A dangerous transition in the 'greater Middle East'

Revolutions have overthrown post-colonial regimes throughout the Middle East and north Africa, but the region is still in a delicate phase of transition. Rivalry between Iran, Israel, Saudi Arabia and Turkey could destabilize the region further, with dire consequences

A dangerous transition is occurring in what American neo-conservatives have dubbed the 'greater Middle East'. More accurately, it is taking place in the area of the former Ottoman and Persian empires (prior to Ottoman disaggregation in the aftermath of World War I and prior to the defeat of the Persian empire by Russia and Britain in the late 19th century, ultimately resulting in the Anglo-Russian partition of Persia in 1907).

The late 19th and early 20th century saw the birth of democracy movements throughout the region. However, many constitutional, pan-Arab and pan-Islamic movements were repressed by European intervention (France in Tunisia in 1880-81, Britain in Egypt in 1882, Great Britain and Russia in Persia in 1907).

Both constitutional and differing pan-Islamist movements are once again beginning to resurge against post-colonial dictatorships throughout the Arab-Islamic world. On the one hand, these movements have peacefully overthrown US- and European- supported dictatorships in Tunisia and Egypt. On the other, they have overthrown the Gaddafi dictatorship in Libya by force, backed by the Arab League, the Gulf Cooperation Council and NATO. Similar multi-confessional movements are now seeking to overthrow the al-Assad dictatorship in Syria. The Arab League has just moved to place sanctions on the Syrian regime.

Today’s conflicts represent a transitional crisis with essentially four interacting dimensions:

  • The first dimension involves both popular and differing political Islamist movements against post-colonial corruption and authoritarian governments.
  • The second dimension involves an essentially quadrilateral strategic rivalry between Saudi Arabia, Iran and Israel—with Turkey (the former Ottoman empire) in the background.
  • The third dimension involves the global geostrategic and political economic rivalries between the US, Europeans, Russia and China.
  • A fourth dimension involves the dynamics of energy supply and demand (shifting sovereign wealth to the Arab Gulf states, Iran and Russia)—coupled with the impact of a more general global financial crisis.

The overall crisis in the Middle East has the potential to lead to significant qualitative change involving greater democratic freedoms, but it could also lead to new forms of authoritarianism given the rise of differing forms of pan-Islamic political movements, often financed from outside state boundaries—coupled with the efforts of former political elites and military leaderships to remain in power despite the overthrow of dictatorships in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya.

These socio-political movements have pressed for reforms within all monarchist states throughout the region in Jordan, Morocco, the Arab Gulf states (with some moderate groups seeking the establishment of true constitutional monarchies)—while also seeking significant reforms of the Iranian theocratic regime.

At the same time, popular demands for greater democracy have been confronted with socio-economic instability, high youth unemployment, huge gaps between the rich and the poor, plus religious fanaticism in support of Shari’a law. These factors could eventually result in a backlash involving hard-line theocratic measures, military repression or war.

Tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia have intensified since the 1979 Iranian revolution, followed by the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, with Baghdad backed by Riyadh against Tehran. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, coupled with Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, not to overlook Israel’s intervention in Lebanon, has led to a general strengthening of pan-Islamic movements throughout the region, both Sunni and Shi’a—with Al Qaeda and other radical groups acting as wild cards.

The Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq in 2003, which fragmented the country into essentially Kurdish, Sunni, and majoritarian Shi’a regional groupings (complicated by disputes between differing communal factions), has provided Iran with an opportunity to seek regional hegemony in support of pan-Shi’a movements, both within Iraq and throughout the region.

Iran’s quest for a potential nuclear weapons capability, which began during the Iran-Iraq war, has intensified its rivalry with Saudi Arabia (in the effort to counter Shi’a movements within eastern Saudi Arabia and elsewhere) and with Israel (to counter both Hizb’allah and Hamas which have sought Iranian support).

While Turkey initially sought a policy of 'no conflict' with its neighbors in the aftermath of the 2003 Iraq war (which tended to exacerbate Turkish conflict with the Kurdish PKK and raised Turkish concerns over an oil rich Iraqi Kurdistan), Iranian nuclear and advanced missile programs have raised the spectre of a nuclear-armed Middle East. With the decision reached in September 2011, Turkey has agreed to accept deployments of American missile defense radar systems intended to detect a possible Iranian missile attack while Iran has threatened to strike Turkish bases if attacked. High tech anti-missile systems have already been deployed in the Mediterranean and the Gulf regions.

