Dr. Ayoob is University Distinguished Professor of International Relations, James Madison College and Department of Political Science, Michigan State University.
Conjuring a world 20 years from now is a very difficult task; imagining the volatile Middle East is even more hazardous. Uncertainties regarding the global distribution of power, the shifting capabilities of, and alliances among, regional states and groupings, unforeseen regime changes, the ups and downs of radical –– particularly Islamist –– trends in the region, when taken together, would deter even the most experienced forecaster. Waving these problems aside, I will advance a set of projections, although the prognosis will be broad enough to accommodate a substantial degree of variation in matters of detail without detracting from the long-term validity of the predictions themselves. I will begin by laying out a perceptual map of the Middle East 20 years hence before discussing their implications for American policy.
Oil and gas provided close to 50 percent of global energy consumption in 2004.1 The most credible statistics demonstrate that the Middle East, especially its Gulf sub region, will continue to be the indispensable producer and supplier of world energy well into the future. Despite the recent enthusiasm about Central Asian, Caspian and Russian oil, proven reserves in all three places are paltry when compared to those in the Gulf. Middle Eastern oil reserves account for 66 percent of the world’s proven reserves, with close to 62 percent located in the Persian Gulf and over 22 percent in Saudi Arabia alone. Iran is second with 11 percent; Iraq, Kuwait and the UAE are close behind, ranging between 8 percent and 10 percent each. By contrast, Russian proven reserves are 6 percent and the reserves of the former Soviet states taken together do not exceed 10 percent of the total.2
Moreover, the costs of exploration are much lower in the Gulf. The Gulf’s exportable oil capacity — that is, production minus consumption — is enormous. It would not be far off the mark to assume that, if only exportable reserves were measured, the Gulf’s share would go up to at least 80 percent of the world’s total. This makes the Middle East indispensable to the health of industrial economies. In addition, Saudi Arabia is the only oil exporting country that has a respectable spare production capacity and is committed to augmenting it.
The same story is repeated, although not in such spectacular fashion, in the arena of natural gas: over 40 percent of proven reserves are located in the Middle East, with Iran and Qatar providing 30 percent between them. Russia, with over 26 percent of proven gas reserves, leads the pack, but no other country comes close to Iran and Qatar as a source of exportable natural gas.3 There are also clear indications that new pipelines and technology will boost Middle Eastern gas production and exports to unprecedented heights and sharply increase its profile in the global gas trade within the next 20 years, particularly if oil production or reserves stagnate and prices become economically unsustainable.4
According to knowledgeable analysts, the current spike in prices is not going to be temporary.5 It is not short-term stimuli, such as war and revolution, which have created the current shortage and consequent increase in prices. It is the sharp increase in demand, especially the spurt in Chinese oil consumption, which rose 16 percent and accounted for almost one-third of the increase in global demand in 2004. China has become the world’s second largest importer of oil, half of it from the Middle East. Global demand overall has also been growing; the year 2004 saw the largest growth in volume since 1976 and the most rapid growth rate since 1986.6
The growth in demand is likely to continue apace, with the Energy Information Administration’s Annual Energy Outlook 2005 projecting a 40 percent growth in oil demand by 2025.7 Therefore, it is reasonable to assume that supplies will be tight, if not dramatically outstripped by demand, for the next several years. Saudi Arabia, traditionally the only country with spare production capacity, is currently producing close to its limit of 10.5 mbd, including spare capacity. Its plans to increase capacity to 12.5 and then 15 mbd will take years to materialize, however, and by then it may not be enough to meet increased demand.8 It seems oil is going to be both more costly and scarcer over the next several decades, further enhancing the strategic importance of the Middle East, particularly the Gulf. The clout not merely of the oil producers, but of important regional states with the capacity to disrupt oil flow, is, therefore, bound to increase in the next two decades. Instability in Saudi Arabia, Iran and Iraq will have much greater impact on the global economy in the future than has been the case so far.
