The modern Middle East is about as complicated as the Middle East has always been, which is very. We in the west tend to impose our own narratives on the region to simplify and understand it, especially because the area is of such vital material and ideological importance to us. The main story we like to tell about the Middle East is that of the "Arab-Israeli conflict", which has come to dominate our thoughts on the region to such an extent that "Middle East conflict" has almost become a synonym for Israel's relations with its Arab neighbours.
Our fixation on Israel and its relations with the Arabs has mainly found expression in an obsession with finding a "solution" to the Palestinian question, which in turn has mainly been expressed through the quest for a formal diplomatic agreement on a "two-state solution". This has had the unfortunate effect of placing the emphasis on diplomatic formulae rather than the root causes of hate and fear, as if everyone would wake up the day after the ink dried having forgotten the previous fifty years. No-one expects us to wake up one fine day and "solve" the Congolese civil war, or "solve" the problem of Somalia's statelessness, but we are constantly reassured that a "solution" to the most complex political problem in the world is just around the corner.
Unfortunately, this "solution" is further from our grasp now than it has ever been, and our pursuit of it has started to become dangerously counter-productive. Ever since the territory on which the Palestinians claim their future state became split between Hamas and Fatah, any apparent light at the end of the tunnel has turned out to be a Qassam rocket. Fatah is bereft of the legitimacy required to negotiate, and Hamas has never wanted to negotiate anyway. Israel recently launched a military offensive into the Gaza Strip to try and stem years of Hamas rocket fire, only to fail and see the Israeli electorate rush to embrace the country's right-wing Likud Party shortly afterwards. The new government was quick to draw the obvious inference from recent history and downplay any talk of imminent peace, and equally quick to announce its primary focus: Iran.
What has perhaps not been made so clear in our Israel-centric media is the regional context in which this has happened. It is not just Israel which has an Iran fixation. For years, the rising power of Iran - unleashed largely as a result of the U.S. invasion of Iraq - has become the dominant factor in the region's politics, cleaving new faultlines which in the long term could prove much more influential than the Palestinian question, now a mere auxiliary issue. Some analysts are calling it "the Middle Eastern Cold War" - and, while we can only hope a better name will soon be found, the conflict between Iran, Syria, Qatar, Hamas and Hezbollah and the rest of the region increasingly defines what happens to the Palestinians and to everyone else.
We received dramatic notice of this conflict in April of this year, when the Egyptian government announced that it had wrapped up a Hezbollah plot to bomb tourist sites in Egypt and target shipping through the Suez Canal. A dramatic war of words ensued between Egypt on the one side and Iran, Hezbollah, and Hamas on the other. Hezbollah claimed that its only aim in Egypt was to aid the Palestinians (albeit illegally), something the Egyptians stand accused of neglecting because they support the Israeli blockade on Hamas, who they rightly see as a bearer of Iranian influence and an enemy of the peace process. Egypt warned starkly about interference in its internal affairs, but secretly worried that segments of its own population would be sympathetic to Hezbollah's goals and believe its claim that the arrested men were simply helping Hamas.
Plotting terrorist attacks against Arab states is only the latest and most brazen example of the enmity that has existed between the Iranian camp and the Sunni Arabs over recent years, but it shows the extent to which the Iranian camp feels itself to be on a successful offensive. Everywhere one looks across the Middle East - from small countries like Yemen, Bahrain and Qatar, to Iraq and Egypt and the Palestinian territories - Iranian-backed extremism is on the march, and the traditional secular or Sunni Arab states are on the defensive. The 2006 war in Lebanon, the 2009 war in Gaza, and many smaller events must all be understood with the aid of this prism.
This is the story of the new Middle East.
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Iran has long been the odd one out among the Middle East's Islamic states. The first and most important distinction is that the Iranians are not Arabs, and have tended to be viewed with suspicion as a result. Arab nationalism - the idea that all Arab countries should work together and build towards some sort of political union - has been an important force in the Middle East since World War II, and the Iranians have naturally been excluded from this project. They, in turn, have viewed it as a threat. The second distinction is that the Iranians are Shi'a, whereas until the U.S. invasion of Iraq the only other Shi'a regime in the Middle East was the Alawi clique who ruled Syria. Third and finally, the Iranian regime is an expansionist theocracy which explicitly aims at the export of its way of life, a goal it pursues with much more zeal than the closest equivalent, Saudi Arabia.
