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Thursday, February 17, 2011

Iran pushes the envelope

As I reported in an earlier post, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said on Wednesday - and Defense Minister Ehud Barak later confirmed - that two Iranian warships were scheduled to pass through the Suez Canal on Wednesday night on their way to Syria.

Haaretz reports that the United States is monitoring the two ships - which were in the Red Sea last night - but that the Egyptian company that operates the canal denies that the ships were going to pass through.
The Egyptian company which controls the canal has denied the claim. Ahmed el-Manakhli, head of the canal operations room, said warships must get permission 48 hours before crossing, and so far, "we have not been notified."
J.E. Dyer talks about the ships' mission, and why they have caused such an uproar.
The ships themselves are hardly impressive: one frigate with old anti-ship missiles and one barely armed replenishment ship. From that perspective, the reactions of global markets might seem excessive. These ships can’t fight a war. But the reactions are actually quite rational. The big shift here is in political perceptions of power. The important facts are that revolutionary, terror-sponsoring Iran — under U.S., EU, and UN sanctions — feels free to conduct this deployment, and Syria feels free to cooperate in it. Egypt’s interim rulers apparently saw no reason to block the Suez transit, in spite of the Egyptians’ very recent concern over Iranian-backed terrorists and insurgents operating on their territory. Saudi Arabia, for its part, considered it prudent to host the Iranian warships last week — in spite of the Saudis’ own conviction that Iran has been aiding rebel groups that threaten Saudi territory.

The cooperation from the Arab nations should not be misread, however. The Arabs have no desire to see Iran in a position of regional hegemony. The threat of that prospect will raise the stakes for the governmental turmoil in the Arab world. The view is likely to gain momentum that Arabs need to organize as much to counter Iran as to address their own domestic issues. That factor — so inimical to the unforced development of political liberalism — was never going to be dismissible; the Iranian warship deployment makes it inevitable.

In information-speak, Iran is “inside our OODA-loop” right now: acting faster than we have prepared to react. Complacent assumptions about inertia in the status quo will not be borne out. Iran’s proximate strategic objective is consolidating the rule of Hezbollah in Lebanon. Former prime minister Saad Hariri declared his opposition to the Hezbollah-backed government in a speech on Monday; Hassan Nasrallah is promising that Hezbollah fighters will occupy Galilee; Ehud Barak warned on Wednesday that Israel might have to enter Lebanon again to counter Hezbollah. With the battle lines being drawn, Iran’s posture is hardening: the Islamic revolutionary regime is “all in.”
Although Israel will take action to stop this if it feels endangered, I see this as a challenge to the United States. The Saudis loathe the Iranians, but they allowed these ships to call at a Saudi port because they are afraid that no one will respond to Iran's aggression. Given the upheaval in Egypt, it's not clear where they stand, but even an Islamist government in Sunni Egypt may not have much in common with Iran other than hatred for Israel. Both Saudi Arabia and Egypt are getting out of the strong horse's way. On the other hand, the Syrians and Hezbullah are laughing all the way to the bank.

Will the United States respond to put a stop to Iran's aggression to its allies in this region? Or will it stand aside and allow Iran to dominate the region? What could go wrong?

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