Thirty-three years ago, then-US National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski spoke of an “arc of crisis” coursing through the Middle East and into Central Asia. Today, events in Syria and Pakistan, as well as the recent bombings in Bangkok and New Delhi, which some are linking to Iran, suggest that Brzezinski’s arc is more salient than ever.
Among the many dangers lurking along it today, the most ominous concerns the response of Israel and the United States to the question of when Iran’s nuclear facilities will become impregnable, creating, in Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s phrase, a “zone of immunity.” Some think that this point has already been reached, with Iran placing its enriched uranium underground, near the holy city of Qom, beneath many layers of granite – and thus beyond the destructive power of anything short of a nuclear bomb.
Israeli hawks argue that the time to strike is now, before Iran is able to make a fully operational nuclear weapon. Not so fast, warns the US: sanctions may still achieve their aim. Such differences are real, with US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta expressing concern that Israel might launch an attack on Iran in the spring.
Moving eastward along the arc, Pakistan is descending ever deeper into domestic turmoil. Its government convened a tripartite meeting in Islamabad with Iran and Afghanistan this February to discuss “peace and security” in the region. But the country’s internal disarray precludes the government’s ability to influence events positively. For now, Pakistan seems consigned to the role of destructive spoiler, particularly in Afghanistan, where the Taliban and Haqqani network are free to launch attacks from Pakistani territory.
To the west, the situation in Syria deteriorates by the day. Foreign support for the Syrian rebels is not only based on horror at the Assad regime’s tactics, but also appears to be aimed at disabling the Assad regime’s patron, Iran. Efraim Halevy, a former director-general of Mossad, Israel’s intelligence service, put this goal succinctly: evicting Iran from its “regional hub in Damascus would cut off Iran’s access to its proxies” (Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza).
Across the arc, security risks are serious and interconnected. For example, the threat posed by Pakistan’s nuclear weapons, which many fear could fall into the hands of terrorists, dovetails with Iran’s quest – elevated to a national priority – to develop such weapons of its own. Indeed, Iran bought the centrifuge technology that it is using to develop its nuclear capacity from A.Q. Khan, the “father” of the Pakistani bomb and one-time head of Pakistan’s nuclear program.
To the nuclear danger must be added Islamist extremism and the terrorism that sometimes results from it, as well as ideological militias like the Taliban and Hezbollah. Each has contributed to transforming the region into the epicenter of global uncertainty. And it is this very complexity that calls to mind another of Brzezinski’s insights: “stability in Asia can no longer be imposed by….direct application of US military force.”
If the challenge is to stop Iran’s uranium enrichment program, “Why not also Israel?” ask others in the region. The answer, from the perspective of the US and the West, is that Iran simply cannot be trusted to use its enrichment program for “peaceful purposes.” But it is clear even to the US that no Iranian leader could accept the humiliation of surrendering the right to civilian nuclear power recognized by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, to which Iran acceded when it was ruled by the Shah.
It requires little imagination to conclude that some existential imperative is driving Western policy on Iran. Of course, a nuclear-armed Iran would vastly complicate security across the entire region, potentially triggering an arms race with Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt (once its government begins to look outward again). But the danger is that the stakes are being raised so high that the smallest misstep could escalate into a conflict of unforeseeable dimensions. Iran has already vowed that, if pushed, it will close the Strait of Hormuz (through which one-sixth of the world’s oil supply passes), and it is threatening to preempt oil-export sanctions by refusing to sell to selected European countries.
Iran also has direct security and social concerns in neighboring Afghanistan, where the Taliban, upon assuming power in 1996, carried out selective killings of Shia, including a massacre of more than 5,000 in Bamyan province. But Iran’s lack of diplomatic relations with the US means that it is not involved in trying to structure a viable peace accord to stabilize Afghanistan after the withdrawal of Western troops. It also has many grievances against Pakistan, which harbors anti-Iran militants and routinely abuses its Shia minority.
Instead of seeking means to defuse these complex crises, the US and other world powers are actually multiplying them. Pakistan is ridden with anxiety about post-withdrawal Afghanistan, and about the secret talks that the US has now begun with the Afghan Taliban in Qatar. Iran is shown a stick to dissuade it from acquiring nuclear weapons, but is offered no carrot in the form of increased trade and investment or the possibility of an end to the sanctions that have crippled its economy. Syria’s agony looks like it can end only in sectarian slaughter.
In a region of such complexity, hair-trigger sensitivities, and atavistic attitudes, just one inadvertent slip could spark a conflagration, turning the arc of crisis into a ring of fire.