Notes from an Undeclared Cold War / Jonathan Spyer

The diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks earlier this week confirm that the key strategic process taking place in the Middle East is the push for regional dominance by the Islamic Republic of Iran.

The documents show that the Iranian nuclear program is only the most worrisome element of a broader effort, as there is additional evidence of Iranian involvement and interference in political processes across the region.

The method depicted and discussed is familiar: Local Islamist proxies are located, organized and exploited (the creation of "mini-Hizbullahs" in Saudi King Abdullah's memorable words used in one of the cables), and influence is accumulated through the combination of ground-level brute force and Machiavellian maneuver.

The documents reveal that this Iranian effort is uppermost on the minds of the rulers of the Arab states that Iran is targeting. They suggest that the stronger Arab states are organizing political and intelligence warfare of their own to combat the Iranian effort. They also strongly indicate the absence of a corresponding sense of urgency among US administration officials.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, in a meeting with Sen. John Kerry, says that "Iran's sponsorship of terrorism is well-known, but I cannot say it publicly. It would create a dangerous situation."

His intelligence chief, Omar Suleiman, in a meeting with Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Adm. Mike Mullen, is more explicit regarding Egyptian efforts to counter Iranian subversion.

Suleiman noted that Iran is "very active" in Egypt and that it is granting $25 million per month to Hamas.

Suleiman asserts that Iran has tried to transfer payments to the Kassam Brigades in Gaza, which Egypt has prevented.

He also notes Egypt's apprehending of what he describes as a large "Hizbullah cell" on its soil (the 49-man cell apprehended by the Egyptian authorities in April 2009), and reports Iranian efforts to recruit among Sinai Beduin.

Suleiman tells Mullen that Egypt has begun a "confrontation with Hizbullah and Iran." He mentions that his service has begun to recruit agents in Syria and Iraq, and says that Egypt has sent a clear message to Iran that if it continues to interfere in Egypt, Egypt will interfere with Iran. Iran, Suleiman concludes, must "pay the price" for its actions and not be allowed to interfere in regional affairs.

Saudi officials quoted sound no less concerned than the Egyptians, but their remarks are notably less robust and more anxious.

In a meeting with White House counterterrorism chief John Brennan, for example, King Abdullah describes a conversation he had with with Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki, on the issue of Iran's "interference in Arab affairs." Abdullah challenges Mottaki on Iranian meddling in Palestinian politics and support for Hamas.

"These are Muslims," he quotes Mottaki as responding.

"No, Arabs," countered Abdullah, before adding, "You as Persians have no business meddling in Arab matters."

The exchange ends with Abdullah giving the Iranians a year to improve matters, otherwise "it will be the end."

In the discussion, Brennan responds by noting that the US is reviewing its Iran policy, and observing that the US and Saudi Arabia have a "lot of work to do in the Middle East together." He then seeks to change the subject.

On two subsequent occasions, Abdullah tries unsuccessfully to return the focus to Iran. When the issue of Iraq emerges, he notes that "some say the US invasion handed Iraq to Iran on a silver platter," before referring to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki as an "Iranian agent."

The Brennan-Abdullah meeting is dated March 22, 2009. In the meantime, the king's ultimatum appears to have run its allotted span, and Iranian activities have continued untroubled.

The cables also show how Iranian regional ambitions have placed Teheran's fingerprints on myriad political processes across the Middle East. They detail Iran's extensive interference in Iraq, quote the Saudi king's assertion of Iranian aid to the Houthi rebels in Yemen, outline Iranian and Syrian involvement with illegal arms transfers from North Korea and describe the extensive involvement of Revolutionary Guards personnel in shipping weapons to Hizbullah during the Second Lebanon War (using the Iranian Red Crescent relief organization as cover).

So the leaked cables provide added and deepened color to an already existing picture of regional cold war. They do not require the altering of any of the main contours of that picture.

Iran is attempting a hostile takeover of the local system.

Regional states are concerned by this and are trying to organize in order to frustrate it. The US administration, meanwhile, appears to be failing to acknowledge this overarching reality in private conversation with its allies, just as it refuses to speak its name in public statements.

For as long as this state of affairs continues, the private conversations of US officials look set to be a (henceforth probably better guarded) repetition of the dialogue of the deaf available from the cables. The likely subject of the conversation, meanwhile, will be the latest example of successful subversion of the regional order by Iran and its allies.

The revelation that the Saudis sought to create a military option for anti-Iranian forces in Lebanon is the latest item to fall into the category of "non-surprising surprises" revealed by the WikiLeaks cables. This is not intended as an expression of disappointment.

Having one's previously expressed suspicions confirmed is one of the more pleasant experiences for a researcher and journalist.

Unfortunately, the issues underlying the Saudi foreign minister's request and the US ambassador's brush-off have not disappeared. The same mechanisms are at work today in Lebanon, underlying and dominating events and continuing to benefit Iran and its allies.

