Syrian spring, Iran’s winter?

Syria, more than any other country affected by the Arab Spring, best illustrates the limitations of ‘old regimes’ in the face of people power

The first unwitting casualty of the rising tensions in the Arabian Gulf in a US election year was a hapless Indian fisherman who died in a hail of bullets unleashed by nervous American sailors aboard the USNS Rappahannock at the mouth of the UAE port Jebel Ali.

India’s diplomatic machinery quickly worked the levers of the UAE government; Dubai’s police chief took the Americans to task and the Americans, in turn, were duly apologetic for their blunder.
Had the fisherman been from any other country, notably Iran — on edge as its nuclearisation is stymied, and its last ally Syria spins out of control — such a shooting would have set off a far messier diplomatic incident, perhaps even the spark for the much talked of confrontation between Washington and Tehran.
Therefore, while fisherman Sekar’s death may test India-US ties, already strained by US President Barack Obama’s election tirade against Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s restrictive trade practices, it can be no more than a brief footnote. A far greater challenge in the region is ensuring that the US, sitting on a mighty war machine and still traumatised by the April 2000 ramming by Al Qaeda of the USS Cole in Yemeni waters that killed some 70 US Navy personnel, does not allow the Cole incident, and the resurrection of Al Qaeda in Iraq, to be the yardstick for a hair-trigger response.
That US military personnel are courageous but young and untested was obvious during the first and second Gulf Wars. A similar siege mentality is all too evident in Afghanistan, where US drones rain death and destruction on the unsuspecting, seeding hatred among communities with no previous record of anti-Americanism.
The heavy US footprint is now threatening to stomp all over another generation of Iranians, and Arabs.
Despite President Obama’s commitment to pursuing a diplomatic solution to the Iranian nuclear standoff, which has led to protracted backroom negotiations — an indication that neither the US nor Iran really want war — US secretary of state Hillary Clinton was playing to the powerful Jewish gallery on her recent Jerusalem visit even as the US steadily upped the pressure militarily.
Some red lines have been laid down. Tehran’s posturing notwithstanding, the US has made clear it will not allow the closing of the Strait of Hormuz — at its widest point barely 20 km, gateway to 20 per cent of the world’s marketable oil. Nevertheless, key US allies, particularly the two Gulf countries with the most to lose from a US-Iran conflagration, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, with its own dispute over ownership of the Abu Musa and Tunbs islands in the Gulf, have chosen to obviate Iranian blackmail by setting up pipelines that bypass the narrow waterway and open into the Gulf of Oman.
The US Fifth Fleet’s naval base in Bahrain has deployed not one but two aircraft carrier groups and a number of minesweepers ahead of a planned minesweeping exercise in September. The US’ other key Gulf ally Qatar’s co-ownership with Iran of natural gas fields, its adoption of a pro-US line on Syria and Libya, its Al Udeid airbase housing American troops, underlines Qatar’s ambivalence on Iran. But the US, choosing to ignore the perceived conflict of interest, is placing in Qatar as well as Jordan and Turkey radars that can track missile attacks that originate in Iran.
The “mullahcracy” is watching warily for signs of UN-US direct intervention in Damascus where the last of its longtime allies, the embattled Bashar al-Assad, is being actively pushed towards asylum, more so after rebel forces, suspected to have been secretly armed by the Saudis, killed four top members of the Assad regime in a bomb attack. Iran, the sharpest knife in the Gulf drawer, recognises the rapidly shrinking arc of the Shia sphere of influence, as US-led sanctions kick into effect and oil production — and revenues — plumb to its lowest in 20 years.
In fact, Syria more than any other country affected by the Arab Spring — or the Islamic winter, depending on which way you look at it — best illustrates the limitations of “old regimes” in the face of people power.
The Arab Spring has fragmented West Asia beyond the predictable Sunni-Shia crack in the mirror. The Iraqi government, once pro-Iran, is no longer so, and while Syria itself is set for an implosion, all talk of a grand bargain with Iran to stop funding militant groups like Hamas and Hezbollah is largely futile. That’s a red line Iran repeatedly crossed.
Except that, ironically, the twin arms of militancy in the region supported, armed and funded by Iran are now on opposite sides over Syria. Hamas backs the Syrian Opposition; Hezbollah, the Alawite Al Assad, has fighters alongside Assad’s “take no prisoners” Army.
The US, Israel and the Sunni states are ranged front and centre as never before against an Iran hell-bent on using nuclear power to become the pre-eminent Islamic power in West Asia.
A curious debate in the US, on whether Iran should be allowed to get the bomb in the hope that it will transform into a responsible member of the nuclear community when it does, is probably about having a shy at political containment over military confrontation. The argument being that the Iranian leadership may be fanatical but they are pragmatic, not suicidal.
Syria has been clever, vowing never to use chemical weapons against its own people to prevent the US — and Israel — from using that as an excuse to attack Damascus but declaring its open season on foreign troops. Tehran remains as defiant as ever. Doomsdayers say Iran is poised to nuclearise, ready to arm one of its proxies with a dirty bomb, invade a neighbour, and draw the US into retaliatiory strikes and a wider war.
Pentagon defence planners insist a well-planned military strike will have little regional fallout, even as Israeli intelligence websites predict early October as a possible date for a pre-emptive US strike on Iranian nuclear facilities.
President Obama’s Iran rhetoric may be no more than a ploy to draw attention away from his country’s faltering economy by winning brownie points for the President who stared Iran down. But with the dangerous brinkmanship with Iran continuing apace, sabre-rattling or no, the last thing energy-starved India, and the world, needs is a Gulf War Three.

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The information is good but

The information is good but the Gulf is PERSIAN GULF

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