I was in my room in the Baghdad Hotel on al-Sadoun street last Sunday evening, writing about the chances for stability in Iraq taking hold, when the walls and floor began to shake. They jerked sideways and up and down several times as if my room was the cabin of boat in a rough sea.
My first confused thought was – this being Baghdad – that there must have been some huge bomb explosion, which would explain the rocking motion of everything around me. But almost simultaneously, I realised that I had not heard the sound of an explosion, so a better explanation was that there was an earthquake, though I had never thought of Baghdad as being in an earthquake zone.
The jerking movements of the walls and floor of my room were so spectacular that I wondered if the building was going to collapse. I looked under the desk where I was sitting, but the space was too small for me to crouch in. I got down on my hands and knees and started to crawl towards the bathroom which is meant to be the safest place in the event of a bomb explosion, and I supposed the same must be true of earthquakes.
I had got about half way there when the shaking stopped. The lights were still on which seemed a good sign. I got back on a stool and googled “Baghdad earthquake” on my laptop and read a series of alarmed tweets confirming that was indeed what had just happened.
It was a 7.3 magnitude quake centred 19 miles from Halabja, a small city in Iraqi Kurdistan 150 miles north-east of Baghdad and close to the Iranian border. Nine people had been killed in Iraq, but the catastrophic damage was in Iran where 530 people had died.
In earlier times, an earthquake like this would be taken as an omen: a warning of bad times to come. Shakespeare is full of such grim portents which commonly precede assassinations and defeats in battle. This would be a pity in the case of present day Iraq because, for the first time since Saddam Hussein started his war with Iran in 1980, the prospects look positive.
The central government is stronger than before, defeating Isis in the nine-month long siege of Mosul and ending the move towards secession of Iraqi Kurdistan by peacefully reoccupying Kirkuk and other disputed territories.
Substantial successes these certainly are, but what has really changed the political landscape of Iraq is that there is no longer a community, party or faction fighting the central government with financial and military aid from foreign backers. For once, Iraq has good relations with all the neighbouring states.
The earthquake may not herald more domestically-generated violence in Iraq, but in the real world it is a useful reminder that the country, along with the rest of the Middle East, is vulnerable to unexpected and unpredictable events. Of course, these are always a possibility anywhere, but never more than at present because of the strange character change of two traditionally conservative powers in the region: the US and Saudi Arabia. Previously committed to preserving the political status quo, both have become mercurial and prone to saw off the branch on which they are sitting.
Shortly before the earthquake in Baghdad, I was making the above point about Iraq stabilising to a European diplomat. He said this might be true, but that real danger to peace “comes from a combination of three people: Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Trump’s son-in-law and Middle East envoy Jared Kushner, and Bibi Netanyahu in Israel.”
Probably, the Saudis and the Americans exaggerate the willingness of Netanyahu and Israel to go to war. Netanyahu has always been strong on bellicose rhetoric, but cautious about real military conflict (except in Gaza, which was more massacre than war).
Israel’s military strength tends to be exaggerated and its army has not won a war outright since 1973. Previous engagements with Hezbollah have gone badly. Israeli generals know that the threat of military action can be more effective than its use in maximising Israeli political influence, but that actually going to war means losing control of the situation. They will know the saying of the 19th century German chief of staff, Helmuth Von Moltke, that “no plan survives contact with the enemy”.
But even if the Israelis do not intend to fight Hezbollah or Iran, this does not mean that they would not like somebody else to do so for them. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi told me in an interview earlier this month that his greatest fear was a US-Iranian confrontation fought out in Iraq. This could happen directly or through proxies, but in either case would end the present fragile peace.
On the optimistic side, US policy in Iraq and Syria is largely run by the Pentagon and not the White House, and has not changed much since President Obama’s days. It has been successful in its aim of destroying Isis and the self-declared caliphate.
The wars in Iraq and Syria already have their winners and losers: President Bashar al-Assad stays in power in Damascus, as does a Shia-dominated government in Baghdad. An Iranian-backed substantially Shia axis in four countries – Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon – stretches from the Afghan border to the Mediterranean. This is the outcome of the wars since 2011, which is not going to be reversed except by a US land invasion – as happened in Iraq in 2003.
The great danger in the Middle East today is that Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman and Jared Kushner appear to have a skewed and unrealistic understanding of the world around them. Inspector Clouseau seems to have a greater influence on Saudi policy than Machiavelli, going by the antics surrounding the forced resignation of Saad Hariri as Prime Minister of Lebanon. This sort of thing is not going to frighten the Iranians or Hezbollah.
The signs are that Iran has decided to go a long way to avoid confrontation with the US. In Iraq, it is reported that it will support the re-election of Abadi as prime minister which is also what the US wants. Iran knows that it has come out on the winning side in Iraq and Syria and does not need to flaunt its success. It may also believe that the Crown Prince is using anti-Iranian nationalist rhetoric to secure his own power and does not intend to do much about it.
Nobody has much to gain from another war in the Middle East, but wars are usually started by those who miscalculate their own strengths and interests. Both the US and Saudi Arabia have become “wild cards” in the regional pack. The sort of Neo-con and right-wing think tankers, who in 2003 were saying that a war with Iraq would be a doddle, are back in business in Washington, pushing for war with Iran – and are stronger than ever.
The wars in the Middle East should be ending, but they could just be entering a new phase. Leaders in the US and Saudi Arabia may not want a new war, but they might just blunder into one.