Internal Factors Affecting the Middle East: Trends and ImplicationsIPSweb
Director General IPS explores the factors within that influence the situation in one of the most volatile regions of the world, the Middle East.
Policy Perspectives , Vlm. 5, No. 1
[The Middle East is one of the most significant regions of the world because of its geopolitical situation, oil resources, and holy sites. Its internal politics revolve around ethnic, ideological and territorial disputes, and competition for Arab leadership; the security situation is further threatened by complex military dynamics, involving formal armies, non-state actors, as well as external forces, and foreign direct as well as covert interference driven by powerful economic interests. The region’s contemporary political dynamics are defined by Peace Initiatives to resolve the Palestine issue and Palestinian in-fighting; Iraq’s continuing deterioration; build-up of pressure against Iran’s nuclear program, raising fears of US military strikes; and growing popularity and strength of non-state actors. The Palestine issue is likely to remain unresolved because the Arab leaders’ disconnect with their public and the exclusion of Iran and Hamas from recent peace efforts. Dividing Iraq along sectarian or ethnic lines, as the US is contemplating, would worsen the situation for the country and region. Non-state actors will continue to gain strength as long as Middle Eastern rulers continue to deny public representation and Western powers continue to force their own agendas. Attacks against Iran could spark a major oil crisis and worldwide Muslim unrest. Regional states need to play more thoughtful roles, and the international community needs to reject the norm of use of force to bring peace to the region. – Author]
Spreading over the juncture of Eurasia and Africa and of the Mediterranean Sea and the Indian Ocean, the Middle East, sometimes also called the Near East or West Asia, is one of the most significant regions of the world. Traditionally, the Middle East is comprised of the Gulf countries―Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Iran, Iraq and Bahrain and the remaining includes Syria, Jordan, Israel, Lebanon, Palestine, Turkey, Yemen and Egypt. This rather unofficial and imprecise definition is mainly due to the geo-political dynamics of the region which often ties up the Middle Eastern states in a very loose classification. Importantly, Muslims constitute about 85 percent of the region’s total population. This, combined with the fact that it houses the holy cities of Makkah, Madinah and Jerusalem, makes it a sensitive area for Muslims all over the world. The effects of political developments in the Middle East are, therefore, often felt well beyond the region.
Given the fast-paced dynamics of international politics in the present era of globalization, the dimensions of a country’s security issues are not limited to internal factors; external factors are playing an increasing role. This is particularly true of the Middle East, which because of the presence of two-thirds of the world’s oil reserves in the Gulf, holds a profound attraction for international powers. What is distinctive about external influence in the Middle East, however, is that the internal political issues of the region are very closely interwoven with external involvement. The overwhelming interests of external powers affect the region in a very complex way. The concerns and interventions of emerging powers and superpowers are opening up various fronts of issues as well as opportunities in the region.
The fast changing political dynamics of the Middle East require a clear understanding of the present situation of the region, and the internal and external factors affecting or influencing it, as well as a detailed analysis of the implications of current policies and trends. This paper briefly looks at the present state of affairs, tracing its historical context. It then discusses in detail the factors affecting the situation and, finally, analyses of their changing dynamics and trends.
Middle Eastern economies are primarily natural resource-based, and may be divided into two distinct categories. On the one hand are the Gulf States, which predominantly rely on their extensive oil and gas resources. The remaining Middle Eastern states, such as Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Israel and Turkey, have mainly agriculture-based economies. The average per capita income of these states is lower than that of the Gulf oil exporting countries. However, Israel and Turkey may be ranked at a relatively higher position within the category of non-oil exporters: Israel, due to its heavy technological and trade superiority, and Turkey, due to its abundant water resources and highly developed infrastructure for its traditional and non-traditional economy.
The political front of the Middle East has internal and external dimensions. The internal dimension includes diplomatic relations between neighboring states as well as ideological and ethnic divisions within states. In Iraq, for example, there is an ethnic divide between Arabs and Kurds, and an ideological divide between Shi’as and Sunnis. Similarly, the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories and its aggressive policies on the lines of ideology and ethnicity have been a major source of instability in the region. The tension between Iran and the Arab world is also considered to have its roots in ideological and ethnic differences.
Another strong factor related to the internal politics of the Middle East is the issue of who leads the Arab world. Most Arab leaders have been overambitious in their desire to be acknowledged as heads of the entire Arab world in particular and of the Muslim world in general. This trait has its roots in the tribal traditions of the region.
