Flames on the Mideast chess board

The murder of US Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens proved in the most dramatic way how everything is connected these days, how a seemingly trivial event, such as the production of a scurrilous film, can light the fuse of our complicated, inflammable world, with unforeseeable consequences.

A ridiculous and offensive film mocking Muhammad (the act of idiots or provocateurs), posted on YouTube, set off violent protests in the Muslim world and provided the opportunity for the murder of the envoy of the most powerful country in the world — a diplomat who had played an active role in helping overturn the Gaddafi dictatorship. This, in turn, provoked a storm in US politics, just weeks before the presidential elections, with Barack Obama and his challenger, Mitt Romney, exchanging harsh words.

The Arab world has been shaken by revolutions against secular dictatorships for over a year now, in a great contest for influence in the Muslim world. Iran is on one side while Saudi Arabia leads the other, as the USA, Russia and China maneuver warily around the chessboard, wanting no greater involvement. The status quo of decades has been shaken, extreme Islamist groups have gained influence or power, while serious questions hang over the new regimes? relationship with Israel. Syria is the main battlefield for the future of the region, with rebel forces supported mainly by Saudi Arabia (as well as Turkey, Qatar and others), while President Assad is Iran?s closest ally. Meanwhile, Kurdish separatists have stepped up attacks in Turkey, either because the Syrian government cannot control them on its territory or because it is using them to punish Ankara.

Everywhere we see the battle between Sunnis and Shiites, while secular groups and Christians face new threats, as does the state of Israel. The US supported the uprisings (some to a greater, others a lesser extent) but wants no greater involvement. The greatest thorn in its side is Iran?s pursuit of the ability to acquire nuclear weapons. The Israeli government has been pressing hard for Washington to hit Iran with military means (and not only through the sanctions that are in place); Obama, always cool-headed, has withstood the pressure, fearing such action could lead to a regional conflagration, threatening oil supplies and hurting the American and world economy.

However, if the violent protests against the US continue, if it turns out that Ambassador Stevens was the victim of lax security, Obama might be forced to take decisions he wanted to avoid. In the heat of the election campaign, he might have to show strength in the Middle East, throwing gunpowder onto the fire.

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