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Mideast Flashpoints

Year 1431: Off to a Rocky Start

by RANNIE AMIRI

Today, Friday Dec. 18, is the first day of the first month of the Islamic lunar calendar; 1 Muharram, 1431 A.H. Unfortunately, the New Year shows all signs of being another troubled one in the Middle East, with multiple hot spots unlikely to cool anytime soon. A brief overview:

Gaza

Nearly a year after Israel’s massive assault on the tiny, besieged territory in an ultimately failed bid to oust Hamas, its people continue to suffer.

The December 2008 Gaza War, dubbed Operation Cast Lead, saw the illegal use of white phosphorus, deliberate targeting of U.N.-run schools and food warehouses, wanton destruction of civilian infrastructure and homes, and an egregious number of civilian causalities, including hundreds of children. The embargo on basic yet vital reconstruction materials continues, as do the difficulties and obstacles in administering medical care to the people. Despite the hardship inflicted by the use of overwhelming military force, Israel was unsuccessful in turning the population against Hamas; the hope of ushering in the quisling Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, to preside over both the West Bank and Gaza, lost. Little has changed in Gaza since, even in light of the Goldstone Report implicating Israel in the commission of war crimes.

More recently, the anticipated release of the captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in exchange for hundreds of Palestinian prisoners appears to have hit a snag, most likely on Israel’s reluctance to free Marwan Barghouti. While this exchange could have done much to help ease tensions (relatively speaking), Israel’s continued bombing of tunnels along the Gaza-Egypt border coupled with little substantive relief finding its way to beleaguered Gazans make the present truce a precarious one.

Iran

It is the unending nuclear dispute, the possibility of further economic sanctions (or military action), and the Gulf Cooperation Council countries’ reaction to perceived Iranian bellicosity that grabs headlines. But in the wake of Iran’s disputed presidential election, unremitting internal discontent and the effect it is having on the leadership should be the focus.

Whereas protests – student or otherwise – initially were over suspected fraudulent vote counting in the June ballot, they have since evolved not only into questioning the legitimacy of the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, but indeed the very concept of Waliyatul Faqih, or Rule of the Jurisprudent. The regime certainly did not help its case of course, with the show trials, forced confessions and detainee-abuse that followed.

Some public opposition to Khamenei however, is quite secondary to recognizing that Iran’s powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) may even be supplanting him and the clergy as the real authority in the country. Indeed, Khamenei has come to rely on the IRGC to protect his position more so than the Assembly of Experts – the clerical body that officially oversees the Supreme Leader’s activities and has the ability to remove him if necessary.

The IRGC continues to expand in influence and control, most evident in their recent acquisition of a 50 percent stake in the Telecommunications Company of Iran (this in addition to their vast holdings in multiple other state sectors), giving them significant oversight of all internet and phone communications. They and the affiliated Basij militia were instrumental in putting down the post-election protests. As a result, the gap between the people and a regime desperately trying to reestablish its credibility has become a chasm, and protests have predictably resurfaced. How the government decides to face the most serious challenge to its rule since coming to power will need to be carefully followed in the coming months.

Israel-Lebanon border

The Israel-Lebanon border is a perennial tinderbox, and war between Israel and Hezbollah always seems poised to erupt. One cannot help but speculate whether Israel wishes it do so, as their repeated violations of Lebanese airspace belie. But will cooler heads prevail? This partially depends on what, if any, unilateral action Israel decides to take – or goads the United States into taking – with Iran. Lebanon’s political climate is a bit more stable these days after the parliament endorsed Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s cabinet and its platform. By a vote of 121-to-1, this included upholding Hezbollah’s right to maintain its “armed resistance” against Israel. Recognizing that Hezbollah’s constituency cannot be marginalized and must be included in any government (especially since the March 8 Coalition won the popular vote in the last election), their accommodation brings a measure of political stability to the country, if not simultaneously raising Israel’s ire.

Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province

Saudi Arabia makes the list not for their Yemen adventure, but for the potential of further volatility in the country’s Shia-dominated – and oil-rich – Eastern Province. With a severe clampdown already underway and numerous Shia and Ismaili-mosques recently ordered closed, disquiet is bound to grow. A comprehensive look at this issue and its ramifications can be found in Human Rights Watch Sept. 2009 report, “Denied Dignity: Systemic Discrimination and Hostility toward Saudi Shia Citizens.”

Yemen

Although the conflict between the government of Ali Abdullah Saleh and Yemen’s Zaidis in Saada province has received a bit more attention, it sadly has not been from the international community but from intervening countries, notably Saudi Arabia. As their jets pound the area and Yemen’s army continues to maintain its siege, there are now reports from Houthi rebels that the U.S. has joined in the airstrikes. Geopolitical implications aside, it is the humanitarian disaster in Saada that puts Yemen high on the list of flashpoint countries. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs has increased the number of internally displaced persons once again, now numbering 200,000 since the onset of hostilities in 2004. Growing child malnutrition and overflowing refugee camps only add to the human misery of north Yemen.

With secessionist unrest in the south, Yemen is set for a turbulent year ahead. As relations deteriorate between Arab countries and Iran, and Israeli expansionism continues unchecked, this is likely to be true for the entire Middle East as well.

RANNIE AMIRI is an independent Middle East commentator. He may be reached at: rbamiri AT yahoo DOT com.