Territorial disputes among Middle Eastern states form another key theme of internal politics as well as a concern for regional stability. These disputes, which often reflect centuries-old ethnic divisions and rivalries, have pitched Arabs against non-Arabs, e.g. Kurds, Turks and Persians, etc., and constitute a weakness that could readily be exploited by external interests.
Diplomatic relations with external powers vary within the context of diplomatic relations with neighboring states in the region; for example, the antagonistic relationship between Saudi Arabia and Iran compels them to have different allies in the outside world. The same was the case in the 1980s, when the Iran-Iraq confrontation was under way in the region, as well as during the first Gulf War, when Iraq attacked and occupied Kuwait. The kind of relationship maintained with Israel also impacts relations with other states within the Middle East as well as with other countries of the world.
To protect their economic stakes, particularly energy and its supply, external powers have developed deep interests in the region and are pursuing their policies on various fronts, either by diplomatic means or by coercive use of power. In the case of Saudi Arabia, for example, there is a non-coercive type of intervention by external powers emphasizing, and occasionally interfering for, a “reformation of society,” and seeking to influence internal affairs such as women’s rights, the right to vote, democracy, public support to the insurgency in Iraq, etc. On the other hand, in Iraq, the intrusion is decidedly coercive, and external powers have occupied and taken control of the country on the excuse that the country houses weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) and terrorism. The presence of a large number of external forces in the region since the first Gulf War and the resistance to it have, both, internal and external dimensions.
The current combination of external factors and internal political gambits are leading the region into new directions such as Saudi Arabia’s new “Look East Policy.” Saudi Arabia’s strong representation in the world’s largest regional and international trade organizations related to petroleum and energy resources will have a direct impact on global strategic realities. While the initiative is paving the way for new dimensions within the internal Saudi situation, it has the potential to significantly affect the entire situation of the Middle East.
Such political maneuvers always receive significant input from military dynamics, especially in the case of the Middle East. While each state has its own legitimate military setup, there is a large presence of external military forces. Besides, there are non-state organizations and/or actors in the region, which cannot be neglected. This amalgam of multifaceted military establishments in the region poses one of the gravest threats to the internal security of the Middle Eastern states.
As far as external forces in the Middle East are concerned, currently, American forces are present in every harbor in the Middle East, i.e. the Persian Gulf, Red Sea, Indian Ocean and Mediterranean Sea. In the context of ‘Greater Middle East,’ the presence of a large number of North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) forces in Afghanistan is also a major factor that could affect the situation in the region. The highly intense and complex internal situation requires deep consideration and analysis of the current dynamics.
Contemporary Dynamics and Perspective
Two types of internal forces have consistently shaped the situation in the Middle East: firstly, the longstanding issues among the Middle Eastern states; and secondly, recent developments, accruing from the interference of external powers in the region. The current dynamics of these forces are briefly outlined below.
The Palestine issue, which is one of the longstanding issues of the Middle East, emerged in 1948, when British mandate was passed by a UN resolution for the establishment of a Jewish state in the land of Palestine. At the time of its emergence, no Arab state recognized the establishment of this ideological and religious state of Jews. Although the major sufferers of the establishment of the Jewish state and, later, Jewish aggression, are Palestinians, the states that border the ‘undefined’ boundaries of Israel, i.e. Egypt, Syria, Jordan and Lebanon, are also major stakeholders of the conflict. Their direct involvement in it from the very beginning has made it an “Arab-Israel conflict.” However, very importantly, the other Middle Eastern countries, including the Gulf states, have also provided full diplomatic support to the cause of freedom of Palestine. Perhaps, this is the reason why Israel projects itself as the most threatened state in the region and has always adopted a strategy of preemption.
Thanks to very strong supportive lobbies in the important capitals of the world, and due to its foreign and security policies, Israel has always enjoyed full diplomatic support from at least one of the superpowers at almost all international forums. The manner in which the superpowers have played their roles has made a deep impact on the attitude and behavior of the Arabs.
On the other hand, the role of the Arabs has always been inefficient, mainly because of lack of unity and concession in decision-making, especially on the issue of Palestine. An example in this regard is Egypt’s defiance of the unified stance of Arab states and its recognition of Israel in 1979 for economic and strategic reasons, as well as for developing good relations with the US. This course was followed — in different ways — by some other Middle Eastern countries as well, and today Turkey, Jordan, Qatar and some other countries maintain some relations with Israel. Nevertheless, some political experts believe that Egypt’s decision of recognizing Israel was an effort to bring peace to the region, because maintaining peace is necessary for all states of the Middle East, Arab as well as non-Arab.
