Another war is escalating in the Middle East as the world focuses on Ukraine.


As the war in Ukraine rages, another struggle that the US and its allies are waging against Iran over its nuclear program, the provision of drones to Russia, and the suppression of anti-government protesters is about to break out in the Middle East.

Using its drone and missile arsenal, Iran would probably retaliate by closing the Strait of Hormuz at the mouth of the Gulf, through which tankers transport nearly a fifth of the world's oil and gas each day, if the US or Israel attacked the main Iranian nuclear facility producing weapons-grade nuclear fuel.

This week's announcement by Iran that it wanted to produce nuclear material with the same performance standards as a weapon at its Fordow plant, which is concealed within a mountain to fend off bomb and missile attack, marked a significant uptick in hostilities. After efforts to resurrect the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which President Barack Obama agreed to in 2015 but President Donald Trump rejected and abandoned three years later, failed, Iran made the decision to step up its nuclear program.

intensifying crisis

In exchange for international oversight of a scaled-back Iranian nuclear program, which Israeli and Western officials claim is intended to produce a nuclear bomb, the accord included a significant relaxation in economic sanctions against Iran.

The clash that nearly started a war three years ago between Iran and the US on the one side and Israel and the US on the other is being revived in the current situation. Iran launched an extremely successful drone and missile attack on Saudi oil infrastructure that temporarily reduced Saudi Arabia's oil output by half under pressure from sanctions and the prospect of military invasion.

Explosions that damaged oil tankers anchored near the mouth of the Gulf and guerrilla attacks on US troops in Iraq were attributed to Iran. General Qasem Soleimani, who oversaw clandestine Iranian operations overseas, was assassinated as payback by Trump, and he was killed in an Iraqi drone attack at the beginning of 2020.

reviving the nuclear accord

When President Joe Biden replaced the vehemently anti-Iranian Trump and began talks to revive the nuclear deal, the military conflict between the US and Iran abruptly de-escalated from its precarious state. The Covid-19 outbreak, US rivalry with China, and Ukrainian conflict all served to draw attention away from Iran. Even as recently as September, Iran seemed to be close to a fresh JCPOA agreement but demanded assurances that the US wouldn't once more withdraw unilaterally.

The Iran situation has been hotter and more volatile than ever in the past two months, but the failure to reach a nuclear agreement is just one of a number of unconnected, distinct events that have contributed to this. Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister of Israel, had led the charge under Trump in calling for an attack on the Iranian nuclear facility. He returned to power in Jerusalem as the leader of the most right-wing and hawkish administration in Israel's history on November 1 after winning a general election with a clear majority.

He is likely to increase pressure on the US for military action against Iran because he has always been against the JCPOA. Israel and the US apparently prepped for airstrikes on Iran, and Netanyahu was on the verge of giving the order.

a hyper drone power

Two further coincidental events have further deteriorated Tehran-Washington relations. When Iran faced the air superiority of the US and its allies in the Gulf, it transformed itself into what has been called "a drone super-power," but the world didn't fully understand the potency of these affordable precision-guided missiles until Iran exported them to Russia for use against Ukraine.

They have largely damaged Ukraine's electrical infrastructure since October, rendering much of the nation heatless and lightless. If it were conceivable, Iran's already toxic relations with the West got much worse when it unexpectedly became a major actor in the conflict in Ukraine.

The protest movement in Iran, which shows no signs of dying off despite harsh repression that, according to Amnesty International, resulted in the deaths of 305 protestors, including 41 children, is a last component boosting the crisis's intensifying dynamics. The protests are more widespread than in the past, and the punishment of protestors as a group simply serves to make more martyrs. The extent and persistence of the opposition is demonstrated by the Iranian football team's reluctance to sing the national anthem while in Qatar.

Gulf Coast tanker traffic

However, it is yet too early to tell if it is upending the system, how far the government may succeed in rallying the country in the event of a dispute with the US, and whether or not it would try to demonize protesters as agents of foreign powers.

Although vocal and unrelenting popular unrest will make the Iranian regime weaker, it is still more powerful than it was during the previous close call. The price of oil and gas is high, and the loss of Russian supplies on top of the suspension of those from the Gulf oil states would have a devastating impact on the global economy. By employing drones and missiles in large numbers—against which there is no fully effective anti-aircraft defense—Iran is better than before at halting tanker traffic from the Gulf.

