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Saturday, 29 September 2012

The red lines of 1914 and 2012 – Historic parallels leading to a new global disaster?

It has been nearly 100 years since World War I started in Europe after the assassination of the Archduke of Austria-Este Franz-Ferdinand and his wife in the Bosnian city of Sarajevo, on 28 July 1914.  In a very recent article for the German security policy website “Atlantische Initiative”, Volker Perthes – director of the leading German think tank SWP – has described the current Israeli-Iranian crisis as a parallel event to the political prequel before the outbreak of World War I. This comparison seems to be vague at a first glance, but looking deeper into the details, some frightening similarities become aware.

While the Archduke’s assassination in Sarajevo was the flash point for a conflict that has been built up over years of rising European rivalry and military predomination, the situation now has to be relocated to the Middle East. With Israel and Iran on the brink of an armed confrontation, and the international community unable to mediate between the two potential adversaries, it just seems to be a matter of time until the first one pulls the trigger.

In fact, rhetoric from both sides anticipates a war to be a matter of course. More worrying, however, was Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s appearance at the UN General Assembly in New York that conspicuously reminded of former US Secretary of State Colin Powell’s demonstration of the “existence” of Iraqi WMDs in the immediate prequel of the Iraq war in 2003. With a cartoonish-like presentation of a bomb and a fuse, Netanyahu tried to display three so called “stages” in Uranium enrichment. According to Netanyahu, Iran has already completed the first stage of a 70% Uranium enrichment and is about to finish the second stage of 90% very soon. Netanyahu called the international community to prevent Iran from completing the second stage. As the Israeli Prime Minister stated, the “red line” (which he demonstrated with a red marker before the world public) has to be drawn at this second stage.

However, the question is not who the most dangerous and war driving actor in this conflict is. The question is more, what the international community is going to do about it.
Netanyahu’s presentation at the UN looked like a desperate call for support, specifically addressed to the US. As Volker Perthes has stated in his analysis, it is now up to the US and also to the EU to immediately mediate in the rising conflict and to enforce negotiations before the crisis spins out of control. The trouble is, however, that any possible mediation cannot necessarily be expected by these two major actors, for obvious reasons.

The US is entering the hot phase of the Presidential campaign rally, and so far none of the two candidates – neither President Barack Obama nor his Republican rival Mitt Romney – have made a clear statement on whether the US might back up Israel in case of an armed confrontation or not. Regarding the traditionally strong Jewish lobby in the US, it might be the only opportunity to win the US’ support for a conflict. On the other side, both candidates are aware of the negative electoral consequences of a war strategic commitment, or even a simple verbal remark. If either side makes a verbal support concession, it might cost him the presidency as any war message or war inflicting agenda is a classic election killer.
Also, the entire US Middle East policy under Barack Obama was marked by stunned silence and unexpected restraint – not only regarding Israel-Iran, but also in the view of the Syrian civil war. This is possibly the result of a complete U-turn of former President Bush’s aggressive Middle East policy, but also a result of the on-going economic crisis.

The economic crisis is also the reason why the EU is not taking over a mediator role in the conflict – although demanded by Perthes. The EU is currently heading inside, completely leaving out its self-mandated foreign policy action enforcement. Perthes is over-estimating the European role in conflict mediation. Since Israel had several arm deals with Germany, e.g. this year’s submarine delivery, a common European Middle East Policy remains overshadowed by national actions. Any further support for Israel is purely hypothetical since the EU lacks any visible capabilities to be regarded as a serious and unified security partner. The EU proved itself to be unable to address the Libyan or the Syrian crisis with a unanimous strategy, so how might it address Israel and Iran, which might lead to an even more serious conflict with global dimensions? Also, it has to be doubted that Israel can count on assistance from European nations such as Germany, as none of them is very eager to be committed to any form of violence.

As a result of this mutual and self-limiting behaviour, there is no mediation whatsoever in the deteriorating Israeli-Iranian conflict, leading to Perthes’ assumption of a parallel development to the summer of 1914. Back then, European leaders have pushed the continent into a state in which it became impossible to prevent a war in the end. Driven by jingoism and national superiority, the European powers were forging alliances for self-protection, support in case of any attack by the other side, and by an arms race between the UK and the German Empire that turned the entire war machine into a self-sustaining mechanism. In the end, none of the European leader was able to control the machinery they have created, and they were even unwilling to control it.
Even after the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, the European leaders had a chance to stop it. They could have stopped that mechanism in which one incident led to the next incident and then to the outbreak of the catastrophe, once the imaginary “red line” was crossed. They have to be blamed for their lack of willingness and wisdom to intervene and to stop that process. In 1914, none of the European powers had the will to stop it before it got any further as a public call for war yelled over the voice of rationality and common sense.

Right now, this situation seems to repeat itself. All actors, national leaders, academics, and international organization talk about the possible prevention of a war that nobody wants, not even Iran or Israel. But if it goes any further, all you need is one little incident that ignites the fire which will lead to overall disaster, and no one would be able to stop it. It could be one little unplanned incident in the Persian Gulf, a miscommunication between the leaders or their intelligence services, one misinterpreted information, or even a targeted terrorist attack by either one of the adversaries.

Israel and Iran have to solve this conflict by their own before it erupts. The US is not in the condition to prevent the conflict, neither is the EU; and the UN is by default unable to prevent any conflict or to enforce peace in a sustainable way. That means that any mediation has to be conducted on the regional level. Saudi Arabia might have the chance for mediation, but also other foreign powers like Russia or China. As Israel and Iran are increasingly isolated, they are advised and requested to have a regional mediator to downsize a regional conflict.

There is a need for action, and it has to be done now if we don’t want history to repeat itself one more time. It led to disaster in 1914 and it led to an even bigger catastrophe in 1939. If the international community fails again, 2012 will be the beginning of an even more devastating disaster leading to Word War III.

And time is running out.

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