To look forward almost a quarter century, it may be useful to look back for a similar period to see if any trajectories can be discerned. Patterns of change that have unfolded over the past 25 years may not only have some bearing on the future, they may continue. It is improbable that if, indeed, trends have existed for a generation in national political and economic systems, in intraregional relations, in the roles of political Islam and political violence, in the Arab-Israeli conflict, and in U.S. involvement in the region, they will change profoundly or quickly. If such trends can be identified, therefore, they should provide useful baselines from which to assess future prospects.
National Political Economies
In the early 1980s, the Middle East was still in the twilight of the nationalist era. One-party regimes or absolute monarchies held sway in virtually all Arab countries. Political liberalization had yet to commence in earnest. In the one Arab republic that had experimented with political reform in the 1970s, Sadat’s Egypt, authoritarianism had quickly been reestablished. In the Gulf, only Kuwait had a functioning legislature. Turkey had recently experienced a military intervention into politics, and the high command retained substantial influence over Turgut Ozal’s new government. The grip of Boumeddiene and the FLN in Algeria remained tight, Qadhafi’s Libya was in an extremist, populist phase, and Tunisia was laboring under the whimsical authoritarianism of a virtually senile Bourguiba. Only Egypt had experimented with neoliberal economic reforms in the 1970s, but that experiment had also been short-lived. The established economic orthodoxy remained a teetering import-substitution industrialization, although by 1981, it was clear that this was a dead-end. The political courage necessary to recognize this and take appropriate action had, however, yet to be mustered.
Twenty-five years later, much has changed and, for the most part, changed for the better. Both monarchies and republics have liberalized, if not democratized, their polities. In the Gulf, only the UAE is still without elections of any kind, while elected representative bodies at the local or national level now exist in all other GCC states, as they do elsewhere in the region. Leninist parties and one-party states, with the partial exceptions of Libya and Syria, are now extinct. Although opposition parties continue to confront uneven playing fields, they are on those fields playing the game of politics everywhere outside of the Gulf and Libya. The first Arab change of government through a free and fair election in virtually half a century occurred in Palestine in January 2006. A free and fair election brought an Islamist party to power in Turkey in 2002. One marred by governmental interference nevertheless brought a sizable Islamist opposition into the Egyptian parliament in December 2005. Iran has had two dramatic presidential changes brought about through free and fair elections.
The record, in sum, is clear. Over the past quarter century, Middle Eastern political systems have undergone substantial liberalizations and are now embarking, if hesitatingly, upon democratization. There is nothing to suggest that this trend will abate, although it is unlikely to be unilinear. But despite probable delays and intermittent setbacks, it would be surprising if a generation from now democracy was not reasonably well established in some states of the region and had made further inroads in others. If it is true that democracies are less likely to wage war, especially against one another, than are countries with other forms of government, this change alone should have a substantial positive impact on regional relations, to say nothing of the political well-being of the region’s inhabitants.
Just as political markets are gaining ground at the expense of states, so are economic ones. The Arab socialisms that helped prop up dictatorships have gradually evolved into quasi-market economies. Although economic playing fields, like political ones, continue to be tilted in favor of the state and its allies, more and more private actors are playing the economic game. Private-sector shares of investment and output are steadily rising. Privatization of state-owned enterprises is now moving into the vital financial and even utilities sectors. Further reforms are necessary, such as in government employment, which remains too high as a percentage of total employment in most Middle Eastern economies. More important, residual effects of the legacy of socialism and side effects of the transition to neoliberalism, including poverty, inequality and unemployment, threaten to bring about backlashes against both political and economic reform. But the oil boom and its spillover into much, if not most, of the region—given the likely continuation of high energy prices, increased growth rates as a result of economic reform, decreasing rates of population growth and the benefits of enhanced intraregional and cross-Mediterranean trade— are likely to be sufficient to prevent political economies from being swamped by reactions to neoliberalism. Even the rise of political Islam, especially if it follows the Turkish model, will reinforce rather than undermine the momentum for economic liberalization.
Economic reform has, if anything, been more rapid and thoroughgoing than its political equivalent over the past 25 years. And, as with political reform, there is nothing to suggest that the pace is slackening. Indeed, as the benefits flow through from those reforms, the pace may well intensify. This, in turn, suggests that, while the region’s poorer states are not going to overtake the wealthy, hydrocarbon-exporting ones, their economies should continue to expand at respectable rates, thus reinforcing further reform and growth while enhancing the size and status of private sectors and middle classes, both of which are important to the consolidation of democracy.