A recent development in the Palestinian issue is the emergence of violent conflict between Al-Fatah and Hamas, which also portrays the enormity of the rifts among regional forces. This conflict surfaced after Hamas won a large majority in the Palestinian parliament in the general election of January 2006 and continued even while the two parties shared power in the government. Although Arab leaders played their part in decreasing tensions through the national Palestinian agreement dialogues in Makkah on February 6-8, 2007, the gulf between the two parties remained wide, reaching its peak when Hamas fighters claimed full control of Palestinian Authority security agencies in Gaza on June 14, 2007 and the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas of Al-Fatah, swore in an emergency government at his headquarters, reasserting his authority over the West Bank.
Israel is playing an important part in this new dimension of the Palestinian issue by supporting Al-Fatah and reassuring its help to fight the radical forces of Hamas. Thus, the Hamas spokesman in Gaza, Sami Abu Zuhri, has called the new Palestinian government a “conspiracy against the Palestinian people” that “serves Israel and the United States.” This idea gains weight from the fact that the Deputy Prime Minister of Israel Haim Ramon, while discussing the partial withdrawal of Israeli troops and settlers from the West Bank and the prospect of an initial pullback of Israeli forces from the quiet town of Jericho, said “I believe right now we have a partner” in the non-Hamas Palestinian leadership “I don’t know for how long, so we must move quickly.”
Recently, Arab League envoys met with the Israeli Prime Minister to promote the Arab Peace Initiative — a proposal for Israel to withdraw to its pre-1967 boundaries, allow the establishment of an independent Palestinian state, and arrive at a “just and agreed” solution for the Palestinian refugees, in return for full recognition from and normal relations with the Arab world. The one-day visit by the foreign ministers of Egypt and Jordan marked the first time the 22-member Arab League sent representatives to Israel. However, just before the meeting, Israeli Premier Ehud Olmert played down the role of the Arab League in future negotiations, saying he would not wait for the Arab League in order to pursue peace with the Palestinians.
It is ironic that Israel should talk of peace with the Palestinians given the aggression it has waged against them in Gaza on the same lines as its strikes against Hezbollah in 2006. This double-faced policy itself negates the so-called efforts of Israel to bring peace to the region.
Hezbollah’s resistance compelled the external powers and Israel to re-think their coercive policies in 2006 and the continued defiance of the Palestinian leaders and people towards Israel proved that, in this globalized world, issues cannot be resolved with the use of power and aggression. In addition, the policy of preemptive strikes to achieve the national interest of an individual state was proven wrong.
The US adopted the same policy of preemptive strikes against Iraq, then failed to control the internal situation that accrued from its invasion and occupation, and has consequently entrenched the country in a quagmire. American use of power on the pretext of removing (non-existent) WMDs from the region has wrought multiplier effects on the situation within Iraq and in the Middle East. Before the US invasion of Iraq, Saddam’s dictatorship was the only problem, but since the war, several new issues have emerged in the country that have the potential to affect the entire region’s security situation.
Among the major issues with which Iraq is grappling are refugees, economic chaos, emergence of a large number of armed militias, ethno-religious and social separation of the nation, rising violence, political instability and a mounting toll of human casualties. According to the American ambassador to Iraq, Ryan C. Crocker and Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top American military commander in Iraq, “Iraq is — and will remain for some time to come — a traumatized society;” “it continues to be torn” by the fighting between Coalition forces and the fighters against this occupation, and the “sectarian violence,” which was non-existent in the pre-Saddam era, has become the “fundamental source” of instability in Iraq.
The chaos that envelops the Iraqi people, has not only affected neighbouring countries but also the Allied forces. As the crisis continues to deepen, it is taking an unprecedented toll on the lives of American and British soldiers. Consequently, the architects of the Iraq war are now reducing the number of troops, and considering the timetable for their complete withdrawal from Iraq. The American ambition of turning “Iraq into a model for the rest of the Arab world and the Middle East in general” has proved to be a utopian dream. Its resounding failure in Iraq does not appear to have fazed the US, however, and it is now building a case against Iran to drag it into a similar quagmire in the quest of “a new Middle East.”
