This is the third installment in the series, addressing the emerging outlines of Arab competition with Iran, and potential avenues for its future development.
It is SO ON in the Middle East
Americans seem to have largely missed a gathering reemergence, in the last several years, of an Arab counterpush to Iran in the contest for regional dominance. This contest has waxed and waned for centuries – in some senses we might say millennia, although Arabs, per se, have not been an identifiable ethnic entity for nearly as long as there has been a coherent, identifiable Persia. In its current incarnation, the contest has been incentivized on the Arab side by Iran’s now-overt and accelerating pursuit of nuclear weapons; by the increasing success of Iran’s client, Hizballah, in Lebanon; and by the need for a new Arab alignment, given the dissatisfactions of previous or existing attempts at alignment under the leadership of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Saddam’s Iraq.
A hundred or even 50 years ago, Americans and other Westerners had a better sense of the persistent regional tensions in the Middle East. These tensions have arisen from the imperial legacy of Persia – which exerted imperial power over some parts of the Middle East more than 2500 years ago; the legacy of religious conquest left by the Arab Mohammed from the seventh century; and the Islamic empire eventually cobbled together by the Ottomans, whose geographic base was the remnant of the Eastern (Orthodox Christian) Roman Empire, conquered in the 1400s. The Ottoman Empire fell only with the end of WWI, at which point the European colonial powers, which had alternately treated with and pried territory from it, took it over and split it up for administration.
In the last 2500 years, Arabs, Europeans, Persians, and the Ottomans of modern-day Turkey have vied for control of the Middle East, the eastern Mediterranean, and North Africa (or what I have called the “great junction”). Except for the period of Roman conquest and rule, the objective of Europeans (including the European-founded United States) has largely been to stabilize the region under non-exclusionary conditions favorable to tradeway access. The attempt to achieve that outcome was part of the motivation for the Crusades; and although the Ottomans succeeded, in the early 15th century, in consolidating a hegemonic power over much of the region, the Europeans were ultimately able to use their mastery of sail to circumvent the once-imposing land barrier represented by such hegemonic control.
Arabs in the region have had various reasons to oppose and resent the rule of others, whether Persian, Ottoman, or European. But their heritage is not one of unrelieved victimization. In the wars of Islamic conquest, they for a time imposed rule on much of the great junction themselves – pushing as far into Western Europe as southern France by A.D. 732, a date even American students often know, and leaving an extended historical legacy in Spain. Their opposition to incursions from Europe goes back much farther than the 20th century organization of the Middle East by the European powers; but it also did not start with the Crusades. Opposition to “Rome,” with its implication of both conquest from Europe and (anachronistically) Christianity, predates Islam itself, and sets its political manifestations across the centuries in context.
The peoples whom we today identify as “Arab,” of course, had reason to resent Persia before either Christ or Mohammed was ever heard of. We can also leap forward by more than a millennium and identify resentments arising against the Ottoman rulers, over religious precepts: the prickly fundamentalism of some Salafists and wahhabists emerged primarily as an Arab phenomenon, and led to a religiously-based opposition to the Sultan, their political ruler, as head of the earthly Caliphate.
The Persians, for their part, accumulated over the centuries coherent identification as a people of ancient imperial power; pride in having resisted conquest by Rome, the Ottomans, and the modern European states (including Russia); and finally, the guidon of Shi’a Islam, with its competing vision for establishment of an earthly Caliphate.
The Ottomans, meanwhile, have been surrounded for centuries by hard-fighting European traders, restive Arabs, saber-rattling Slavs, and Persians carrying the legacy of ancient imperial greatness in their backpacks, always ready to hand. If the approaches to their territory – modern Turkey – are not in the hands of friendly powers, and at least one of those powers is not stronger than the rest, they will be perpetually fighting off other aspirants to it. The alternative is to establish a regional empire of their own, and control the approaches to Asia Minor, as they did in the years of Ottoman rule.
The point of this excursion into history is to highlight the truth that the Middle East is not a political, ethnic, or historical vacuum in which only America, or some consortium of Western colonialist “exploiters,” has been acting. Its nations and peoples have rivalries and security concerns that long predated 1776, and have persisted in the wakes of 1918, 1945, and 1948. The operational impact of America on these dynamics has been more to suppress and channel them, in favor of stability, than to energize them – and it has most certainly not been to create them. With or without America or the West, there have been and will be rivalries in the Middle East among Persians and non-Persians, among Arabs and non-Arabs, among Sunnis and Shi’as, among ancient historical nationalities like Egypt and Persia and the more modern nation-states, and among ideas of empire, and competing Islamic ideas of theocracy and eschatological fulfillment.