Despite the February 2006 prognostication of the U.S. Defense Department in its quadrennial review that we are embarked on a “Long War” against terrorism, if the recent past is any guide, the overwhelming trend within political Islam is domestication rather than radicalization, or, to use Mohammed Ayoob’s term, a shift from Islamism to Muslimhood. Twenty-five years ago, political Islam was in its infancy, being responsible in 1979 for the Islamic Revolution in Iran, the killing of Anwar Sadat in Egypt in 1981, the birth of Shia radicalism in the South of Lebanon in the wake of the Israeli invasion in 1982, and the launch of hostage taking, whether in Iran or Lebanon. Much more Islamist mobilization and violence was to follow, and it has by no means entirely abated, as Iraq attests. But, as Olivier Roy and other closer observers have noted, neo-Islamism has gradually replaced the more virulent and violent Islamism of the 1980s and 1990s in most countries of the region. The ballot box is proving to be more useful than the bullet, so one by one, country-based Islamist movements are abandoning the latter for the former. Transnational jihadis continue to roam the mountains of Afghanistan, the back streets of Baghdad, and the villages of northwest Iraq, but even in their strongholds, they are in confrontation with tamer, but more enduring neo-Islamism. The history of revolutions, whether French, Russian, Cuban or Iranian, suggests that the wiser bet is always on the power and the limits imposed by a single state, rather than on the more romantic, internationalization of the revolution, as Trotsky and Che Guevara both discovered. States by their nature domesticate, turning revolutionaries into functionaries. And the lesson of the modern Middle East, probably also including Iraq, is that these states are here to stay.
Muslimhood is thus also here to stay. The future of radical, violent political Islam is much more uncertain, despite what the Pentagon planners have to say.
Regional Politics and the Arab-Israeli Conflict
Twenty-five years ago, large-scale, state-to-state warfare and protracted civil war were still a reality in many parts of the region. Indeed, from 1980 to 1988, Iran and Iraq were locked in total war. Almost simultaneously, Israel invaded Lebanon, which was by then in its seventh year of civil war. The PLO was in mortal combat with Israel, whether in Lebanon or as far afield as Tunis. Although Egypt had in 1979 made peace with Israel, no other Arab state had. Indeed, the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty shattered what remained of Arab unity. Calculations of the strategic balances in the region were done in terms of the numbers of aircraft, tanks and men at arms.
Despite the present turmoil in Iraq and continuation within historic Palestine of conflict between Palestinians and Israelis, the Middle East is somewhat less Hobbesian than it was a generation ago. All-out, state-to-state warfare between the Arabs and Israel now seems virtually unimaginable, as it does between any of the Muslim states of the region.
Abiding hostility between Iran and Israel could trigger conflict, but the distance separating them renders total war impossible. Most border and other serious disputes between the countries of the Peninsula, including Yemen, have now been settled. Violent conflict between them seems less likely now than at any time in their modern histories. Jordan has made peace with Israel, and Syria protests that it would also like to do so. In any case, it is in no position to wage war. Lebanon is tense, but for more than five years has been free from Israeli occupation forces if the Shebaa Farms anomaly is ignored. The Arab world is not united, but it is also not divided by the single issue of Israel, as it formerly was. Iran under President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad perplexes and challenges the other Muslim states of the region, but none contemplates a Saddam-style military venture against it. Nor, in so far as we know, does he contemplate one against them.
This leaves the imbroglio in Iraq and the never-ending Palestinian-Israeli conflict as sources of endemic, if not really large-scale violence. But, even here, it would be wrong to be too negative about what the situation will be like 20 years from now. As far as Iraq is concerned, the primary cause of violence –– the presence of U.S. and allied forces –– will be removed long before 2025 and probably well before 2010. Political fragmentation within the three principal communities (Shia, Sunni Arab and Kurd) suggests possibilities for coalition formation that ultimately will cross and blur those lines, making stable, nonviolent, intersectarian politics possible. The sheer fact that Iraq may possess the second-largest reserves of oil in the world is an enormous incentive for all parties to make sufficient concessions to permit the exploitation of that resource. And while it is all too obvious that rationality does not necessarily prevail in politics, it is a better bet in this case than one on a continuation of insurrection and violence for another generation.
As regards the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the distance already traveled is again a guide to both where we are now and where we are likely to be in the years to come. Although bloody and bitter, the struggle has now narrowed to the key issues, most vital of which is where the border between the two states is to be. Can it take another 20 years for a mutually agreeable one to be established? One could argue that it took a century to arrive at the present juncture, so another fifth of one is not so long, especially in a part of the world notorious for long memories. But that, paradoxically, is a short-term view of the situation. The progression of the conflict over the past 25 years, despite the breakdown of the Oslo process in 2000, suggests that the key parties have come to believe the issue can, in fact, be resolved. Difficult and unsatisfactory as that resolution may be to some, only a small minority on each side now reject the search for one through peaceful means, whereas rejectionist maximalists were probably still in the majority through some point in the 1970s. Betting on a resolution of this conflict has been a guaranteed way of losing money for more than a century, but the relative progress of the past 25 years suggests that good money bet now might recover some of the bad previously lost.