Iran is one of the three Middle Eastern countries that are non-Arab (the other two being Israel and Turkey). This has been a major reason for the divide and separation between the Arab states and Iran. The Iranian Revolution in 1979 reinforced another source of division between the two sides, that is, the Shi’a-Sunni sectarian difference. In fact, Iran has been blamed for encouraging Shi’a populations of other states in the region to unleash similar revolutions, especially in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE. The militarization of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) is considered to be an effect of insecurity stemming from the two bigger powers in the Gulf, i.e. Iraq and Iran. Iranian control over the two small islands in the Persian Sea ― Lesser Tunb and Greater Tunb ― has fanned this sense of insecurity even further. External powers have used this perceived threat as a pretext for establishing “security arrangements” in the smaller and militarily weaker Gulf States.
Along with these ideological differences and territorial disputes, the desire for geographically strategic positions has also been one of the fundamental causes of conflicts. For example, the confrontation over the Shatt al-Arab was not only a conflict of two ideologies but also a matter of strategic location for Iran and Iraq.
These elements of divergence have always existed in the region, but they have assumed a new significance in the post-9/11 era and are being exploited to curb the expansion of Iranian influence. To make a stronger case against Iran, its nuclear program has been brought under severe criticism, and sanctions have been imposed on it.
On its part, Iran has been using all possible means and resources to bring the US to the negotiating table to resolve issues. At the same time, to counter the rising threat of US strikes, Iran is consistently expanding its sphere of influence in multiple forms. This expansion is taking place mainly at three levels, i.e. military, diplomatic and economic. An instance of military-level influence is Lebanon, where the Hezbollah victory over Israel has given a boost and tremendous fame to Hassan Bin Nasrullah. The increased political significance of Hezbollah is a matter of concern for the government of Lebanon as well as other governments in the region, because of its predominantly Shi’a background.
On the diplomatic front, Iran is providing support to Iraqi Prime Minister Nauri al-Malki, who also represents the Shi’a ideology. Shi’as and Kurds are in majority in Iraq, while Sunnis are a significant minority. The lack of consensus over the leadership of the country provides room for external powers to manipulate the situation and create unrest, which may lead to a civil war like situation. Moreover, Iran has also been making diplomatic efforts to bridge the gap that separates it from the Arab world. The meetings of the Iranian President, Internal Minister, Foreign Minister, Minister of Finance and Economic Affairs, and other Iranian diplomats with their counterparts in Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkey, UAE, and Qatar, etc., in 2007 reflect the Iranian enthusiasm to develop ties with the regional states.
The third manner in which Iran is developing its sphere of influence is by expanding its economic links: the proposed gas pipeline agreement between Iran, Pakistan and India is an endeavor in this direction. Moreover, Iran is using diplomatic means to reach out for international support by strengthening its economic and defense relations with Russia and China, both emerging powers in the world. This will strengthen overall Iranian influence in regional affairs.
These efforts from Tehran, coupled with the resistance that the US has been facing in Iraq and Afghanistan, have also helped Iran in bringing the US to the negotiating table. After almost 30 years, the US and Iran held high-level face-to-face talks, apparently on the security situation of Iraq. However, any positive results of these talks have yet to come to light. Iran is still accused of helping “…foreign and home-grown terrorists, insurgents, militia extremists, and criminals…” by US officials and military commanders. Indeed, as it continues to brandish the excuse of its fight against terrorism and nuclear proliferation to keep regional states in its Coalition, the US puts non-state actors and Iran in the same bracket. This line of thinking strengthens the fear expressed by some scholars of the Middle East that the US and its allies may execute military strikes against Iran.
Non-State Actors and Anti-US Public Sentiment
Numerous ethnically and ideologically different resistance groups and armed militias are operating in the Middle East. They have their own networks and are usually financed, allegedly, by some ‘charitable’ organizations, informal banking systems, bulk of cash and commodities that can be subsidized in any currency. The presence of these groups is a direct threat to the state structure of the Middle Eastern countries. Indeed, the issues that are emerging due to their influence amongst the public could impact the region in diverse ways and eventually change the politics of the region.
The public’s support for non-state actors is a consequence of general unrest and anger among people against their leaders and their policies. It is a widely accepted fact that one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter: thus, the freedom fighters, radical groups and organizations that have been established for the common cause of ensuring that the Muslims of the Middle East continue to have a safe haven against aggressors and invaders are hailed by mainstream Middle Eastern society, even as they are called terrorists or terrorist organizations by the Western powers.