The Iran factor has helped bring Turkey closer to the American geostrategic vision but at the risk of alienating Moscow if the latter cannot be brought into closer defense cooperation with the US and NATO. In November 2011, as Moscow believes that NATO missile defense plans could ultimately be aimed against Russia, and not just Iran, President Medvedev once again threatened to deploy nuclear weaponry in Kaliningrad and elsewhere (as he did in 2008 after the Georgia-Russia war). If Russia, the US and NATO eventually fail to reach a deal on missile defense, Moscow could likewise drop out of New START and halt other arms control talks.

In 2007, Moscow dropped out of the Conventional Force in Europe treaty, which limits the deployments of conventional forces. Washington decided to opt out in November 2011—which has just led Russia to increase the ante with new threats. A NATO-Russian conventional and nuclear arms race could soon be the result.

While US, European and Arab state support for revolutions in Libya and Syria appear to represent efforts to overthrow dictatorships, these revolutions also represent attempts to overthrow governments that are seen as anti-Saudi (Libya) and/or pro-Iranian (Syria)—and hence represent an effort to further isolate Iran. Likewise, Saudi military interventions in Yemen and Bahrain ostensibly represent efforts to check Iranian and pan-Shi’a influence (but also in support of minoritarian governments).

By contrast, the anti-Mubarak revolution in Egypt has opened the door to Egyptian diplomatic recognition of Iran, and stronger Egyptian ties with Hamas, bringing Hamas and Fatah into closer cooperation, upsetting Israel. Revolutions in Libya and Syria have additionally tended to check, or at least minimize, Russian and Chinese influence in the region as well, at least for now—whether this result was intentional or not. In the long term, the Libyan revolution has uncertain implications for much of North Africa and the sub-Sahara; the collapse of the Syrian regime risks sparking a wider regional war.

On the one hand, Turkish, Saudi and Israeli opposition to Iranian influence and Iranian allies in the region could help bring these three states into an unexpected geostrategic cooperation, if not secret defense collaboration—despite Turkish and Arab outrage over the December 2008 Israeli war with Hamas in Gaza.

The prospect of a Turkish, Saudi and Israeli entente raises hope for an Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement—in the assumption that Israel finally accepts something similar to the peace proposals of the Arab League in 2007, proposals which were also endorsed by the Organization of Islamic Conference in March 2008.

A Turkish, Saudi and Israeli entente—coupled with concerted diplomacy by the US, Europeans, Russians and Chinese—could also strengthen regional diplomatic leverage versus Iran in such a way as to first isolate Iran (without direct confrontation and war).

Secondly, such a concerted approach could work to establish a regional peace accord with Iran that could result in an agreement of all states in the region to oppose the 'first use' of weapons of mass destruction and to eventually agree to ban weapons of mass destruction and nuclear weaponry altogether.

On the other hand, there are several possible scenarios that could risk foiling any plans for an Israeli-Arab-Turkish-Iranian peace settlement. These include an Israeli refusal to accept a peace plan for a new Palestinian state, an Israeli strike on presumed Iranian nuclear capabilities (whether backed by the US or not), continued turmoil in multi-confessional Syria—not to overlook the inability of the US, NATO and Russia to come to terms over ballistic missile defenses. Any one or a combination of these scenarios would have incredibly dangerous and destabilizing consequences for the region, if not the entire world.

This article formed the basis for Hall Gardner’s comments at the New Policy Forum conference at Montpellier, November 24, 2011

About the author

Hall Gardner is professor and chair of the department of International and Comparative Politics, American University of Paris; a member of the Group of Experts of the EastWest Institute that produced the report: Euro-Atlantic Security: One Vision, Three Paths after the August 2008 Georgia-Russia War. He is co-editor of  The Ashgate Companion to War: Origins and Prevention (Ashgate: Feburary 2012) and author of American Global Strategy and the ‘War on Terrorism’ (Ashgate, 2007); Averting Global War (Palgrave, 2010); and a book of poetry, The Wake-Up Blast (Narcissus Press, 2008).