U.S. Role in the Region
The United States started down the slippery slope of direct military involvement in the Gulf about 25 years ago. The Iranian revolution and Soviet invasion of Afghanistan triggered the creation of the Rapid Deployment Force, the forerunner to CENTCOM. Since 1979, the capacity to project U.S. military power into the entire region, as well as the capacity actually based there, has expanded prodigiously. It has become a major part of the problem, not the solution.
The “over the horizon” approach, in which U.S. military intervention was launched from outside the region, sparingly and in collaboration with local forces, had a huge political advantage and was sufficiently effective militarily for the challenges at hand. But the inexorable logic of military expansionism sucked U.S. forces into the region, where they are bogged down in Afghanistan and Iraq, serving no useful purpose in Egypt, exacerbating popular reactions in the Gulf and Yemen, and –– by menacing Syria and Iran –– stimulating political backlashes throughout the region. Previously, they had amply demonstrated their inappropriateness in Lebanon. The lavish provision of military assistance to Egypt and Israel is expensive, unnecessary and counterproductive to other U.S. political objectives in those countries and the region. The crushing defeat of Saddam’s old Soviet-style military simply underscored the fact that this type of warfare is anachronistic and need not consume the time and energies of military planners focused on the Middle East. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s trip to Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia in February 2006, for the purpose of enlisting those countries’ support in the war against terrorism, underscores that the future lies not with large-scale deployment of military forces, but with carefully constructed and operated, intelligence-driven and politically sensitive counter terrorism operations.
The increasing U.S. military adventurism over the past 25 years is the one trend identified here that is not likely to continue, simply because it is not sustainable organizationally, economically or politically and is not appropriate for the threats faced by the United States. The overstretched U.S. military will have to be retrenched from its far flung base structure. Its mission, we are instructed by the quadrennial review just mentioned, is going to be substantially altered, so force structures and postures will be profoundly affected. The deficit-ridden U.S. economy will, before the next 20 years have elapsed, be forced to seek balance through reductions in military expenditures. The political backlash against the American military presence offsets any advantages it has, especially when the primary threat is that of terrorism, not Soviet-era tanks. Thus the inexorable military logic that drove U.S. forces into the region will in the next 20 years have gone into reverse gear, with those forces being downsized, repatriated and transformed. Thus, a prime irritant in the politics of the region will be gradually reduced.
If presently identifiable trends continue, the Middle East in 2025 will be a more democratic, economically developed and peaceful area than it is now. It is likely also to be one with a much-reduced U.S. military presence. But the Garden of Eden is unlikely to be restored to the region in 20 years –– or ever, for that matter. It would be unwise to discount entirely the possibility of states failing, revolutions overturning established orders and violent state-to-state conflicts occurring. Instead of reaching accommodations with Muslimhood, the United States could take steps, including military ones, that would stimulate, rather than ameliorate, the putative clash of civilizations. But, from the vantage point of 2006, the likelihood of such disasters is less than it was in the early 1980s. The prospects for steady, sustained improvement in all vital areas have also improved. This change for the better is easily overlooked in a region which is still beset with problems, but they are less intractable than they were a generation ago.
Ann Lesch, professor of political science and dean of humanities and social sciences, American University in Cairo (the views expressed here are those of the author, not the university)
In 1973, I was a member of a research team commissioned to predict what the world would look like twenty (1993) and thirty (2003) years later. My brief was to examine economic, social, political and strategic trends in the Middle East and offer meaningful projections and “conclusions.” I don’t remember the details, but I do recall predicting that the likely large increase in population without commensurate economic development and political openings would exacerbate internal tensions at all levels, reverberate across borders, and contribute to political radicalism that might manifest itself in differing ways. (Islamic radicalism was not seen as the main radical trend in those pre-Iranian-revolution days, a caution that we should keep in mind when projecting “moderate” and “radical” Islamism as the key trends twenty years hence. Other, as yet unknown, movements may emerge by then.) I also recall hypothesizing that the Palestinian problem––the core of the Arab-Israeli conflict –– would not be resolved, although limited agreements between Israel and neighboring Arab countries were likely.
At the time, the members of the team working on this project were relieved that, although our research began in mid-1973, it did not conclude until early 1974, well after the October 1973 war and the significant shifts in Arab-Israeli relations as well as in the U.S. diplomatic role that resulted from that war. We all recognized how dreadful it would have been if we had written the report in mid-1973, only to have the October war upset our calculations and require that we start over again from scratch. Predictions are often based on configurations that can change overnight.
