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Thurday, August 5, 2010     INTELLIGENCE BRIEFING

Coming soon to theaters throughout the Mideast:
The rush to fill the vacuum of U.S. power

By Yossef Bodansky, Senior Editor, GIS/Defense & Foreign Affairs.

The lingering impact of the Aug. 3, clash on the Israeli-Lebanese border lies in the greater context of, and wider strategic dynamics in, the Middle East. These aspects were highlighted by Hizbullah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah in his speech later that day [see below].


Overall, the issue dominating the overall situation in the Middle East is the reaction by the local powers to the emerging new grand strategic reality: namely, the demise of the United States as the dominant regional power. This is a dramatic reversal of a concentrated U.S. policy of more than half a century.

Back in the Autumn of 1956, the U.S. intentionally undermined the strategic posture of two of its closest Cold War allies, Britain and France. In the late-1960s, the U.S. capitalized on the British unilateral withdrawal from the Persian Gulf and the active Soviet interceding in the Arab-Israeli conflict in order to consolidate the U.S. role as the dominant Western, and later global, power in the Middle East. This posture endured even after the U.S. betrayed its close ally — the Shah of Iran — and permitted the rise of the Islamic Republic in the late 1970s. Consequently, however, the U.S. has had to intensify its direct involvement in regional crises, culminating in the US active war-fighting in and against Iraq. Come Aug. 31, the U.S. will be abandoning it all with the disengagement from Iraqi security affairs and the beginning of a year-long withdrawal.

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Led by an assertive and determined Iran, the aspirant powers of the region cannot wait to fill the void that is already emerging as the U.S. is disengaging from military operations in Iraq and the Persian Gulf. This strategic posture is aptly demonstrated by the U.S. Barack Obama Administration’s explicit abandonment of the twin-pillars of the U.S. regional posture — Israel and Saudi Arabia — leaving them to cope on their own with a nuclear Iran. Moreover, the U.S. is exerting immense pressure on Israel not to strike Iran for fear of derailing the rapprochement with Iran which the Obama White House is seeking, and the possibility of Iranian retaliation against the remaining U.S. presence in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as the Persian Gulf energy infrastructure.

Tehran is cognizant of the significance of these developments. Iran had already started its drive to exploit and fill in vacuums created by the U.S. in the early 1990s. At the time, Iran exploited the widespread trauma as a result of the U.S. undermining and shaming of both (Iraq’s) nationalist Sunni Islam and (Saudi Arabia’s) traditional-conservative Sunni Islam in the 1990-1 Gulf War in order to push its own Shi’ite-based doctrine of revolutionary-militant Islam. By 1992, Sudan’s Hassan al-Turabi adapted the Iranian jihadist tenets and adopted them into the Sunni neo-salafite doctrine, thus setting the grounds for the ascent of the jihadist trend now popularly associated with Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and their supporters.

Presently, Tehran is ready to surge and exploit the far more significant vacuum which will be created by the U.S. de facto withdrawal from Iraq and Persian Gulf. The continued global preoccupation with Iran’s nuclear program serves Tehran’s interests for it constantly reminds friends and foes alike about Iran’s claim to regional and global preeminence. Tehran uses the nuclear crisis to project self-confidence and threaten its neighbors against counting on the U.S. to protect them.

The Obama Administration is playing into Iran’s hands. For example, on Aug. 1, the U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, publicly acknowledged that the U.S. had contingency plans for “the military options [which] have been on the table and remain on the table”, but quickly qualified that any military action against Iran could have “unintended consequences that are difficult to predict in what is an incredibly unstable part of the world”. This caveat did not prevent Tehran from issuing counter-threats on Aug. 3. “If any threat strikes against Iran, the Islamic Republic armed forces are fully prepared to counter them on the ground, sea and air,” IRGC Brig.-Gen. Ahmad-Reza Pourdastan stated. “Military threats of U.S. officials against the Islamic Republic are nothing new, we’re certain that the U.S. military forces are in an appalling condition. The increasing number of deaths and suicide among American forces attest to the failure of the U.S. in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

