Tremors and Tensions Push Mideast to the Brink the Cold-War 'Era of Force and Power' Never Ended, and New Threats Compound Old Enmities Series: Peace in the Balance: A New Instability Threatens the Middle East. Second of Two Reports

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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. …


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