Behind the Hamas attack on Israel, Hard Geopolitics lurk
Three key strategic issues underpin Hamas’s timing and extremely violent method in its recent attack on Israel. Rather than describing the facts, and staying away from the (very justified) emotional reactions, this piece will focus on these three strategic and geopolitical shifts in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Gulf.
Behind the Hamas attack on Israel, Hard Geopolitics lurk
Three key strategic issues underpin Hamas’s timing and extremely violent method in its recent attack on Israel. Rather than describing the facts, and staying away from the (very justified) emotional reactions, this piece will focus on these three strategic and geopolitical shifts in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Gulf: Iran’s and Hamas’s potentially irreversible containment as a result of the Saudi-Israeli-US peace agreement; the control over three maritime chokepoints; and the long tail of consequences of the US disengagement from the Middle East that started with the Obama Administration.
As ever, Iran (and its international delivery arm, the IRGCs), with its complex geography, is a key player in this latest manifestation of violence in the Middle East. In many ways, this is the revenge of geography, which has been ignored for too long in favour of dreamy think pieces on how to achieve peace in the Middle East, penned with good intentions but without due reference to the realities of maps. As the saying goes: “the road to hell is paved with good intentions”.
Saudi-Israeli-US Peace Agreement: A Containment Strategy
The first key strategic shift behind the Hamas attack is the imminent Saudi-Israeli peace agreement, which would result in the containment of both Iran and Hamas. First because of the reported security and defence guarantees to be offered by the US to Saudi Arabia, and second because of the creation of a de facto maritime containment belt.
What is often conveniently overlooked is that Saudi Arabia always viewed its relationship with Israel through the prism of its foreign policy vis-a-vis the US. For decades, Saudi Arabia saw its regional policy as an integral part of its US policy, and that covered its Israel policy as well. This factor also explains the Saudi pivot towards more intensive and independent regional engagements and alliances after the US, under Obama, started disengaging from the region. It calculated that its bet on the US as a reliable ally would not yield unconditional support, and that the alternative would be to focus its efforts on regional geopolitics, to a large extent independently of the US. With the Trump administration, it saw an opportunity to re-engage the US anew in the region. And it worked, as the US moved its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and mediated the Abraham Accords between Israel on the one hand, and the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco on the other. However, the level of engagement remained below the Saudi aspiration of having the US guarantee its security, as it had done for decades after WWII.
US Disengagement from the Middle East
US disengagement was epitomised by its lack of support for President Mubarak of Egypt during the Arab Spring, which stunned regional allies. It also reneged on its “Red Line” threat against the Syrian government after the latter’s reported use of chemical weapons. Obama thus upended the decades long US compact with regional rulers to guarantee regional stability and regime security in return for energy security. A vacuum of control ensued which is still being fought over by regional powers. The US’s so-called pivot was made possible because the shale revolution made the US self-sufficient in terms of its hydrocarbon needs. China, as ever, loomed large as the US decided to pivot to Asia to focus its resources there.
This sense of abandonment and insecurity in the region underpins much of what we see today in terms of regional conflicts. Moreover, the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan created at least the dangerous perception of a weak and uncoordinated West, lacking the leadership of the US, and unwilling to stay the course. And “if men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences”. These are uncomfortable realities for our policy-makers obsessed with values at the expense of our interests.
This brings us back to the future, as geostrategic realities reassert themselves: the security and defence guarantees that Saudi Arabia demanded of the US (as a price for its signing a peace deal with Israel) are a new-old version of the compact between Saudi Arabia/Gulf and the US that existed for decades since WWII.
Such guarantees, had the peace agreement come to fruition, would have led to weakening Iran beyond repair, both vis-a-vis its arch-rival, Saudi Arabia, and regionally. As Saudi Arabia was focusing on its own deal with the US and Israel, Hamas calculated that it, too, would be left totally isolated, to wither away on the vines of time and containment. Moreover, the agreement would likely have strengthened the hand of the Palestinian National Authority in the West Bank, Hamas’s arch-rival. Add the Abraham Accords, and the extent of the potential containment and isolation becomes clear. The Abraham Accords are not only economically important, but in geopolitical terms they brought the Gulf states into the security architecture of the Eastern Mediterranean. This matters greatly to Iran, Hizbollah and Hamas: Gaza’s main maritime outlet is on the Eastern Mediterranean coast, which is controlled by Israel. Egypt, which is close politically to most (if not all) of the Gulf states, controls one of the main land crossings into Gaza.
