The nature of the current wars in the wider western Asian area reveals a disturbing trend: next to sources of conflict between states there are an increasing number of conflicts within them. In Yemen, the civil war has had a ripple effect throughout the Persian Gulf region provoking the military intervention of Saudi Arabia and a humanitarian crisis that has remained largely unreported. In Iraq, the aftermath of the devastating US/UK invasion in 2003 continues to cast a shadow on the timid post-war reconstruction efforts of the al-Maliki administration.
Indeed, seven years after the “shock and awe” campaign of the US military and six years after the abuse at Abu Ghraib, the plight of the Iraqi people has largely been forgotten. The news about the recent car bombs that killed over 120 people in Baghdad did not make it to the front page of major newspapers in Europe and the United States. The western consciousness has been coded to move on to a new strategic theater, “AfPak.” The drones of the US military are now bombing the border areas between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Civilians are routinely killed. Iraq is old news.
And so is Palestine. One year ago almost to the day, Palestinians were picking up their dead and injured in the streets and alleys of Gaza. Of the 1,453 people estimated killed in the conflict, as the UN report by Richard Goldstone later established, 1,440 were Palestinian, including 431 children and 114 women. The same report established that Israel’s offensive against Gaza was “a deliberately disproportionate attack designed to punish, humiliate and terrorize a civilian population” for which the Israelis responsible should face “individual criminal responsibility.” The report was dismissed as “biased” by the Israeli state.
The policy of collective punishment continues. According to the World Health Organization, the blockade of Gaza has led to “worsening infant and child mortality, and childhood stunting.” It also has had adverse effects on the mental health of the population, “for instance some 30 percent of school children show significant mental health consequences . . . with potentially serious future implications in terms of loss of commitment, alienation, and destructive and violent behavior.”
In the meantime the Israeli air force is repeatedly overflying towns in southern Lebanon in a deliberate challenge to UN Security Council Resolution 1701, which ended hostilities in 2006. The IDF has also been busy launching extensive war games simulating an attack on Iranian nuclear facilities. The Israeli state continues to ignore repeated calls for scrutiny of its nuclear weapons arsenal by the United Nations and the IAEA. All the Netanyahu administration conceded to US President Barack Obama, who had tentatively requested a freeze to the expansion of Israeli colonies on Palestinian territory, is a limited 10-month building ban. Not many people in the region would doubt that the Israeli military has the capability and audacity to launch or instigate another war in the region.
Here lies the difference with the Iranian case. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has painstakingly built up a reputation as a loud and bellicose leader, even gone out of his way to earn this notoriety. Yet the current consensus among the shrinking “international community” that Iran is the major threat to regional security in western Asia is a figment of the imagination. There is a clear difference between shouting abuse and wanting to — and being capable of — hitting someone. By all statistical indicators available, Iran has one of the lowest military expenditures in the region. At the same time it has one of the largest budgets for satellite television stations that broadcast in Arabic, English, Persian, Urdu, Turkish, Kurdish, and other major regional languages and dialects. Iran is banking on soft power.
The turmoil surrounding the country’s nuclear file has not so much to do with Iranian capabilities or intentions, as with setting a new benchmark for developing states. Until here and no further seems to be the message. But the world has changed. The reason why Lula of Brazil, Chavez of Venezuela, and Erdogan of Turkey, among others, support Iran’s quest for nuclear technology has a lot to do with their own efforts to develop a viable nuclear infrastructure for their countries and in view of their increasingly bold opposition to US foreign policies.
And what about the “war on terror”? It has been rhetorically repackaged, yet it is ongoing and has failed to bring about stability. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq will last a decade, and in the case of the former, the fight against the Taliban has been extended into Pakistan. The war on terror has been widened rather than confined and the quasi-states in Pakistan and Afghanistan seek their fledgling security in ad-hoc “alliances” with the United States.
But while subservience to external demands may promise short-term stability, it depletes political legitimacy in the long term. No developed society can accept the bombing of its country by a foreign entity. And no society can rally behind a state that is perceived to be unwilling or helpless to contain the killing of its own population. In this sense the “war on terror” has been self-defeating: it has contributed to turning the people of the target countries against their governments and against the very presence of US military and NATO forces. The lesson is rather simple: there is no military solution to any of the current conflicts in the wider Arab and Muslim worlds.
Arshin Adib-Moghaddam teaches comparative politics at SOAS and is the author, most recently, of Iran in World Politics: the Question of the Islamic Republic, which is based on extensive field research in Iran and interviews with Iranian decision-makers. This article was first published by Bitterlemons-international.org on 17 December 2009; it is reproduced here for non-profit educational purposes.