BERMAN: Overlooked Middle East crises

Beyond Iran and Syria, other turmoil threatens

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These days, American policy toward the Middle East tends to be dominated by two regional crises.

The first is the long-running showdown with Iran over its nuclear program. Despite mounting Western financial pressure, the Islamic republic shows no signs of changing course. To the contrary, Iran’s leaders have defiantly tightened their fiscal belts and redoubled their efforts to cross the nuclear Rubicon. Meanwhile, negotiations between Tehran and the West have concluded predictably, without any tangible progress on bringing the Iranian regime’s nuclear ambitions to heel.

The second is the 2-year-old civil war in Syria. Since March 2011, with the help of Russia and Iran, the regime of Bashar Assad in Damascus has waged a bloody war against its own people. The human toll has been immense: Some 70,000 people have been killed in the fighting, and more than 1.2 million others have fled Syria for Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and elsewhere. Official Washington, meanwhile, still lacks anything resembling a coherent strategy for addressing the disorder.

Left largely unnoticed are four other significant strategic trends in the region. Herewith, a brief tour of the Middle East flash points that you’re probably not watching but should be:

Egypt’s economic meltdown. Since widespread protests toppled strongman Hosni Mubarak in the spring of 2011, the Egyptian state has been staring into an economic abyss. During the past two years, pro-democracy activists as well as the country’s powerful military have been progressively shouldered aside by the Muslim Brotherhood and its Islamist fellow travelers. These new power brokers have assumed a commanding presence in Cairo and have set about imposing their ideological agenda on the country writ large.

The economic consequences have been devastating. According to The Economist, the national rate of inflation officially stands at 13 percent (and unofficially is estimated to be significantly higher), and fully a quarter of the country’s population lives under the poverty line. Foreign reserves are being depleted at a catastrophic rate. Egypt is estimated to have just $13 billion left, “barely enough to cover three months’ imports.” Domestic disarray, moreover, has prevented the disbursement of desperately needed foreign capital from the International Monetary Fund and skittish foreign donors. As a result, one regional official wryly noted not long ago that we could be looking at “state failure on the level of 70 million souls,” with all of the political and security risks that that implies.

Hezbollah’s metamorphosis. Lebanon’s terrorist powerhouse Hezbollah historically has had a commanding presence in regional affairs, thanks largely to its relationship with rogue state sponsors Iran and Syria. Iran alone was estimated at one time to provide the militia with as much as $200 million annually in operating revenue, while Syria served as a crucial resupply route for arms and materiel. But growing international pressure on Iran and mounting domestic disorder in Syria have caused both to pare back their once-generous assistance to the group.

As a result, Hezbollah has begun to undergo a significant transformation. Increasingly short on cash, the organization has gone back to its criminal roots stepping up its illicit activities in locales such as Latin America and Asia. These activities, according to Matthew Levitt of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, include “arms smuggling, credit card fraud and counterfeiting.” By doing so, “the group has bolstered its assets and gained greater monetary independence.”

Yemen’s domestic disorder. Earlier this year, U.S. and local authorities apprehended an Iranian-flagged vessel off the coast of the southern Gulf state of Yemen. The ship was found to be carrying Chinese-origin arms intended for the Shiite rebels in Yemen’s northwest, whom Iran supports. Those fighters, known as the Houthis, have waged a violent campaign against the Yemeni government since 2004. Their goals: autonomy and the elimination of the corrupt regime in Sanaa.

The Houthis are not alone. Yemen is home to two other significant civil conflicts. The first is a secessionist movement in the country’s underprivileged south, which happens to sit along a strategic oil-shipping route known as the Bab el Mandeb. The second is the local insurgency being run by al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the regional franchise. That campaign has grown in size and scope over the past two years, with the organization now estimated to control seven provinces and field a force that numbers more than 1,000 fighters. The result is that Yemen is fast becoming the region’s next failed state.

Iran’s takeover of Iraq. A decade after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, Iran has emerged as the unquestioned winner in the Iraq War. “Iranian allies dominate the Iraqi republic forged by the Americans,” an analysis by the intelligence group Stratfor notes. “The U.S. initiative unintentionally allowed Tehran to project influence across the northern rim of the Middle East and threaten the interests of the Sunni Arab states, particularly Saudi Arabia.”

Iran’s vast web of influence includes various Shiite militias operating inside and outside the Iraqi government, power brokers on the Iraqi political scene, and a clandestine presence by its clerical army, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, on the territory of its eastern neighbor. The result, in the words of one observer, is that “Iran has something akin to veto power in Iraq.” Iraqi politicians, in other words, know full well exactly who will remain a force to be reckoned with long after the coalition has left.

By themselves, each of these developments has the power to reshape regional affairs. Together, they could help redraw the geopolitical map of the Middle East. Policymakers in Washington, who are preoccupied with Iran’s nuclearization and Syria’s civil strife, should take notice. They also should begin thinking beyond Tehran and Damascus.

Ilan Berman is vice president of the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington.

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