Iraq is likely to suffer from continued instability and looks well on the way to breaking up into a Kurdish and an Arab political entity. The current state of near civil war between Sunni and Shia Arabs, the continuing insurgency against the American occupation, and the Kurds’ insistence on maximum autonomy for Iraqi Kurdistan are likely to result in a two-entity “solution.” The Kurdish entity will probably remain in an anomalous position, much like northern Cyprus, with its sovereignty recognized by only a few. The Arab rump will continue in a state of internal turmoil as the rift deepens between Shia and Sunni Arabs, a dichotomy sharpened by U.S. policies. Washington initially chose the Shia over the Sunnis on the mistaken assumption that Saddam’s was a Sunni regime and that Sunnis were therefore closely identified with the old order. This created a self-fulfilling prophecy, alienating the Sunni population and augmenting the support base for the insurgency carried on by a mix of Baathists, Iraqi nationalists and foreign and indigenous Islamists. The American administration has lately tilted toward the Sunnis, afraid that Shia dominance in Iraq might translate into Iranian hegemony, thus alienating many of its erstwhile Shia friends. Washington has, therefore, not only made enemies on both sides of the sectarian divide; it has fed the Sunni-Shia competition that now borders on civil war.
The American design for Iraq already has failure written all over it.9 The U.S. occupation has not only exacerbated ethnic and sectarian divisions; they have made insecurity all pervasive. They have done so partly by tearing down the structure of the Iraqi state and creating an institutional vacuum into which transnational Islamist militants moved, transforming lawless Iraq into a surrogate for Afghanistan, their original home base. Failed states invariably become safe havens for conflict entrepreneurs, including terrorist groups. It is a great irony that the United States, which was partially responsible for the failure of the Afghan state, is almost totally responsible for state failure in Iraq.
Furthermore, the invasion of Iraq has strengthened the sentiment, already shared by substantial segments of the population in the Middle East, that the United States is engaged in a war not so much against terrorism as against Islam. The Iraq War has come as a boon for Islamist extremists such as Osama bin-laden and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi by acting as the greatest advertisement for their cause among potential recruits. Al-Qaeda’s strategy of polarizing the “Muslim World” and the “West” has been the chief gainer from the invasion of Iraq.10
Faced with insurmountable security and political problems and with domestic opinion increasingly opposed to the war, the United States can be expected to disengage from Iraq militarily over the next couple of years, repeating the Vietnam story, but with a different ending. In Vietnam, the North Vietnamese were waiting to take over and unify the country once the Americans left. There is no such unifying force in Iraq, which is likely to descend further into civil strife and possibly into anarchy. Such an eventuality may invite Turkish military intervention if the Kurds of northern Iraq declare independence.11 Iranian influence is also bound to increase in the predominantly Shia south, as the Sunni-Shia division continues to intensify.
The weakening and possible division of a major Arab state will reinforce the commonly held opinion in the Middle East that the war was waged to control the oil and to ensure Israeli dominance of the region –– and not necessarily in that order. The continuing presence in key positions in the administration of figures with close ties to Israel, and especially to the Likud, augmented by the influence of the Christian Right, which is in tactical alliance with the Israeli lobby on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, has heightened such suspicion.12 This view has attained greater credibility in light of pressure currently being exercised by the United States to destabilize the regimes in Iran and Syria, both considered by many Arabs and Muslims to be next on the Israeli hit list.13
The failure of the American venture in Iraq is likely to sharply erode U.S. credibility in the region. The United States will find itself in a paradoxical position: while its military-technological lead continues to widen globally during the next two decades, its political influence in the Middle East and probably around the world will likely plummet as a result of the unilateralist Iraqi misadventure. A military and political retrenchment, similar to that following the Vietnam War, may ensue.
Isolationism, one might recall, is the other side of the unilateralism coin.