Anti-US sentiment, which often surfaces as protests in pro-US Middle Eastern states, is a direct outcome of the exploitation of Middle Eastern leaders by the US administration. This sentiment is being observed almost throughout the Middle East, and has significant ramifications. The public’s unrest shows its lack of confidence in its rulers and highlights the increasing popularity of non-state actors.
Lack of trust in the rulers of the Middle East is also increasing because of the autocratic or dictatorial system of governance that prevails almost throughout the region. Indeed, lack of democracy and democratic institutions, the denial to people of the right to participate in and affect policy-making of their own country, and lack of institutional development are norms in the Middle Eastern states. These issues raise concerns about human rights and women’s rights in the region.
Various international human rights organizations focus on these internal problems and use them as pretexts to claim a ‘responsibility’ to intervene. Then, the policies to make the Middle East a better place for its denizens are drawn up in international institutions, sometimes under slogans of exporting and installing democratic regimes in the region, or providing economic assistance. The “Greater Middle East Partnership Initiative” is one such plan. The local leaders and their subjects are not supposed to be mature enough to develop themselves according to their own traditions and culture. In this manner, external forces are playing the part of internal factors in the politics of the Middle East.
An important aspect of the human rights issue concerns the double standards that are applied in regard to Israel’s attitude towards the Palestinians. Despite continuous and large-scale human rights violations by Israel, the same organizations, agencies and powerful countries that are so sensitive about human rights violations in other Middle Eastern states either maintain silence on Israel’s abuses or condemn them in very soft terms. This worsens the frustration among the masses and fans support for non-state actors in the region. If the situation persists, the region will certainly destabilize further and non-state actors will be strengthened.
Trends and Implications
The dynamics underlying the security and political situation of the Middle East have been outlined above. It is now pertinent to discuss the directions that these dynamics are taking, and the likely implications of these trends.
- In the context of the Palestine issue, the recent moves towards bringing peace by normalizing Arab-Israeli relations have far-reaching implications. In the Declaration of the 19th Summit of the League of Arab States held on March 28-29, 2007, the leaders of the Arab League agreed to affirm: “the option of just and comprehensive peace as a strategic option for the Arab nations; in accordance with the Arab Peace Initiative that draws the right path for reaching a peaceful settlement for the Arab-Israeli conflict based on the principles and resolutions of international legitimacy, and the land for peace formula.” This formula was earlier presented at the Arab Summit in Beirut, on March 28, 2002, where King Abdullah gave the following three point-agenda for the resolution of the Palestinian problem:
- “Complete withdrawal from the occupied Arab territories, including the Syrian Golan Heights, to the 4 June 1967 line and the territories still occupied in southern Lebanon.
- “Attain a just solution to the problem of Palestinian refugees to be agreed upon in accordance with the UN General Assembly Resolution No 194.
- “Accept the establishment of an independent and sovereign Palestinian state on the Palestinian territories occupied since 4 June 1967 in the West Bank and Gaza Strip with East Jerusalem as its capital.
“In return the Arab states will do the following:
“Consider the Arab-Israeli conflict over, sign a peace agreement with Israel, and achieve peace for all states in the region.
Israel also responded positively to the Declaration of the Summit. The Israeli premier said that he would like to “invite to a meeting all Arab heads of state, including, of course, the King of Saudi Arabia, whom I regard as an important leader, in order to engage in dialogue.” This is the first time that an Israeli leader has officially accepted an idea of dialogues with Arab leaders to solve the problem, and that too in response to a collective proposal. There is no doubt that if both sides agree and commit themselves to these peace initiatives, normalization of relations between the Arab States and Israel is likely to be seen. It will generate healthy economic activities in the region and the world at large will benefit. Moreover, wars are likely be prevented and the energy resources of the region will be more secure if the problem of Palestine is resolved peacefully.
However, this seems to be a too optimistic scenario. There are apprehensions that, even with the Israeli acceptance to the formula and the recognition of Israel as an independent state by the Arab leaders, the situation may not be as peaceful as it is envisaged to be. For starters, the Arab-Israel conflict is not the only issue creating unrest in the Arab world and in the region. Moreover, the Arab leaders do not have the mechanism and institutions to take their public along with them in their decisions. Given this divide between the people and their governments, public resentment and anger about the formula cannot be precluded. The Arab leaders need to take their people into confidence about the decision making process or at least persuade them that they are not being betrayed. Only then can it be hoped that this, or any other formula, will be implemented successfully, without being choked.
