Middle East Chaos Makes Israeli Iran Strike More Likely
Over at the Gatestone Institute, a team of journalists including me reviewed the increasing chaos in the Middle East and concluded that an Israeli strike on Iran has become more probable.
The Muslim Brotherhood leader and Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi received a $2 billion pledge from the visiting emir of Qatar Sunday morning, and on Sunday afternoon fired the military leadership and announced a constitutional revision reducing the military's role in the Egyptian government. Whether this is manic overreach or the spring of a diabolical plot remains to be seen. Egypt has a $36 billion annual trade deficit, against earnings of about $5 billion a year from the Suez Canal, an undetermined amount (probably about $7 billion) from tourism, and a few billion workers' remittances--that is, an annual financing requirement of over $20 billion.
Qatar's $2 billion is a drop in the bucket; it just replaces the reserves that Egypt lost last month. So is a $3.5 billion IMF loan, under discussion for a year. The Obama administration has been telling people quietly that the Saudis will step in to bail out Egypt, but the Qatari intervention makes this less likely. The eccentric and labile emir is the Muslim Brotherhood's biggest supporter; its spiritual leader, Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi (who supports suicide bombings against Israel), lived in exile during the Mubarak regime. Qatar funds al-Jazeera television, the modern face of Islamism. The Saudis hate and fear the Brotherhood, which wants to overthrow the Saudi monarchy and replace it with a modern Islamist totalitarian political party. Qatar has only about $30 billion in reserves and can't sustain Egypt for long.
Secular commentators in Egypt allege a deeper relationship between Qatar and the Brotherhood. Wrote al-Ahram:
Following the January 25 revolution and the rise of Islamists to positions of power, questions were raised by anti-Brotherhood forces regarding the nature of the relationship between Qatar and the Muslim Brotherhood. Some critics claim that the group received funds from the Gulf state during the presidential race. Morsi was the Brothehood's candidate, after its first choice Khairat El-Shater was unable to run.
Moreover, other rumours circulated claiming the Brotherhood is planning to rent the Suez Canal to Qatar for ninety-nine years thus undermining Egypt's sovereignty.
The Brotherhood leadership vehemently denied these accusations.
Qatar is something of a wild card: it is ruled by an emir without even the checks and balances that arise from having a large family behind a monarchy, as in Saudi Arabia. The whimsical emir just bought the Italian firm of Valentino as a gift for his fashion-conscious second wife--not a dress, but the entire company. His support evidently emboldened the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt to take on the military in the aftermath of the Sinai crisis. But that makes stability in Egypt less rather than more likely, because it gives the Saudis, the only funder capable of bailing out Egypt, reason to stand aside.
Here's an extract from the transcript of the roundtable at the Gatestone Institute:
David Goldman: Returning to Egypt: Reuters says that Morsi consulted with the generals before forcing Tantawi's retirement. But the Xinhua report suggests a constitutional shift. Any first responses?
Pepe Escobar: Constitutional shift. And once again; right after the visit by the Emir of Qatar. I bet a bottle of Margaux that some suggestions were made.
David Goldman: Regarding Pepe's Qatar angle: Bloomberg News reports, "Egypt scrapped a sale of nine-month Treasury bills today, its first cancellation of a debt offering in more than three months, after Qatar agreed to deposit funds with the country's central bank to boost foreign exchange reserves." That's pretty big: the Egyptians are saying we've got Qatar, we can suspend public funding.
David Samuels: Ehud Barak's remaining standing in Israel seems to rest on being able to play the US card. But the American interlocutors I've talked to think he's a weirdo. So Amos, do Israelis believe that Ehud Barak is a reliable interlocutor who is conveying an accurate sense of American intentions, and vice versa?
Amos Harel: David S., everybody finds him baffling. And still, compared to Avigdor Lieberman, he's considered to be close to the Americans, whatever that means now.
David Samuels: Right now, the timing for an Israeli strike on Iran -- which I thought of up until a few months ago as pure hot air -- seems as favorable as it is ever likely to be. The Iranian bloc in Syria and Lebanon is coming apart at the seams. The Syrian Army is in tatters. Hezbollah is in a very weak place. Obama -- who Netanyahu seems to see as a strategic enemy on a par with Iran-- is at a weak point, the weakest he is likely to be in the next five years, presuming he is re-elected. Morsi isn't dumb enough to order the Egyptian Army out of their barracks no matter what happens in any back and forth with Hamas in Gaza. Plus, the Gulfies are pushing for a strike, and they own Gaza AND Egypt now.
David Goldman: After the anti-Muslim Brotherhood demonstration at the soldiers' funeral this week, my prior was that the SCAF was the aggressor against Morsi. It may have been entirely the reverse. Morsi might have set up the Sinai incident and the protests at the funeral were a defensive response by the military (ultimately futile). That raises the questions: What are the Saudis thinking? Are they coordinating with the Qataris? Have they cut a deal with the Muslim Brotherhood? A related question is: Is Iran involved?
So a theme that bears investigation is Iran positioning for a post-Israeli strike response.
Pepe: The Saudis are not coordinating with Qataris at all; they are betting on different horses. Iran is not involved in anything in Egypt so far --apart from dragging Morsi or an underling to talks in Tehran during NAM.
David S.: Don't you people agree that this feels like a uniquely fluid moment?
Amos Harel: David S, to continue with your line of thought: remember the date of "Cast Lead" -- December 27, 2008, which fell in between Obama's victory and inauguration. But as we were told when we were young IDF soldiers: "Every Saturday has a Saturday night". Translation: Keep in mind there's a price to pay later, for actions committed while you felt yourself untouchable (in the army, our commanders are not allowed to punish us during the weekend).
Pepe: I'm getting stuff from Tehran around the fact people care extremely worried about the concentration of power in Khamenei's hands. He decides EVERYTHING -- including the response in case of an attack.
Rotem Sella: It definitely seems that the confidence of Muslim Brothers is increasing, the fear of a coup is even less than it was a few days ago.
David S.: The moment things stabilize, they will stabilize in favor of Iran and against Israel. Right now, the Iranians are in trouble. And any major retaliation risks their remaining assets. Iran is weak, and everything they have from their nuclear program to their allies in the region is at risk right now is a way that may not be true a month from now, or two months from now.
Amos Harel: Keep in mind that everybody speaks of the autumn. Why not earlier? (I'm just theorizing here)
David G.: The threat is low everywhere except Egypt. Granting Pepe's point that Iran's direct reach into Egypt is de minimus, Qatar's intervention to undermine SCAF definitely helps Iran -- it removes an obstacle to attacks on Israel.
David S.: But if you imagine that the Salafists or the MB will control Egypt in the medium future, then this is the moment of least threat to Egypt from that direction, unless you imagine SCAF can regain solid control of the country under a new Mubarak.
David G.: David S., I agree with you: Tantawi's departure is one more grain of sand on the scale on the side of an early strike.
David S.: If the MB is strong enough to cut Tantawi's head off this morning, then SCAF isn't going to be running Egypt tomorrow.