That ‘Other’ Reset Unfolding Across West & Central Asia
All of Central Asia is re-setting towards the SCO, EAEU, Russia and China. The former is now ‘lost’ to the U.S., Alastair Crooke writes.
The shock of Afghanistan imploding – as if blown away in a puff of wind – plus the frantic U.S. scramble to get away, even as loyal local retainers, and billions of dollars’ worth of baggage were left abandoned on the tarmac, has triggered a political earthquake that is unfolding across Asia. The ‘ground zero’ (i.e. the U.S.) to a complex network structure has been pulled out on old and settled structures and relationships.
In a very real sense, Washington was the hub: and states – particularly Gulf States defined themselves more in relation to the hub – than to each other. Now those relationships, and associated policies, many of which were geared to pleasing and being favoured by the hub, are up for radical review.
Recently, the lately-returned Israeli Ambassador to Washington, Michael Oren (a Netanyahu appointment), warned a key Israeli commentator, Ben Caspit, in respect to Israel’s future options, to pause. Israel, of course, unlike others, is actually an integral part of the ‘hub’, and not a ‘spoke’, like other states that do have some modicum of space by which to re-order their network connections. Israel however, only has outwardly projecting vectors of external relations based on a strict calculus of Israeli interest. It has had no notion of any wider regional interest – only its own.
Ambassador Oren gave this advice to Caspit: Before settling on our Israeli options, we need to see where the Afghan withdrawal leaves the U.S., too. Where will it be? He noted that in the wake of the fall of Saigon, the U.S. had embarked on a series of diplomatic initiatives. Can it be this (such as reinvigorating regional normalisation with Israel), or will the U.S. sink into the mire of its divisions?
Today’s divisions are far broader — not just economic and political, but social, moral, cultural and racial: Abortion, same-sex marriage and transgender rights divides Americans. Socialism and capitalism divides Americans. Affirmative action, Black Lives Matter, urban crime, gun violence and critical race theory divides them. Allegations of white privilege and white supremacy, and demands that equality of opportunity give way to equity of rewards, divide them. In the COVID-19 pandemic, the wearing of masks and vaccine mandates divides them.
Well, if there was doubt about where the U.S. ‘is’, consider this: The stunning betrayal of France by America over the eleventh hour surprise provision of nuclear submarine technology for Australia signals a huge geopolitical shift in U.S. strategy. In its growing confrontation with China, a ruthless Washington has demonstrated that what matters to it now is not Europe, but the Indo-Pacific region. This is where the new Cold War is to be fought.
On Wednesday night, Biden, the Australian PM and Britain’s Johnson held a virtual trilateral summit whereby they affirmed a new agreement, entitled AUKUS – a ground-breaking pledge to intensify military cooperation between the three Anglosphere allies, bringing them even closer by pooling critical technologies and research. The goal is to intensify attempts to contain China militarily, even though the three countries did not say so directly. But, the submarine pact involved Canberra abruptly scrapping a $43 billion deal with France to build 12 such submarines – a move which provoked outrage from senior officials in Paris, who effectively accused the U.S. of ‘betrayal’.
Some commentators have pointed to the U.S.’ removal of its most advanced missile defence system and Patriot batteries from Saudi Arabia in recent weeks, as a hopeful token of Washington preparing the ground for a deal with Iran. But after the ruthless shafting of France, the redeployment of missiles from Saudi Arabia is more likely another move in redeploying resources to the so-called ‘Indo-Pacific’ region. This is the site for the new Cold War. If France does not matter any more, what price Gulf States?
Alliances that only a year ago seemed to be set in timeless solidity are dissolving, and are in motion towards new frameworks. The revolution in Afghanistan is but one cog in a major ‘Great Game’ ‘re-set’. Afghanistan is in indeterminate metamorphosis, but Iran began its strategic reset, when its National Security Committee refused to accept the draft JCPOA drawn up by the EU3. It took things a further major step forward, with the announcement that President Raisi will attend the SCO in Dushanbe. It is highly likely that Iran will become a full member of the SCO as a result of this week’s meeting, and ultimately will join a market (the EAEU) representing 41% of world’s population and 23% of global GDP. So too is Pakistan in transit: It refuses any U.S. military presence on its territory. And Lebanon and Syria are tiptoeing towards one another and opening tears in America’s Caesar Act ‘siege’ of these two states.
All of Central Asia, in brief, is re-setting towards the SCO, EAEU, Russia and China. The former is now ‘lost’ to the U.S. And the emanations of the grinding tectonic shift triggered by the U.S. airport scramble, have been felt just as keenly in Abu Dhabi and Tel Aviv, as across Central Asia.
David Hearst writes in Middle East Eye:
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“UAE officials claim to be conducting a “strategic reassessment” of foreign policy. It starts with Biden. The UAE noted two features of its changed relationship with Washington … The first was a consistent message from the new U.S. administration to ‘de-escalate’ tensions in the Middle East. The second was the sheer unpredictability inherent to U.S. policy.