Thirdly, considering Iran’s public image in the Muslim World vis-à-vis its strong support to Palestinians as well as its links with Hezbollah and Hamas, its absence in any move to resolve the Palestinian issue will also make it difficult to materialize. While it is true that Iran is not a member of the Arab League, it is significant to note that earlier, Iran, Syria and Palestine were not invited to participate in the first extraordinary meeting of Foreign Ministers of seven core Muslim countries on “Internal and External Challenges Confronting the Muslim World and the Promotion of Unity, Solidarity and Harmony among Muslim Countries,” which was held in Pakistan on February 25, 2007. Nor was Iran invited to the Middle East Peace Conference called in November 2007 by the US President; in fact, Hamas too was excluded from this event. The absence of two such critical players in these important events indicate bleak chances of success and expose the lack of coordination and cooperation among the countries of the region. It also undermines the credibility of the efforts for peace, whether initiated by Pakistan’s President, the Arab League or the US President.
Against this backdrop, the US and other Western powers are trying to bring their own favorites into power in Palestine by using coercive diplomatic, economic and political means to block the ‘radical’ parties from rising to power. They extended monetary and political support to Al-Fatah’s leader, Mahmoud Abbas, so that Hamas could be barred from gaining power through elections. The conflict between the two main political parties indicates a weakness within the Palestinian movement, and shows that its different groups can be encouraged or enraged to fight against one another.
This policy of the US and the Western powers has further increased anti-Western sentiment and damaged the evolution of the democratic process. It leaves violence as the only possible way for popular leaders and non-state actors to rise to power. On the other hand, the in-fighting is weakening the popular voice for liberating Palestine and wresting the Palestinians’ human rights from a very powerful and well-supported Israel.
- As it looks for practical options for getting out of Iraq respectably, the US establishment is pondering over the possibility of applying the strategy of divide and rule, i.e. building on ethnic and sectarian differences to pave the way for a division of Iraq. Any such division of the country would lead it into a worse predicament because it would not be acceptable to anyone, whether they are Iraq’s own citizens or external stakeholders.
As far as a sectarian divide is concerned, despite their differences, the Shi’as and Sunnis of Iraq have lived together for a long time. Moreover, Arab countries in the region that have Shi’a populations would never favor such a move because it might create divisions within their own societies. With the passage of time, these designs of the US are becoming so obvious that most people would refuse to be part of any such scheme, as has been the case so far. Such an attempt would, however, increase anti-US rage and bring further instability and insecurity to the region. It may even lead to more violence and disaster.
A division on ethnic grounds might be favored by the Kurds, the dominant minority in Iraq, but this would completely destabilize the region, as Turkey, Iran and the rest of the Arab countries would oppose this idea forcefully. Therefore, America and the Coalition forces would face greater resistance, both at the government level and at the public level. This would give rise to the emergence of even more radical groups and non-state actors, which would be an unhealthy development for the region in particular and the world in general.
- It appears that non-state actors will continue to gain strength and popular public support thanks to the unjust and aggressive polices of internal and external powers. In the case of Israeli aggression over Lebanon, for instance, the popularity of Hezbollah was enhanced while trust in global and regional institutions, such as the United Nations (UN), Organization of Islamic Conferences (OIC) and Arab League, has declined significantly. There is an urgent need to understand that the growing violence and unrest in the Middle East is the direct outcome of the policies of the external forces, the public’s distrust of their own leadership, and the lack of opportunities for the public to raise its voice at political forums. The outlook for governments of the region is further instability, with more opposition from within and pressure to build public institutions on democratic lines.
- The strict stance of the US over Iran — following its invasion of Iraq on the false pretext that the country was supporting terrorism and housed WMDs — would lead to a bigger crisis in the region. Iran is gradually gaining more support, not only from most of the anti-US regimes of the world but also from the masses, particularly in the Muslim world, irrespective of their religious differences, due to its loud and clear voice against America’s unlawful actions. The Muslims of the world in general have long been waiting for a voice against US coercion in the Muslim world. The establishment in Iran realizes this, and is moving swiftly to improve its relations with the other Muslim states of the region and the world.
- Another critically important fact is that the majority of the Shi’a population of the world ― approximately 50 percent of Shi’as residing in the arc from Lebanon to Pakistan ― is living in Iran. Moreover, the shrine cities in Iran are the center for Shi’a religious pilgrims. Through this emotional and spiritual link, Iran is considered to be the leader and role model for the Shi’a population of the world. Therefore, while Iran can play a very positive, significant and constructive role, regionally as well as globally, any coercive action against it would infuriate the Muslims, Shi’as in particular, and create a highly unstable and potentially disastrous situation throughout the world. External as well as regional powers need to understand that Tehran could help in maintaining order in Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon, and other states inhabited by Shi’a populations.
