This week's call began with our five participants learning that President Morsi of Egypt had just sacked the head of that country's armed forces, Field Marshal Tantawi. Score: Muslim Brotherhood 1, SCAF 0 (with outflows from Cairo to numbered bank accounts in Zurich, Switzerland increasing by the hour). The news contributed to a general atmosphere of martial headiness that pleasurably affected everyone except Amos Harel, who writes for Ha'aretz, and is therefore more vocationally attuned to guilt than to pleasure, and Pepe Escobar, who was enjoying dim sum in Hong Kong.
The panelists seemed to agree that the fluid and chaotic situation in the Eastern Mediterranean and the rapidly dwindling pre-Islamist-takeover interregnum in Egypt both argued in favor of the likelihood of an Israeli strike on Iran. The current lack of real equilibrium is favorable for – and even invites -- radical game-changing actions. Whatever equilibrium is established in the future (whenever that is) is likely to be much less favorable for Israel and more favorable for Iran, insofar as both Israel and the US will be in weaker positions and their Sunni rivals will be both weaker and poorer.
Our regulars are:
Pepe Escobar -- Author of the"Roving Eye"feature for the Asia Times
David Goldman -- aka "Spengler"
Amos Harel -- military correspondent and defense analyst for the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz
David Samuels -- Contributing Editor at Harper's Magazine
Rotem Sella -- a journalist at Ma'ariv, an Israeli daily newspaper
David Goldman: All the players in the region with the possible exception of Israel are playing from weakness. Many of the region's players – Iran, Turkey, and Qatar – are sticking their necks out very visibly.
Do these actions correspond to
1) Deterioration in the Syrian internal situation and positioning for a post-Assad government?
2) Positioning for responses to a possible Israeli strike on Iran?
3) Positioning with respect to the internal standoff in Egypt?
"Following the January 25 revolution and the rise of Islamists to positions of power, questions were raised by anti-Brotherhood forces regarding the nature of the relationship between Qatar and the Muslim Brotherhood. Some critics claim that the group received funds from the Gulf state during the presidential race. Morsi was the Brothehood's candidate, after its first choice Khairat El-Shater was unable to run.
Moreover, other rumours circulated claiming the Brotherhood is planning to rent the Suez Canal to Qatar for ninety-nine years thus undermining Egypt's sovereignty.
The Brotherhood leadership vehemently denied these accusations."
In other news, Saeed Jalili, Iran's chief nuclear negotiator (among other things), turns up in Syria and Lebanon in a a show of support for Assad and Hezbollah. Jalili threatens Turkey, and Erdogan threatens Iran back. Some of the Turkish Islamist media says its time for Turkey to stop running cover for Iran. Syria's man in Lebanon, Michel Samaha, is busted by Internal Security Force which claims he confessed to smuggling explosives from Syria. What's up, people?
Amos Harel: I don't know if you're all already aware of this, but Morsi just fired Tantawi and the generals. This might be huge.
Rotem Sella: Right -- and, the same day, we have the re-opening of Rafah crossing into Sinai, or part-reopening
Pepe Escobar: The Emir of Qatar visits Egypt - and Mosri fires Tantawi.
David G.: The BBC writes: "Under an interim constitutional declaration issued before Mr Mursi was sworn in, the president cannot rule on matters related to the military - including appointing its leaders."
Amos Harel: Regarding Iran, the leaks from Barak and Co. in Israel are even worse than last week -- not that I should complain. I suspect there's a pattern here: the more difficult it gets for Israel to strike before the US election, the tougher its public stance gets. Still, there are some troubling signs, one of them the delay in the planned change of the head of military operations, which is one of the IDF's top positions.
Rotem Sella: Also growing stronger are the efforts within all sectors of Israeli bureaucracy to fight against the war campaign of Barak and Bibi. I spoke to someone in the budget office today who told me that Iranian war will be too costly, and cause high unemployment. What does budget office have to do with Iran? But it shows the big battle going on in Israeli government -- these guys are trying to undermine the pro-attack approach at every turn.
Amos Harel: Israel's main goal is maintaining a credible military threat. But Netanyahu and Barak have gotten a bit carried away with their rhetoric, and by now they are so committed to the idea of a strike that it would be hard for them to withdraw. The IDF keeps preparing, because the chiefs can't tell if the Prime Minister is actually 100% serious.
Pepe: Let's introduce a little bit of sanity into this madness – courtesy of good ol' Cold Warrior Yevgeny Primakov telling it like it is. Attack Iran first and THEN they will go for a bomb.
Amos Harel: I think that until November, the three most important factors are: Bibi's caution (not to say cowardice), Obama's hinted threats and the IDF-Mossad objection to a strike. End result - and I hope that's not just wishful thinking - probably no Israeli strike this year.
