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A shifting Middle East alliance

By JAMES ZUMWALT, UPI Outside View Commentator   |   Nov. 26, 2013 at 6:25 AM   |   Comments

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HERNDON, Va., Nov. 26 (UPI) -- The late ventriloquist Edgar Bergen used a dummy named Mortimer Snerd, a character so dumb everything required a full explanation. Finally understanding, Mortimer would shake his head in amazement, saying "Who'd 'a' thunk it (possible)?"

Understanding a fascinating realignment recently taking place in the Middle East causes one to respond similarly, for it defies Islamic logic. To better understand this realignment necessitates returning to late 1990 and the first Persian Gulf War.

War with Iraq appeared unavoidable as Saddam Hussein refused, after invading Kuwait, a U.N. demand to withdraw. U.S. President H.W. George Bush worked diligently to draw together an alliance, including other Arab states, to confront the despot.

Critical to Bush's success in keeping that alliance intact was Israel's non-participation. This was so critical, Bush encouraged Israel, even in the event of an Iraqi missile attack, not to retaliate; any attack by Israel against one Arab state -- even if justified -- might well cause other Arab states to drop out of the alliance or join Iraq.

Both Israel and Saddam understood this, prompting Iraq to try to draw the Israelis in by launching Scud missiles against them. Knowing the United States had their backs, the Israelis weren't provoked. The alliance held together; victory was attained.

Despite its hatred of the United States, Iran voiced little objection to the American-led attack against Saddam. Having fought an eight-year war with Iraq ending three years earlier in a stalemate, Iran's mullahs were ecstatic to see Saddam defeated, although disappointed to see him remain in power. A patient Iran would wait 12 more years and a second U.S.-Iraq conflict for their archenemy to be toppled in 2003.

Arab countries such as Syria, Egypt and Saudi Arabia joining the 1990 coalition of 34 countries did so contrary to Islam -- i.e., believers shouldn't fight alongside non-believers engaging another Muslim country. Perhaps Muslim coalition members -- all Sunnis --- justified their alignment on the basis Iraq was one of four Shiite-majority populated countries. Sunnis viewed Shiites, as they do Westerners, as non-believers.

But another justification for Sunni coalition participation was self-preservation. While Saddam was a Sunni (ruling a majority Shiite country), he was also a "loose cannon."

Having invaded Sunni Kuwait on the basis it was a province of Iraq, his Middle Eastern neighbors feared they might be targeted next -- especially Saudi Arabia.

Additionally, Saddam possessed weapons of mass destruction, which he already demonstrated a willingness to use against Iran as well as his own people.

Fearing his WMDs might include nukes as well, self-survival became more of a motivator to join the coalition than was Islam's religious bar against it.

Nonetheless, it was a diplomatic coup for Bush to forge together such a coalition to fight another Muslim country.

In 2013, we see the Iraq that U.S. forces fought to liberate under Iranian influence. It isn't Iraq now posing a major threat to Sunnis but Shiite-dominated Iran where mullahs remain committed to developing nuclear weapons with which to threaten Sunnis and the West.

As a sign of things to come for Saudi Arabia and of an emboldened Iran, mortar rounds were fired last week at a border post in northern Saudi Arabia by an Iranian-backed Iraqi Shiite militia, which claimed it was a warning to stop meddling in Iraqi affairs.

If non-nuclear Iran undertakes such a warning now, think what will happen once it has nukes.

While claiming it won't allow Iran to acquire nukes, the United States allows Tehran to do so.

Washington's latest effort at the negotiating table leaves Iran with access to billions of dollars and to its belief it can continue enrichment without requiring iron-tight Western verification that Tehran's program is peaceful.

The United States plays no role in joining others truly committed to denying Tehran nuclear weapons. This has created a once unthinkable alliance in the region.

Recognizing President Barack Obama's commitment to stop Iran is a bark lacking bite, Saudi Arabia -- deathly concerned about a nuclear-armed Iran -- now has an aligned interest with another country similarly committed to denying Tehran its goal -- Israel.

An initial agreement granting Israel over-flight rights in the event it attacked Iran has moved the two countries closer together to formulate a joint plan to do what Obama won't.

Saudi Arabia fully understands Iran's threat is real -- something Obama doesn't.

It understands why Iran pursues a nuclear weapon -- to trigger its end-of-world belief of the 12th Imam's return.

It also understands Iran's plan involves wrestling Islam's two most religious sites—Mecca and Medina -- from the Saudis as "Guardians" of same -- a role Iran believes destiny demands it play.

Obama's inaction has also caused the Saudis to renew earlier efforts to acquire a nuclear weapon from Pakistan. If successful, Obama will have triggered a nuclear arms race in the region.

There are signs Saudi Arabia recognizes Israel has the commitment to prevent Iran from going nuclear but may lack the full capability to do so. It understands an Israeli attack may well represent Riyadh's last best hope to stop Iran. Thus, the Saudis want to avoid being left in the situation where Riyadh, alone, has to do so.

Accordingly, once again, it is self-survival motivating Riyadh to join an alliance which for 1,400 years was never thought possible.

In the Persian Gulf War, Israel refused to be drawn into the conflict, knowing the United States. "had its back." As Israel prepares now to step into the void left by Washington's lack of commitment to confront the Iranian threat, it is Saudi Arabia looking to protect Israel's back.

Quoting Mortimer, "Who'd 'a' thunk it."

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(A retired U.S. Marine, Lt. Col. James Zumwalt served in the Vietnam War, the U.S. invasion of Panama and the first Gulf War. He has written "Bare Feet, Iron Will -- Stories from the Other Side of Vietnam's Battlefields," "Living the Juche Lie: North Korea's Kim Dynasty" and "Doomsday: Iran -- The Clock is Ticking.")

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(United Press International's "Outside View" commentaries are written by outside contributors who specialize in a variety of important issues. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of United Press International. In the interests of creating an open forum, original submissions are invited.)

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