Home » Nooze » A Bloody, Dangerous Game

A Bloody, Dangerous Game

The Middle East is dangerous, complicated, and generally just plain messed up. You may respond to that statement by saying, “Yeah, and the sun rose this morning,” or something less polite. But for all the turmoil that the region has been through in recent years it’s actually much worse right now.

A combination of shifting alliances, horrific blow-back from past adventures, and an ancient rivalry blowing up fast are converging rapidly into one regional conflict. Who is on whose side? Who might or might not be winning? It’s nearly impossible to tell, and that makes everything far more dangerous than ever.

Houthi Rebels in Yemen.  They are winning, though Saudi Arabia is now intervening.

Houthi Rebels in Yemen. They are winning, though Saudi Arabia is now intervening.

The region has become a complicated chessboard with three players standing on the field – Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Israel. The first two can be relied upon to take up any cause that is Sunni or Shi’ite, respectively, with some kind of support. The US is a close ally to two of them but a bitter enemy of the third – with some kind of new agreement with Iran very likely by 31 March. None of the players  have a history of aligning with each other.

The war in Syria has collapsed into a Sunni-Shia conflict, as discussed here last October. What is new is the dramatic escalation of the Yemeni Civil War, pitting the ruling Sunnis against Houthi rebels, who are Shia. The latter appear to be winning lately, running the President out of the nation into Saudi Arabia for security. The Saudis have taken to providing airstrikes on the rebels. Iran is calling for an end to escalation while they deny the commonly reported claim that they are backing the rebels.

This marks the second place in the region that Sunni and Shia are shooting at each other and the backing of the two supporting nations is reasonably overt.

Hassan Rouhani, President of Iran.  He is not a reliable bogeyman, but can we go as far as to make peace with him?

Hassan Rouhani, President of Iran. He is not a reliable bogeyman, but can we go as far as to make peace with him?

How does this play into the negotiations with Iran? The short answer is that it doesn’t, apparently, with the deadline for a broad agreement coming up fast. The US is largely staying out of sectarian conflicts, allowing Saudi Arabia to act as it sees fit. Weapons on both sides are largely US made, at least since the rebels captured a Yemeni goverment position – much as ISIL was made into a strong fighting force by overrunning a US supplied Iraqi army.  That came after they were armed by the Saudis, who now fear ISIL as much as anyone and reasonably see them as a threat at leas as big as anything posed by the Shia.  It’s making them paranoid and reactionary.

Other than drowning the region in weapons, the US is largely staying out of the conflicts except the bombing of ISIL.

Our strongest ally in the region, Israel, is seeing its relationship with the US in the most peril ever. Recent statements by Netanyahu have strained relations enough, but allegations of even more Israeli participation in US politics are far more troublesome. That Israel spied on the Iranian talks is not a surprise, but the allegation in the Wall Street Journal that Republicans (and a few pro-Israel Democrats) were fed information from the spying is rather alarming. The Obama administration has to be fed up with Israel – just as we are negotiating with Iran, again, on nuclear weapons.

An Iranian Shehab-3 Missile. We have more information on what Iran has than we do for Israel.

An Iranian Shehab-3 Missile. We have more information on what Iran has than we do for Israel.

This all comes on the heals of a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request coming to light that shows that in 1987 Israel definitely had nuclear weapons, something never stated so explicitly before. In other words, the very Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) that we are attempting to apply to Iran in the negotiations was definitely violated by Israel (a non signatory) with US assistance.

And, of course, the only other place in the region with shooting was when Iran-backed Hamas took on Israel.

Where does that leave the US in terms of diplomatic or military alliances? We know for certain that the fight against ISIS has required cooperation between the US and Iran, which at least partially completes our connection with the third player on the field. Weakened relations with Israel and a wariness against Saudi Arabia leave us remarkably neutral all around.

But there are indeed three sides in various states of hostility flaring up into a regional war. It is impossible to keep track of who is gaining where. Without any possibility of alliances between the three sides no one has the advantage. With a lot of US made weapons the region can expect bloodshed to only accelerate.

There is nothing more dangerous than a heavily armed stalemate, and that is what the region has achieved. We can reasonably assume that the US relationship with all three is moving toward a strange equality, meaning that will not favor one over the other as much as we have in the past. And each has a long standing feud with the other two.

It can only get worse, especially if Israel feels compelled to act on its own as a new isolation powers a new paranoia.

26 thoughts on “A Bloody, Dangerous Game

  1. Very, very thoughtful and interesting analysis. I can not fault any of your reasoning, even if I wanted to, which I don’t. Way to get to the meat of the story behind the soundbites and blurbs.

  2. It is mess, hold that is not the word. Clash of cultures for a long time. Things are on a high level of never before seen. And every word you wrote is right on.