Just to be sure that Tehran’s message was not lost on the West Iran orchestrated on July 28, a non-lethal attack on the Japanese-owned supertanker M. Star while it traveled through the Strait of Hormuz. Apparently, the IRGC fired a few rockets/missiles with inert warheads at the supertanker, thus reminding everybody of Iran’s ability to do greater damage should Tehran choose to. No less important was the U.S. Fifth Fleet’s inability to prevent the attack, or identify and strike at the perpetrators. The recent claim by the Abdullah Azzam Brigades that the attack was carried out by a martyr-bomber named Ayyub Al Tayshan cannot be taken seriously because the dent in the tankers outer wall and damage to the crew’s cabin are the result of an external explosion and/or the impact of a projectile fired from sea-level; that is, a boat or a shore battery.

Concurrently, Tehran demonstrated its dominance over the key political developments in the Arab world using Damascus as the implementing proxy.

First came the Iran-sponsored mediation between various Shi’ite factions in Iraq. In late-July Tehran oversaw a series of meetings in Damascus between Iyad Allawi, Moqtada Sadr and Nouri al-Maliki in which the outline of a Shi’ite-wide coalition dominated by Tehran was formulated and agreed upon. It was in Damascus that all leading Shi’ite politicians agreed to Sadr’s demand that the U.S.-backed Maliki would not be elected to a second term specifically because of the U.S. endorsement. Former transitional Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, who had been unseated under U.S. pressure for his pro-Iran policies and replaced by Maliki, has emerged as the compromise candidate. Tehran’s overt dominance over the Iraqi Shi’ite political maneuvers — albeit in Damascus rather than Tehran — are a slap in the U.S. face.

In early August, Saudi Arabia’s King ‘Abdallah bin ‘Abd al-’Aziz al Sa’ud traveled to Damascus in order to confer with President Bashar al-Assad. King ‘Abdallah’s primary objective was to explore ways to prevent the eruption of violence in and from Lebanon. Riyadh is most worried about Tehran using the Hizbullah in order to provoke a regional war with Israel, a war which Iran would then be able to exploit in order to further its regional aspirations to the detriment of Riyadh’s vital interests.

Given Tehran’s penchant for exploiting U.S. election seasons for strategic gambits, and given Washington’s indecisiveness and weakness, the King had just experienced first-hand in his visit with Obama, King ‘Abdallah’s apprehension is warranted. Bashar al-Assad made it clear he would not break his close ties with Iran which he considers to be the guarantor of his survival. However, Bashar agreed with King ‘Abdallah that the eruption of violence in Lebanon would be counterproductive. Essentially, King ‘Abdallah and Bashar have a common short-term objective but conflicting and contradictory long-term goals. Both want to prevent in the near-term a major war which would involve Israel and Iran. In the near-term, King ‘Abdallah fears the ensuing ascent of Iran at the expense of Saudi Arabia, while Bashar fears the destruction of Syria by a vengeful Israel which might lead to his toppling by the Sunni majority.

In the long-term, however, King ‘Abdallah dreads the ascent of Shi’ite Iran while Bashar considers Shi’ite Iran and the Hizbullah as the saviors of the Allawites’ hold onto power against Syria’s Sunni majority.

Hence, King ‘Abdallah and Assad traveled together to Beirut in order to convince Prime Minister Saad Hariri not to challenge Nasrallah’s ascent, fearing that Nasrallah would react with fury to any limit on his power and thus instigate a crisis that would escalate out of control. Just to make sure there was no “misunderstanding” by Hariri, Bashar or King ‘Abdallah, on August 3, 2010, Nasrallah instigated the clash on the border with Israel in order to demonstrate that he could both provoke and flare-up a war (as he did in the Summer of 2006), and that the Hizbullah was in control of the Lebanese Armed Forces or at the least their Shi’ite units.

That evening Nasrallah delivered a major speech in which he stressed the strategy and objectives of Iran and Hizbullah.