It is within all these contexts that the impact of the Iranian Revolution of 1979 must be understood. Shi'a Islam has traditionally been based on a doctrine of detachment from worldly affairs, as befitted a minority who found themselves bereft of power. In this respect, Shi'a in many places resemble the early Christians. But then in 1979, the Iranian Shi'a ulema - religious scholars - took power, inaugurating the world's first revolutionary Shi'a regime. Because many Middle Eastern countries had Shi'a minorities who might be tempted to emulate the Iranian example, the new regime in Tehran became a source of intense concern for the Arabs. Nor was it clear that the Iranians would be above the support of Sunni fundamentalists either, posing yet another threat to the mostly secular Arab regimes.
It was these tensions which lay behind the incredibly destructive Iran-Iraq War of 1980 - 88. Saddam was especially afraid of Iran because his Sunni regime was in a minority, ruling over Shi'a who comprised about twice their number. The war burnt out much of the initial zeal of the Iranian Revolution, but the two countries sustained an enmity which can scarcely be rationally understood right up until Saddam was deposed in 2003. Indeed, it has become clear after the American war that the reason Saddam refused to verifiably disarm beforehand was because he was worried the Iranians would view him as weak if they realized he had given up his weapons of mass destruction; hence, he tried to play a double game to the last, bluffing the international community while still convincing the Iranians he had the proscribed weapons. He didn't realize that the true threat was posed by the coalition, and not Tehran, until it was too late.1
The Iran-Iraq war was certainly the most obvious example of Arab hostility towards Iran, but it was not the most important in the long term. Relations between Iran and the two principal Arab states - Saudi Arabia and Egypt - are of far more consequence. What was at issue in this conflict was political and religious hegemony in the Islamic world, and specifically the Middle East. Saudi Arabia claimed this hegemony by dint of its control of Medina and Mecca - and hence over the hajj - and Egypt claimed political importance by dint of its military strength and leading role in fighting wars with Israel. Saudi control of the holy places was especially chafing to Tehran because of the intense ideology enmity between the two regimes; neither Saudi Wahhabis or Iranian Shi'a consider the other to be true Muslims. Meanwhile, Egypt's regime is anathema to the mullahs because it is secular, and because Egypt's large population and relatively advanced economy has long made it the regional giant.
During the 1980s, the Saudis went on their own offensive to try and legitimize their own hegemony over the ummah, the world Islamic community. They began to export their doctrine much more aggressively, and led the jihad against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. Iran, tied down in the war with Iraq, could do little as the Saudis and Pakistan established a theocratic Sunni state on their eastern border. Throughout the 1990s, Iran seemed encircled and unsure of itself, and made little pretence at a bid to regional ascendancy. But at the end of the decade, as the regime recovered from the debilitating war with Iraq, the mullahs experienced a sudden turnaround in their fortunes which arrived with such swiftness that it isn't surprising to hear it ascribed to Allah: first the Taliban, and then Saddam Hussein, swiftly eliminated by the Great Satan, and the latter replaced by a Shi'a government who spent most of their exile living in Iran.
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Because of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and the frequent Israeli military operations that transfix us, we are used to thinking of Israel as the most powerful and dynamic force in the region. Peace, we tend to assume, is something the Israelis have the power to deliver, and they are the ones who control the flow of events. They may be small, but they are in control.
Increasingly, this perception is misplaced. Israel has been driven in recent years not by a sense of control, but by a rapidly-growing perception that the Jewish state is encircled on all sides by enemies it cannot defeat. First, there was the 2006 Lebanon War, which ended with the most clear-cut Israeli defeat at the hands of an enemy force in history, and the cementing of Hezbollah control over Lebanon. Then came repeated military operations against Hamas, all of which failed to dislodge the group from power or achieve any of their primary goals. Worst of all, the military operations left substantial numbers of civilians dead which only tarnished Israel's image abroad and fuelled extremism nearby, all of which contributed to an increasingly negative strategic situation for Tel Aviv. Hamas and Hezbollah seemingly become stronger and more legitimate when you attack them, not weaker.
The sense of despair in Israel is only matched by a sense of triumph in Tehran. Iran's upwards march has now become so alarming that Egypt and Saudi Arabia denounce it with equal, if not greater, vehemence than Israel. Since Saddam was deposed and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad became Iranian president, Iran has sought to spread its influence throughout the region by support for armed groups and political movements across the Arab world. And it has been very successful in doing so. The first group was Hezbollah, which holds a special place in the Iranian heart because it is a Shi'a movement, and because it was explicitly modelled on the example of the Iranian Revolution by the Qods Force, the branch of the Iranian military which is dedicated to the export of the revolution and international terrorism. (Qods means Jerusalem, the inference being that the aim is to one day regain control of the city.)