The convergence of the threats to such vital strategic interests trumped any sectarian differences and rivalries between Shia Iran and Hizbollah on the one hand, and Sunni Hamas and Islamic Jihad on the other. Extreme violence was deployed by Hamas on behalf of this combine, to upend this expected diplomatic breakthrough and the consequent new regional security order. In all likelihood, it aims to provoke a wider regional war beyond the West Bank.
Containment through maritime geopolitics
Iran faced a fundamental redrawing of the regional geostrategic map through containment, not only because of the US security guarantees to Saudi Arabia, but also as a consequence of maritime geopolitics.
The Abraham Accords and the planned Saudi-Israeli peace agreement would mean, in pure geostrategic terms, the creation of a US-centred ring of alliances controlling the maritime choke points of the Straits of Hormuz, the Suez Canal, and the Straits of Bab Al Mandab. This would hem Iran in, and effectively confine it to its continental reach into Afghanistan, Iraq and, through its Road Bridge in Iraq, into Syria and Lebanon, reaching the Eastern Mediterranean through its proxy, Hizbollah. In effect, both Iran and Hamas have failed strategically. Their tactical successes did not add up, ultimately, to changing their relative strategic position in the pecking order of regional players. Having failed to secure their positions through political and diplomatic means when the wind was in their sails, we now see the recourse to extreme violence, and potentially regional war. This political and diplomatic failure extends to the future of the recent Iran-Saudi reproachment, under the patronage of China (though the actual hard negotiations took place mainly in Baghdad). It may well be that Iran saw that rapprochement as a means to calm the waters and buy time as it tried to regain its bearings under the punishing sanctions and geopolitical containment. Moreover, ultimately Iran calculated that the damage to its relative strategic interests, caused by the strategic shifts mentioned above, will fundamentally and irrevocably weaken it. Its choice was clearly made to effectively abandon the China-sponsored rapprochement with Saudi Arabia. China now faces its first serious geopolitical test in the moving sands of the Middle East. It was always doubtful that its connectivity, trade, and investment agenda would translate into a geopolitical role amid the torrents of Middle East conflicts. China will let the parties fight it out and will shy away from getting involved – it might even start to think twice about its investments in non-essential sectors in the region (e.g., energy and ports).
Iran’s Perennial Fears and Successful Hybrid War
Throughout its history Iran has suffered from “centrifugal claustrophobia”, regardless of regime. It has always attempted to push the line of confrontation and defence away from its Persian-dominated heartland. Its fears have always been enhanced, in Iran’s defensive thinking, by its multi-ethnic and sectarian composition. Looking at the map, this is not surprising: the 92% or so of Iran’s dominant Persian-Shiite ethno-sectarian group is concentrated in the centre of the current-day Iranian state. It is surrounded on all sides by a ring of hostile ethnicities, mostly Sunni groups, still within the internationally recognised borders of the modern Iranian state. Crucially, 65% of its oil production lies in the restive Arab southwest of the country, on the Gulf.
Iran’s influence in the region stems from combining both hard and soft power effectively. Its soft power emanates from the fact that the various Shia national ethnicities outside its borders, although they represent only about 10% (some 205 million people) of the global Muslim population, are concentrated in a contiguous belt stretching from India/Pakistan, Afghanistan and through Iraq to Syria and Lebanon on the Eastern Mediterranean, barely 200 km from Cyprus, the EU’s eastern most border point. This belt provides fertile ground for soft power influence, recruitment of militias, and the ability to melt into a generally sympathetic environment. Hence Iran’s ability to recruit Shia multi-ethnic militias totalling some 160,000 battle-hardened fighters.
