The balance of power is changing in the volatile region.
[Editor's note: the following is the first installment of a three-part series. Part two will appear in Monday's issue.]
The Middle East is in the grip of unprecedented upheaval. Libya is torn by civil war. Egypt and Tunisia have seen their long-time leaders ousted. Bahrain, Jordan and Yemen are wracked by protests, as is Saudi Arabia, with more planned in Lebanon and Kuwait. Oman has seen violence, and demonstrations swept Iraq as well. Both Algeria and Morocco are also experiencing unrest.
The causes of these uprisings are varied but unsurprising. Political repression, corruption, and poverty are key issues to the throngs that have taken to the streets. These complaints have been long-simmering, and while the scope of the protests has been surprising, the fact that popular unrest has occurred is not.
What has not been fully foreseen is just what effect these events will have on the balance of power in the Middle East, and across the globe. While the chaos is perplexing, a more disturbing scenario is beginning to emerge. While it might not be directly involved in every case of upheaval, Iran is becoming a clear beneficiary of it. Indeed, it may be that we are witnessing a major shift in the geopolitical balance of world power, one that could pit Iran against the West in a global conflict.
Already, there are signs of Iran’s taking advantage of the situation for its benefit. On February 24, two Iranian warships transited the Suez Canal and docked at the Syrian port of Latakia. Two days later, Iran and Syria signed an accord providing for an Iranian naval base at the port. This is a profound development. An Iranian base in the Mediterranean allows Teheran to considerably expand its naval reach, which has been growing thanks to exercises in the Red Sea. Along with such overt activity, Iran has benefited from developments in Egypt in other ways. The once-tight control Egypt exercised in the Sinai has been seriously weakened. This has allowed Hamas, backed by Iran, to infiltrate from Gaza, and for Hamas and Hezbollah terrorists to break out of Egyptian jails. Thus Iran’s proxies threaten Israel along its long and vulnerable Sinai border, adding to the pressure Israel faces from Gaza and Lebanon. Moreover, the growing influence of the Muslim Brotherhood in post-Mubarak Egypt, and its close ties to Iran, might see a pro-Iranian state emerge, which would have severe strategic consequences for the West.
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.