Iranian nuclear weapons possession would change the region's power dynamics, according to Western and Israeli leaders who have long made this claim. This is true enough, though US intelligence reportedly thinks Iran's leadership hasn't made up its mind about whether or not it wants to develop nuclear weapons. Iran sees the US and its allies as being unforgivably hostile, so the mere threat of doing so has helped it in negotiations thus far.

air dominance

Contrary to popular belief, the acquisition of nuclear weapons has not altered the global or Middle Eastern power structure. As evidenced by the strikes in the Gulf in 2019 and in Ukraine since October, weaker nations like Yemen and Iran, as well as middle-ranking ones like Iran and Turkey, now compete militarily on an even playing field with superpowers like the United States, Britain, and Israel. It's a game-changing development when air superiority no longer equals control of the skies.

But to what extent do those who make Middle Eastern peace or war decisions understand that the rules of the game have actually changed? Following the most recent US-Iran conflicts under Trump, Gulf governments like Saudi Arabia and the UAE realized they were incredibly likely to suffer as a result of any American or Israeli attack on Iran. The conflict in Ukraine is already taking up most of Biden's time. Israel should be aware that Iran would come up with an asymmetrical strategy to respond to it.

The self-interest of all parties should prevent a shooting war from breaking out in the Iran problem, as it did in the Ukraine crisis, but that does not imply it won't.

Extra Suggestions

According to a study of political commentators who appear on US television, they are more likely to receive a second invitation from the TV network if their forecasts turn out to be inaccurate than accurate. The categorical nature of the incorrect commentator's beliefs is one of the reasons they are invited back. They fail to notice the arrows' confusingly divergent directions, which is something that true experts are all too prone to do. Another reason is that, much to the dismay of TV interviewers and discussion hosts, these same experts could voice viewpoints that drastically contradict received wisdom in the media.

I believe that the "pundit class's" success on US television is what causes so much of it to be dull and uninformative. Since Washington is brimming with true experts on practically everything imaginable, the tedium is made all the more unpleasant by the fact that it is completely unneeded. However, very few of them manage to get within earshot of a TV studio where they might say startling, unexpected, and fascinating things.

Sadly, the same pundit class also determines which topics are crucial and which are not. Many of the people who were speaking intelligently about the inescapable "Red Wave" and "Republican Tsunami" in the midterm elections are now occupied with determining the news agenda for the coverage of the presidential race in 2024.

This is a huge waste of time because, as past presidential elections have repeatedly demonstrated, there will be far too many events in the next two years for the midterm results to serve as a reliable indicator. James Fallows talks about this as well as some of the earlier points made.

Radar's Underside

More deliberate attention ought to be paid to Benjamin Netanyahu's election as the next Israeli prime minister, leading the country's most right-wing administration in its history. The involvement of fervent ethno-nationalists in Israeli politics has been normalized by Netanyahu.

This is demonstrated by the appointment of Itamar Ben-Gvir, a leader of Israel's extreme right, as the country's new minister of national security, who will be responsible for overseeing the Border Police that operate in the West Bank among other duties. Ben-Gvir once kept a photograph of Baruch Goldtein, who murdered 29 Palestinians in a mosque in Hebron in 1994, in his home. Goldtein was a follower of Meir Kahane, the ultra-sectarian rabbi who sought to deny citizenship to Israeli Arabs. Ben-Gvir pushed East Jerusalem police to shoot at Palestinian protesters while brandishing a handgun two weeks prior to the election on November 1.

Many Israelis and American Jews are horrified by his appointment. Giving Ben-Gvir the position would be comparable to "appointing David Duke, one of the heads of the KKK, as attorney general," according to Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of America's Union for Reform Judaism, who made the statement on Sunday.

Here is a fantastic piece of reporting by the esteemed Haaretz journalist Amira Hass about what was going on in the West Bank even before Ben-Gvir's appointment.

Picks by Cockburn

Even though Britain is struggling in many areas, it continues to produce meticulous analyses of what went wrong. I'm curious how many people have read them. According to the Independent Commission for Aid Impact (ICAI) report on how British development aid was used to finance Afghanistan, a significant portion of aid funds may have been used to fund the infamous police death squads.

"According to the ICAI, the use of £252 million to pay Afghan National Police salaries as part of an international commitment was a "questionable use of UK aid" because the police were primarily tasked with counterinsurgency operations rather than civilian policing. However, it raises concerns about police brutality and corruption, including extortion, arbitrary detention, torture, and extrajudicial killings. The report acknowledges that UK support for what was primarily a paramilitary police force helped protect Afghan communities from Taliban attacks. The report discovered that attempts to cut off police funding were made but were rejected at the "highest levels of the UK government."

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