“Today we are marking four years since the Lebanon’s victory over the strongest and most terrorist military in the region,” Nasrallah declared. He quickly tied this anniversary with the clashes on the Israeli-Lebanese border earlier that day. “I wanted to start on this topic, but what happened today on the border between Lebanon and Palestine, in which officers and soldiers from our national military fought a battle of heroism, necessitates mention of their strong stance and their sacrifice.” Nasrallah stressed that the latest clashes were an integral part of a continued Israeli aggression against Lebanon. “Israel’s aggression against Lebanon, its land, and its sovereignty never ceased, but continues in various ways. It has manifested itself in no less than 7,000 Israeli violations of Lebanese sovereignty since Aug. 14, 2006, over which the world prefers not to open its mouth. These violations occur in the air, land, and sea, and what we saw today was just another expression of this.” Hizbullah, Nasrallah stressed, had been the primary guarantor of Lebanon and its interests throughout this period.

Nasrallah then stressed that Hizbullah intentionally stayed out of the latest clash out of respect for the wishes of the Lebanese Armed Forces. Hizbullah notified the Lebanese Army during the first moments of the clash of its willingness to help. “From the first moment, the opposition went on high alert in the region, followed all the events, and was in contact with the command headquarters. We notified the Lebanese military: We are prepared, we are with you, and we will help you with everything, if needed. Our people and our equipment stand at your disposal,” Nasrallah said. The decision on the extent of Hizbullah’s involvement was reached in direct consultations between Hizbullah and the highest ranking officials in Beirut.

“We also contacted the president, the parliament chairman, and the prime minister and updated them on this. We told them that we will not initiate any move, despite the painful images we saw. They asked for a quiet and responsible opposition. The message was clear to the Israeli enemy: Lebanon, all of Lebanon, will not leave any aggression on its occupied land unanswered and will stand by this courageously,” Nasrallah explained.

Nasrallah then addressed Israel and warned of the dire consequences of any Israeli aggression against Lebanon. “You are the ones threatening war, but Lebanon is not afraid of confronting you. All of the military alignments you dealt with are above the surface, but they are within fortified embankments. Even though we don’t have equipment on the same level, our fighters fight with courage and shocked them.” Nasrallah threatened that Hizbullah “is on alert and is ready to help the military in all the villages on the front. We are not concerned and are not hysterical like their coward settlers. The nation, the opposition, and the military have paid in blood for this act of heroism, but they did not bear fruit. Officers and soldiers in the Lebanese military are our brothers and loved ones. How could it be that the opposition will sit with its armed crossed from now on as the military is bombed? I will saw honestly: We will not sit with arms crossed, and the Israeli hand outstretched to strike the Lebanese military will be cut off by the opposition.”

Nasrallah then shifted to the original theme of his speech: the possibility that Hizbullah officials would be indicted by the International Special Tribunal investigating the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri in February 2005. Originally, the Tribunal identified and was ready to indict senior Syrian intelligence officials and their accomplices in Lebanese intelligence. However, this option was put aside for political reasons and alternate low-risk approaches — such as blaming Hizbullah — were explored. Nasrallah, however, is adamant on avoiding any accusation of the Hizbullah. After all, Syrian intelligence killed Hariri while the Hizbullah’s security command only provided look-outs and perimeter security. Therefore, Nasrallah made Bashar a veiled offer which he knew Bashar could not refuse. Hizbullah would launch a propaganda campaign shifting the blame onto Israel. Any attempt by Damascus to interfere with this campaign would result in the exposure of the Syrian role.

Nasrallah blamed Israel for exploiting the tragic demise of Hariri for its own nefarious objectives. “They [Israel] speak of a big explosion, a civil war, crisis, and more. We want to expose the truth surrounding the circumstances of al-Hariri’s death, something that from our perspective is the right of every Lebanese. We want to protect the unity of Lebanon and the well-being of its citizens.”

Nasrallah then promised to reveal in a week time the whole truth about Hariri’s assassination and the responsibility of Israel. “This coming Monday [Aug. 9], I will hold a press conference during which I will present evidence of Israel’s involvement in the al-Hariri assassination and the goings-on in the international tribunal in The Hague. We will present significant proof that Israel, via its agents, tried to convince al-Hariri already in 1993 that Hizbullah wants to assassinate him. We blame the Israeli enemy for the assassination, and the figures I will reveal will open new horizons in the investigation that will lead to the identity of the true murderer.”

And with that promise, Tehran and Hizbullah have wrested control over the political dynamic in Beirut, Damascus, and in effect the entire Arab world. And the threat of a regional explosion keeps rising.

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