Iran’s Hybrid Warfare methods have been effective, centred on an emotive message that combines theology, branding, hostility to western “facts”, and an organised and disciplined armed militia, proxies, and opportunistic partners to deliver effect. Using sectarian messaging to achieve nationalist Persian aspirations has been the stock-in-trade of Iran’s foreign entanglements, going back centuries to their rivalry with the Ottoman Empire. Through consistently combining hard and soft power over decades, it has succeeded in translating its military dominance and intimidation in Iraq and Lebanon into political dominance. It has done this by establishing political parties, backed up by local loyal militias, that dominate the Iraqi and Lebanese parliaments, taking advantage of the democratic process.
Hizbollah: the wild card in any war scenario
Although Hamas and Islamic Jihad (the latter operating in the West Bank) are Sunni forces, their common interest with Iran in upending the planned geostrategic order across the Eastern Mediterranean, Levant, and the Gulf, resulted in what was reported as productive meetings in Beirut (reportedly attended by Hizbollah) since last August, with reported visits to Tehran and Moscow. This is a very significant development that, if true, may lead to escalation, as Hizbollah’s role may be to open the Southern Lebanese front. A quick look at the map indicates that an integrated war plan means attacks against Israel could be launched along the length of the line starting from Gaza to Southern Lebanon, and potentially along the Israeli-Syrian border.
A key factor in such a scenario is Hizbollah’s possession of a reported 150,000 Iranian-supplied missiles. Their use would stretch Israel’s armed forces. This led Israel and Iran to finally bring their shadow war into the open, but, crucially, to be fought on Syrian soil, away from their own territories. Russia sees an opportunity to further distract the west, stretch its attention, and create further chaos on Europe’s doorsteps; but only as long as its possession of the Tartus naval base on the Syrian Mediterranean coast and the Hmeimim Air Base are protected. This is a vital Russian strategic interest and a red line that Iran and Israel understand very well.
Regional military escalation seems in many ways inevitable, as Hamas will be decimated otherwise, and Iran strategically contained. The two allies effectively have only one way to go: to escalate. If Israel manages to implicate Iran explicitly in the Hamas attack, the region will very likely face an open war. The Saudi-Israeli-US peace deal is very likely going to be frozen. The region moves, yet again, to war instead of peace.
Conclusions: What about EU’s enlightened self-interest
The EU and its Member States can’t continue their current modus operandi of disengagement, born largely out of the disappointment with the outcome of the Arab Spring, the failure of the Oslo agreements to deliver peace, and of being pre-occupied with the EU’s own real or perceived problems. For all practical purposes, only France has been providing leadership in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Gulf. It is the only EU Member State that has demonstrated the willingness, focus, resources, reach and bandwidth to provide leadership.
This is not a war in a faraway place about which we know very little. Cyprus, the EU’s eastern most border point, is only 200 km from Gaza. This is literally on the EU’s doorsteps. And NATO’s too: Cyprus is home to the British Sovereign bases. There is an immediate need to identify and articulate the EU’s vital strategic interests in the Levant and the Gulf: maritime choke points and energy security (including hydrogen) loom large. Obsession with the domestic politics of immigration is a strategic distraction unless immigration is weaponised as a hybrid threat aimed at destabilising our societies, and to distract us from our vital strategic objectives.
The EU should urgently organise to formulate both immediate responses to this emerging crisis and the possible ramifications of a wider regional war on the one hand, and to adopt a longer-term statement of the EU’s vital strategic interests in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Gulf, on the other. Such a statement should be accompanied by a clear allocation of the resources necessary, including military, to defend those interests. The Ukraine war has focused the EU’s attention on its eastern flank. This crisis should produce the same unity of purpose and effectiveness of action for its interests in the Eastern Mediterranean, Levant, and the Gulf. It is high time to abandon the tendency to be reactive. To be on the forefront in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Gulf is to protect Europe’s vital interests, and its future prosperity and peace.
(Photo credit: Map data ©2023 Mapa GISrael, Google)