Tremors and Tensions Push Mideast to the Brink

The cold-war 'era of force and power' never ended, and new threats compound old enmities

The "secret" map was published in a Kuwaiti newspaper, as if it were a twist in the plot of a Tom Clancy thriller.

It showed Iran marked with 19 targets: one for every US serviceman killed in the June 1996 bombing in Saudi Arabia. It was said to be the work of American commanders seeking retaliation, and it came amid a flurry of reports that US plans for a counterstrike against Iran for sponsoring extremism were "well advanced."

No hard evidence linking Iran to the Saudi blast has yet been revealed, but in light of President Clinton's vows to punish the culprits, the map was taken seriously here - and in Tehran.

Though dismissed as ludicrous by senior US diplomats, the December report caused Kuwait's stock exchange to tumble as the Gulf braced, again, for war.

"It's very dangerous stuff," warns Mohammed al-Rumaihi, editor of Al-Arabi magazine. "This doesn't matter to people in Washington or Seattle. But it is very important for people here."

Then the tension passed as quickly as it had risen, another example of how the Middle East is riddled with political minefields that can spark military action.

The heavy US military presence in the Gulf, for example, operates under a barrage of threats. As two bomb attacks within a year in Saudi Arabia attest, it often draws angry opposition in Gulf states because, besides providing "protection," it is seen to prop up despotic pro-West rulers.

Such triggers are many, and mix new threats with established flash points and fault lines. Civil wars in some countries are as likely as cross-border ones.

If any lesson of caution is to be drawn from the region's bloody past, it must reflect Newton's third law of motion: For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.

"Although we have passed the era of the cold war, the era of force and power, we are in an area that has not realized that," says Abdul-Reda Assiri, a political scientist at Kuwait University.

The result is that even a fake map of US targets in Iran, planted at a volatile moment, has the potential to cause disaster.

The 1990-91 Gulf War itself left a lot of "unfinished business" between Iraq and Kuwait, analysts say. Iran is also a growing concern. And Arab and Persian leaders still lend credence to "Zionist conspiracies" about Israel, and are suspicious of the growing US hegemony in their neighborhood.

But the collapse of the Arab-Israeli peace process tops the list of dangers. In the year since right-wing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took power, the trust between Israeli and Palestinian leaders that had been emerging has disappeared.

US Ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk has said that the "core bargain" of the 1993 Oslo accords has "broken down."

"Netanyahu's rhetoric is full of visions in which the whole world 'adapts itself' to Israeli determinations," wrote former Foreign Minister Abba Eban in the Jerusalem Post last month. "The trouble with these formulations is that they do not require Israel to adapt itself to any principle of regional compromise."

This disintegration in the peace process has also revealed divisions in Israeli society. Army chief of staff Amnon Shahak told an Israeli newspaper recently that neither the diminishing reputation of Israeli forces, nor Syria's buildup of missiles and chemical weapons, was his principal worry.

"What troubles me is the dissension within Israeli society, which in recent weeks has gained dangerous momentum," he said. "I have no doubt that this weakens us a lot ... the differences between Zionists and non-Zionists ... religious and secular ... left and right."

Still, the Israeli Defense Forces asked for $1 billion more for 1997, and violence has erupted regularly in the Israeli-occupied West Bank in the past year.

The temperature shot higher after Israeli "intelligence" reports - later found to be either false or embellished - warned that Iran-backed Hizbullah guerrillas had long-range Katyusha rockets to hit northern Israel, and that Syria was producing deadly VX chemical weapons. US sources say that such Israeli "intelligence" unduly influences thinking in Washington, if only because of its volume.

Within days of the downing of TWA Flight 800 off Long Island last year, for example, Israel gave Washington a report that linked Iran to the crash. It reportedly came with a "warning" that direct retaliation could spark an Iranian biological terror campaign.

"If the extremist government continues in Israel, it will be as bad as Iran and create a situation of war," says Jamal al-Suwaidi at the Emirates Center for Strategic Studies in Abu Dhabi.

Some Gulf analysts also see a trigger in the American role and the degree to which it can be jeopardized by knee-jerk domestic politics. Sen. Alfonse D'Amato (R) of New York has warned that Iran could be "blown off the face of the earth" by US firepower.

At Senator D'Amato's request, Mr.. Clinton has added heavier US sanctions on Iran that punish any foreign company or country that invests more than $40 million in Iran's energy sector.

Apparently also assuming that terrorists had brought down Flight 800, this dormant "antiterrorism" law was resurrected days after the crash. The FBI has since said that mechanical failure was likely to blame.

A Western diplomat in Tehran notes that such foreign policy made by politicians, and not the State Department, is causing a dangerous "mediocrity."

"It's not wrong to distrust the Iranians," he says. "But soon Larry King will make a statement, and suddenly things will happen that shouldn't."

American strategists doubt that analysis. "Whenever you have states as bad as Iran and Iraq, you have the potential for dumb things happening," says Lt. Gen. John Yeosock (retired), the deputy commanding general of coalition forces in the Gulf War.

A high-level Saudi delegation visiting Washington in March reportedly left disappointed that Clinton's team has not begun planning for a post-Saddam Iraq, or the upheavals likely to follow.

Turbulence could also attend the departure of any of the Middle East's many long-ruling leaders, including Hafez al-Assad of Syria, Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, King Hussein of Jordan, or King Fahd of Saudi Arabia.

More traditional fault lines may also appear. Even control over water could cause conflict. But in predicting which trip wire is likely to next thwart the region's peacemakers, analysts turn to sages from a different age. "[Ancient Chinese historian] Sun Tzu said that you may fight a war only once in 100 years," says one. "But you must prepare as if it will happen every day."

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