Shifting Sands in the Middle East

The rise of the Muslim Brotherhood is now spreading.  Aside from its victory in Egypt, the Brotherhood is closely affiliated with Hamas in Gaza, and with the opposition in Syria.  Indeed, when Bashar al-Assad is driven from power, it is a good possibility that the Brotherhood will be a leading member, if not the leader, of the new ruling group.

While the isolation of Iran is continuing, with Hamas leaving its headquarters in Damascus and likely to need a new supporter when Assad falls, Turkey and Egypt could join with Saudi Arabia to form a “big three” of strongly Islamist governments dominating the Middle East (Turkey’s AKP Islamist party joining the Brotherhood in Egypt and the Wahabi-influenced monarchy in Saudi Arabia).

While I have generally been sanguine about the Arab Spring, as it is bringing genuine democracy to the region and replacing brittle, illegitimate autocracies with more legitimate democratic governments, it is increasingly clear that Middle East governments that are popular and responding to popular wishes will be strongly Islamist.

If a Brotherhood regime does emerge in Syria, the Turkey-Egypt-Syria-Saudi axis could create signficant problems for Israel and the U.S.  Even though Turkey is a member of NATO, and Saudi Arabia has long been a close trading partner and consumer of US military hardware, neither country automatically supports US policy in the region (as when Turkey refused to allow the US to stage its Iraqi invasion from its territory).

Moreover, the AKP, the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Saudis are far more committed to the Palestinian cause than the now-defunct military governments in Turkey and Egypt had been.

At present, Israel’s leadership seems obsessed with Iran’s movement toward a nuclear capability.  But there is little that can be done directly on that score.  An Israeli attack on Iran not only is likely to drive Iran to seek a functioning nuclear weapons capability more rapidly and totally disregard sanctions, it will produce a severe anti-Israel backlash across the populace of the entire Muslim world.  Much as Saudi and Egyptian and Turkish military chiefs might acquiesce in steps to halt Iran’s nuclear weapons program, the Muslim street (to which governments now must respond much more than before) will not see things that way.

The way to contain Iran’s nuclear program is to continue with sanctions (already squeezing the country and reducing the popularity of the regime), promising to drop them if Iran comes into full compliance with the non-proliferation treaty and cooperates fully with UN nuclear inspections; and to continue with software and hardware sabotage.  It is also worth making clear to Iran that if we find strong evidence that Iran is developing a nuclear weapons capacity (i.e. enriches uranium to 90% or builds a trigger for a nuclear device, things that I believe can be discovered by intelligence services before a complete and functioning nuclear weapon is assembled and made capable for lauch), then the U.S. and Israel will do whatever is required to destroy it before it can be used.  But a pre-emptive military strike without any hard proof that Iran is acquiring nuclear weapons capability is likely to only set back Iran’s nuclear program by 2-3 years, and to ensure that they will then do everything possible to create a usable nuclear weapon in as safe and secret a mode as possible, while creating a more supportive sentiment in Iran that will back that move and make intelligence gathering much more difficult.

So Israel should be focusing on quietly discouraging Iran through sanctions and incentives, rather than threatening to bomb it.  And it should focus on the much bigger threat, of being surrounded by a sea of populist Islamic regimes that are dramatically pro-Palestinian and anti-Israel.  To meet that challenge, Israel needs to be drafting plans to recognize Palestinian sovereignty and pay reparations for the occupation in exchange for Turkish/Egyptian/Syrian/Saudi official recognition of Israel’s sovereignty and guarantees of Israel’s borders.  The Saudis have already indicated their willingness to discuss such a deal; if Israel can obtain Turkish and Egyptian (and Syrian) support then Iran will be truly isolated and weakened.

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About jackgoldstone

Hazel Professor of Public Policy at George Mason University
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5 Responses to Shifting Sands in the Middle East

  1. Raja M. Ali Saleem says:

    I agree about the analysis about Iran’s nuclear program but find anti-Israel alliance very unlikely. First, about Syria. While MB might be one of the major blocks in the post-Assad Syria, a stable strong Syria is now a remote possibility in the near future. After the lengthy civil war, which has augmented the ethnic divisions in Syria, Syria is not a threat to anyone else, except perhaps the Syrians. Assad regime was much more a threat to Israel than any post-civil war regime can be. So, count them out.