If they do indeed seek peace and stability in the region, this is the best time for Western powers to normalize their relations with Iran and thereby set the stage for managing future tensions, whether mutual or between Shi’as and Sunnis. If they are unable to reach a peaceful settlement and resolution to the crisis, the consequences for the region and for the international community will be dire. It can be said with certainty that any attempt to bring peace and stability in the region is likely to be unsuccessful without the participation of Iran.
- In the event of aggression against Iran, another factor that would destabilize the world is the danger of an oil crisis. Such a crisis would neither be in favor of the Middle East, nor of countries outside the region. It is very important to understand that, strategically, Iran is in a much stronger position than Iraq because it controls the Strait of Hurmuz, which is the major sea route for the export of Gulf oil to the West. There are possibilities that Iran would be in a position to halt the supply of oil if it is attacked. In order to prevent another oil shock, regional states and the Western powers need to influence the US while it is building its case against Iran, and strive for a peaceful resolution to the Iran-US stand-off.
- Turkey and Egypt could play a significant role in diffusing the tensions, disputes and crises because of their strong standing in the Middle East as well as among the Western countries. Although Turkey is making some effort to come forward and mediate between the conflicting parties in the Middle Eastern crises, i.e. the Palestine-Israel conflict, Lebanon-Israel issue and Iran-US stand-off, it needs to cover some more distance and demonstrate more dedication and devotion to gain the confidence of neighboring Muslim countries and strengthen its historical position in the region.
However, Turkey’s internal divide over secular and Islamist forces has prevented it from playing any major role. A significant portion of public opinion in Turkey favors the creation of strong and cordial relations with the Muslim states of the region — a thrust which became quite evident in the 2007 General Elections wherein the Justice and Development Party (AKP) gained majority in the parliament. The elected president, Mr. Abdullah Gul, is known for his Islamic orientation in politics, and his election has opened up a new struggle between the secularist military, backed by a large number of civilian secular forces, and the Islamist forces, backed by popular support. This moment seems to be decisive for the future Turkish role in the region.
Similarly, Egypt is struggling hard on two fronts: playing its role as a mediator between Israel and Palestine/Lebanon; and breaking down its own popular political Islamist forces. These forces demand a greater, more significant, role from their government in dealing with the challenges facing the region in general and their neighboring Muslim states ― Palestine and Lebanon ― in particular. There is a strong wave of Islamist uprising in the country that is struggling against the secular forces, which are mainly the government and its allies. This Islamist-Secularist confrontation delimits Egypt’s role in regional politics.
- Last but not least, the global world order appears to have forsaken the principles of justice and equality, humanity and the rule of law. “Might is Right” seems to be the only principle governing international politics, and it seems it will continue to do so in the name of ‘national interests.’ Love for peace and humanity are trumpeted as key motivations, but no real action or realization of these aims is observed among the leaders of the world, especially, the leaders of the big powers. The use of force, legitimate or illegitimate, has become a norm in international politics. As it has already been seen, aggression begets aggression, and the use of force begets more and more violent groups, societies and regions. As long as the policy of using force for achieving ‘national interests’ holds sway, the world will remain chaotic and unstable.
Mutual respect, mutual cooperation, mutual interests and mutual objectives are the elements that need to be emphasized in the policy- and decision-making process at all levels. Until the regional actors understand the importance of their role in the internal affairs of the region, external forces, through political, diplomatic and military maneuvers, will continue to shape the internal dynamics of the Middle East.
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The Chinese President stressed that the Middle East is a region of great influence in the world. Without stability and development here, peace and prosperity in the world will be impossible. A harmonious Middle East is in the long-term interests of people in the region and the rest of the world. (Source: Shaoxian and Zhichao, 2007.)
Iraq is divided into three regions — the Kurdish-controlled North, which seeks complete autonomy if not independence, and where civil war threatens to break out between Kurds and Turkomans over control of Kirkuk, Iraq’s northern oil hub; the South, where cities are mostly controlled by fundamentalist Shiite militias; and the central region, which is controlled by Sunni resistance groups. Source: D’Amato, 2006. See also, “We Need Engagement with Iran: Vali Nasr on the Conflict between Shiites and Sunnis,” Spiegel Magazine, October 25, 2006, http://www.spiegel.de/ international/spiegel/0,1518,444709,00.html – April 16, 2007.
