The Bear is Back
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|Walid Phares||September 1st 2008|
The post-Soviet world has never been closer to what we knew as the Cold War than right now. Iran is pleased. We should all be concerned. New proxy conflicts may soon emerge.
The starkest reminder of the new chill came after Russian forces recently executed a military operation inside South Ossetia in Georgia. Ostensibly, the Georgian incursion was to bring back constitutional order. But Russia’s massive reaction has their forces entrenched just miles away from Tbilisi, Georgia’s capital. Recent statements by Russian and Western leaders, the flights of long range Russian bombers across international skies, and the cruising of Russian battleships on the high seas are all images from the past months. But they are also a chilling reminder of what were four dangerous decades of the past century.
Moscow and NATO still stockpile thousands of nuclear heads. So any significant confrontation between the two camps is potentially lethal to the planet even though the ICBMs are no longer pre-targeted at major cities around the world. Targeting can change. Dangers emanating from these tensions—Cold War or not—are real and must be addressed seriously by the leaderships at the White House and the Kremlin.
Almost two decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Democratic Revolution against Communist dictatorship in the Soviet Union, neither the United States nor Russia has any interest in reviving this tumultuous past. First there is no ideological component for such a conflict. The Communist Party does not rule Moscow, and the USSR exists no more. Both powers are capitalist and both are super armed, even if not technically equal. Their arsenals can finish humanity in a few hours. Second, even if the governmental elite in the Russian Federation seem to act in an authoritarian manner and gesticulate in a pre-1990 mindset, the Russian people and especially the youth are not too excited about a war with the West, particularly with America. All sociological data and observation from Russia’s current popular mood and culture does not show a high support for the return to a Cold war, even if President Medvedev and Prime Minister Putin proffer tough words toward the United States and its allies.
Yes, Russia will be determined to play hardball in situations involving the future of Russian-speaking or pro-Russian Slavic populations around its borders. But it is hard to see a come-back of Russian forces to areas where populations would resist them, such as Poland. The mood of the local peoples is more deterring to Moscow than any U.S. or European measures, and that is the real insurance against a Soviet reenactment in Europe. Currently, Russia cannot replay the role of military occupier of alien populations even if many experts and think tanks in the West claim otherwise. Hence, the kind of Cold War which may resurface, or is already showing its hallmarks, is about regions remote from the old Iron Curtain.
That brings us to the greater Middle East and parts of Africa with some, but limited, possibilities in Latin America. It is this type of Russo-American tension and proxy conflict that pleases many rogue regimes and forces in those parts of the world. For sure, one among these excited players is undoubtedly the Iranian regime.
Indeed, Ayatollah Khamenei and President Ahmadinejad have been mobilizing all resources possible, as early as 2005, to break Iran’s isolation since the pressures mounted seriously on the Pasdaran-dominated country. From Tehran’s perspective, cataclysmic geopolitical changes have been taking place in its neighborhood since the events of Sept 11. NATO has deployed in Afghanistan, a US-led Coalition has seized Iraq and American Task Forces have been cruising in the Persian Gulf. Iran’s Mullahs are feeling strategically encircled at a time when more sectors of the Iranian society are shifting to the opposition: Additionally, in 2005, two major allies of the Ayatollahs have been put under pressure: First, Assad’s Baathist regime, which was indicted in the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Hariri; and second, Hezbollah which was singled out by UN Security Council Resolution 1559 to surrender its weapons. Add to these pressures a mounting UN request for stopping the military nuclear program of Iran. If you were the men of the regime in Tehran, only a miracle or some sort of massive change in international relations can get you out of this pit. And indeed that salvation shift came in the form of Russo-American tensions.
In fact, only a nation holding veto power at the Security Council and strong enough to accompany its threats with action on the ground is able to save the Khamenei elite from complete isolation. And that giant is, as we see, an angry Russian leadership. The Iranian regime read very well the slowly faltering relations between the entourage of Putin and Bush despite the apparently good personal relations between the two leaders.
Throughout the 1990s under Yeltsin and immediately after 9/11 under Putin, Russo-American partnership against Terrorism seemed to discourage the Jihadists worldwide—both Salafists, that is, the Sunni Islamists, and the Khomeinists. Both Iranian camps hoped for an “infidel-versus-infidel” confrontation that would save the day. Jihadi ideologues such as Sheikh Yussuf Qaradawi, al Jazeera’s major doctrinal figure and master inspiration for the Muslim Brotherhood networks often lamented that today’s Kuffar (infidels) seem to be united against the Umma (the Islamic nation). Iranian-backed thinkers also hinted at the deadlock in international context. Sheikh Mohammed Fadlallah, Hezbollah’s ideological mentor repeatedly indicated that as long as Moscow and Washington were not at odds, it was difficult for the Jihadi forces to achieve a critical change in the balance of power in the region.
In Iran, strategic planners knew all too well that even though it was the United States which threatened the regime’s ambitions, it was in fact the passive entente between the old foes of the Cold War that allowed Americans to come so close to Iran’s borders. Hence, in order to reverse the Western advance in the Middle East and, more importantly, in order to escape a democratic revolution against the regional tyrannies, the Russo-American entente would have to crumble. Therefore, the current escalation into what looks like—but is not exactly— a return to the Cold war is a “gift from heaven” to the Iranian regime. For even if these tensions do not climax into a full fledge comeback to the post-WWII era, they will and have already allowed Khamenei and Ahmadinejad to break loose from the containment and isolation processes. Here is how.