The re-creation of Israel also affected the dynamics of the Middle East, but did not create the rivalries that today use the “problem” of Israel as a focus. Of course Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all offer reasons why Israel and Jerusalem are significant to the fate of all mankind. But to interpret events in the Middle East as influenced exclusively by this consideration is to ignore the hundred other pretexts humans demonstrably have for competition and rivalry. Those pretexts – trade, natural resources, history, political ideology, and simple geography – are all as present in the Middle East as they are in Europe, the Far East, and the Western hemisphere.
So it should not surprise us, given the region’s history, that modern Arabs carry competing concepts of pan-Arabism, and resistance to domination by the non-Arabs who have, at different times, dominated the Middle East. It is no more surprising that modern Iran, with her cultivation of a Persian identity and history, should seek in her incarnation as the standard-bearer of Shi’a Islam to, in fact, dominate the Middle East.
We need look no further than 40 years back to see that Egypt has, in the recent past, taken the lead in political Arabism, and that before the 1973 War Arabism was a much more active force in the region than it has been since Anwar Sadat’s historic accord with Israel. The Suez Crisis, the short-lived “United Arab Republic” of Egypt and Syria, the rise of Muammar Qadhafi in Libya, the early years of Syrian-sponsored terrorism in the wake of the Ba’athist coup by Assad, the Saudi Arab leadership of OPEC in putting the squeeze to Western oil customers after the ’73 War – all were manifestations of an Arabist vision that defined itself, through the prism of various interpretations of Islam (sometimes with Marxism in the mix), in opposition to the West. Iran, by contrast, was ruled through this period by a Western-oriented Shah, and was an important client of the United States: a symbol of Westernizing, modernizing Islam.
A conjunction of events, however, effected a sort of hand-off of the mantle of Islamic anti-Westernism, from the populist energy of Nasser’s Egypt to Iran – and to a diffuse and less influential extent, to Arab leaders other than Egypt. Within two months of Sadat’s historic visit to Israel, in November 1977, the first major riots erupted against the Shah in Iran. Within six months of the signing of the Camp David accords, in September 1978, the Shah had fallen, and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini had assumed power in Iran, and instituted a revolutionary Islamic theocracy. Within months after that, Saddam Hussein had achieved ascendancy in Iraq through a coup against his fellow Ba’athists – and immediately began vying for the crown of pan-Arab leadership. He was stymied in that endeavor by his war with Iran, as Qadhafi was by his run-ins with Ronald Reagan, and as Libya and Syria both were by their unseemly reliance on the former Soviet Union.
The momentum of Islamic anti-Westernism shifted to Iran, with Khomeini’s Islamic revolution. The momentum of anti-Israelism did so as well. The Camp David accords put paid, for the time being, to conventional military designs by Arab nations on Israel. The politicization and Western-oriented mainstreaming of Arafat’s Fatah-centered PLO – the main Arab thrust against Israel after the 1978 accords – left jihadists dissatisfied with its progress against the Zionist entity.
But Iran’s client Hizballah was making headway in subverting Western-oriented government in Lebanon during the 1980s – and in using Lebanon’s territory to attack Israel. The combined threat from Syria and Lebanon, with its growing backing from Tehran, shifted the focus of Israel’s defensive orientation to the Golan Heights, Beka’a Valley, and the border with Lebanon, and in general, was making more political “noise” than any effort against Israel backed by an aspirant to Arab leadership. There was, in fact, no unifying, distinctively “Arab” voice in this period, one around which opposition to Israel or the West coalesced effectively.
It was at this point that Hamas emerged as a rival to Arafat’s Fatah, in the first Intifada. Qadhafi’s Lockerbie bombing of the same period looks, in retrospect, like the last gasp of the sort of freelance Arabist Islamism that prevailed in the 1980s; the first Intifada like more of a harbinger of the better organized Arab Islamism that would ensue with the rise of Hamas, in Israel, and Al Qaeda worldwide. By 1992, Al Qaeda was plotting to attack US Marines in Yemen, and by 1993 was involved in waging unconventional warfare against US forces in Somalia, and in making its first attempt on the World Trade Center in Manhattan.
A key feature, for our analysis, of the wars waged by Hamas and Al Qaeda, is that they have been waged with the competing support of nation-states, but for the purposes of the guerrilla clients. The Saudis and Iranians have both supported Hamas, and they have both supported Al Qaeda – as did Saddam Hussein, and as have the Assads of Syria, Bashir of Sudan, and the Afghan Taliban.