“Abu Dhabi consequently is not the only signatory of the Abraham Accords, which is reassessing the [merit of being part of a] pro-U.S. bloc in the Gulf. One year on from the signing in Washington, the Abraham Accords are losing their shine …
“[They seemed to offer] a way of bypassing the Palestinian conflict, without the need for messy, time-wasting things like negotiations, elections or popular mandates. The accords were a solution imposed from above – a fait accompli, which the Arab masses would have to live with …”.
“They had two fundamental flaws however. Firstly, they depended on individual leaders – not states – meeting at first in secret as project drivers. This means that when two key players were removed from the picture – Trump and former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – the project itself lost sponsorship and momentum.
“The other problem was that they were all about the relationship between regional states and the U.S. They did not address the fundamental problems of relations between the key regional actors themselves. The UAE’s motive for moving closer to Israel had been to cement its relationship with Washington. Recognition of Israel was always a means to an end, not the end in itself…”.
“Coupled with this, [sources] claim, is a hard-headed assessment of what the UAE has actually achieved. Its interventions have indeed beaten the Muslim Brotherhood back as a political force in Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, Syria, and partly in Libya. But the cost of the UAE’s secular jihad is enormous.
“Three of these countries are in smoking ruins, and the other two, Egypt and Tunisia, are nearly bankrupt. What has MBZ gained for the billions of dollars he has invested in Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi?
“The new policy, then, is apparently to spread influence through economic cooperation, rather than military intervention and political competition”.
For Israel, the problem is more acute as former Ambassador, Michael Oren, has outlined:
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The new Israeli government is facing this doomsday nuclear threat [from Iran]. In five years’ time, it will be worse: Iran’s programme will be further along. [This conflict] is going to happen eventually, of that I am absolutely certain, so I prefer it happens now, rather than in 5 years’ time – when it will be more difficult for Israel to respond … The new Israeli government should be building its case as to why Israel cannot co-exist with Iran [reaching even ‘threshold’ status]. Israel’s ability to respond to threats will be greatly impaired – were we to have [even ‘threshold’] pressed to our head all the time. It will become impossible to act.
Another respected Israeli commentator, Amos Gilad – a former senior Israeli security official – noted last week in Yedioth Ahoronot, too that:
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“[W]ith the U.S. focusing its efforts on preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons, Iran is liable to reach the conclusion that as a nuclear threshold state, it will not be the target of a military retaliation. And if sanctions are imposed on it – it can look to other world powers for help, such as China and Russia. If Iran reaches the conclusion that there is no point in developing real nuclear weapons because this could produce a frontal clash with the U.S. and the West; yet still become a nuclear threshold state, the challenge to Israel is liable to be particularly difficult”.
Israel’s Defence Minister, Benny Gantz, outlined, in an interview with Foreign Policy last week, that Israel would be willing to accept a return to a U.S.-negotiated nuclear deal with Iran – but Israeli officials are also pressing Washington to prepare a serious ‘demonstration of power’ should negotiations with Tehran fail. Gantz added that Israel would want to see a “viable U.S.-led plan B” that includes broad economic pressure on Iran in case the talks fail. And he gestured at Israel’s own ‘plan C’, which would involve military action. He was skeptical, he said, about the chances of diplomacy successfully reversing Iran’s progress. And he outlined what Israel would view as a “viable” back-up plan: political, diplomatic, and economic pressure imposed on Tehran by the U.S., Europe, Russia, and—crucially—China:
“We have to connect China in this too, Asia has to play a role,” Gantz said, highlighting the key trade ties between Iran and Asian countries. “Israel has no ability to lead a real plan B, we can’t put together an international economic sanctions regime. This has to be led by the U.S.”
Gantz estimated that Iran was two to three months away from having the materials and capabilities to produce one nuclear bomb (this has been claimed many times over the years, but Iran may well be close to threshold this time. We do not know).
Gantz’s A – C plans suggests an Israel flopping about on the fishmonger’s marble, seeking a way back to life-sustaining water. It is, however, rhetoric. Israel will not accept an Iranian return to the JCPOA, without all its centrifuge advances, and accumulation of 60% enrichment, undone. Plan ‘B’ is fantasy: Russia and China are not about to sanction an Iran on the verge of joining the SCO.
But in respect to Plan ‘C’, Yossi Melman, an eminent Israeli security commentator, had this to say:
“Even if [officials] won’t admit it publicly, it is clear … what real options Israel has at its disposal, and what it is unable to do. We can present two axioms: 1. The United States will not attack Iran’s nuclear sites. 2. Even if Israel has prepared an attack plan or other creative scenarios, it has no genuine practical military ability to attack alone, and achieve a significant result. [And] even if Israel has an original, daring and feasible plan, the United States will not accept it for fear that any military step would drag it into a war against its will”.