Friday, March 06, 2009

Strategic Games in the Middle East

Strategic Games in the Middle East

Ali Asghar Kazemi
March 5, 2009

On March 4, 2009 the Islamic Republic of Iran hosted a two-day international conference on Gaza and Israeli breach of humanitarian law and war crimes against Palestinians during the recent armed conflict between the two hostile parties. The conference took place after a similar meeting in Egypt backed by the United States for the reconstruction of Gaza Strip that endured severe material and human losses during the 22-day conflict. While the two conferences had more or less similar themes, they followed diverse objectives. The Gaza conflict can be visualized as a set of strategic games in which actors involved pursued different aims in the Middle East political arena.

How various actors perceive the games they are playing in the Middle East? What are the objectives, gains and losses pursued by rival states? What are the plausible outcome and implications of the games?

The United States under Obama appears to continue the traditional American policy of previous administrations in the Middle East namely: the unequivocal support of Israel and the establishment of a comprehensive and durable peace which would promote the stability of the region and interests of moderate Arab states and Israel. This policy can be characterized as a non-zero-sum benefiting all parties directly involved in the game.

The United States however perceive some obstacles on the way of this policy emanating from the Islamic regime of Iran.

Not long ago, on February 12, 2009, US Director of National Intelligence, Admiral (Ret) Dennis C. Blair provided a wide ranging assessment of threats involving the American security before the US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. Referring to Iran, Admiral Blair stated the following remarks:

· “Hezbollah is the largest recipient of Iranian financial aid, training, and weaponry, and Iran’s senior leadership has cited Hezbollah as a model for other militant groups. We assess Tehran has continued to provide Hezbollah with significant amounts of funding, training, and weapons since the 2006 conflict with Israel, increasing the group’s capabilities to pressure other Lebanese factions and to threaten Israel.”

· “Iran’s provision of training, weapons, and money to Hamas since the 2006 Palestinian elections has bolstered the group’s ability to strike Israel and oppose the Palestinian Authority.”

Tying together the Middle East peace process with Iran’s nuclear undertaking, Admiral Blair observed:

· “With Hamas in control of Gaza and Hezbollah growing stronger in Lebanon, progress on a Palestinian- Israeli accord is growing more difficult. With Iran developing a nuclear weapon capability and Israel determined not to allow it, there is potential for an Iran-Israeli confrontation or crisis on that issue as well.”

· “Moderate Arab states fear a nuclear-armed Iran, want progress on Palestinian settlement—the absence of which deprives US Arab allies of crucial political capital to defend strategic ties to the US and wish to sustain a moderate, state-centered politics for the region.”

The testimony further predicted that:

· “Progress on the Israeli-Palestinian peace track would increase opportunities for the US to broaden its engagement with Arab publics, including those aligning with the growing ideology of Islamic nationalism.”

· Israel and Iran are liable to enter into a confrontation or a crisis sometime this year (2009) “due to Tehran's progress in its nuclear weapons program and Jerusalem's determination to thwart it.”

This is to say that Israel fearing an Islamic regime with nuclear capability would not allow Iran to reach the point to threaten its survival and therefore there is potential for a clash between the two states. Israel has already shown its resolve in similar cases in Iraq and more recently in Syria.

With respect to varying intentions and perceptions behind rivalry in the Palestinian issue, they can be tentatively identified as follows:

Egypt, representing the pro-West moderate Arab states, tries to isolate Iran from the Middle Eastern issues related to Palestine and the peace process. Egypt seems to pursue a zero-sum-strategy which would exclude the Islamic regime from the game. To that end it intends to:

1. Strengthen Arab unity vis-à-vis Iran’s undesired interfering in the Palestinian problems;

2. Support the position of Mahmud Abbas as the legitimate Authority in all Palestinian territory including Gaza Strip;

3. Build a strong coalition of pro-West Arab states against the Islamic regime’s growing influence in the Middle East;

4. Take the initiative of the peace process by neutralizing all internal and external encumbering forces;

5. Ensure the continuity of incumbent moderate conservative regimes in the Middle East;

6. And finally, pave the way for a comprehensive peace settlement with Israel including all Arab states.

Iran also seems to be following a zero-sum strategy in a different direction with the intentions to:

1. Bring together all revolutionary movements in the region in a unified resistance front as leverage against the United States and its close ally Israel;

2. Demonstrate that it is the only true supporter and caring power for the Palestinian cause;

3. Show that no problem in the Middle East can be solved without its help;

4. Press on the Western powers that they should recognize Iran as an influential actor not only in the region but throughout the world;

5. Continue its nuclear undertaking without encumbrance from the 5+1 states, the Security Council or any other world bodies;

6. Consolidate and ensure its power grip in domestic affairs so that no opposition group could envisage challenging the regime.

Gaza crisis had already its impact over the elections in Israel and paved the way for the resurgence of the right wing to assume power. This means that reaching a just and equitable solution for the Palestine has become more difficult than ever. With respect to Iran’s nuclear venture, given President Obama’s reluctance to curb the presumed threat, Israel is susceptible to perceive still greater danger and may contemplate to engage in a real conflict with Iran.

With this somber and gloomy picture in the horizon of the Middle East political landscape, it does not seem that there would be a satisfactory outcome of the games in the foreseeable future, unless the parties involved change their rigid and uncompromising attitudes. In order to reach a mutually acceptable saddle point, actors are have to review their assessments and try to optimize their trade-offs in a non-zero-sum game with positive outcome which would benefit all parties concerned./


Ali Asghar Kazemi is Professor of Law and International Relations at the IAU, Science and Research Center, Tehran- Iran. For detail see:

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