And so I read with interest Mohammed Ayoob’s projections for the Middle East twenty years from now (2025). It is a region, he argues, whose strategic importance will be further enhanced by the ever-increasing value of its oil and natural-gas production. Stabilizing and democratically inclined Islamic movements will be key players in several countries even as radical Islam grows in some parts of the region. Turkey and Iran will be pivotal regional powers. Saudi Arabia will be strained by the results of internal political liberalism. And Iraq will divide into two states. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict will intensify, leading to the collapse of the Palestinian Authority and to demands by Palestinians to be incorporated into Israel as equal citizens. Ayoob then prescribes how the U.S. government should react, using words such as “must,” “essential,” and “needs to” in order to spell out policies by which the United States can regain respect and safeguard its interests.
Ayoob is brave to undertake this mental exercise, particularly as he rejects the easier solution of suggesting alternative scenarios. Nonetheless, there are problems with his approach –– particularly the disjunction between his discussion of energy needs and production, his country-by-country delineation of political issues, and his prescriptive approach to U.S. policy. In the real world, these issues are intertwined. They affect each other and cannot be separated. Moreover, the shift from projection to prescription, when Ayoob addresses U.S. policy, is jarring.
Take, for example, the issue of energy. Ayoob presents a plausible case for the ever greater importance of oil and natural gas from the Gulf states, which will make the Middle East even more important strategically to global political and economic interests than it is today. He does not link this oil power to the projections on internal stability or instability in the key countries or in their regional relations, beyond noting Turkey’s likely increased need for Arab oil. He also jumps to the conclusion that “Washington must begin treating oil suppliers not as clients or supplicants but as equal partners.”
While I heartily agree that such a paradigm shift on the part of the U.S. government is necessary in order to “regain a position of trust and safeguard its strategic interests,” I see no evidence that this shift is likely to occur. The United States –– ever since its World War II military interest in accessing oil and its Cold War effort to deny the Soviet Union control over Middle East oil –– has had difficulty viewing the Middle East governments as having the right to own and control that resource. Instead, the United States and its allies have the “right” to that oil, by whatever means are necessary. Client states guaranteed access for many years. And yet, when the over-the-horizon approach collapsed in 1990, U.S. governments had few qualms about sending naval and ground forces directly into the Gulf arena and keeping them there, seemingly indefinitely. Post-9/11, “boots on the ground” occupied Afghanistan and Iraq and expanded the U.S. strategic presence in Central Asia, certain Arab countries, and Africa (some of which, at least in west Africa, was linked to the need for oil). The “right” to a military presence has been little questioned (and duly camouflaged under the slogans of the “war against terrorism” and “spreading democracy”), even when its effectiveness is doubted.
There is no reason to expect that this mind-set will change. In fact, there seems a greater likelihood that the need for Middle Eastern oil and natural gas will deepen the control orientation and militarization of the U.S.-Middle East relationship. When Middle Easterners react in anger to that control (as in the case of Osama bin Laden regarding the U.S. presence in Saudi Arabia), this is most apt to be perceived as rejection of the U.S. slogans (which U.S. governments view as far-sighted policies) rather than as an anger that should cause the United States to reassess its fundamental strategy and relationships.
In that regard, Ayoob’s idea that Washington might return to isolationism seems misplaced. Granted, enhanced dependence on oil, which draws the United States deeply into the region, will be balanced by public disillusionment with the fiasco in Iraq and the backlash of increased anti-Arab racism in the United States as the Iraqis themselves are “blamed” for the inevitable U.S. flight from that hostile terrain. Moreover, financial and military crises are likely to beset the U.S. government, after the enormous overextension of its armed forces, the huge budget crisis that will hit well before 2025, and the buildup of a crushing debt burden. Nonetheless, the wish to retrench and wall off the North American continent against the evil “other” will be more than balanced by the need to access Middle Eastern resources and the need to retain the image of a superpower, albeit by 2025 quite possibly a superpower in decline.
One might also question Ayoob’s hope that the U.S. government will “demonstrate greater acceptance of Muslim/Islamist political formations as legitimate political players.” The current U.S. call for neoliberal democratization was premised on the idea that U.S. friendly regimes would emerge from elections. This expectation has been dashed in recent months by Hamas’s victory in Palestinian legislative elections, the strong showing by the Muslim Brothers in the Peoples’ Assembly elections in Egypt (despite massive police action to intimidate voters), and the victory of a hardliner in the Iranian presidential election. Moreover, the fragmentation of Iraqi political life and its degeneration into a virtual ethno-religious civil war has undermined the U.S. government’s expectation that elections would stabilize that country. Ayoob notes that political liberalization in Saudi Arabia “will inevitably mean [an increase in] anti-Americanism.”