    • Thank you! It has been bad for a long time, but it is getting much more dangerous with this Sunni/Shia war flaring up. That could be a true horror that engulfs the entire region.

  3. In some ways the US just wants to peacefully trade and do business with everybody. So if Iran behaves then sanctions will be lifted.

    Whatever country group or faction the US is usually talking to them. Heck we have talking to the Russians for 200 years. They are annoying but we talk to them.

    That was nice that the President Ghani of Afghanistan came to visit.

    • We need to promote peaceful trade first and foremost. All the weapons we send around the world appear to only get in the way of that, at least eventually.

  4. All said and done, like money is said to be the root cause of all evils, it’s always worth detecting who’s behind all this confusion, conflagration, death and destruction, and beat the shit out of whoever it is, alas that’s impossible because the devil though in plain sight, goes around smiling and wearing innumerable costumes merging with the background like a chameleon! 😦

    • And we are responsible, ultimately, for far too much of what is going on. I still feel that whatever we can do to get Iran to stop screwing around is good, but there is remarkably little proof that they are deeply involved in Yemen. A strong hunch, yes, but that’s really all.

      • And yet, talks are going on for an early and amicable settlement of the nuclear dispute!

  5. I understand that we want to do something to help people, but does it have to come with guns? What if we sent over food and clothes and things people need and gave people hope? I know that may not be enough but to just arm everyone is totally not the way to go.

    • That’s a good point – what are we doing to make friends around the world these days? It may not be enough on its own, but we should be doing that. I will look into our aid and support of international aid agencies. That would be something positive. Thanks!

      • The North Atlantic Treaty Organization is a club of good friends.

        Norman Stone wrote a book called The Atlantic and its enemies

        “After World War II, the former allies were saddled with a devastated world economy and traumatized populace. Soviet influence spread insidiously from nation to nation, and the Atlantic powers—the Americans, the British, and a small band of allies—were caught flat-footed by the coups, collapsing armies, and civil wars that sprung from all sides. The Cold War had begun in earnest.
        In The Atlantic and Its Enemies, prize-winning historian Norman Stone assesses the years between World War II and the collapse of the Iron Curtain. He vividly demonstrates that for every Atlantic success there seemed to be a dozen Communist or Third World triumphs. Then, suddenly and against all odds, the Atlantic won—economically, ideologically, and militarily—with astonishing speed and finality.

        An elegant and path-breaking history, The Atlantic and Its Enemies is a monument to the immense suffering and conflict of the twentieth century, and an illuminating exploration of how the Atlantic triumphed over its enemies at last.”

        Although US republicans couldn’t really help eastern europe for a long time, but we never forgot them as they lived their lives behind the iron curtain.

      • I believe that in the long run something like liberal democracy will come to the Middle East. It will be changed a little to suit their needs, and it may include a stronger emphasis on morality and related institutions than we would find palatable (much like Bolivar’s vision). But it will come.
        As you know, in the long run we are all dead. But the example that we set as we wait is at least as important as force we apply.
        Why did the Western / NATO way win? Ultimately, very few shots were actually fired. We won because we were right and because we were generous when we needed to be.
        I go back to the inability to put up about $14B that Ukraine needed to turn westward back 18 months ago. It was far less than the cost of German Unification – and it was far less than what this is all costing us now.
        Helmut Kohl never balked at the price of Unification, knowing it was an historic moment. Would today’s EU leaders do the same? How about the US? Are we that much more comfortable sending in weapons than real aid? Would we really have a Marshall Plan today?
        I think Anna raised an interesting point.

  6. Real economic development with capital investment, and foreign direct investment is an excellent.

    The Marshall Plan was contingent on some aspects of the recipient countries carrying out democratic capitalist reforms.

    Here is what happenend in Iran according to the online resource Encyclopedia Iranica


    “After the 1953 coup (q.v.) and the resumption of concessionary oil agreements in 1954, revenues from the oil sector grew at an unprecedented pace: during the five year period of 1956-60, government oil revenues amounted to $1,228,000,000 compared to only $483,000,000 during the entire thirty-six years between 1913 and 1949. Foreign capital (in the form of official aid and grants), too, began to flow to Iran during the 1953-60 period. Aid from the U.S. government alone amounted to more than $890,000,000 at this time (Bharier, 1971, p. 119). Available data suggests that those new external resources were immediately translated into government expenditure, and they had a highly expansionary impact on the economy. One such effect was the rise in the General Cost of Living Index, which rose by 65.1 percent between 1953 and 1960 (Bank Markazi Iran, 1964).

