Saeed Naqvi | Decoding Blinken’s frenetic diplomacy in Mideast & role of Hezbollah’s chief

The Asian Age.  | Saeed Naqvi

Opinion, Columnists

Iran, Hezbollah and the entire Shia arc, was cajoled and threatened not to expand the conflict.

US Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken. (Twitter)

The speech last week by Hezbollah supremo Hassan Nasrallah, arguably a key leader in the Arab street, drew mixed responses. Those less familiar with West Asian affairs expected the speech to be a precursor of greater firepower in support of Hamas to deter more Israeli barbarity against the Palestinians in Gaza.

This obscures the reality that more firepower will only aggravate Gaza’s suffering without promise of any change. It’s the new direction that Nasrallah is interested in.

Nasrallah’s reputation wasn’t built on eloquence and rhetoric alone, but on his credibility: he does what he says. He demanded an immediate ceasefire to end the Palestinians’ suffering. He talked of the “constructive ambiguity” embedded in his statement. What could it be? He was clear that all options, which presumably includes full-scale war, were on the table.

Delay in ceasefire augments the ranks of martyrs and lights prairie fires of revulsion against Israeli barbarity encouraged by the US. The publicity war was lost, and losses will mount unless Israel cuts its losses. What will follow a ceasefire? All denominations have their preferred scenarios for the Day of Judgment. 

 US moves on the regional chessboard are reactive, not innovative. At the September G-20 summit in New Delhi, the US launched the idea of an India-Saudi-Israel-Europe corridor clearly modelled on China’s Belt and Road initiative. To be credible, it required a Riyadh-Jerusalem deal. This was problematic as a completely contradictory rapprochement between Riyadh and Tehran was already put in place under Chinese auspices. Saudi strongman Mohammad bin Salman would have to be unbelievably fickle to unclasp Tehran’s hand and, like a trapeze artist, clasp Tel Aviv’s.

This wasn’t happening. MBS, as the Saudi Crown Prince is called, has evolved impressively in statecraft, and was not in the deal at the behest of the US for a blind date with Israel. He would have spelt out conditions for normalisation. In doing so, he would have factored in Iran’s firm line on Palestine. The startling October 7 Hamas attack and Israel’s response has clearly ensured the closure of America’s Saudi-Israel file, at least for the near future.

With the expiry of the initiative, the post-October 7 scenario with global public opinion ablaze against the Israeli-US duo, the groups other than Hamas who are harvesting wide sympathy are all associated with Iran -- Hezbollah and a web of Popular Mobilisation Fronts like Hashd al- Shaabi in Iraq and their lookalikes across Syria, Yemen and Lebanon. These militias had been knit together by late Iranian commander Qasim Suleimani. Such a menace had these militias become that Western intelligence had to eliminate Suleimani by a drone attack at Baghdad airport in January 2020. Suleimani was the author of the kind of military preparedness which Hamas demonstrated in its attack. The secrecy and the professionalism are all derived from Suleimani’s book. 

Since the success of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the West has harboured an interest in playing up the Shia-Sunni divide for its own and Israel’s advantage. At one stage even thinkers like Henry Kissinger advanced the thesis that the Arab world was exhausted with the Palestinian issue. It was much more focused on the Shia-Sunni divide. Without attention to detail, the media propounded the idea of a “Shia arc” which encircled Israel -- Iran, Lebanon (Hezbollah), Syria and, incongruously, Hamas, which is anything but Shia.

Hamas is an extension of the Muslim Brotherhood. Mohammad Morsi was removed as Egypt’s Prime Minister by a 2013 coup and Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi installed instead, after some wrangling between the state department and the Pentagon. Morsi was removed for two reasons. The Muslim Brotherhood’s continuity from Cairo to Gaza was a “threat to Israel’s security”, Also, the Saudis were having kittens with the rise of the Brotherhood in the most powerful Arab country. 

Egypt is not exempt from the unprecedented anger in the Arab street and basement over the inhuman pounding of Gaza by Israel. Gen. Sisi thus must be an extremely anxious man today.

It’s understandable that in such an atmosphere of mass anger, meeting US President Joe Biden would be the kiss of death for Arab leaders. Normally, secretaries of state pave the way for presidential meetings. In a strange reversal of roles, Mr Biden, having drawn a blank with his favoured Arabs, sent Antony Blinken hopping from one Muslim capital to another to retrieve America’s irretrievably lost glory. 

What was the theme of Mr Blinken’s frenetic activity? Iran, Hezbollah and the entire Shia arc, was cajoled and threatened not to expand the conflict. Nasrallah was specific that all scenarios were possible if the pummelling of Gaza does not stop. The expansion of the conflict will also draw in powers from outside the region.

The backdrop to Mr Blinken’s diplomacy is the unannounced reversal in Ukraine. America’s continued role in Ukraine is more a sign of its deep pockets than its capacity to deliver victory to Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

It is commonly accepted that the US will now onwards be one among equals in a multipolar world, with a proviso -- it remains militarily the world’s most powerful country. One consequence of America’s new situation may well be isolationism. This would depend on the turn that competition with China takes. Israel’s greatest worry is US isolationism, its attention focused elsewhere. Israel is secure so long as it continues to be imperialism’s outpost in West Asia. 

Clearly, Mr Blinken would like to bring together Sunni Arab states into a responsible role in Gaza. But can these moves be in harmony with the outraged public opinion in the Arab world?

How can the present mood be kept in alignment with the continuation of, say, Gen. Sisi in Egypt and Palestine President Mahmoud Abbas, two individuals on whose heads redundancy looms.

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