The United States already seems to be pulling back on its call for democratization, as it sees that the immediate results run counter to U.S.-perceived interests. Of course, as noted above, there is little or no understanding that it is U.S. policy that has exacerbated popular-level antagonism to the United States, and that changes in U.S. policy could moderate that antagonism. The likelihood is that U.S. governments will revert to relying on strongman regimes that promote economic neoliberalism while seeking to contain protest currents. As in the case of U.S. oil policy, that fosters clientelism and control rather than partnership on the basis of mutual respect.
Finally, I wonder if Ayoob’s Israel-Palestine scenario is likely to materialize. He suggests that Israel’s effort to unilaterally jettison its control over Gaza and a few other territories, to continue to create facts on the ground in the West Bank, and to “vivisect the West Bank into cantons” will fail. When the Palestinian Authority (PA) collapses, Palestinians will call for (and gain?) citizenship within Israel. While I agree that the PA is likely to collapse, I believe that Israel’s imprisoning of Palestinians in canton-ghettos will accelerate and harden. The terrible hardships and eruptions of violence within those ghettos will be sealed off from Israel by heavily patrolled barricades. As a result, Israel will avoid the looming demographic “threat” of a Palestinian majority west of the Jordan River, a “threat” that would, otherwise, undermine Jewish Israeli hegemony.
Since the early twentieth century, raw power and the policy of fait accompli, rather than (short-lived) negotiations, have determined the outcome of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. The logic of indefinite conflict, contained by force rather than resolved through negotiations, appears most likely to continue to prevail. It will, of course, exacerbate tensions in the region, deepen hostility to the United States, and make Washington more fearful of losing its access to oil resources.
Thus, the basic issues will continue to be intertwined in the Middle East: energy, democratization, popular movements and strategic interests. I fear that the negative energy generated by the unilateral wielding of power by the United States and Israel will prevail, rather than the logic of cooperation –– the “new paradigm” proposed by Ayoob. I hope that my predictions prove wrong and Ayoob’s prove right, but I fear that will not be the case.
Ziya Önis, professor of international relations, Koç University, Istanbul
Mohammed Ayoob provides a bold and provocative analysis of the state of Middle East in the course of the next two decades. The article contains some sweeping predictions for this troubled region as a whole and for the domestic political configurations of key regional players such as Iran and Turkey, as well as the role of the United States. Ayoob argues that the Middle East will continue to be a region of key strategic importance as a dominant supplier of oil and natural gas. However, he is pessimistic about Iraq and predicts that its future will be characterized by instability and fragmentation resulting in the division of the country into a Kurdish and an Arab state. The latter would be vulnerable to further fragmentation considering the difficulties of keeping the Shia and Sunni factions together if the breakup of the country actually occurred. Indeed, this is the main source of the current tensions in Iraq.
Furthermore, he contends that Arab Iraq will prove to be a fertile ground for the rise of Islamist extremism. He makes the important point that the invasion of Iraq has helped to strengthen the sentiment in much of the Middle East that the United States is engaged in a war not as much against terrorism as against the world of Islam. He also argues that the failure of the American venture in Iraq is likely to drastically erode America’s credibility in the region. Ayoob is quite optimistic about the role that Turkey and Iran will play as key regional actors in the Middle East, while he is rather pessimistic about the possibility of political change in Saudi Arabia. He also predicts that Israeli-Palestinian relations will be characterized by a continued stalemate. Finally, he draws attention to the positive role that moderate Islamists are likely to play in the democratization of the region, with Turkey’s Justice and Development party (the AKP) proving to be a forerunner in this context. Based on his grand scenario for the Middle East in 2025, Ayoob goes on to derive a number of implications for U.S. policy towards the region. He suggests that the United States change its policy towards Israel, cooperate with key regional powers such as Iran and Turkey, and display greater readiness to accept Muslim/Islamist political formations in the Middle East.
While the paper contains a number of interesting insights concerning the future state of affairs in the Middle East, the scenario it outlines is implausible in a number of important respects. He assumes that possible failure in Iraq will inevitably result in a U.S. retreat from the region, thereby leaving considerably more space for autonomous action on the part of key regional actors such as Iran and Turkey. It would be extremely unrealistic for the United States to reduce its involvement, given its strategic interests in the region. It might have to reduce its direct military involvement in Iraq due to domestic pressures; however, it cannot totally end it until there is some kind of stability. Here one can identify a certain inconsistency in Ayoob’s scenario: if Iraq continues to be characterized by pervasive instability and the Israel-Palestine conflict remains unresolved, this will perpetuate U.S. involvement in the region.