Riyadh and Tehran have competed also to cultivate the Islamic Courts Union leadership in Somalia, both before and after its abortive rule in the latter half of 2006; and they have made rival efforts to obtain leverage with the factions in Iraq, since the removal of Saddam Hussein. Competition for patronage of the leading anti-Western, anti-Israel guerrillas must be seen in that context: as part of an overall effort, on the part of each, to establish regional leadership.
But alert readers will notice that in this reemerging version of the rivalry for the Middle East, it is Saudi Arabia and not Egypt – or Iraq, Syria, or Libya – that is the key aspirant to the mantle of Arab leadership versus Iran. This shift in leadership momentum is both historically telling and problematic, from the Arab standpoint.
Saudi Arabia has long had a form of leadership acknowledged by the other Arab nations, and indeed by Sunni Muslims throughout the world, as the keeper of the holiest sites of Islam, Medina and Mecca. But Saudi Arabia is a sparsely populated desert kingdom, oil-wealthy but with little of the potential for state power inherent in having a much greater population, and broadly diverse natural resources, as Iran and Egypt (and indeed Iraq) do. Many Salafists and wahhabists, moreover, regard the rule of the House of Saud as corrupt, secularist (yes), and Western-oriented – highly inappropriate traits, in other words, in the kingdom that guards the holy places of their faith.
The Saudis, therefore, do not have the national characteristics to reenergize the pan-Arabism that flourished during the Nasser years, with Egypt in the lead. Nor are they, alone, either a counterweight to a revolutionary Iran, or a natural heir to the mantle of national anti-Western Islamism. The loss of Egyptian leadership, as a factor for pan-Arabism to coalesce around, and the unsatisfactory natures of Assad’s Syria, Qadhafi’s Libya, Saddam’s Iraq, and Saudi Arabia, as potential successors in that role, have served to keep Arabism diffuse and ineffectively organized, as a state-based phenomenon, for over three decades.
A perceived acceleration of the need to counter Iran has emerged, as mentioned earlier, with two main lines of strategic development: Iran’s intervention in Lebanon and, increasingly, in Israel; and Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons. Arab alarm at Iran’s interventionist efforts is peaking, as recounted in “Charging the Chokepoints,” as it spreads across the entire region. What these security threats are provoking so far is exemplified by Saudi intervention in Iran’s signature regional effort with Hizballah, in Lebanon, where some analysts are characterizing an all-out competition of proxy sponsors – between Tehran and Riyadh – as a new “Cold War.”
Americans have been largely unaware of this increase in Saudi activism in Lebanon, although the analysts at Strategic Forecasting (Stratfor) have followed it closely. In addition to the MEMRI link above (the “Cold War” link), Stratfor’s series of items on Saudi activity opposing Iran and Hizballah in Lebanon is well worth putting time into. They shed a most useful light on Saudi attempts to back factions in Lebanon, Syria’s parallel effort to cultivate ties there beyond Hizballah, and Iran’s recognition of the rivalry Saudi intervention represents, by trying to use Syrian suspicions about Saudi connections to the assassination of Imad Mugniyeh to discredit Riyadh. See, for example, here and here.
This effort runs alongside Iran’s growing campaign to influence the outcome of the Hamas-Fatah rivalry among the Palestinians, which the Saudis have jumped back into in recent years, partly due to the increased involvement of Tehran. Although the Saudis had backed off from overt support to Hamas by 2003, due to both insurgent attacks within the Kingdom and Riyadh’s War on Terror commitments to Washington, it was clear to Western analysts by at least late 2005 that Saudi support had resumed. The salient events in the interim were the death of Fatah’s Yassir Arafat, Israel’s pull-out from Gaza – and a huge new influx of support to Hamas from Tehran (exemplified by but not confined to Iran’s pledge, in 2006, of $250 million to Hamas, in the wake of a US denial of funds to the Palestinians because of Hamas’ electoral victory). (See here for a good overview of Iran-Hamas relations, and in particular the period of the mid-2000s, crucial to the Arab perception that Iranian influence among the Palestinians must be countered.)
As recounted here, Iran’s level of intervention in the Palestinian rivalry is only accelerating, as evidenced during Operation Cast Lead. It is the enlarging footprint of Iran among the Palestinians – and Iran’s attempts to infiltrate Egypt with insurgency – that prompt Egypt to push for a Saudi-brokered accord between the Fatah-based Palestinian Authority and Hamas. The wider the Palestinian split, and the longer it persists, the more opportunity Iran has to exploit it, and leverage success there in the rivalry for Middle Eastern ascendancy.
