By Chris Trotter*
The assassination of top Iranian nuclear scientist, Moshen Fakhrizadeh, is an ominous development for the Middle East and the world. Not only does it elevate the risk of an Iranian counter-strike against Israeli and/or American assets in the region, but it also threatens to frustrate any de-escalatory Iran initiatives currently being contemplated by the incoming Biden Administration. New Zealand will struggle to avoid being drawn into whatever unfolds from this latest provocation. The next few months are, therefore, likely to be a further test of this government’s commitment to maintaining New Zealand’s diplomatic independence.
Any first-principles review of this evolving crisis throws up an intriguing question. Is the global commitment to combatting climate change compatible with the US-Israeli strategy of protecting Saudi-Arabia and its Persian Gulf allies from Iranian influence? In a world hastening to reduce its reliance on fossil fuels, the oil reserves of the Middle East should, logically-speaking, be of declining strategic importance. Accordingly, the United States’ long-standing determination to preserve the political status-quo in the region should be weakening. Why, then, are the United States and its key ally in the region, Israel, so committed to strengthening the defences of their anti-Iranian allies and friends?
To answer that question, it is first necessary to acknowledge the most important conflict currently dividing the ruling circles of the United States: the future of fossil fuels. The US oil industry, long the most aggressive lobby in American politics, has steadfastly refused to countenance any measures tending towards “Big Oil’s” eventual eclipse by alternative energy suppliers.
It was the US oil industry which led the charge against the findings of the Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) by bank-rolling climate change denialism. The industry also provided significant assistance to the right of the Republican Party. When Donald Trump declared climate change a “hoax”, the oil industry celebrated. What truly upped its consumption of champagne, however, was President Trump’s decision to tear-up Barak Obama’s “nuclear deal” with Iran.
Had Obama’s most important diplomatic achievement been allowed to stand, then the slow reintegration of Iran into the geo-political calculus of the Middle-East would have become almost impossible to stop. People around the world are apt to forget the years when Iran, under the Shah, acted (alongside Israel) as America’s principal “enforcer” in the region. Those same people also tend to forget the eight-year war (1980-88) between Iraq and Iran which the US sponsored in order to keep the post-Shah Islamic Republic of Iran weak and poor. Uncle Sam’s man-on-the-spot for that exceedingly brutal conflict was, of course, Saddam Hussein.
The intractability of the Middle Eastern situation stems largely from the structural political fragility of the regimes located over the world’s largest and most accessible supplies of oil. Since the crucial “Bitter Lake Agreement” negotiated between President Franklin Roosevelt and the Saudi King, Abdul Aziz ibn Saud, on 14 February 1945, the oil-rich absolute monarchies of the Middle East have been under Anglo-American protection. The effort required to keep the forces of history at bay proved too great for the British, but not, until recently, for the Israelis and the Americans.
Among those political leaders less beholden to Big Oil, however, the unsustainable cost – in blood and treasure – of maintaining the Middle Eastern status-quo has become increasingly apparent. A cynic might say that if climate change hadn’t already existed, it would have been necessary to invent it! For the oil industry, however, the crisis is existential. A planet weaned-off oil would leave some of the world’s wealthiest corporations in the same position as the great whaling companies of nineteenth century New England: literary curiosities; museum exhibits.
For the Israelis, too, the situation is fast becoming critical. What need would the US have for an attack-dog in the region if it ever arrived at the conclusion that its Middle Eastern assets were no longer worth the economic, military and diplomatic cost of their defence? What use would Israel’s recent recognition agreements with the Gulf states be if the hereditary potentates who signed them end up being swept away by the people they have for too long oppressed? Is Israel, on its own, capable of rolling-back these long-delayed revolutions if the US decides it’s time to simply walk away? And what (other than the so-called “Samson Option” of unleashing nuclear hell) can save an exclusively Jewish State of Israel if the revolutionary Arab states decide it’s time for the “Zionist” attack-dog to be put down?
It is with questions like these ringing in their ears that those responsible for the assassination of Moshen Fakhrizadeh set about organising their attack. Perhaps they represented the more rational elements of the US “Deep State” – agents determined to head-off a full-scale US air assault on Iran’s nuclear facilities by a lame-duck president hell-bent on going out with a bang rather than a whimper. Or, maybe it was an attack organised by Israel’s formidable Mossad – intended to act as the detonator of a much bigger explosion. One set off by a President determined to be neither upstaged nor outdone by lesser players on the international stage he will soon be forced to leave.
Will Tehran allow itself to be provoked? Responding in kind by taking an American and/or Israeli life of equal value? Or, will it follow the precedent established following the American assassination of Iran’s celebrated military commander, General Qassem Suleimani, on 3 January 2020? Striking the Americans and/or the Israelis with the flat of its sword and declaring honour satisfied.
If President-Elect Joe Biden’s national security team are any good at all, they will already be activating plausibly deniable back-channels to convey a message to the Iranian authorities. “Do nothing to justify massive retaliation by America and/or Israel. Exercise patience for two more months, and then anticipate only good things from the new administration in Washington.”
If New Zealand wishes to place itself in a position where it, too, can anticipate only good things from Washington, then it might begin by encouraging an international initiative to buy-out the oil industry’s investment in fossil fuels. Such a scheme would, in effect, pay the oil industry to keep as much of its product in the ground as possible, while entrusting its leading corporations with the task of transitioning the world away from oil, coal and natural gas, towards a greener, more sustainable future.
Let the planet’s poachers become its gamekeepers, and let us be done with the bitter legacy of Bitter Lake.
*Chris Trotter has been writing and commenting professionally about New Zealand politics for more than 30 years. He writes a weekly column for interest.co.nz. His work may also be found at http://bowalleyroad.blogspot.com.