Ayoob has a rather benign view of Iran and exaggerates the degree of democratic opening in that country. The parallels between Turkey and Iran in terms of democratic deepening are certainly overdrawn. In spite of its limitations, representative democracy has been the norm in Turkey since 1950, and the country has been experiencing a process of democratic deepening in the recent era, with possible EU membership providing a major impetus to this process. This is strikingly different from the case of Iran, where political change and a certain degree of liberalization have been taking place within the parameters of a largely authoritarian regime. Indeed, the divergence between Turkey and Iran may increase over the course of the next two decades. While further democratic deepening is likely to occur in Turkey in the presence of an EU anchor, the impulse for democratization may remain much weaker in a largely isolated Iran. Ayoob also tends to underplay the possible dangers involved in Iran’s active pursuit of nuclear program. He is right to point out that military action against Iran is likely to be costly and destabilizing from the U.S. point of view. Yet, one should not infer from this that the United States will simply adopt a passive stance, leaving Iran plenty of scope for independent action in the region. Such a passive attitude is all the more unlikely considering that the Iranian presence may contribute to the further destabilization of the existing divisions and conflicts in Iraq given the presence of a powerful Shia element in Iraq’s troubled political landscape.
Similarly, Ayoob’s analysis of Turkey needs further refinement in a number of important respects. Even if one accepts the optimistic projections for Turkey over the next two decades, one should not underestimate the kinds of conflicts that Turkey is likely to encounter along the way. Certainly, Turkey’s secular versus Islamic divide will not simply disappear overnight, and one should not rule out the possibility of serious nationalist backlashes during the critical decade of accession negotiations with the European Union. It is also important to take into account the possible destabilizing effects of further instability and fragmentation in Iraq on Turkish domestic politics. The possible emergence of an independent Kurdish state in Iraq may accentuate secessionist tendencies in Turkey as well as strengthen the already powerful nationalist sentiments.
At the same time, one could share Ayoob’s optimism that closer links with the European Union, even if it fails to materialize in full membership at the end as he claims, will continue to exercise a stabilizing role on Turkey’s democratic expansion in the domestic sphere and in its external relations, leading to consolidation of its role as a benign regional power. Considering the current state of democratic development in Turkey and given the nature of its external ties to the EU and the United States, the possibility of an independent military intervention in Northern Iraq in the foreseeable future appears to be rather remote, to say the least. Similarly, there are no plausible indications that Turkey will try to develop its own nuclear capabilities if we consider the threat stemming from its regional rivals such as Iran. Certainly, one would expect Turkey to act, by and large, in cooperation with the United States and the EU in the region as opposed to carving up a space of autonomous action for itself that would bring it into serious conflict with the key powers involved and in this manner significantly undermine its historically rooted Western orientation in the process. Hence, one needs to make a sharp distinction between Turkey and Iran in terms of the kinds of regional roles that the two countries have tried to play so far and are likely to play in the future.
Finally, Ayoob’s analysis of the future role of the United States in the region fails to take into account key outside actors that are likely to be involved in shaping the future of this critical region. What will be the impact, for example, of key powers such as the European Union, Russia, and China on the region? How will they interact among themselves and with the United States and individual countries of the region, which might have tremendous bearing on the future trajectory of the region? Clearly such factors need to be given serious attention in any attempt to draw up a convincing scenario for the Middle East in the year 2025. Mohammed Ayoob’s analysis is certainly insightful and thought provoking, but it is open to serious criticism at the same time.
Shireen Hunter, distinguished scholar and former director of the Islam program, Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS)
Any prediction of political trends, even in the short term, is a risky undertaking, especially in as volatile a region as the Middle East. Mohammed Ayoob is aware of this risk, but the lessons of history, both recent and more distant, tend to argue in favor of his overall vision of the future. For example, his prediction that the Persian Gulf region will remain vitally important in the context of global energy supplies and hence will maintain its strategic importance for the industrialized world is correct. Of course, the discovery of a novel source of man-made energy would change this picture, but from the vantage point of 2006, such a development is not very likely.
In view of the growing pains and other difficulties that the European Union is experiencing, his prognosis that by 2025 Turkey still will not have become a full-fledged EU member is also quite likely. However, some of his other assertions about future trends in Turkey are questionable and not supported by recent Turkish policies under the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and in light of other Turkish experiences.
Turkey under Erdoðan, after flirting with the idea of expanding ties with Iran and Syria, reverted to its previous policy of nurturing its military and other cooperation with Israel, as shown by Erdogan’s visit there in 2000. These relations to a great extent are the extension of Turkey’s close ties with the West, best illustrated by its membership in NATO. Irrespective of whether Turkey joins the EU, Turkey’s continued economic advancement is contingent on the financial, technological and other help from the United States, Europe and international organizations such as the International Monetary Fund. Despite considerable advances, the Turkish economy has serious vulnerabilities. By the same token, Turkey’s military strength and the influence ensuing from it are largely the consequence of its Western ties and NATO membership. Thus, the option of breaking with the West is not a viable one for Turkey.
