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.