For those unfamiliar with the particularly idiotic 1950s game of a certain class of American teenage boys, “playing chicken” involved racing cars directly at each other to see which one would choose to avoid suicide (i.e., be the “chicken”) first. Today, the fine gentlemen who design foreign policy strategy in Tel Aviv, Tehran, and Riyadh are all playing this game. Since their level of testosterone seems hardly lower than that of the aforementioned immature teenagers, one may anticipate a head-on collision.
The game of chicken rests on the assertion by each side that it owns the road. Similarly, Tel Aviv, Tehran, and Riyadh currently all have a foreign policy based on the assertion that each owns massive overlapping chunks of the Mideast. Tel Aviv’s appetite has steadily grown since 1948 from wanting control over what is now Israel to all of Palestine to Lebanon to Syria to Iraq to Iran. Most Israeli decision-makers no doubt do not really want to govern this massive region, any more than they accept any significant degree of responsibility for providing good governance over the small remaining Palestinian enclaves on the West Bank; in some cases, they are satisfied simply with having the power to determine what weapons their adversaries will be permitted to own. But that is a tactical detail; the strategic point is that when the chips are down, Israel demands the right to make the final decision on what it determines to be important. Riyadh began playing catch-up in earnest with its military intervention into Yemen in 2010, followed quickly by literally snatching control of the road into Bahrain in 2011, then helped overthrow Egypt’s new democracy that threatened to seize leadership of the region. Meanwhile, Riyadh was intensifying a new effort to manage the outcome of the Syrian civil war. Tehran, running a totally marginalized new Shi’i state in 1979, was sucked into then-distant Lebanon in defense of the poor and also totally marginalized Shi’i population of south Lebanon that faced Sharon’s panzer onslaught alone in 1982. Within a year, Iran-supported Hezbollah freedom fighters had organized a guerrilla movement that would become Lebanon’s most modern political party and punish the Israeli invaders sufficiently so that twenty years later they would flee Lebanonese ground completely (but not Lebanese skies, which they continue to occupy). Tehran may not immediately have defined Lebanon as Iran’s “front-line” back in 1983 but toe-holds are hard to relinquish, and in the aftermath of “winning” the war started by the U.S. against Iraq, the expansionist attitude in some decision-making circles in Tehran is clear. Former IRGC commander Safavi, for example, stated in May that Iran’s “real borders are not what they appear, but extend to the shores of the Mediterranean Sea in southern Lebanon.”
Alternatives are not hard to find. Sufficient desert exists in Syria to contain both Iranian and Saudi oil pipelines. Now that Saddam is gone and Iraq no longer a threat to anyone, agreement on accepting Iraq as a neutral might make the whole region a much more enjoyable place. Perhaps a U.S.-Iranian nuclear deal will in fact facilitate such a move away from the intensifying regional game of chicken. So far, however, most of the key foreign policy players are insisting that “we” can only survive by controlling neutral territory in order to prevent “you” from threatening “us.”
The tripartite game of chicken thus rests on mutually exclusive claims of ownership (in polite diplomatic technobabble usually termed a “sphere of influence”) over Lebanon by Tel Aviv and Tehran, over Syria by Tehran and Riyadh with Tel Aviv just a bit behind, over Iraq by Tehran and Riyadh, and over Egypt by Riyadh with Tel Aviv coyly grinning approval. So far, this is mostly a duel in which the seconds are shooting first, e.g., the Sunni jihadi ISIS militia in Syria vs. pro-Iranian militias under IRGC supervision. But militias have a way of driving off-road when put in the driver’s seat, which just keeps sucking the principals closer and closer to the starting gate. Watch the race if you wish, but sit well back in the stands. When cars hit head-on, bystanders are at risk.