Smoke rises following an Israeli airstrike in Deir al Balah,...

Smoke rises following an Israeli airstrike in Deir al Balah, Gaza Strip, Tuesday, April 23, 2024. Credit: AP/Abdel Kareem Hana

After Iran and Israel carried out a nerve-wracking tit-for-tat exchange of missile and drone strikes earlier this month, many people of good will breathed a brief sigh of relief. The combatants stopped short of further engagement, signaling they wouldn’t push attacks rooted in the Gaza war past the point of no return.

For now.

Still, the killing and shooting, the concern for Oct. 7 hostages, and the nightmare for civilians in Gaza, all loom. The moment becomes an appropriate one to assess just how wide the war’s backdrop is and how broad its possible consequences.

It's easy to forget that the Mideast remains in the grip of its own long-standing regional cold war. On one side there’s Saudi Arabia and several smaller nations, and on the other, Iran, with key strategic business and military relationships of its own. Saudi Arabia, Israel, Morocco, Jordan and Egypt are linked through mutual ties to the U.S.; Iran has firm links to Russia and to the militant factions known as Hamas and Hezbollah.

One thing we know about cold war-style contests for regional power is that they last a long time and may not end until one side collapses or for some reason restrains its power ambitions.

This was never simply Israel versus the Palestinians, even if that conflict takes center stage. Iranians and Saudis have been opposing players in civil wars in Syria and Yemen, and in power clashes in Bahrain, Lebanon, Qatar, and Iraq. In different contexts, Sunni Muslims are pitted against Shiite Muslims — a separate overlay that does not always match the nationalist one.

Economic shock waves are always a concern. The Houthi rebels of Yemen have attacked commercial vessels in the Red Sea, disrupting trade. In January, the U.S. military said it seized a boatload of “advanced conventional weapons” sent to the rebels by Iran, a violation of international law. Two U.S. Navy SEALs were lost at sea during the operation. The U.S., Spain and Japan spent more than a week searching a wide swath of ocean for their bodies.

Fortunately, the whole Mideast crisis does not seem to have shaken the oil markets, as some analysts feared and still fear. President Joe Biden is viewed as unlikely to ratchet up sanctions on Iranian crude oil, lest it spike prices. That much is wise. But looking ahead, the White House needs to find overlooked opportunities with our allies to cool it all down. Only a painstaking diplomatic effort can leverage steps toward peace, justice, or freedom of trade.

Strife is baked into the Mideast landscape. The U.S. rightly tilts to one side, toward containing Iran and Russia, in this regional cold war. It's daunting. Balanced, diplomatic caution and attention to detail can achieve what force alone cannot. Will the horrid mess still boil into something unthinkable? Let's pray and push for sanity wherever it can be found.

MEMBERS OF THE EDITORIAL BOARD are experienced journalists who offer reasoned opinions, based on facts, to encourage informed debate about the issues facing our community.


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