    Secondly, Egypt and Turkey have popular Islamist governments, but Saudi Arabia is a Islamist dictatorship. With the tide of history and demography against them, Saudi royals should be worried more about themselves than about Israel-Palestine. Wouldn’t you be scared with all the popular uprisings and the reality of popularly-elected Islamist governments around you, when you are telling your people for the last 70+ years that Western democracy will destroy Islam in Saudi Arabia? So, Saudi royals will be even more dependent on the US in the future and they will make the necessary statements, cast UN votes against Israel and even give some money to Palestinians but that is that.

    Thirdly, while President Morsi has changed the military leadership in Egypt, this shouldn’t fool anyone in thinking that MB is now making national policies in Egypt. As I belong to Pakistan (another Muslim-majority new democracy, long dominated by its military) , I can tell that change of military chiefs doesn’t make much difference. Egyptian military, as an institution, is still the most powerful force in the country. In the late 1990s, a Pakistani Prime Minister, having a two-third majority in Parliament, forced the military chief to resign. Pundits claimed that a new era has dawned in Pakistan, with civilians controlling military and making national policies. Unfortunately, in a year, Pakistan was under a military government. So, unless anyone believes that Egyptian military has changed and it is now against US/Israel, there is meager chance of Egypt changing its policies much. Again, there will be rhetoric and some downgrading of relations but don’t bet on anything which endangers military aid coming from Washington. It will take at least five to ten years before, MB is in full control.

    Finally, Erdogan has pretty much done what he can do (with lots of help from Israel) in case of Turkey-Israel relations. Anything more, like breaking of relations or joining an anti-Israeli alliance, is not on the cards as it will cost Erdogan politically and Erdogan is too shrewd a politician to do that. Currently, Erdogan’s main agenda is getting the new constitution (with a presidential form of government) approved and becoming the President of Turkey for the next decade. Therefore, he will keep his base happy by issuing statements but will not go any further so as not to force secular forces and military to join and kick him out. Both these groups are not only currently vanquished but also have very remote possibility of gaining their past glory in the future. So, they have every reason to do something now when they have still some strength left rather than wait for President Erdogan. Moreover, externally Erdogan’s major priority is ending of the Syrian conflict to end and this has made him much more dependent on US/Western support so I am not holding my breath for Erdogan joining some anti-Israeli alliance.

  2. fhapgood says:

    It would be complicated. Both the costs — the risks of attracting an Israeli attack on one’s own soil — and the benefits — the return to one’s own national security of having a credible bomb — would increase at the same time. Or at least be dramatically illustrated.

    An actual attack would leave this peculiar feature: as Iran recovers it will have a good reason to want other countries in the region to start their own programs, so as to complicate and diffuse the Israeli response to Iran’s program. Usually countries prefer to have exclusive access to nuclear weapons, at least vis-a-vis their neighbors, but not in this case. We might even seen Iran’s providing technical help to Iraq, as frustrating Israel overwhelms all other geopolitical situations. Wouldn’t that be weird!

    • It would be a horrible irony if the long term outcome of our invading Iraq to get rid of Saddam Hussein’s reputed nuclear weapons was to have Iran and Iraq cooperate in creating nuclear capabilities for both! And your outlook is not wholly implausible.

  3. Fred Hapgood says:

    Would an Israeli attack on Iran be more likely to inhibit or advance nuclear proliferation in the region? I can see arguments either way. What’s your take?

    • I fear an attack would advance nuclear proliferation in the region. If Israel undertook a pre-emptive strike on Iran, in the absence of any internationally accepted evidence of a nuclear weapons program, Israel would appear in the region as a dangerous aggressor. Iran would double down on its efforts to gain a bomb as soon as possible; that could lead Saudi Arabia and/or Egypt to seek their own nuclear deterrent capacity, both to balance Iran and to ensure themselves against a newly aggressive Israel.

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