Hezbollah is credited across the Middle East with forcing the Israeli withdrawal from south Lebanon in 2000, in much the same way that Hamas is credited with forcing Israel's withdrawal from Gaza in 2005. Many Israelis agonize over these land concessions, which have brought nothing in the way of peace. But for Iran and its allies, the Israeli withdrawals are a sign that their strategy is working: violent "resistance" against the Israelis is leading to victory after victory, which is why Hamas and Hezbollah remain so jubilant and sure of themselves despite the significant damage inflicted on their populations by Israeli military action. Far from being the omnipotent regional superpower, Israel has badly faltered in recent years, while Hamas and Hezbollah have grown enormously in prestige and importance.
Nor have Iran's successes been limited to its support of Hamas and Hezbollah. Since the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, Iran has been extending its influence in that country as well. By financing political parties and armed groups, Iran made a bid to encourage the emergence of theocratic politics throughout the south of Iraq, and carried out a proxy war against the Sunni extremists and Ba'athist revivalists supported by the Sunni states. Iran backed off this strategy during the U.S. surge, but the long-term implications of the original invasion are clear: the new, Shi'a government of Iraq will have very close relations with the Iranians and provide fertile opportunities for them to spread their ideology in the fullness of time. And the removal of Saddam only spurred the Iranians on to greater interference elsewhere, and made it plausible for them to pursue a nuclear programme without the threat of Iraqi invasion.
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But the story does not stop here: what is less well understood is how this affects the Arab states. Iran's success at spreading its influence through groups like Hamas and Hezbollah has not just been bad news for Israel, but also bad news for almost every Arab state. It is a tremendous blow to the prestige of the Sunni Arab states to see Iran at the forefront of the struggle against Israel, and apparently scoring successes where the Arab states have failed.
The Arab countries used to dream of ejecting the upstart Jewish state from the region entirely; Arab numbers were so great and Jewish numbers so few, the saying went, that all the Arabs needed to do was spit and the Jews would drown. Yet they fought numerous wars against the Israelis and lost each one - in 1948, 1956, 1967, and 1973 - until eventually they stopped trying. The poor level of political and economic development across the Arab world has long been blamed by the region's dictators on Israel, whereas the utopian dream of Arab political life has been for the whole Arab world to unite, reclaim Arab land from Israel, and live happily ever after. This was the project that Egyptian president Gamel Abdel Nasser was supposed to lead the Arab world in accomplishing before the Six Day War, and Egypt has liked to see itself as at the forefront of Arab development ever since. Yet, after decades, the Arab world is still underdeveloped; still riven with internal differences; still bereft of legitimization for its rulers; and still unable to prevent Israeli bombs falling on Palestinian homes.
Egypt and Saudi Arabia stand accused nowadays of betraying the Palestinians and abandoning their national movement – revolutionary Iran broke off relations with Egypt after the latter signed a peace treaty with Israel, and then Tehran named a street after the man who assassinated Anwar Sadat, the Egyptian president behind the treaty. It is in this context that Ahmadinejad's constant fulminations about destroying Israel must be understood – they are at least partially part of a public relations campaign intended to create the impression that Iran will succeed where the Arab states failed. While the Sunni states seem to have given up the battle against Israel, embracing alliances with the West, Iran’s bid for regional hegemony is based on its willingness to take the battle to Israel.
This, in turn, is a threat to the Arab dictatorships themselves, because it threatens their popular legitimacy. Whereas Arab states like Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia see Hamas as a dangerous extremist threat that will never embrace a two-state solution, the group is lauded by Arab populations for battling Israel; and the same is true of Hezbollah, whose leader is the most popular Arab around. So, because Egypt shares Israel's view that the Gaza Strip is now an Iranian armed outpost, and has joined the Jewish state in imposing a blockade on the Strip, it has become a focus for ire across the region. The Syrian president suggested the Egyptian president ought to be assassinated, whereas Saudi Arabia's opposition to Hamas saw King Abdullah branded an "infidel".2 During the 2009 war in Gaza, Hezbollah's leader suggested that the Egyptian army ought to march to the border crossings at Rafah and cast them open so that aid could flow to Hamas; there were dark murmurings that the Egyptians had betrayed the Palestinian cause.
Egypt's secular dictatorship suffered greatly as a result of these perceptions, and the main opposition group - the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, which has a close relationship with Hamas - gained. Egypt's president is 81 and surely near death, and his succession is sure to be disputed: Egypt's soul will very soon be at contest, and it is the sincere hope of the Iranian camp to influence the country's future development. An Islamist government in Cairo that can order the Egyptian Army to Jerusalem is one fantasy often entertained by Iran and its friends, but they would settle for profound destabilization that allowed militias such as Hezbollah to operate more freely and funnel support to Hamas. This is the motivation for the terror attacks against Egypt that Hezbollah was recently found to be plotting.