Rotem Sella: But Bibi-Barak are not even sure things will be better after November. They've read the recent polls...
David G.: Returning to Egypt: Reuters says that Morsi consulted with the generals before forcing Tantawi's retirement. But the Xinhua report suggests a constitutional shift. Any first responses?
Pepe: Constitutional shift. And once again; right after the visit by the Emir of Qatar. I bet a bottle of Margaux that some suggestions were made.
David G.: Regarding Pepe's Qatar angle: Bloomberg News reports, "Egypt scrapped a sale of nine-month Treasury bills today, its first cancellation of a debt offering in more than three months, after Qatar agreed to deposit funds with the country's central bank to boost foreign exchange reserves." That's pretty big: the Egyptians are saying we've got Qatar, we can suspend public funding.
David S.: Ehud Barak's remaining standing in Israel seems to rest on being able to play the US card. But the American interlocutors I've talked to think he's a weirdo. So Amos, do Israelis believe that Ehud Barak is a reliable interlocutor who is conveying an accurate sense of American intentions, and vice versa?
Amos Harel: David S., everybody finds him baffling. And still, compared to Avigdor Lieberman, he's considered to be close to the Americans, whatever that means now.
David S.: Right now, the timing for an Israeli strike on Iran -- which I thought of up until a few months ago as pure hot air -- seems as favorable as it is ever likely to be. The Iranian bloc in Syria and Lebanon is coming apart at the seams. The Syrian Army is in tatters. Hezbollah is in a very weak place. Obama -- who Netanyahu seems to see as a strategic enemy on a par with Iran-- is at a weak point, the weakest he is likely to be in the next five years, presuming he is re-elected. Morsi isn't dumb enough to order the Egyptian Army out of their barracks no matter what happens in any back and forth with Hamas in Gaza. Plus, the Gulfies are pushing for a strike, and they own Gaza AND Egypt now.
David G.: After the anti-Muslim Brotherhood demonstration at the soldiers' funeral this week, my prior was that the SCAF was the aggressor against Morsi. It may have been entirely the reverse. Morsi might have set up the Sinai incident and the protests at the funeral were a defensive response by the military (ultimately futile). That raises the questions: What are the Saudis thinking? Are they coordinating with the Qataris? Have they cut a deal with the Muslim Brotherhood? A related question is: Is Iran involved?
So a theme that bears investigation is Iran positioning for a post-Israeli strike response.
Pepe: The Saudis are not coordinating with Qataris at all; they are betting on different horses. Iran is not involved in anything in Egypt so far - apart from dragging Morsi or an underling to talks in Tehran during NAM.
David S.: Don't you people agree that this feels like a uniquely fluid moment?
Amos Harel: David S, to continue with your line of thought: remember the date of "Cast Lead" -- December 27, 2008, which fell in between Obama's victory and inauguration. But as we were told when we were young IDF soldiers: "Every Saturday has a Saturday night". Translation: Keep in mind there's a price to pay later, for actions committed while you felt yourself untouchable (in the army, our commanders are not allowed to punish us during the weekend).
Pepe: I'm getting stuff from Tehran around the fact people care extremely worried about the concentration of power in Khamenei's hands. He decides EVERYTHING - including the response in case of an attack.
Rotem Sella: It definitely seems that the confidence of Muslim Brothers is increasing, the fear of a coup is even less than it was a few days ago.
David S.: The moment things stabilize, they will stabilize in favor of Iran and against Israel. Right now, the Iranians are in trouble. And any major retaliation risks their remaining assets. Iran is weak, and everything they have from their nuclear program to their allies in the region is at risk right now is a way that may not be true a month from now, or two months from now.
Amos Harel: Keep in mind that everybody speaks of the autumn. Why not earlier? (I'm just theorizing here)
David G.: The threat is low everywhere except Egypt. Granting Pepe's point that Iran's direct reach into Egypt is de minimus, Qatar's intervention to undermine SCAF definitely helps Iran -- it removes an obstacle to attacks on Israel.
David S.: But if you imagine that the Salafists or the MB will control Egypt in the medium future, then this is the moment of least threat to Egypt from that direction, unless you imagine SCAF can regain solid control of the country under a new Mubarak.
David G.: David S., I agree with you: Tantawi's departure is one more grain of sand on the scale on the side of an early strike.
David S.: If the MB is strong enough to cut Tantawi's head off this morning, then SCAF isn't going to be running Egypt tomorrow.
Amos Harel: There's unofficial talk of an Obama-Bibi meeting in New York on September 26. This might even make it harder for Israel to strike between the meeting and the elections. Speaking of conspiracy theories, my editor, Aluf Benn, raised the possibility that Obama has in fact already agreed, though not enthusiastically, to an Israeli strike. I doubt this, myself.
