The dimensions and strategic implications of the unrest sweeping the Arab world are becoming clearer. It is now apparent that the key states of the “resistance bloc” – Iran and Syria – face no immediate threat from internal protests. Their capacity and willingness for extreme repression look sufficient to ensure the safety of these regimes, at least for now.
Having ensured quiet at home, the Iran-led regional bloc is moving forward to exploit the chaos in areas formerly under the clear control of its pro-western enemies. Pro-western regional states, meanwhile, are mobilizing with varying degrees of effectiveness to challenge the Iranian push.
Events this week in the Mediterranean and the Gulf offer examples of this.
The use by the Iranian bloc of the poorly policed Sinai region to bring weaponry to its Gaza enclave on the Mediterranean is not new.
In the past, Iran utilized a route leading from Yemen through the Red Sea to Sudan, then overground across the desert, and into Gaza from the south. The apprehending of the arms ship Victoria indicates that the Revolutionary Guards have identified increased opportunities deriving from the increasing laxity of Egyptian monitoring in Sinai and further south.
From the earliest days following the downfall of Hosni Mubarak, Israeli officials noted an uptick in illegal activity in Sinai, and a decline in Egyptian efforts to police the area. This came not from a policy decision by the Egyptians, but rather precisely from the absence of firm directives from the center. This allowed local commanders to define their own policy. Those of them susceptible to bribery, or sympathetic to the Islamist bloc, are finding an increased space in which to maneuver.
Iran, apparently, also noted this.
The sending of two ships through the Suez Canal and up to the Syrian port of Latakia in February unveiled the new situation. It is now clear that much more than symbolism was at stake.
The implications of the chaos extend beyond Sinai. The Victoria was due to dock in the port of Alexandria. This means that whoever sent it was confident that the weapons could be brought off the ship, and made ready for their further journey, without undue interference from the authorities, in the heart of Egypt’s main port.
The consignment of weaponry included six C- 704 anti-ship missiles.
The lighter hand of the authorities in Egypt is a gift to the
Iranian-led bloc in its strategic drive to turn Gaza into a sibling of
Hezbollah-controlled south Lebanon.
The successful apprehending of the Victoria, meanwhile, offers an early
indication that Israel is responding energetically and effectively to
this new situation.
As the events surrounding the Victoria unfolded on the Mediterranean
coast, Iran was extending another exploratory arm – this time in the
Some 1,000 Saudi troops this week intervened to help put down a Shia
uprising in the strategically vital kingdom of Bahrain. They were
accompanied by additional forces from Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates,
Oman and Qatar.
Ominous messages emerged in subsequent days from Iran and its regional
proxies. The Iranian Foreign Ministry described the Saudi intervention
as “unacceptable.” Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi advised the
Bahraini authorities not to harm Shia demonstrators.
Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani warned the Saudis against imagining that such an intervention would have “no costs.”
Hezbollah also issued a statement on Tuesday denouncing the Saudi “invasion” of Bahrain.
Displaying a hitherto little noted sense of irony, the movement
expressed “concern and strong condemnation” of the Saudis and the
Bahraini authorities for “targeting peaceful civilians.”
Hezbollah described the US stance on events in Bahrain as “suspicious.”
Iran’s response is likely to take the form of subversion and
mobilization of proxies in Bahrain, rather than a more direct move.
Around 30% of Bahrain’s Shia are estimated to follow clerics who look to
Iran for guidance, according to a leaked WikiLeaks cable on the
kingdom. Such a basis offers wide scope for the Iranian
political-military model which has served Tehran well in Lebanon, among
the Palestinians and in Iraq.
What do these events in the Mediterranean and in the Gulf have in
common? In both cases, Iran is seeking to utilize the chaos engendered
by popular unrest in Arab countries to advance its strategic agenda. In
both cases, states aligned with the West are using the tools available
to them to prevent this.
Israel’s “toolbox,” of course, is far more powerful than anything the
Arab Gulf states can muster. Israel’s military and intelligence services
just delivered a very impressive achievement.
The Gulf states are more fragile, and their ability to resist the
Iranian advance into the center of world crude oil supplies much less
certain. But the mobilization by Riyadh and the GCC countries shows that
they too are aware of just how high the stakes currently are.
There is an additional similarity.
In both the Gulf and the Mediterranean, the West is flailing helplessly behind the curve.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague, according to a statement this
week, is mainly concerned by the Bahraini decision to declare a state of
emergency. The US administration seems to prefer a pattern of pressure
on friends (the Egyptian military) and respectful forbearance toward
The Iranians have apparently internalized well the old Mongol dictum to
“strike best when the giant sleeps.” The giant’s local allies, however,
appear to be wide awake.