On one level, Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal's request for the assembling of a force capable of resisting Hizbullah sounds like obvious common sense. It was made at a time that Hizbullah was engaged in the culmination of an 18- month period of revolt against the Saudi and US-backed elected government of Lebanon. Hizbullah and allied fighters had launched something resembling a coup against the authorities, brushing aside feeble resistance and seizing control of West Beirut.

Lebanon was on the verge of civil war. It had become obvious that the entire project of the "Cedar Revolution" and the attempt to build an independent and sovereign Lebanon was faced with an armed attempt by Iran and Syria to destroy it through the use of a proxy military force. The Lebanese Armed Forces, themselves divided along sectarian lines and with a large Shi'ite element, were useless as an instrument for the defense of the state's sovereignty. They would have split and ceased to exist if ordered to fight Hizbullah, and would have been defeated in the unlikely event that they had attempted to do so.

In such circumstances, the two stark options for the international guarantors of the March 14 government were to fight or to surrender.

BUT ON closer inspection, Faisal al- Saud was not exactly proposing the former in this meeting. The Saudis, being the Saudis, do not commit to get involved in any fighting themselves.

Rather, Saud proposed to US ambassador to Iraq David Satterfield in 2008 the creation of an "Arab force" composed of troops from unnamed Arab states, which would take on and destroy Hizbullah under UN auspices and with US, UNIFIL and NATO backing.

In its details, the Saudi proposal sounds somewhat hallucinatory, and one can thus understand Satterfield's cautious return of the ball with his promise that the US would "carefully study" any Arab decision in this regard. The Saudis generally like the Americans to do their fighting for them, and the proposal sounds something like an example of this. There would have been little support in the US in 2008 for a further entanglement of US forces on the ground in a Middle Eastern country.

The reason why we are only finding out about this proposal two years later is because nothing subsequently happened.

There was an Arab decision following the Hizbullah coup of May 2008, but it was not in the direction of an armed defense of the Lebanese government.

Rather, the Saudis, having sounded out their American allies and found them reluctant, concluded that since fighting wasn't an option, the only remaining path was accommodation.

Hence the concessions subsequently made by the Saudi's March 14 clients in the Doha negotiations - including the ceding of veto power over government decisions to Hizbullah.

WHILE THe Saudis' talents as fighters and organizers appear modest from this episode, the clarity of their analysis is once again very impressive.

Saud correctly observed that Iran was advancing on a number of "regional fronts" - he mentioned Iraq and the Palestinians as the other two. He noted, again correctly, that a Hizbullah victory would imply an "Iranian takeover" of Lebanon.

This brings us to the lessons for the present day. Accommodation in fact meant submission. The Saudis' subsequent response to US unwillingness to underwrite the elected government of Lebanon was to seek rapprochement with Syria, and to formalize Hizbullah's para-state in Lebanon and its status as a supra-governmental organization.

The result has been that the Iranian advance up to that point was formalized, with the March 14 government allowed to remain in place - increasingly as a kind of decoration.

The next episode in this process may shortly be upon us. Hizbullah is threatening renewed civil strife if its members are indicted by the Special Tribunal on Lebanon for the murder of former prime minister Rafik Hariri.

The Saudis are once more talking to the Syrians in an effort to find a way to "contain" the impact of indictments.

That is, in effect, the Saudis appear to be seeking to finesse the next act of surrender.

It is clear that even if Hizbullah members are indicted, no mechanism for apprehending them exists. Hizbullah's and Iran's threats in recent weeks have been intended to deter their domestic and regional opponents from even thinking about trying to implement any decision by the tribunal.

These threats seem to have worked.

So the meeting between Satterfield and the Saudi foreign minister represents a snapshot in a larger process that has been under way in the region over the last half decade. It is a fascinating insight into the depth of Saudi fears, and the shrewd understanding of power relations of which Riyadh is capable. Unfortunately, the Arab autocracies are incapable of maintaining the boundaries of their system by themselves, and this is the reason why the Iranians have so successfully penetrated this system at various of its weakest points.

Saud al-Faisal, having correctly identified the problem, could then only beg the Americans to lead in confronting it. The request unheeded, the House of Saud has sought to accommodate the new strong men, granting them their current point of advancement.

But in the long run, this won't work either.

The Iranians and their friends have ambitions that can't be accommodated.

So in the long run, we are back to fight or flight. There is no third way.

* Jonathan Spyer is a senior research fellow at the Global Research in International Affairs Center in Herzliya, Israel, and a columnist at the Jerusalem Post newspaper. Spyer holds a PhD in International Relations from the London School of Economics and a Masters' Degree in Middle East Politics from the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. He served in a front-line unit of the Israel Defense Forces in 1992-3, and fought in the war in Lebanon in summer 2006. Between 1996 and 2000, Spyer was an employee of the Israel Prime Minister's Office.

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