The Unraveling Middle East

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To this can be added the upheaval in Yemen. Iran supports Shia rebels in that country, and can be expected to provide support for a new government if the current regime falls. Then there’s Bahrain. With its large Shia population, and given that it is headquarters for the U.S. 5th Fleet, the overthrow of the island emirate would transform the power balance in the Gulf. Already reports indicate that a Facebook group has been formed to call for protests in Qatar for March 16. Among the demands are the closing of a U.S. base and the Emir’s resignation. While there are calls for breaking ties to both Israel and Iran, events in Egypt are showing that Islamist forces—which would be backed by Iran here—can certainly gain stature, reversing any anti-Iranian positions.

The upheaval in Kuwait together with the probability of unrest in Saudi Arabia, would also benefit Iran, since there are large Shia populations in these Gulf States.

These developments would see Iran, by proxy, exercising control over several vital areas. The Red Sea could in effect be shut off to the West. The impunity with which Iranian ships passed through Suez means that even a pro-Western Egypt would be unlikely to return to Mubarak’s policy of blocking such transits. One hostile to the West could see the Canal closed off, with severe repercussions given that 20 percent of the world’s oil and 40 percent of its seaborne trade pass through it. A pro-Iranian Yemen could also jeopardize the Strait of Bab el-Mandeb, gateway to the Indian Ocean. Worse, Shia uprisings in the Gulf, especially Saudi Arabia, would directly threaten the key source of the global oil supply. Given the spike in prices that occurred after the upheaval in Libya, such a development would be catastrophic for the world economy. There is evidence that some of this is occurring. On February 5, Hamas saboteurs blew up Egypt’s main natural gas line to Israel and Jordan, causing massive increases to these countries’ energy bills. A February 26 attack on Iraq’s Baiji oil refinery, its largest, by al Qaeda cells controlled by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, caused severe damage, which could see it closed for weeks. All this helps increase world prices and, more importantly, add to instability in the region.

Such a chain of events could see Iran in a much stronger position than it was just a month ago. Given the messianic views of the current leadership, and its perception that the balance of power is shifting in their favor, a confrontation with the West becomes ever more likely.

(In Part 2, Iran’s military capabilities, together with its ties to proxies outside the Middle East, are examined.)

David Walsh has a Ph.D from the London School of Economics and is the author of book, The Military Balance in the Cold War: US Perceptions and Policy, 1976-85.

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  • Shel Zahav

    And yet, no Mohammed Jefferson or Mustapha Adams or Ahmed Franklin rises up among the Arabs. Only the ones who flee to professorships in the West.

  • Rossina

    David, I forwarded your article to my Occidental Petroleum clients in Bahrain and Qatar. Libya has been evacuated. You have your finger on the pulse!

  • artcohn

    In 1973/74 we learned of the strangle-hold that the Mid-East had on the supply and price of oil. Fpor al;most 40 years our political leaders have done little to rectify this enormous problem. They talk about Solar and Wind power. But these can NOT substite for oil's products (gasoline and diesel oil) use in moving vehicles until there is an adequate battery technology and a shift to plug-in cars.
    Europe is also under Russia's stranglehold on natural gas, and has not done much to protect itself.

  • Dan B.

    Part of the problem is the dynamic combination of social-media inventions like Facebook and Twitter along with uncontrollable inflow of petrodollars is a source of increasing turmoil. The very concept of "democracy" is being trivialized as the West is labeling every rebel group a democratic force, even when we know they have no likelihood of creating anything resembling democracy. Democracy has never meant anything to Islamic nations, and they could not even begin to define it.

    All of the ME countries are able to somehow subsidize their population's demands, including extra cheap gas and food. Egypt has kept the cost of a loaf of bread at a few cents, and their total subsidies are over $2 billion a year, about what the U.S. gives them. Other ME countries subsidize gas, which at over $100 a gallon will be around $250 billion a year in the ME. Until recently, gas in Iran was about $0.34 a gallon and is still about $0.75 in Venezuela, up from .12 cents. Some others: Egypt, $0.65, Nigeria $0.38; Kuwait, $0.78. The end result is their population has every reason to waste gas which is running out. The same handouts there are for food, shelter, education (male), medicine, etc. They are able to dish out our dollars to buy off their population and remain in control. And it's still falling apart!

    The West should shift gears immediately and tax all energy imports to keep the dollars at home. We already waste too much energy with oversized cars, unnecessary trips, air travel, on and on. Even if it causes economic hardship to those who waste energy, it will help the economy of the countries who have more to spend internally and less need for external oil-defense warfare. The easiest alternative to oil is to stop using as much – at least while the choice is still ours.

  • WilliamJamesWard

    We can drill here and drill now but for the leftist American Govenment and
    leftist interference in Congress, State Governments and City Government.
    We must clean house in America before we will be able to make a lasting
    difference in the Nations we have to deal with and understand just who
    we have use for or not. A complete reorganization of our relationships must
    be made with a new World view of who we are, what we can do and just
    how demoralized we have become because of the fifth column of socialist,
    communist, leftist undermining in every aspect of our lives. America must
    do more at home than abroad to make life worth living and provide a decent
    future to our children……………………………………………………………William