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. …