Pepe: I read this Aluf Benn article. I'm not convinced.
David S.: Obama is in a harder position than it looks when it comes to dismantling the Israel-US relationship over an Israeli strike. His main foreign policy objective coming into office was nonproliferation of nuclear weapons. Plus, he doesn't publicly do anything about Syria, so why harsh on Israel for doing something about Iran? Unless, of course, they fuck it up.
David G.: I agree that Obama won't be able to do much to Israel if they strike, not, at least, before the election.
There has to be more to Egypt's situation than Qatar: $2 billion is just the reserves they lost last month. Doesn't last very long. With $30 billion in the bank Qatar can't carry the burden alone. I wonder if the Obama administration has promised some money to back Morsi.
Pepe: The only "promise" is via the IMF.
David S.: I get the feeling that the Emperor has no clothes when it comes to Obama's Mid-East policy. I think he simply decided it was a loser, and his job was to "get the US out of the Middle East." If I were him I'd rather think about Asia.
Pepe: We could say the same about Obama's Central Asia policy.
Amos Harel: If David is right and this is the case, it will be a major blow to 40-odd years of Ha'aretz editorials
David S.: Guess what, Israel? The US doesn't give a crap about what happens to you one way or another. If you stop the Iranian nuclear program, great. If Iran gets the bomb, that's more your problem than ours, dig?
mixing stuff. Shatnez -- it's the prohibition of mixing cotton and linen.
David S.: I think the Turks have royally screwed themselves.
Pepe: Erdogan is toast - or an eggs benedict with toast, actually.
David G.: David S., that's a local specialty: It's called "Turkish Delight." I agree. They wanted no enemies and now they have no friends.
David S.: Are the Kurds the quiet big winners of the last 12 months?
Pepe: Oh, man, now you got me going. The most important story right now is Great Kurdistan beckoning in the future.
David S.: I've been thinking about that a lot, to the annoyance of my girlfriend.
Pepe: Will write a long story first for Asia Times - then we could discuss it here. But hold on, your girlfriend is Turkish?
David S.: The Glorious Future of the Kurdish Autonomous Model Beckons the Entire Middle East! My girlfriend is a Turkish-Greek-ish Jew from Long Island.
Pepe: She's a born diplomat.
David S.: As opposed to me.
David G.: Here's a hint: "Kurds have the right to demand federal areas: Kurdish Iranian MP"
Pepe: Greater Kurdistan - way to go!
David: Assad's courting of the Kurds could blow back against Iran as well.
Pepe: Nobody in Iran is talking about Iranian Kurds.
David G.: Until five hours ago: http://english.alarabiya.net/articles/2012/08/12/231837.html
Amos: I wonder if the Kurds can achieve any Olympic medals. Israel's London experience had been terrible, by the way. For the first time since 1992, no medals. Haven't the Jewish people suffered enough?
David G.: But the diaspora came through, reviving that classic of Jewish art, "Hava Nagila." You'll have to hear it ten times a day for the next forty years.
Amos Harel: We'll always have "Hava Nagila"
David G.: For that you have my condolences.
Pepe: And the Qataris will always have Paris (they are buying the whole thing).
David S.: Let's take a final poll? Israeli strike on Iran by end of the year, yes or no?
David G.: I vote yes.
David S.: Me too!
Rotem Sella: End of Jewish year or 2012?
David S.: Stop stalling!
David: Goyish year, of course – 2012.
Amos Harel: No (you stand where you sit - and my family is right in the middle)
David S.: I'm not talking about the wisdom of a strike, but the likelihood of one. I'm personally opposed. Nasrallah's still alive in Lebanon, right?
Rotem: I say now more likely than not.
Amos Harel: D&D - at least, try not to sound as if you're enjoying it.
David S.: Does your evasion mean you think it is likely?
Pepe: DJ Spengler spins Hava Nagilah Bomb Shelter - the Bibi remix.
David S.: Everyone is now on record as thinking an Israeli strike on Iran is more likely than not by the end of 2012 except Amos who is worried for his children. Amos?
Amos: Again, 50:50, but in the end I assume it won't happen, not this year.
David G.: Wait a minute -- Pepe hasn't voted.
David : I thought Pepe's "Bomb Shelter remix" line was a yes.
Pepe: Damn - can I go for a "hypothetical"? It's all based on hypothesis confronted against other hypothesis. Still; not likely after the Obama-Bibi meet. This means more likely over the next 4 to 5 weeks. Likely with Mitt 2013. Totally unknown territory with Obama 2.0.
Amos: On this happy note, friends, good night from Israel, hopefully not for the last time.
David: You mean, the eastern province of Greater Kurdistan, the future autonomous national home of the Jewish people?
Pepe: And disgruntled Chinese!