With the United States in retreat from the Middle East and Iraq in turmoil, Iran is likely to be a key player in the Middle East in the next two decades. Its oil and natural gas reserves, its relatively sophisticated industrial and technological infrastructure, and a population that will be almost totally literate in the next decade or two will together reinforce Iran’s role as the preeminent power in the Gulf and one of two or three major powers in the larger region. Iran is also likely to acquire a credible nuclear-weapons capability within the next two decades. The International Institute for Strategic Studies in London has recently projected in a “Strategic Dossier” that Iran will be in a position to produce its first nuclear warhead five years from now if it decides to go full speed ahead. Even if it is hampered by technological factors, it is likely to achieve a nuclear capability within the next decade or two.14
Unlike North Korea and Iraq under Saddam Hussein, Iran is a relatively open society; its policies are subject to influence from the broader public. It is noteworthy that Iran’s nuclear aspirations receive support from almost all shades of opinion in the country. Several factors explain this, including Israeli’s nuclear and missile capabilities, the earlier threat of Iraqi WMDs, and the existence of nuclear weapons and delivery systems next door in Pakistan, with which Iran has an ambivalent relationship due to Pakistan’s closeness to Saudi Arabia and the United States.
The chief reason behind Iran’s drive to acquire nuclear weapons, however, is a desire to achieve a deterrent against unwanted intervention by the United States.15 American military intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq and the escalation of anti-Iran rhetoric, including labeling it part of the “axis of evil,” seem to have convinced Tehran that American interference can only be deterred by the acquisition of a nuclear capability. Nuclear weapons — however crude — and nuclear-capable delivery systems — however rudimentary — are perceived by Tehran as the only equalizers against America’s high-tech conventional weaponry, deployed so effectively in the two wars against Iraq. The sensitivity with which the United States has approached North Korea, as compared to the belligerency demonstrated by Washington in its treatment of Iraq, has further augmented the value of nuclear weaponry in Iranian eyes.16
Paradoxically, the American-engineered regime change in Iraq has made Iran a key player there, especially through its religious and political affinities with much of Iraq’s political class. People who had sought asylum in Iran during Saddam’s rule lead the two major Shia political formations in Iraq. The main Shia militia, the Badr Corps, was trained and equipped by the Iranians. Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the leading Iraqi Shia cleric and no doubt an Iraqi patriot, is originally Iranian and speaks Arabic with a pronounced Persian accent.17 Washington has added to its problems in Iraq by gratuitously alienating Iran despite the fact that Tehran, while keeping a low profile, was willing to cooperate with the United States in Iraq, as it had done in Afghanistan.
Iran comes close to being an open polity when compared to many of its Middle Eastern neighbors.18 Iranian domestic politics is likely to evolve over the next two decades towards a greater consolidation of democracy, although with unique Iranian characteristics that will include some degree of supervision by the Shia clergy but of a far less intrusive character than is the case today. The issue of the Shia clergy overseeing the functioning of the elected representatives is not a new one in Iran. It goes back to the debates at the time of the Constitutionalist revolution of 1905-1906, whose gains were aborted thanks in great measure to the usurpation of power by Reza Pahlavi, father of the last shah. There are differences today on the issue of clerical involvement in politics among the senior clerics, as there were in 1906. Leading clerics, including Grand Ayatollah Montazeri and Ayatollah Jalaledin Taheri, consider the clergy’s involvement and the use of Islam in the running of the country a serious mistake. Among other things, it has the potential to bring Islam into disrepute.19
It appears on balance that time is not on the side of the hard-line clergy. Their legitimacy, and consequently their authority, is being slowly but surely eroded. The election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president also signals the importance of economic concerns among the Iranian electorate, fed up with the corruption of the ruling elite, which is made up, among others, of clergy-turned-entrepreneurs. The liberal reformists, obsessed as they were with issues that appealed primarily to their upper-middle-class supporters, such as women’s dress, completely failed to fathom the depth of the economic discontent on which Ahmadinejad rode to power. The masses voted against the classes, including the economically entrenched clergy. Despite the new president’s less-than diplomatic posturing on foreign-policy issues, his election augurs well for Iranian democracy, demonstrating the power of the average voter to punish the elites. It will help keep politicians and the clerics on their toes.20
As Iran consolidates its democracy and stabilizes politically over the next two decades, Saudi Arabia, the key oil state, is likely to chart a rather tortuous political course. The regime is already caught between Wahhabism from above — the conservative establishment — and Wahhabism from below, the religious radicals.21 An increase in oil revenue will help the regime to take the edge off some of the radicalism by increasing its capacity for social spending and employment creation. However, it is likely to face increasing demand for political participation as well as for recognition of the diversity within Saudi society, suppressed since the Wahhabi conquest of the peninsula. The Shia of the oil-rich east have already become more vocal in their demand for a share of the public space. Hijaz in the west, home to the two holiest places of Islam and traditionally uncomfortable with Wahhabi orthodoxy, has also shown signs of greater cultural assertiveness. This could be a harbinger of political dissent.
