The Arab spring is reshaping the Arab world, dismantling old states and giving rise to new ones. Young Arabs will increasingly imbue these new states with fresh socio-political ideas. These transformations will stir conflicts over national projects and narratives, both among Arabs and between Arabs and non-Arabs. The rhythm of these processes is medium- and long-term. But a more immediate regional challenge for both old and new states, and old and new generations, centres not in the Arab world itself but in Iran.
All modern Arab states are, effectively, failures. Their social, economic and political sclerosis over the past half century have brought most of them to the brink. The inheritors of this predicament in turn face heavy and troubling problems. They will be consumed over coming years by macroeconomic shifts, coping with fluid and conflictual social change, building or consolidating institutions capable of managing these, and in the process discovering or rediscovering new frames of reference.
By contrast, three non-Arab states in the region have viable existing projects: Israel, Turkey, and Iran. There is a difference among them, however. Israel and Turkey pose no immediate threat to the existing, dominant balance of global power; Iran does.
Israel is undergoing major internal change, connected to the widening gap between the rich and the middle class and to transformative immigration waves from the ex-Soviet Union. At the same time, Israel’s international position is increasingly vulnerable in ways that will create tensions with emerging Arab states and narratives (especially Egypt). But this is a medium-term rather than an urgent issue.
The Turkish constraint
* The increasing Turkish role in the region was a result of the vacuum created by Egypt’s withdrawal from it over the three decades of Hosni Mubarak’s rule. Now, the prospective return of Egypt to its traditional Arab sphere of influence will reduce the space in which Turkey can manoeuvre (indeed, the interaction between the two countries will be an important strategic dynamic in the medium term, and could lead either to a confrontation or an alliance)
* Turkey brings to the Arab world an impressive economic record and a seemingly successful model of modern political Islamism. It also has a long and rich historical association with the region. But its main purpose is to widen and entrench its economic and political interests there, rather than to preach or present itself as a model. This positioning - at heart no threat to any global power - unsettles many in Europe and alarms many in the United States and Israel, and will provoke a reaction
* Turkey’s defence strategy is based on its membership of Nato, which will constrain its options and choices in this area.
The Iranian road
Iran is different. Its domestic politics and international stances are alike seen as menacing by various global and regional powers. Yet its governing regime has managed to survive both external hostility and internal convulsions, in part because - despite major discontent against the theocratic establishment - its leaders do have a genuine support-base among Iran’s pious and conservative lower middle classes and the poor.
Iran’s projection of influence in the Gulf and the Levant has since the revolution of 1979 riled the United States and regional powers. Two factors now exacerbate that irritation:
* The Arab spring has weakened the two Arab powers that stood against Iran: Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Egypt’s new political authorities are unwilling to endorse a fight that seems to them irrelevant, especially when the country’s finances are painfully stretched. Moreover, influential sectors in Egypt envisage a potential entente between Egypt and Iran. The Saudi royal family is preoccupied with containing any spillover from the Arab uprisings, managing the generational change within the elite, and the Yemeni mess on its southern borders
* Iran’s strong ambition to upgrade its military capabilities from the conventional (a sizable army with satellite power-bases in Lebanon, Iraq and Palestine) to the strategic (a nuclear arsenal, albeit primitive) has survived all attempts to curb it - including American and Israeli intelligence wars and cyberwars.
But if Israel or the United States (or both) were to decide to attack Iran - through air-strikes rather than a ground invasion - they will seek to ensure three preconditions in the region: that Arab resistance to any such attack will be limited; that it would not be perceived as an attack on “Islam”; and that Iran’s regional satellites (Hizbollah and Hamas) are given strong disincentives to engage in the struggle.
All this will be difficult, but much of it is not impossible. Saudi Arabia and most other Gulf monarchies want to see Iran’s powers curtailed; Egypt will for the next few months at least be consumed by its internal travails; Syria’s regime is entangled in a domestic war for survival, and even Hizbollah’s solidarity with Iran in an armed confrontation with Israel would have its limits.
Even if the preconditions are largely met, the aim of punishing Iran and handicapping its nuclear programme will meet opposition. Russia will object to a further extension of American military power close to its southern borders; China will worry over economic instability and a rise in oil prices, and be influenced in its response by its growing military links with Iran. But neither will actually prevent an assault.
The tense turn
America, Israel, Iran - all face economic and political constraints, and none wants a lengthy armed confrontation. The US and Israel understand that the realistic objective of any strike would be to delay (as opposed to destroy) Iran’s nuclear project. Iran would seek to preserve its infrastructure and intellectual assets as much as it can, while using any attack to solidify the regime’s legitimacy, destabilise its rivals (in part via “asymmetrical warfare”), and enhance its influence in the region.
In these circumstances, four developments are probable:
* The intelligence war against Iran will intensify
* The Saudi-Iranian war of wills will move from the cautious to the offensive, with direct and destabilising repercussions in Bahrain, Iraq, and Lebanon. Iran will also upgrade its work in Saudi’s eastern province, home to the most Saudi Shi’a and all Saudi oil
* A regional clash of ideas will intensify, and have an impact on the Arab spring. The new states being formed in north Africa, and especially in Egypt, will be forced (not least by their newly freed, mobilised and demanding citizens) quickly to make momentous strategic decisions in the face of a restless regional milieu
* The ensuing tensions will aggravate the conflict between moderates and conservatives inside social-political Islam, the rising tide in Arab politics across the middle east.
For all those in the region - but also beyond - it’s time to fasten seatbelts. We are all heading into serious turbulence.