15 June 2010

Middle East theater -- speculation

As noted in the last link roundup, British newspaper The Times recently reported that Saudi Arabia has been preparing to make a corridor of its airspace available for an Israeli airstrike on the Iranian nuclear program. None of this has been officially verified, of course, so it's impossible to independently assess the truth of the story. The original report, with more detail, is here.

It wouldn't be very surprising if the option of an airstrike on the nuclear program has moved back onto the front burner. In the wake of least year's stolen election in Iran, the great hope was that the Green uprising would bring down the Islamic Republic and establish a secular state, neutralizing the nuclear issue. Now, a year later, it seems unlikely that this will happen soon, though the regime has been severely undermined.

One paragraph in the Times report especially caught my eye:

In 2007 Israel was reported to have used Turkish air space to attack a suspected nuclear reactor being built by Iran’s main regional ally, Syria. Although Turkey publicly protested against the “violation” of its air space, it is thought to have turned a blind eye in what many saw as a dry run for a strike on Iran’s far more substantial — and better-defended — nuclear sites.

As the report notes, and as anyone familiar with the Middle East would know, the Sunni Arab regimes fear an Iranian nuclear bomb almost as much as Israel does. Turkey can't be very pleased at the idea either.

Turkey's current Islamist-leaning government views the country's de facto alliance with Israel as something of an embarrassment. But there are important forces -- the Turkish military, the United States -- which would likely object to the Turkish government unilaterally cutting ties with Israel. It's been suggested that the Turkish government engineered the recent Gaza flotilla clash with the intent of creating a wave of anti-Israel feeling among the Turkish people, thus enabling it to present a breach with Israel as a move forced upon it by public opinion rather than chosen. Factoring the Iranian nuclear problem into the equation suggests a couple of other possibilities:

(1) The Turkish government wanted to send a signal to Israel that, unlike Saudi Arabia, it will not tolerate the use of Turkish airspace for an attack on Iran's nuclear sites the way it did with the 2007 attack on Syria. This isn't very likely, since such a message could be convincingly sent via the usual government-to-government channels without the need for dangerous theatrics.

(2) The Turkish government does intend to allow Israel to use its airspace for the attack, and may already have secretly informed Israel of this. The point of the flotilla clash was to create a highly-visible escalation of tensions between Turkey and Israel so that, after the Israel airstrike is carried out, the Turkish government can plausibly claim that Israel used its airspace without its knowledge or consent.

Machiavellian speculations, perhaps, but this is the Middle East we're talking about -- a place where, even more than elsewhere, it is often necessary for governments to put on the appearance of doing something very different from what they actually are doing.

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