    Public sector investment in this period started from a very slender base but soon witnessed an annual growth rate of 25 percent in real terms. According to the development expenditure data from the Plan Organization, more than 68 percent of government investment went into economic infrastructure, which was mainly composed of transportation and water. Allocations for water went mainly into bulky investments on three dams, which were not completed until the mid-1960s. More than 90 percent of the government expenditure on transport and communications went into the construction of inter-city roads and railways and the expansion of ports, which principally facilitated the connection between main urban centers and foreign trade ports. Such large-scale projects were also favored by foreign consultants and contractors; in the absence of any indigenous know-how, they were mainly in charge of the planning and implementation of the projects (Mahdavy, 1970; Plan Organization, 1964). The only field in which government investment directly contributed to expanding productive capabilities in a significant way was the manufacturing sector. More than 77 percent of government direct investment in the manufacturing sector was allocated either to traditional light industries, such as textiles and sugar, or to cement. The latter was to cater for the needs of the massive construction projects of the government, and the former two industries were to substitute for imports, which by the mid-1950s constituted a large share of supplies in these industries. The concentration of government investment in large infrastructural projects laid the foundations for the rapid and sustained, manufacturing-led industrialization Iran would see, but the projects’ long gestation lags played a not insignificant role in intensifying the inflationary pressures and balance of payments disequilibrium in the latter half of the 1950s.

    At the same time as an increase in the government’s resources and expenditure, a spurt in private investment was occurring: the private sector’s share of fixed investment as a proportion of GDP (Gross Domestic Product) doubled between 1955 and 1960, overtaking public investment in 1958. Before 1955, foreign manufacturing enterprises were practically non-existent in Iran; the enactment in November 1955 of the Law for the Attraction and Protection of Foreign Investment presented a landmark for the inflow of foreign capital into the Iranian economy. The main provisions of the 1955 law were as follows: (a) to set up a board to examine proposals by foreign investors, which would report its decisions to the Council of Ministers; (b) to give legal protection to imported capital and accord it equal status with private domestic capital; (c) to guarantee repatriation of profits and in the case of nationalization to provide for compensation (Nowshirvani and Bildner, 1973).

    Table 1 shows that between 1952 and 1955, growth of private investment was more biased toward construction and transportation, which increased their share from 65.3 percent to 75.5 percent at the expense of industrial and, in particular, agricultural investment. After 1956, however, with the appearance of government industrial finance provisions there was a sharp reversal in this process, whereby the industrial sector increased its share from 19.4 percent in 1956 to 45.7 percent in 1959, and construction witnessed a drastic decline of almost 30 percent in its share. About 80 percent of industrial loans went into food processing, textiles, and construction material industries, in which the market conditions and technological possibilities open to Iranian industrialists were conducive to rapid growth of modern, mechanized factories. Modern cotton textiles, sugar, and cement factories were the principal absorbers of private investment. The rest of the funds were distributed in the form of small loans amongst numerous small- to medium-sized producers in various manufacturing activities (Benedick, 1964, chaps. 10-11; Plan Organization, 1964; Baldwin, 1967, chap. 6).

    The 1953-59 was a period of mutual support between the newly established authoritarian regime of the shah and the traditional propertied classes, namely the coalition of landlords, merchant bourgeoisie of the bazaar, and factions of the high clergy. The semi-liberal trade and industrial policies of the government ushered in a period of rapid inflows of external resources and were highly beneficial to this traditional coalition. Nevertheless, they led to severe imbalances in the economy, which brought about the crisis of the early 1960s.”


    Yes we sell arms to nations, but the US has a long history of helping nations with their economy and government. We show them how to do it and ask for their participation. We give them technical assistance. After WW I we helped the soviet union industrialize. We sent them engineers. The American companies were eager to help.

    Czechoslovakia was excited to attend the Paris conference on the marshall plan. But the Soviets walked out in their usual paranoid fashion and they instructed the Czechs to leave.
    Then the soviets changed the Czech govt with more obedient people.

  7. Isn’t this all the power vacuum left by the desertion of the US? By not favoring those who don’t want us subjugated it is no longer chess, it is Three Card Poker!

  8. A poisonous mix indeed. Add and stir the Arab oil price attack, ongoing ‘Palestinian’ attacks on Israel and the worldwide writhings of Moslem fundamentalists frightened by modernism. No heat need be applied, it will continue to heat itself. The post-Christian West will continue its decline. It would be fun to know what the dish will resemble when it is ultimately served …

  9. It’s amazing to me how quickly this all happened too. Thirty years ago U.S. citizens were traveling all through the Middle East. There are also signs of this newly destabilizing trend seizing more control in Africa. However; what methods do we have to combat these new ideas, when are these countries going to realize that they have to do something themselves to ensure their safety. Overall this was a very insightful post and I look forward to hearing more from your blog.

  10. Pingback: Crisis and Calm | Barataria - The work of Erik Hare

  11. Pingback: Resetting the Middle East | Barataria - The work of Erik Hare

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