By Ramzy Baroud
Conflicts in the Middle East are often orchestrated from afar, using proxies — the least risky method to fight and win a war. Despite its geopolitical fragmentation, the Middle East is loosely united insofar as any major event in any given locale can subsequently be felt throughout the region. Thus Lebanon, for example, has been a stage for proxy wars for decades. And it is not just Israel and the United States that have laboured to penetrate and further fragment Lebanese society. The intelligence services of various Arab countries, as well as Iran, have used Lebanon as a hub for their invariable interests, the outcome of any conflict — be it internal or external — directly affecting the image and political positioning of this or that country.
Palestinians have often been used as, and in some cases have presented themselves to play the role of, a proxy force. The rationale, in some cases, was personal interest; in others, lack of a platform that would allow them to organise. In the two most notable instances in which they tried to exert control over their host domains — the cases of Jordan in the 1970s and Lebanon in the 1970s and 80s — the cost was horrendous, leading to unprecedented bloodshed. After Arafat’s forced exit from Beirut in 1982, Palestinians were forced to exchange the physical space they obtained for overt allegiance to various regimes. Arafat mastered the art like no other Palestinian leader. The supporters of the Oslo Accords argued that the agreement’s key success was freeing the Palestinian political will from pandering to host countries for survival, which proved untrue. A Hamas leader in Syria told me, off the record, during a telephone interview recently: "We have no doubt that Damascus will dump us the moment we are no longer of use, but we have no other option but to play along."
Proxy politics is strategically significant for it helps take the battle to someone else’s physical space, create distractions and circumvent internal crises. Both Israel and Iran, despite the colossal chasm that separate their political and military intents, are currently involved in such a manoeuvre.
President Ahmadinejad, backed by or directed by the instrumental forces in his country — Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the Supreme National Security Council — is well acquainted with the fact that if Iraq is subdued by US forces, it will be Iran’s turn to bear the brunt of obtrusive US imperial designs, cheered on, if not largely facilitated by Israel’s neo- conservative allies in Washington. Accordingly, Iran is involved in trying to shape a political milieu in Iraq that will keep the Americans at bay. This is not to suggest that it was Iran, as opposed to the unwarranted American invasion, that engender the current chaos in Iraq; however, Iran, like other Middle Eastern countries involved in Iraq, wishes to manage and manipulate the outcome to suit its own interests. From Iran’s point of view, this action makes perfect sense.
While Iran’s prime objective is to discourage an American military assault against it, Israel seeks regional hegemony, where it is left only with "moderate" neighbours. According to this vision, conceived and promoted publicly by Israeli leaders and their friends in Washington and emphasised to the point of boring repetition by every relevant US official at every possible opportunity, the Iranian "threat" must be eradicated at any cost. Israel’s fears of Iran are not nuclear in essence. What worries Israel is that Iran is militarily strong, politically cohesive and economically viable, enough to allow Iran opportunity to challenge Israel at every turn. The Israelis, as their country’s history illustrates, simply despise such contenders. Israel’s attempt to demolish Gamal Abdel Nasser’s national regime in 1956, only eight years after the establishment of the Israeli state, is a poignant example.
Yet a paradigm shift has occurred since the US invasion of Iraq four years ago. While the US was the major power that often orchestrated proxy wars through clandestine tactics, as it did in Central America and various parts of Asia, Israel is now adopting a similar scheme. In most instances in the past, Israel managed to sway US administrations to behave according to the misleading mantra: "What’s good for Israel is good for America." But a clash of interests here is unavoidable. While Israel’s heart is set on a war against Iran, it is elementary knowledge that a war against Iran would bring irrevocable disaster for the United States. Prolonged political hostility with Iran is equally dangerous, for it will further complicate the American task in Iraq.
But Israel is still cheering for war. Former director of Mossad, Uzi Arad, told the British Guardian that, "A military strike may be easier than you think." He outlined what targets were to be bombed — not just nuclear, but security and economic centres. "Iran is much more vulnerable than people realise," he stated casually. Arad, like most Israeli officials, wants war, even if such a war would complicate America’s regional involvement and cost it innumerable human lives, notwithstanding a foreseeable large number of dead Iranians. It would matter little to Israel, however, for a chaotic Iran, like a chaotic Iraq, is just another opportunity to be exploited, and another "threat" to be checked off Israel’s security list.
While proxy relations are part and parcel of Middle East politics, even arrogant superpowers can find themselves exploited, wittingly or not.
-Ramzy Baroud is an author and a journalist. His latest volume: The Second Palestinian Intifada: A Chronicle of a People’s Struggle (Pluto Press, London) is available from Amazon and other book vendors.