NEW DELHI: The Middle East cauldron continues to bubble. Fighting in Syria has become more intense and the pressure on the Assad regime has increased.

Simultaneously, the Russian military presence in the seas off Syria has significantly enlarged with the deployment of a naval fleet and detachments of marines for land operations. It is not that this build-up presages any clash directly involving Russian forces: what seems to be intended is to deny the western opponents of Assad the unimpeded ability to strike at the dictator as they had in Libya, and of which they took full advantage.

The Russian presence will be expected to discourage direct involvement in Syria’s military situation by others from outside the region.

In Syria itself, apart from major outbreaks around Aleppo, fighting has been reported from the Damascus region, with heavy guns being brought into use.

While the situation there deteriorates further, there have been developments in and around Iran that have added considerably to the region’s difficulties. The test firing of a new short-range missile, billed as a fourth generation weapon, has been announced even while the virtual civil war in Syria gathers momentum.

According to the announcement from Tehran, the new missile has a range of 300 km, which is comparable to that of the earlier generation of weapons but the new one is more accurate and it can be aimed at naval as well as land targets. At 300 km, the range is sufficient to reach potential adversaries in the region, including Israel. It can, therefore, have a destabilising effect in a region that is already afflicted by dangerous strife and warfare.

The Iranian claim of having developed a fourth generation missile will no doubt claim the attention of defence specialists, and it is likely to add to the uncertainty and loud name-calling that are part of the region’s affairs. It is not something to be seen in isolation, however.

For quite some time, periodic threats of pre-emptive strikes against Iranian nuclear installations have been made by its foes, and there have even been times when such an event has appeared imminent. It can be surmised that Iran would have seen, as has the rest of the world, that a helpless quarry of the "international community" is greatly vulnerable, as was Libya and, earlier, Iraq.

On the other hand, a country that is believed to be able to hit back, or at least make it uncomfortable for the attacker, can better hope to escape aggressive strikes.

Thus Iran has been upgrading its defence capacity over the last few years, including naval vessels and, much more daunting, missile capacity, evidently in order to ward the kind of attack with which it is threatened. Warnings and threats from both sides have also escalated, with no drawing back by the opponents of Iran from expressions of readiness to exercise the military option should they consider it necessary.

Iran has not bowed before these threats and, on the contrary, has issued threats of its own, including its readiness to block the Straits of Hormuz if subjected to attack, thereby bringing to a halt the movement of oil from the Gulf to consumers across the world.

All these developments underline the fact that the situation in the region remains as fraught as ever, which adds to the dangerous implications of the latest Iranian missile test.

Apprehensions about what may come next have been made more marked by a flurry of high-level visits between the US and Israel.

Senior officials who have recently made the trip from Washington include the Secretaries of State and Defence, and the National Security Adviser; presidential candidate Romney has also been there.

Statements by these and other officials give the impression that Israel could be preparing a unilateral military initiative which the US is anxious to discourage.

In some respects, these exchanges are reminiscent of more than one such discussion in recent times, the difference being that those who favour an attack argue that the time is currently propitious, before the US election campaign with its unpredictable outcome gets into full swing.

Reports from Washington suggest that the US Administration, while not precluding a military option at some stage, does not wish to see anything of that sort take place now: however, Israel may have a different calculation. Such war talk can only stir the already bubbling cauldron.

One of the important factors that threaten the regional peace is the ambiguous Iranian nuclear programme. Iran insists that this is peaceful in intention and to persist with it is its sovereign right. But others see its real purpose as that of producing a nuclear weapon, which they are determined to prevent.

The prolonged international effort to introduce restraints on Iran have had little effect, leading some to believe that they are being dragged on to ward off unfriendly action and to provide cover for the accelerating enrichment programme that will enlarge Iran’s options. Within the Middle Eastern region, only Israel is armed with nuclear weapons, and it is determined to keep it that way.

The International Atomic Energy Agency has made repeated efforts to engage Iran in talks and to institute an acceptable inspection regime on that country’s nuclear facilities, and there have been occasional indications that a measure of progress may be possible, but nevertheless the deadlock that has existed for many years seems irremovable. As a result, the precarious balance within the region is under constant strain and can readily be upset by unilateral measures by any of the major players.

The UN has a big role to play in the region: its agencies have been closely engaged in Iran from the start and it is currently greatly preoccupied with the effort to halt hostilities in Syria.

Its latest endeavour, following more than one failed attempt to pass a minatory resolution through the UN Security Council, was to bring the matter before the General Assembly. Even though General Assembly resolutions are non-binding, the expectation was that this initiative would add to the pressure on Assad and make his position less tenable.

In the vote in the General Assembly, India decided to abstain while a small group opposed the resolution and a larger number supported it.

Thus the weight of opinion is against Damascus, including most of its Arab neighbours. India’s abstention was explained in New Delhi as a carefully considered decision reached after late-night discussions where the mandarins pondered at length before the government eventually decided to abstain.

No fresh initiative at the UN may be on the cards for now, but India has to be alert to the potentially dangerous developments in this contiguous region.

By arrangement with The Statesman/ANN

Updated Aug 07, 2012 09:16pm

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