Echoes of the Six-Day War

July 25, 2006

THE hostilities in Lebanon and Israel are approaching their climax. This crisis may prove to be one of those watershed moments that shape regional relationships and transform global politics for at least a generation.

There are some eerie parallels to the events leading to the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, another landmark in the region's history. Back then, Egypt's president Gamal Nasser was making an aggressive bid for regional hegemony with the support of the Soviet Union.

Nasser's radical brand of Arab nationalism was aimed not only at Israel but also at pro-Western Arab regimes such as Jordan and Saudi Arabia. His rivals were the leaders of Syria and Iraq. In what is known as the Arab Cold War, Israel was aptly described by Middle East analyst Malcolm Kerr as merely "a football for the Arabs, kicked into the field by the discontented Syrians, then back again by Nasser".

Not surprisingly, the Israelis had a rather different view of themselves. In May 1967, Nasser's belligerency shifted from rhetoric to action when he expelled the UN peacekeepers in the Sinai and ordered the blockade of Israel's southern port and the deployment of more than 100,000 Egyptian troops in the Sinai Peninsula. Syria and Jordan were locked into confronting Israel by military pacts with Egypt.

Israel responded with a pre-emptive strike against Egypt on June 5. The Syrians and Jordanians then attacked Israel and the war widened. In six days the Arab air forces and armies were devastated. Egypt lost the Sinai Peninsula, Syria lost the Golan Heights and Jordan lost the West Bank.

To continue Kerr's analysis, "it became a case of the football kicking the players".

Historians have endlessly debated why Nasser chose that particular time to abandon his earlier caution against military engagement with Israel. There is as yet insufficient evidence to provide a definitive answer. One theory is that he was put up to it by his Soviet backers, with the tacit approval of the US, to pressure Israel not to join the nuclear club by acquiring an atomic bomb, which it was then on the verge of developing.

Whether the theory is right or wrong, it highlights how dangerously unstable things can become just before a state develops a nuclear weapons capability. Iran is at that point right now. And as with Egypt in 1967, Iran is making a bid for regional hegemony, led by a man who openly calls for Israel's destruction.

The timing of Hezbollah's attack on Israel and the kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers is the key to understanding the regional and international context of the events of the past two weeks. Iran's nuclear program is on the agenda at this week's meeting of the UN Security Council.

Iran's defiance of its Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty obligations to submit to all of the monitoring and inspection requirements of the International Atomic Energy Agency has given the Security Council ample reason to impose sanctions.

If the matter does come to a vote, Iran will depend on a double veto by Russia and China. The Russians are seeking to regain their former superpower status in the Middle East by riding on the back of regional forces, while China is dependent on Iranian oil for its ever-growing economy. But Iran's recent diplomatic threats make it clear that it wants to avoid the ignominy of being referred to the Security Council in the first place.

Just before the IAEA meeting last February, Iran's state-run news agency, Fars, reported that Iran requires nuclear weapons as a "means to create a balance in the arrangement of forces in the region". In talks with European officials concerning Iran's nuclear program, the regime's negotiators have consistently stated that Iran will not curb its nuclear work, and have threatened to destabilise the region if the matter is returned to the Security Council.

The most recent Iranian threat was made on July 11, the eve of Hezbollah's attack on Israel.

By activating its proxy Hezbollah against Israel, has Iran overplayed its hand? As with most Lebanese, Israelis do not want a war between their two countries. But as in 1967, Israel's Government does not see its country as a football to be kicked around by a neighbour seeking regional hegemony, especially one that has nuclear ambitions and a stated foreign policy objective of wiping Israel off the map.

Last week Israel made its intentions clear, at least as far as Hezbollah in Lebanon is concerned. It will continue its attacks in Lebanon until the two Israeli soldiers are returned and until it has eliminated Hezbollah's capacity to threaten Israel with further rocket attacks. If Israel is to realise this latter objective, it will need to send troops not only into southern Lebanon, but also into both southern Beirut and the Beka'a Valley, which runs alongside the Lebanese-Syrian border.

A large-scale Israeli ground force in the Beka'a Valley would confront Syria with a serious dilemma. If it watches from the sidelines it will be derided across the Arab world for fighting to the last drop of Lebanese blood. If it decides on open battle with Israel, it risks a humiliating defeat.

The Iranians, too, risk being drawn into direct battle with the Israelis, particularly if the fighting spreads into Syria. An Israeli air-strike against Iran's nuclear facilities cannot be ruled out. The irony is that the very strategy that Iran has used to safeguard its nuclear program may lead ultimately to its destruction.

In the meantime, an effective option available to the Australian, US and European governments wanting to curb Iran's regional and nuclear ambitions is to support the largest of the Iranian opposition groups, the People's Mojahedin Organisation of Iran and the broader coalition of Iranian opposition groups to which the PMOI belongs, the National Council of Resistance of Iran. The latter is based in Paris and functions as an Iranian government-in-exile.

Although the PMOI has some murky terrorist antecedents, it underwent a fundamental change in 2003 when its former military wing, the Mojahedin el-Khalq officially renounced violence. There is no evidence to show that the group has deviated from its new non-violent strategy to replace the Iranian theocracy with a secular democracy.

The PMOI appears to enjoy considerable underground support among Iranians but in the 1990s, at Iran's bidding, it was proscribed by the US as a terrorist organisation. In 2001, the European Union and Australia also listed it and the NCRI as organisations "associated with terrorism". The prospect of the US and its allies de-proscribing the NCRI is the most potent political threat that can realistically be posed to the Iranian regime at present.

But the threat alone is not enough to pressure Iran to put the brakes on Hezbollah. Tehran needs to be kept busy defending its power against the actuality of a well-resourced challenge by a de-proscribed NCRI. The appropriateness of such a strategy is underlined by the fact it was the NCRI that first alerted the rest of the world to Iran's secret nuclear program, which set in train the series of events that are now unfolding.

Leanne Piggott lectures in Middle East Politics at the University of Sydney and is director of Academic Programs of the Centre for International Security Studies. She is the author of A Timeless Struggle: Conflict in Land of Israel/Palestine (forthcoming, Science Press).




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