This rivalry, playing out in rival sponsorships, cannot by that method alone ultimately bring either party regional dominance. This fact too often causes Americans, in particular, to miss the broader implications of holding the purse strings of the Palestinians. If Israel is “in play” – IF Israel is in play – then holding those purse strings can be the key to establishing leadership in both the political and religious realms. The prize, of course, is not the purse strings but the position.
Iran’s advantage in this rivalry lies not only in her impending acquisition of nuclear weapons, but – very importantly – in her suitability for the exercise of state-based dominance, through precisely the characteristics no single Arab state has today. Iran, in short, is dominance-ready, and there is no Arab state of which that can be said.
Saudi Arabia represents the ancestral home of Islam and the ethnic Arab peoples, but her population and resources are no match for the challenge of regional dominance. Iraq’s Arabs are ethnically and religiously divided, and the Sunnis among them, more natural standard-bearers of Arabism than Shi’as, are a minority in Iraq, and one with significant baggage in domestic politics. Syria, with a relatively small population, has been a client of Iran for some time, and has been oriented, for several decades, less on Arabism, and more on aligning herself for advantage with other great powers in the region, including Iran and Russia. Egypt was the one-time leader of pan-Arabism, but under Mubarak’s long rule has assumed a subsidiary role in that regard (to the chagrin of it radical elements). The population and resource diversity of Egypt make her eligible for a leadership role, but her potential is unrealized today.
None of the larger nations of North Africa – Libya, Algeria, Morocco – has the population or resource diversity to step up by itself to “the” Arab leadership role. Other nations across the region, like Tunisia, Yemen, or the Persian Gulf Arab emirates, lack the size to perform as Arab world leaders, particularly in the important sense of acting as a counterweight to Iran.
There is, therefore, a coalescing process that will be necessary, to produce any unified expression of Arab will in opposition to the prospect of Iranian regional hegemony. To state the matter in the baldest terms, it will be necessary for existing Arab states to find a means of realignment and unification, perhaps in express political terms, to achieve an effective counterweight to Iran. As we will explore later, that necessity is likely to attract actors from outside the Middle East. But there are also factors inside the Middle East that may be coming together to promote this outcome.
One, of course – the most widely remarked on – is revolutionary Iran’s project to shed the conventional military impotence that has so far served to keep the necessity of realignment latent for Arabs, and not immediate. Iran’s efforts to increase her national might are not confined to her nuclear weapons program, but its implications for projecting power by holding other populations hostage exert probably the single greatest effect of any individual factor on the prospect of Arab realignment.
We have already discussed another factor: Iran’s increasing activism by proxy in Lebanon and Israel, which threatens to take the fate of the Levant out of the hands of Arab leadership. As documented in “Charging the Chokepoints,” Iran has been making similarly insidious inroads in other nations around the region, including Egypt: providing a related motive for the major Arab nations to seek strength in realignment and unity.
Egypt and Saudi Arabia in particular, however, are also approaching political thresholds at which their longstanding policies of official moderation, from an international policy standpoint, and of sclerosis in domestic politics, are likely to meet serious challenges. The particular problem they both face is that the domestic discontent their entrenched authoritarianism engenders, in terms of the hope for greater Western-style liberalization, is antithetical to the aspirations of the regimes’ main insurgent enemies: the ones that throw bombs and seek greater anti-Western, anti-Israel radicalism from regime policies. In Egypt, this is the Muslim Brotherhood and its various offshoots. In Saudi Arabia, it is, of course, Al Qaeda (sometimes referred to as Al Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula, or QAP).
This phenomenon was especially evident in Saudi Arabia during the years 2003-06, when, as documented in this 2008 Rand report, domestic terrorism by QAP peaked at the same time as Riyadh’s post-9/11 gestures toward regime liberalization. Reform groups in Saudi Arabia gained a hearing in this period, getting proposals before the king on marginally expanded powers for the Saudi Majlis (representative body), establishing a national human rights commission, and convening “National Dialogue” sessions to discuss, among other topics, women’s rights, and respect for the Shi’a sect in Saudi Arabia. Reform efforts on all fronts ultimately stalled, as QAP’s domestic attacks increased, and the Saudi regime turned from reform to tightening up internal security. But the domestic rifts remain – and it should be no surprise to those familiar with history that at a juncture of this kind, Saudi foreign policy has turned to promoting the outcomes desired by the Kingdom’s own radicals, outside the Kingdom.