Moreover, Turkey tried a so-called Eastward Strategy by focusing on the countries of Central Asia and the Caucasus in the 1990s, only to become disappointed –– hence its return to Europe with greater determination. In addition, the very relative reduction in the power of the military and what the Turks call the “Deep State” has been in response to European demands. If Turkey fails to enter the EU, the military will reassert their still-vast influence. They will be helped along by the upsurge in Turkish nationalism that would likely follow an EU snub.
Regarding Iraq, the general observation that it will experience a long period of instability is justified. However, the prediction that Iraq will be divided into two neat entities, one Kurdish and one Arab, does not reflect Iraq’s realities. For example, it is inconceivable that the Sunni Arabs will accept to live under a Shia-dominated Arab government. The war has painfully exposed the failure of building an Iraqi nation, loyalty to which overrides ethnic and sectarian allegiances. The sectarian violence that has escalated in the last few months is a reminder of this bitter reality. Even the Kurds are divided between the supporters of Jalal Talabani and Masoud Barzani, not to mention other smaller political and ideological factions.
Ironically, there is still a chance that Iraq’s different factions may come to realize that their own interests would be better served within a unified Iraq albeit with administrative autonomy in various regions. If this were to fail, the more likely alternative would resemble Lebanon in the 1980s.
In assessing Iraq’s future, one also should avoid a Vietnam-like scenario. The United States continued the war in Vietnam for seven more years after the anti-war protests began in 1968. Furthermore, the United States withdrew from Vietnam after the Chinese and Soviet threats had subsided, following the policy of détente and Nixon’s opening to China. Similar conditions do not prevail in the case of Iraq. On the contrary, a significant majority of the American public sees Islamic extremism and the acts of terror associated with it as a serious and long-term threat. This makes them more accepting of financial and human sacrifices to combat it. Additionally, Vietnam had no oil and was not in proximity to Israel, to whose security the United States is committed. In short, while, in all likelihood, the United States will reduce its military presence in Iraq in the next two years, a cut-and-run policy on the part of the United States is unlikely without first establishing a degree of stability in Iraq.
The future, however, may well be decided sooner than the time span envisioned in the article, depending on how the current crisis over Iran’s nuclear ambitions is resolved. Clearly, not only the West, but also Russia and China, are reluctant to see Iran acquire a nuclear-weapons capability. They disagree only on the nature of the instruments used to prevent this from happening. Thus, it is not very likely that Iran will have nuclear weapons in 10 or even 20 years. In fact, any kind of even medium-term forecast about Iran’s future is futile because the current Iranian drama will have to unfold in a fairly quick succession of events. The United States appears determined not to allow the Iranian case to linger for years, as did that of Iraq. Moreover, the Bush administration would like to see the Iran question settled before the end of its mandate in 2008. Therefore, the United States will push to expedite the Iranian dossier in the UN Security Council.
Immediate sanctions are not on the agenda, and it is not very likely that the United States will obtain UN backed sanctions on Iran, although this is by no means impossible, especially if Russia and China refuse to use their veto power and merely abstain during the vote. Failing to get UN endorsement for sanctions, the United States will enlist the cooperation of its European and Japanese allies and others, such as Australia and Canada, to enlarge its own already existing sanctions on Iran. Administration officials have already mentioned that punitive action against Iran, be it sanctions or more drastic measures, may be carried out by a “coalition of the willing.” Together with sanctions, the United States has also declared its intention to increase its financial and moral support to opposition forces in Iran, including to certain separatist elements within Iran’s ethnic minorities.
Meanwhile, the Iranian government under the leadership of the hard-line president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has adopted a defiant posture in the face of these increased pressures and has been calling on the Iranian people to prepare themselves for a difficult period of struggle. However, other Iranian commentators and former officials have warned of the disastrous implications of an enlarged regime of sanctions for Iran’s economy and society.
Moreover, although the Iranians believe that access to nuclear technology for peaceful purposes is their undisputed right, they are anxious about the consequences of the nuclear crisis. Additionally, after suffering eight years of war and 10 years of U.S. sanctions it is not clear how far the people will heed their president’s call for more sacrifice. It must be noted that defending one’s right to nuclear energy is not the same as defending one’s territory against aggression, as was the case during the Iran-Iraq War. Moreover, most Iranians have lost the religious and revolutionary fervor of the 1980s that enabled them to endure the hardships of the eight-year war.