The Beersheba area comprises the whole of the Beersheba Sub-District, including the Negeb and the eastern part of the Gaza Sub-District, but excluding the town of Beersheba and those areas described in respect of the Arab State. It includes also a strip of land along the Dead Sea stretching from the Beersheba-Hebron Sub-District boundary line to ‘Ein Geddi, as described in respect of the Arab State.”
Louis Rene Beres, “Israel and Preemption: Striking First Under International Law,” http://www.freeman.org/m_online/feb01/beres2.htm – April 14, 2007.
“A Short History of US Vetoes of UN Peace Resolutions,” http://www.whatreally happened.com/USveto.html – April 16, 2007.
Adel Safty, “Sadat’s Negotiations with the United States and Israel: From Sinai to Camp David,” http://www.blackwell-synergy.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1536-7150. 1991.tb02295.x?journalCode=ajes – April 16, 2007.
Haass, Op. cit.
According to the Iraq Study Group Report (Baker, III and Hamilton, Op. cit.), “Attacks against the US, Coalition, and Iraqi security forces are persistent and growing. October 2006 was the deadliest month for US forces since January 2005, with 102 Americans killed. Total attacks in October 2006 averaged 180 per day, up from 70 per day in January 2006. Daily attacks against Iraqi security forces in October were more than double the level in January. Attacks against civilians in October were four times higher than in January. Some 3,000 Iraqi civilians are killed every month.”
Agence France-Presse (AFP), October 9, 2007, “UK announces huge troop withdrawal in Iraq,” http://www.abc.net.au – October 11, 2007.
Al-Jazeera, May 13, 2007, “Iran calls for Gulf of Peace,” http://english.aljazeera. net/NR/exeres/FA9EB904-7553-4641-B715-C394D2CCF0F1.htm – October 26, 2007.
Mehr News Agency, January 21, 2007, “Iran, Qatar warn against Shia-Sunni schism,” http://www.payvand.com/news/07/jan/1252.html – April 17, 2007.
In March 2004, China’s state-owned oil trading company, Zhuhai Zhenrong Corporation, signed a 25-year deal to import 110 million tons of liquefied natural gas (LNG) from Iran. This was followed by a much larger deal between another of China’s state-owned oil companies, Sinopec, and Iran, which was signed in October 2004. This deal, worth about $100 billion, allows China to import a further 250 million tons of LNG from Iran’s Yadavaran oilfield over a 25-year period. In addition to LNG, the Yadavaran deal provides China with 150,000 barrels per day of crude oil over the same period.
Along with energy trade, investment and economic development, the China-Iran-Russia alliance has cultivated compatible foreign policies. China, Iran and Russia have identical foreign policy positions regarding Taiwan and Chechnya. China and Iran fully support the Putin government’s war against the Chechen separatists. Russia and Iran support Beijing’s one-China policy. The promulgation of China’s anti-secession law, aimed at making Beijing’s intolerance of Taiwanese independence explicit, was heartily commended in both Moscow and Tehran. (Source: Gundzik, 2005.)
David Horowitz, “One Man’s Terrorist is Another Man’s Freedom Fighter,” Front Page Articles, http://www.frontpagemag.com/Articles/ReadArticle.asp?ID=15852 – April 17, 2007.
Considering that the President of Pakistan, General Pervez Musharraf, also participated in the Summit and spoke as a special guest speaker, and that only a few weeks earlier he had visited seven important Muslim countries and Pakistan had hosted a meeting of the same seven countries on the “Internal and External Challenges Confronting the Muslim World and the Promotion of Unity, Solidarity and Harmony among Muslim Countries,” the Arab League’s declaration gains additional significance. (Source: Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Malaysia, 2007.)
Special Online International, April 2, 2007, “Talking Peace in the Middle East: Olmert Proposes Regional Conference with Arab Leaders,” http://www.spiegel.de/ international/world/0,1518,475186,00.html – April 14, 2007.
Crucially, about 18 million barrels of Gulf oil, representing about 40 percent of all internationally traded oil, is exported every day — almost all of it through the narrow Strait of Hormuz. The Strait, at its narrowest, is 34 miles across, forcing shipping to divide into two sea lanes just two miles wide when entering and exiting the Gulf. (Source: Henderson, 2006.)