The long rule of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt has produced even wider-spread domestic discontent, from both those seeking liberalization and those who consider the Mubarak regime insufficiently holy, Islamic, anti-Western, and anti-Israel. As with Saudi Arabia, Western democrats would certainly prefer to see greater freedom of expression, political freedom in general, religious tolerance, and respect for women’s rights in Egypt. Since the late 1980s, Mubarak’s Egypt has been a classic case of a regime cracking down on all dissidents because of the electoral success briefly achieved by some genuinely destabilizing dissidents; in this case, the Muslim Brotherhood. (See the Rand study for a summary of the history on this.) Allowing the Muslim Brotherhood to achieve de facto rule of Egypt would produce the opposite of liberalization – yet the discontent with the Mubarak regime continues to grow at the liberalizing end of the spectrum, and Egypt’s basic impotence in her official role as broker between Israel and Hamas, particularly during the latest Israeli crackdown in Cast Lead, increased the restiveness of politically-motivated Egyptians. The growing sense that Iran is interfering in Egypt, nearly as much as in Lebanon or Israel, does not help the Mubarak regime’s reputation with its own people.
If other things were to remain equal, we might expect the current regimes in Saudi Arabia and Egypt to weather their potentially perilous vulnerability, from both liberalizing and Salafist Islamist reformers. They might well, in quiescent circumstances, find means of liberalizing, and attaining the increased trust and engagement of the people. But as we have discussed, other things are not remaining equal. Iran is on the move. The Saudi regime has been seeking to establish momentum and gain influence, in reaction both to Iran and to transnational wahhabism, which threatens the House of Saud itself. The Hamas-Fatah split offers an opportunity for competing sponsors to jockey against each other in cultivating the Palestinians, and influencing the outcome of the “Zionist entity” problem.
A number of factors are coming together to make it more likely, rather than less, that leadership of the Arab world, through either Saudi Arabia, Egypt, or both, will be seen as a prize to be won, perhaps even through coup or insurgency. The stakes are getting higher, for Arab leadership: transformative personalities may not have emerged clearly yet, but incentives have – and opportunities seem about to.
Nor need we assume that a wave of Arab leadership that harnesses Egypt and/or Saudi Arabia will arise from within one or the other. As Stratfor has pointed out (see the links above), Syria appears to have been hedging her regional bets over the last year and more, cultivating opposition to Hizballah in Lebanon, signaling her willingness to deal with the US, and in general, seeming to be entertaining second thoughts about her long partnership with Iran. But Syria has also been reenergizing her ties with Russia. Iraq, meanwhile, is a wild card in the Arabs’ hand, a sort of mutant biped with one foot in recent, Saddam-era Arabism, but the other foot in an older, and much more enduring, codependence with Persia (of which southern Iraq was once the capital) – one that long predates the influx of Arabs in the Islamic conquest, as well as the rise of Islam itself.
The actions of outside powers may end up determining the character of this emerging realignment. If I can see that it will take leadership other than that of Hosni Mubarak or King Abdullah to make an Arab consortium a true counterweight to Iran, others can as well – and can identify opportunities to seek influence by redressing that shortfall. But before that happens, there is one supremely important thing that must not remain equal in the Middle East, for the opportunity that is visible now in dim outline to actually emerge. That thing is, of course, the presence and posture of the United States.
For all its imperfections and errors, the American posture up to now has done three key things. It has guaranteed that the dismantling of Israel is not a prospect realistic enough that the regional rivals should compete harder to achieve it. Second, our presence has ensured that revolutionary Iran will not overstep the boundaries we have tacitly set for her, in her operations as a nation-state. And third, our presence has shouldered off and blunted the overtures of great power rivals – primarily Russia, but in emerging outline, China as well – to potential clients in the Middle East. Our interest in maintaining a status quo that is favorable to a balance of power and open trade access, and that inhibits the rise of a rival hegemon in the region, has been the bulwark to which the nations there can resort, when one or another seeks to provoke an imbalance.
Because of these implicit guarantees, impetus has been slow to build for a realignment of the Arab nations: one that would give them a more centralized organization, and make state-based action, as a counterweight to Iran’s threatening posture, more feasible and potentially effective.
But those conditions, as we will see in the next installment, are precisely the ones that may be changing, with the election by Americans of Barack Obama.