Therefore, the likelihood of significant popular opposition should not be underestimated. A harsh government response could plunge the country into turmoil and even trigger a situation akin to civil war. By the same token, external pressure could have the opposite effect, enhancing religious and nationalist feelings and increasing popular solidarity with the regime. Either way, the most likely result, would be a further tightening of the social and political spheres, and a silencing of dissenting voices, including those of a significant number of clerics, notably those of former President Muhammad Khatami and Ayatollah Mehdi Karrubi, a former speaker of the parliament and presidential candidate in 2005. The process of Iran’s democratization, already impeded in the last four years by the resistance of the hardliners, will further erode.
Thus, it is impossible to predict with even minimal accuracy the future of democracy in Iran. Indeed, extreme conditions of turmoil might lead the Revolutionary Guards to take power. There has already been a significant degree of politicization of the Guards, and Ahmadinejad has appointed many former officers to important posts, especially as governors of sensitive regions.
Furthermore, it is not at all certain that sanctions would resolve the nuclear dispute. If Iran insists on pursuing a nuclear program, the risk of some sort of military action against the country will greatly increase. The consequences of even limited military strikes confined to nuclear sites against Iran are extremely hard to foresee. What is clear is that they will be highly damaging to Iran and, in a worst-case scenario, could lead to the country’s partial or complete disintegration. In the post-Soviet era, the United States and even some European countries no longer see a unified Iran as important for regional stability. On the contrary, some see Iran more as a potential rival for regional influence than a valuable buffer, which was Iran’s historic role for two centuries. This change of attitude is attested to by the fact that the United States has always insisted on maintaining Iraq’s territorial and political unity, while in Iran’s case, it has only called for freedom for the Iranian people, a call that some Iranians have interpreted as support for separatist movements in Iran.
Moreover, it is not at all certain that military action could be confined to so-called “surgical” attacks, since Iran will take retaliatory measures. This could lead to the introduction of U.S., European and perhaps even some of the neighboring countries’ troops. Certainly, a number of Iran’s neighbors will allow the use of their territory or at least airspace for military actions against the Islamic Republic. In short, given the current crisis in Iran’s relations with the West and the certainty of growing pressures on Iran, even very general and tentative predictions about the country’s future are impossible, except to say that 2006 will be a fateful year. How and by what means the Iranian crisis is resolved will also have far-reaching consequences for the strategic and political map of a region extending from the Caspian Sea to the Persian Gulf.
The best alternative for all concerned would be a peaceful end to the crisis in a relatively short period of time. This, however, would require a great deal of political courage on the part of the Iranian government and a willingness to suspend nuclear activities for at least five years. Alternatively, the West could accept a face-saving formula for Iran by, for example, giving security guarantees to Iran in exchange for its agreement to forgo enrichment activities. Given the political capital both sides have invested in their current positions, however, none of these options appear likely.
If sanctions or worse — military action — lead to centrifugal tendencies in Iran, neighboring states — notably Pakistan, Azerbaijan and even Turkey — will be affected. Turmoil in Iran will also intensify sectarian tensions from Iraq to the Gulf. The separation of Iranian Baluchistan would encourage the restive Pakistani Baluch to seek independence, and the separation of Iranian Kurdistan would breathe new life into the independence movement of Turkey’s Kurds. The idea that Iranian Azerbaijan will be easily united with the Republic of Azerbaijan is pure fantasy.
The patchwork of independent regions that might emerge would lack any economic and political viability. This situation would present the West with the unpalatable choice of either taking responsibility for the security and viability of these new entities or allowing them to become no-man’s lands, rife with civil conflict and breeding grounds for new types of terrorism.
Yet the reaction of regional governments and even people, especially in the Arab world, with the exception of Lebanon, Iraq and Bahrain, will be muted. The U.S. image may suffer further, but, as long as there is no change in the Middle Eastern regimes, its influence will remain strong. Indeed, instability created by turmoil in Iran would make regional countries, especially those in the Gulf, more dependent on the United States. If the Iraq War did not shake the U.S.-Gulf alliance, an attack on Iran is unlikely to do so.
The downside of this scenario is that the United States would have to shoulder more long-term responsibility for these countries and for the security of oil supplies. In the end, the cost might prove too high even for the United States. Therefore, it is vitally important that Washington and others correctly assess the costs of an unstable or divided Iran. They should avoid the fantasy that change as a result of pressure will be clean and easy, producing a democratic and pro-Western Iran.
The future of the Middle East, especially the Gulf region, parts of the Caspian and even South Asia, may well depend on how events in Iran unfold. This will be decided in the next two years, not 20. Without knowing the direction in which the current crisis will evolve, predictions are impossible.