The Middle East and the Gulf witnessed a sudden flare-up in the last few weeks on two fronts. The first saw more than five hundred missiles rained on southern Israel fired by Hamas and other guerrilla groups.
Israel, as expected in a well-scripted scenario, unleashed its airpower on the hapless Gazans, destroying homes and resuming its policy of targeted assassination by killing a young Palestinian in his thirties who acted as a conduit for Iranian money to Hamas.
The Palestinian factions in Gaza justified the sudden military attacks by accusing Israel of reneging on its previous commitments to Egypt, destined to alleviate the suffering of the people of Gaza due to an unprecedented, inhuman and amoral Israeli all-out siege of the Gaza Strip that has been in effect for the last 12 years and counting.
Like previous military confrontations between the two sides, Egypt as has become the customary go-between in a negotiated ceasefire that went into effect Monday, 6 May, coinciding with the start of Ramadan, the month of fasting for more than one billion Muslims around the world.
No one, of course, would be surprised if the new Israeli government, when formed, under Binyamin Netanyahu would resort to punishing the people of Gaza in another round of threats and attacks. T
his strategy is defined as the “campaigns between wars”. (Israel opened the border crossings with Gaza on Sunday, 12 May.)
As if by sheer coincidence, the same day the guns fell silent in Gaza, the United States announced that the USS Abraham Lincoln and an accompanying strike group would sail to the Gulf in addition to deploying B-2 strategic bombers to the region to deter Iran from targeting American forces stationed in the Middle East and the Gulf.
In the meantime, the US administration imposed new economic sanctions on the Iranians while warning European banks and businesses from trying to use currencies other than the American greenbacks in doing business with Iran.
A few days earlier, Washington had announced the end of its waivers for eight countries to import Iranian oil.
Ever since the Iranian Revolution in 1979, the world has gotten used to the very tense relationship between the United States and Iran which the two have done their best not to transform into direct military confrontation. This time around the rhetoric from both sides is not reassuring.
On Friday, 10 May, a leading religious cleric close to Supreme Guide Ayotallah Ali Khameni threatened to sink the USS Abraham Lincoln with “one missile”. He added that the present situation would help in sidestepping moderates in the Iranian government, putting extremists in the driver’s seat.
Notwithstanding the militarisation of the age-old American-Iranian confrontation, US President Donald Trump tweeted the same time the USS Abraham Lincoln was passing through the Suez Canal en route to the Gulf that he was ready to meet with Iranian leaders.
He pointed out Washington does not want the Iranians to have nuclear weapons. He added: “It is not too much to ask. And we would help put them back into great shape.” The US president gave no clues as to the subjects of discussion in case his offer would be taken seriously by the Iranians.
On the contrary, commanders in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard vowed never to talk to the Americans. Some experts believe this exchange was nothing but grandstanding.
Which it could be, particularly if we take into consideration the fact that the United States is working with some of its Arab allies to set up what the secretary of state has called the “Middle East Strategic Alliance”, or, as some have called it “the Arab NATO”.
In the context of the growing tension in the Middle East and American threats addressed to Tehran, the US secretary of state had paid an unannounced visit to Iraq on Tuesday, 7 May.
He told reporters after his meetings with Iraqi leaders that, “we wanted to let them know about the increased threat stream that we had seen and give them a little bit more background on that so they could ensure that they were doing all they could to provide protection for our team.” He added: “We don’t want anyone interfering in their country… and there was complete agreement.” He meant Iran.
Both the US secretary of state and National Security Adviser John Bolton had warned that Tehran and its proxy militias could be planning attacks against American military assets and interests in this arc extending from the Mediterranean to the Gulf.
Not content only with the USS Abraham Lincoln, the United States announced Saturday, 11 May, that other naval units would be joining the aircraft carrier soon, in addition to a battery of Patriot missiles.
This show of force aims at exercising maximum military pressure on the Iranians, coupled with the campaign of crippling economic and financial sanctions on Iran.
To counter and prove that they still have cards to play, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said that Tehran would resume uranium enrichment if the Europeans would not fulfil their commitments to Iran in the framework of the implementation of the nuclear agreement signed in July 2015 known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), from which the United States withdrew on 8 May 2018, a decision hailed at the time by Netanyahu.
The US administration ever since has on various occasions showed a willingness to negotiate another nuclear accord with Iran, an accord that won’t be limited to the Iranian nuclear programme but would deal with its missile programme as well as Iranian “malign influence” in the Middle East, the Gulf and Yemen.
The two major developments in the region lately, namely, the Israeli attacks on Gaza and the US campaign of maximum pressures on Iran, have emerged after Jared Kushner, the senior adviser to the American president, had told a Washington think tank two weeks ago that the “Deal of the Century” prepared by the Trump administration to bring peace to the Middle East would be released in June, after the month of Ramadan, and by the time Netanyahu would have formed a government for his fifth term in office, a government that would include, most probably, representatives of the extreme right in Israel who demand the annexation of settlement blocs to Israel if not the outright annexation of the West Bank.
These two major developments are part of a grand strategy to usher the Middle East and the Gulf into a completely new era with different realities on the ground, where geographic borders for Israel would be decreed by the Americans and the Israelis at the expense of Palestinian and Arab rights enshrined in the UN Charter and reaffirmed in many resolutions by the UN Security Council and the General Assembly.
In this grand strategy, the Gaza Strip would be delinked from the West Bank, or from what would be left of it to the Palestinians, if the “Deal of the Century” would make room for a semblance of a State of Palestine.
By the time this article appears, on Thursday, 16 May, Secretary Pompeo will have held talks in Russia with President Vladimir Putin and Sergei Lavrov, his Russian counterpart, on a range of issues that bear not only on the situation in Venezuela, Ukraine and North Korea, but also on the Middle East and the Gulf and how the two countries could work together on a host of international and regional questions.
Maybe we are about to witness a new Entente Cordiale in the Middle East, this time between the United States and Russia.
In this arrangement, Moscow would probably rein in the Iranians and ask them not to oppose, other than rhetorically, the Kushner deal and its geographical and strategic ramifications on the overall balance of power in the Middle East in return for negotiating a new course for American-Iranian relations away from severe economic and financial sanctions and reducing American military presence in the Gulf.
The “Deal of the Century” is not intended to bring peace to the Middle East but rather to redraw the maps, both geographically and strategically, in a grand bargain between the great powers and their regional counterparts, mostly Israel.
The Israeli attacks against Gaza 10 days ago, the resumption of targeted assassination by the Israeli death squads and the show of American military might in the Gulf are intended, probably, to pave the way before the expected release of this deal.
Never before from 1948 onwards, save in June 1967, has the Middle East experienced such a degree of strategic cooperation between the United States and Israel. Many doubt this convergence of strategic interests between the two will be conducive to security, peace and stability in the Middle East and the Gulf.
*The writer is former assistant foreign minister.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 16 May, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: A Mediterranean-Gulf arc