Gulf News -- Although peering into the fog of the future is always a hazardous business, it would not be rash to say that, of all the potential man-made catastrophes that might afflict the world this coming year, for sheer destructiveness none would surpass an American/Israeli attack on Iran.
Is such an attack probable or even possible? Regrettably, it is.
In the current confrontation with Iran, the military option remains very much on the table. In the US and Israel, the same military planners, political lobbyists and armchair strategists that pressed America to attack Iraq are now urging it to strike Iran - and for much the same reasons.
These reasons may be briefly summarised as the need to control the Middle East's oil resources and deny them to potential rivals, such as China; the wish to demonstrate to friend and foe alike America's unique ability to project military power across the globe; and, last but not least, Israel's determination to maintain its supremacy over any regional challenger, especially one as recklessly provocative as Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
To be effective, an American/Israeli strike against Iran would have to destroy not only its nuclear facilities but also its ability to hit back, that is to say its entire military-industrial complex.
It seems more than likely that, if attacked, Iran will, one way or another, manage to strike back - against US troops in Iraq, against Israel, and against US bases and US allies in the Gulf.
The impact would also be devastating on US-Arab relations, on Israel's long-term security, on the flow of oil from the Gulf, on the oil price, on the economies of the industrial world and on the already highly fragile dollar. And yet, some influential voices in the US argue that the only way the US can hope to "win" in Iraq is to destroy Iran.
US President George W. Bush is due to make a statement of his Middle East strategy early in the New Year. There is talk of sending more troops to Iraq, of tightening sanctions against Iran and Syria, of mobilising "moderate" Arab states against "extremists", of arming the Fouad Siniora government in Lebanon against Hezbollah, and the Fatah forces of Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian National Authority president, against the democratically elected Hamas government.
In the Horn of Africa, the US is lending its "tacit support" to Ethiopia in its war against Somalia's Union of Islamic Courts, all this in the name of the ill-conceived "Global War on Terrorism", which continues to create more "terrorists" than it eliminates.
Instead of calming passions and bringing peace to a deeply troubled region, American policies are feeding the flames of civil war in Iraq, exposing American troops to still greater danger, forcing Iran and Syria to look to their defences, exacerbating conflicts in Lebanon and Palestine and opening a "new front" in Somalia, which risks destabilising much of East Africa.
Still in the grip of the neocon cabal which has destroyed his presidency by its insane belligerence, Bush continues to see the Tehran-Damascus-Hezbollah-Hamas axis as the main enemy to confront and bring down. The real danger this coming year is that Saudi Arabia, alarmed at the rise of Iran and at the self-assertion of Shiite communities in Lebanon and the Gulf region, will be persuaded to side with the US against Tehran. It would be wiser for the Kingdom to engage Tehran in a wide-ranging dialogue leading to an agreement on mutual interests, and even to the conclusion of a Saudi-Iranian security pact which alone could stabilise the region without the interference of external powers.
Meanwhile, Israel continues to play cat-and-mouse with the international community, pretending to make concessions to Abbas, while blatantly establishing a new illegal colony in the Jordan valley and pressing ahead with its infamous separation wall. The message is clear: Israel's land grab on the West Bank will continue whatever Washington or anyone else might say.
Various influential Israelis have stated that if the US does not strike Iran to destroy its nuclear facilities, Israel must do so itself.
If one considers the likely impact of these American and Israeli policies, it is clear that the coming year is likely to be a hot one in the region.
The real problem is a world-wide lack of leadership. There is hardly anyone around with the power or the vision to end the current state of international anarchy.
Bush has de-legitimised himself and squandered American authority by his blunders. Russia's Vladimir Putin has managed to hoist his country back into the front rank of international powers, but his focus is still on reasserting Russian state control over oil and gas resources, while keeping neighbours such as Ukraine, Belarus and Georgia firmly within Russia's orbit.
The European Union is a magnificent example of how 27 nations can, by mutual agreement and by means of carefully crafted laws, give 500 million people a life of peace, stability and considerable prosperity. But in terms of a common foreign policy, the Union has been a failure. Its members have pulled in different directions.
Britain's Tony Blair has marginalised himself and his country by his slavish attachment to the US. He will, in any event, be leaving office in 2007. President Jacques Chirac of France - an experienced and sober Middle East hand - will be out of office by May. Neither of his potential successors has much foreign affairs experience, and both are committed to mistaken policies.
In the Middle East, three men will bear a heavy burden of responsibility in the coming year. They are King Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz of Saudi Arabia, President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey. They all have great problems at home, but if they were to get together, pool their considerable resources and jointly exert their political influence, they could protect the region from some of the risks, perils and potential catastrophes of the year ahead.
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