The Unraveling Middle East, Part III

A look into the possible future of the region -- and the world.

[Editor's note: the following is the last installment of a three-part series. Click the following to read Part I and Part II.]

It is the near future. The Middle East has been shaken by violent upheaval. A bloody stalemate takes hold in Libya. A power struggle has developed in Egypt between the military and the Muslim Brotherhood, which has increased pressure in Jordan. The same is true in Yemen. Morocco, Algeria, Bahrain, Iraq, Kuwait and Oman have also seen growing unrest, with violent clashes. Egypt’s chaos has led to Hamas effectively controlling the Sinai, deploying guerrillas and rockets on Israel’s vulnerable Negev border. Tensions are high in Korea, while socialist Venezuela, faced with serious domestic troubles and buoyed by its alliance with Iran, is taking an aggressive stand against the U.S. These developments have had a debilitating effect on global markets. Oil is over $100 a barrel, while commodity prices have soared in the Middle East, stoking the upheaval.

For Iran, this growing crisis provides both danger and opportunity. The danger comes from growing unrest within, as the pro-democracy movement increasingly challenges the Mullahocracy. The opportunity comes from the developing global situation. Israel is effectively surrounded, with the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank forming a unity government with Hamas and Jordan unstable. With interests in the Middle East, Asia and Latin America under threat amidst growing economic turmoil, the U.S. global position is highly vulnerable. By contrast, Iran’s position has strengthened. With a naval base on Syria’s Mediterranean coast, unopposed transit for its warships through the Suez Canal and establishment of a missile base in Venezuela, Teheran has increased its military reach considerably.

The decision is thus taken to initiate hostilities in the Middle East. The flash point is Israel. The first day of war sees Iranian and Syrian ballistic missiles hit Israeli military targets (air and naval bases, missile sites, nuclear facilities), with others fired at cities like Tel Aviv and Haifa. This is followed up by Hezbollah forces, under cover of rocket bombardment, which invade Israel from Lebanon and, using surprise, capture large areas of Galilee. This throws Israeli forces onto the defensive and secures rear areas in Lebanon and Syria. From Gaza, Hamas and PIJ forces, also covered by a rocket barrage, launch attacks on Israeli border posts, while terrorist attacks are mounted from the West Bank and inside Israel through deep-cover cells. Attacks from Sinai further tie down Israeli forces, while a “Day of Rage” among Israeli Arabs causes additional disruption.

Syria provides air and artillery support for Hezbollah, then launches an assault on the Golan Heights, meaning Israel’s forces—exposed to the rear by Hezbollah—face an all-out conventional battle.

At this time, 2-3 days into the war, the main phase of Iran’s operation comes into effect.

Iranian forces make an air and amphibious assault on northwestern Oman, at the tip of the Strait of Hormuz. Using mines and fast attack craft supported by air units and missile batteries on islands just inside the Gulf, the Iranians effectively seal off this vital waterway. At the same time, Iranian midget subs and merchant ships mine the Strait of Bab el-Mandeb, off Yemen, and the Saudi ports on the Red Sea, closing this vital waterway. At the same time, IRGC forces launch deep-penetration raids into Afghanistan and Pakistan, coordinating with an Iranian-sponsored guerrilla and terror offensive. Finally, supported by radical Shia forces in Iraq, large Iranian forces invade the south of that country, seizing oilfields and cities like Basra. Similar Shia actions in Kuwait, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia wreak havoc with oil production and ease the way for direct Iranian military action.

Outside the Middle East, war also erupts. After weeks of violent border clashes, North Korea invades the South, using ballistic missiles to strike Japan. Venezuela alerts its forces and, together with Bolivia, institutes an economic embargo on the U.S., sending oil, silver and tin prices skyrocketing. Islamist terrorists, who have attacked oil facilities in Mexico and Nigeria, now move to launch mass attacks in North America, Western Europe and Australasia.

Thus, within the space of a week, the U.S. and its allies face a nightmare scenario. Israel is fighting for its life, while Iran is effectively securing the Persian Gulf. A second Korean war has broken out, and Venezuela is now moving to threaten Colombia and the sea lanes through the Caribbean. The world economy is in turmoil. Oil is now over $220 a barrel, and all commodity prices have soared. The disruption of global maritime traffic leads to shortages of foodstuffs and raw materials, with particularly devastating effects in developing countries.

Militarily, the U.S. is faced with having to wage two full-scale regional wars while having to face the possibility of conflict in Latin America. If Iranian missiles are deployed in Venezuela, U.S. naval and air forces would have to be diverted to eliminate this threat. With the limited power projection capabilities of its allies, the U.S. would be hard-pressed to deal with other contingencies (Somali pirates, for example), as well as intensified existing conflicts (Afghanistan). At home, the threat of mass terror attacks would strain law enforcement, intelligence and military efforts. Mass casualties, panic and disorder would combine with economic upheaval to seriously disrupt the social fabric of Western nations. The outcome of such a conflict for the West could be very much in doubt.

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.