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The upshot of these developments is that the Palestinians find themselves drawn into a proxy war between Iran and Syria on one side, and Egypt and Saudi Arabia - whose interests coincide with those of Israel and the United States - on the other. It's difficult to understand the Palestinian question now without realizing that it is being fought in this larger context, and what Hamas has come to represent within this context. Hamas is not interested in peace with Israel and has come under enormous Iranian pressure to avoid seeking it; rather, they have been encouraged by the mullahs to first seize control of the Gaza Strip, and then use it to launch attacks against Israel.
Arab countries such as Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia have long ago accepted that the continued existence of Israel is a fact with which they will have to live, and have come to support a two-state solution and the peace process as a result. The Palestinian group Fatah has likewise reached the same conclusion. But Iran and Hamas have by no means accepted this logic, and continue to try to undermine the peace process at every turn. Thinking that "the Jew only understands force" - as they believe has been proven by the Israeli withdrawals from south Lebanon and Gaza - they have stoked conflict with Israel and split the Palestinian national movement, to the detriment of the Palestinian cause. Meanwhile, Egypt and its friends have been forced to continue to support the corrupt and decrepit Fatah because the alternative is a Hamas takeover of the West Bank as well.
All of this means that there are now important structural obstacles to any peace between Israel and the Palestinians. To have Hamas in conflict with Israel suits Iran for so many reasons that it is unlikely they will ever encourage their little brother to cease fire. Continued carnage only further undermines the legitimacy of the traditional and secular Arab states - what are they doing to protect the Palestinians from the occupier? - and increases support for extremism throughout the region, as well as serving (or so the Iranians and Hamas think) to pressure Israel to make yet further concessions. Hamas has been far too successful in recent years to change its ways now. But finally, and most importantly, the flare-ups of violence between Israel and the Iranian-backed groups serve one further crucial purpose: they distract attention from the Iranian nuclear programme.
It is the Iranian nuclear programme that transforms all of the above from geopolitics-as-usual to an epoch-defining struggle for the future of the region. While everything the Iranians do at the moment may seem bad enough, Israel and the Arab states worry that all of that will be as nothing to what they will be capable of doing once they have a nuclear weapon. Not only will the prestige of their revolution gain a dramatic boost throughout the region, but their words will be backed by a force no-one else can match. The possibilities for blackmail and the use of their nuclear umbrella to spread their influence will be endless, especially because of the regime's widely-cultivated reputation for irrationality and eschatology; far greater than the risk of the mullahs using their nuke is the risk that others will make unwise concessions out of fear they might use it in the future.
The Arab countries are already rushing to acquire nukes of their own, creating the possibility of a dangerous regional arms-race. And because Arab states like Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia have been forced to co-operate with Israel and the West to counter the growing Iranian threat, they risk a backlash from below as Arab populations accuse them of collaboration with the enemy and undermining the Palestinian cause. It has also required them to render themselves ineffectual in influencing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, for Hamas listens to no-one but Iran and has proven that it can succeed even while stigmatized by most of the Arab world, as it was during the Israeli military campaign that was supported by the Egyptians. The Arabs continue to talk to the discredited Fatah, able ultimately to influence nothing.
These are the forces that will shape the future of the Middle East: the battle between Shi'a and Sunni to prove the pre-eminence of their own religion, and the uncomfortable position of groups like Hamas who straddle the divide; the battle between Iran, Egypt and Saudi Arabia to prove the pre-eminence of their state, and the uncomfortable suffering of those who get in their way; and the battle to determine the political order of the region after the Iranian nuclear umbrella has cast its shadow, providing nourishment to religious extremists and starving the moderate or the secular of the opportunity to flower. Meanwhile, another generation of Palestinians rots in the camps, their political future in the hands of men incapable of anything but war, who act in the knowledge that all their policy will do is beget more violence, and more violence, until eventually someone cracks.
These men, who have never known anything but war, for whom it is a way of life and way of death, are reckoning that they will not crack first, however long it takes.
They may just be right.
1. See the report of the Iraqi Perspectives Project produced by United States Joint Forces Command, which can be accessed here. Saddam believed he was living a repeat of the Gulf War and that the most he had to fear from the coalition was a brief occupation of the country's south and a later withdrawal, which would leave him to live with the Iranians - only in a much weakened state.
2. For these quotes, see "An Escalating Regional Cold War – Part I: The 2009 Gaza War", from MEMRI, here.