israelis prefer bloodshed to reasonable accommodation. And as Western public opinion shifts against Israel, Western political leaders will track with this shift.

The incident also wrecks Israeli relations with Turkey, historically an Israeli ally in the Muslim world with longstanding military cooperation with Israel. The Turkish government undoubtedly has wanted to move away from this relationship, but it faced resistance within the Turkish military and among secularists. The new Israeli action makes a break with Israel easy, and indeed almost necessary for Ankara.

With roughly the population of Houston, Texas, Israel is just not large enough to withstand extended isolation, meaning this event has profound geopolitical implications.

Public opinion matters where issues are not of fundamental interest to a nation. Israel is not a fundamental interest to other nations. The ability to generate public antipathy to Israel can therefore reshape Israeli relations with countries critical to Israel. For example, a redefinition of U.S.-Israeli relations will have much less effect on the United States than on Israel. The Obama administration, already irritated by the Israelis, might now see a shift in U.S. public opinion that will open the way to a new U.S.-Israeli relationship disadvantageous to Israel.

The Israelis will argue that this is all unfair, as they were provoked. Like the British, they seem to think that the issue is whose logic is correct. But the issue actually is, whose logic will be heard? As with a tank battle or an airstrike, this sort of warfare has nothing to do with fairness. It has to do with controlling public perception and using that public perception to shape foreign policy around the world. In this case, the issue will be whether the deaths were necessary. The Israeli argument of provocation will have limited traction.

Internationally, there is little doubt that the incident will generate a firestorm. Certainly, Turkey will break cooperation with Israel. Opinion in Europe will likely harden. And public opinion in the United States — by far the most important in the equation — might shift to a “plague-on-both-your-houses” position.

While the international reaction is predictable, the interesting question is whether this evolution will cause a political crisis in Israel. Those in Israel who feel that international isolation is preferable to accommodation with the Palestinians are in control now. Many in the opposition see Israel’s isolation as a strategic threat. Economically and militarily, they argue, Israel cannot survive in isolation. The current regime will respond that there will be no isolation. The flotilla aimed to generate what the government has said would not happen.

The tougher Israel is, the more the flotilla’s narrative takes hold. As the Zionists knew in 1947 and the Palestinians are learning, controlling public opinion requires subtlety, a selective narrative and cynicism. As they also knew, losing the battle can be catastrophic. It cost Britain the Mandate and allowed Israel to survive. Israel’s enemies are now turning the tables. This maneuver was far more effective than suicide bombings or the Intifada in challenging Israel’s public perception and therefore its geopolitical position (though if the Palestinians return to some of their more distasteful tactics like suicide bombing, the Turkish strategy of portraying Israel as the instigator of violence will be undermined).

Israel is now in uncharted waters. It does not know how to respond. It is not clear that the Palestinians know how to take full advantage of the situation, either. But even so, this places the battle on a new field, far more fluid and uncontrollable than what went before. The next steps will involve calls for sanctions against Israel. The Israeli threats against Iran will be seen in a different context, and Israeli portrayal of Iran will hold less sway over the world.

And this will cause a political crisis in Israel. If this government survives, then Israel is locked into a course that gives it freedom of action but international isolation. If the government falls, then Israel enters a period of domestic uncertainty. In either case, the flotilla achieved its strategic mission. It got Israel to take violent action against it. In doing so, Israel ran into its own fist.