In the past years after 9/11, Russia worked cooperatively with the West to pressure Iran and its allies in the region at the UN Security Council with the passing of UNSCR 1559 and its subsequent resolutions regarding Syria and Lebanon. Moscow still walked with the international community in pressuring Tehran to cooperate on the nuclear crisis. But in the last few years, Russian-Iranian, and to a lesser degree Russian-Syrian, cooperation began to grow and the attitude of the Kremlin towards U.S. policies in the region became more and more rigid.
Historians and maybe contemporary experts in Russian-Western relationships will sooner rather than later explain why the cordial relations rapidly deteriorated. Scores of Cold War and hard-core partisans in the West claim the politico-military establishment in Russia never really changed from the old Soviet Union to the current Russian Federation. But anti-Western Communists are today on the margins of politics in Russia. Who then is pushing for tensions and to achieve what goals? There is plenty of cash in Moscow and oil is providing unprecedented revenues. Critics of Moscow accuse the old Russian nationalism of provoking a non-Marxist return to the empire. The argument is valid, but Russian youth are more into rock, travel and job search than into chauvinism. So what is it that pushed the Russian bear to roar and show its anger over the secessionist provinces in Georgia after a decade and a half of status quo in the Caucuses? Is it the anti-missiles shield to be deployed in Eastern Europe? Is it the treatment of Russia by American diplomacy which, according to Moscow, acts unilaterally and ignores the second greatest power on Earth as U.S. forces roam the planet? Is it the stretching of NATO around the old Soviet borders? Or is it a combination of all of the above complicated by a slow process of democratization in an ex-superpower which is witnessing a sudden flood of cash revenues? It may be all of that.
Unfortunately, this transformation was certainly missed in Western capitals. Russia was too important to let slip back into enmity. Washington and Brussels should have seen the signals of frustrations much earlier and acted accordingly. In the couple years following the Jihadi onslaught of September 11, a window of opportunity was open wide. Bush and Putin were very comfortable with each other. Russians suffered from terrorism in their capital and in Beslan as much as the Spaniards and the British did in their capital cities. As suggested in a whole chapter of my most recent book, The Confrontation, the US and the West should have jumped immediately at this opportunity and brought Russia by all means to a world alliance against Jihadi terrorism. This convergence with Russia against the Terror forces should have been a priority for NATO, but apparently it didn’t happen.
Worse, a reverse policy was applied by Western foreign policies. In the Balkans, where ethnic conflict can explode the delicate balances, a straw broke the back of the Russian-Western equation. Neglecting Russian concerns over Kosovo’s separation from Serbia, Euro-American chanceries slapped the bear in the face while their troops were fighting the most lethal enemy of the international community in Afghanistan, Iraq and at home. From that day on, Russia was on its own looking for its own Kosovo, and the rest of the story is now being played in the Caucuses and more specifically in Georgia.
Ironically, it was the West that wanted to please the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) by rushing the Kosovo process without a real reconciliation with Serbia, Russia’s cousin. The move led to the alienation of the Russians and didn’t extract a massive Muslim support to the United States. Ironically, this is where Iran seized the opportunity.
Using all its energies and clout, the Iranian regime blocked the Arab League and the OIC from siding overwhelmingly with the West while Tehran further invited the Russians to exercise a counter balance in the region. Maneuvering admirably, Iran acted swiftly on the ground as the Russian-Western crisis was mounting. As soon as Moscow expressed its open anger about Kosovo last winter, the Ayatollah understood that from that day on Putin would not grant his green light for any UN action against Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah. In May, the Iranian-backed militia took over Beirut and the United States didn’t lift a finger. A new balance of power was now acting to the advantage of Tehran.
An angry Russia is naturally in the interest of Iran’s regime. A Russia that clashes with US allies in the Balkans is a magnificent gift to the Syro-Iranian axis in the region. A return to the Cold War, any form of Cold war, is a fantasy that would break the isolation of Tehran and allow the Islamist power to achieve even more victories.
Evidently, it is not in the long-term interest of today’s Russia, regardless of the plans of Medvedev and Putin, to see Jihadi regimes like the Ayatollah’s undermining international order and taking advantage of Russian-Western tensions. Iran is building a powerful third force in the world, bringing together Islamist Salafists and Khomeinists. Hezbollah is operating in Sudan and has ties to Sunnis radicals. The movements constructed by the Ayatollah in parallel to the Wahabis can eventually reach deep inside Russia and could be threatening to the Russian population in a disproportionate way with a supposed Western threat. Hence, the Russian-Iranian alliance is, first, against the nature of what Russia’s society wishes to accomplish and, second, will cause harm to democracies.
But one must expect that Tehran and its axis will attempt to exploit the crisis between both infidel powers as much as possible. This is an opportunity, perhaps the last chance, for the totalitarian regime in Iran to survive the rise of democracy in the region. Indeed, not only Iran but other authoritarian circles in the region are happy about the return of a Cold War of any temperature.
Such a reality should compel Western democracies to create more focused international strategies. Political transformations within Russia are tough and complex, but the United States and Europe have the ability to be assertive regarding the defense of their small allies, like Georgia, while redirecting Russian muscles to confront a common enemy, Jihadi terrorism. Obviously, such a talent needs visionaries both in Washington and in Brussels. Unfortunately, the developments of the past year shows that Iran’s regime was able to outmaneuver the West, escape isolation and watch with immense pleasure infidel powers at each other’s throats.
Dr. Walid Phares is the Director of the Future of Terrorism Project at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a visiting scholar at the European Foundation for Democracy and the author of The Confrontation: Winning the War against Future Jihad.