The House of Saud is unlikely to be ousted from power in the next two decades for the simple reason that there is no cohesive alternative to the regime. However, it will have to make major compromises and concessions, including loosening its control over the political life of the country. It will have to become more responsive to societal demands and popular opinion, including in the field of foreign affairs, in order to survive. This could lead to radical revivalism or an assertion of liberal tendencies already present in the kingdom –– or both.22 However, political liberalization will inevitably mean that anti-Americanism, which is very high at the popular level, will find echoes in regime policies and may increasingly lead the regime to distance itself from Washington politically. This has the potential to affect both the energy and security arenas; a new compact may have to be negotiated between Washington and Riyadh in both these spheres.
Turkey has been a loyal member of NATO for more than 50 years, with the second largest standing army in the alliance. It has been knocking at the gates of the European Union since 1987 but has been denied entry. Most Turks have found this galling, especially in light of the accession of latecomers, including members of the erstwhile enemy camp, while Turkey has been forced to wait. This has been the case despite the reforms introduced by the Turkish government in the past several years to meet the Copenhagen criteria for admission into the EU. It has sent a signal to many Turks that Europe is still considered synonymous with Christendom. “Turks are good enough to die for Europe but not to live in it” is a popular remark one hears in Turkey. In the perception of most Turks the major reason they are denied entry is their Islamic faith. This feeling is reinforced by the rhetoric emanating from influential quarters in France, Germany and Austria and by the entry into the EU of the Greek part of Cyprus, despite the Greek Cypriots’ refusal to accept UN terms for reunification of the island. Turkish Cypriots had accepted the terms by a wide margin in a referendum.
It is plausible to assume that 20 years hence Turkey will either still be waiting at the EU gates or will have withdrawn its application in disgust. No matter what the outcome, Turkey’s candidacy has done the country one great favor: It has furthered the democratic process by sidelining the military and improving human rights. Democratic consolidation in Turkey seems to have taken on a life of its own and is likely to continue apace over the next two decades irrespective of what happens with regard to the EU.23
The emergence of the post-Islamist Justice and Development party (AKP) as the leading advocate of political and economic reform is a further healthy development that signifies two things. The first is that mainstream Islamists have accepted the rules of the game, including secularism, and have repackaged themselves as conservative democrats akin to the Christian Democrats of Western Europe. Second, the artificial dichotomy created by the Kemalist elite between secularism and the country’s Muslim identity has been revealed as an excuse for authoritarian rule.
Over the next 20 years, Turks will become increasingly self-confident in their Muslim identity. The European rebuff, when combined with the popular assertion of “Muslimhood” –– as distinct from Islamism –– will push Turkey into reevaluating its relationship with the Middle East, including its policies toward the major problems besetting the region.24 The two wars against Iraq had already begun this process, but it will be accelerated, prompted among other things by the creation of a de facto Kurdish state (against which Turkish, Iranian and Arab interests will coincide), and increasing dependence on Arab and Iranian oil as industrialization proceeds apace.
American disengagement from Iraq and possible retrenchment from the Middle East following the Iraqi fiasco will also stimulate Turkey to demonstrate greater strategic autonomy from U.S. policies in the Middle East.25 The decreasing role of the military in policy making will negatively affect Turkish-Israeli relations, as will the differences between Turkey and Israel over Iraqi Kurdistan, which Israel supports clandestinely.26 Moreover, popular support for the Palestinian cause will also be increasingly reflected in policy as Turkish democracy consolidates. While there is little evidence currently that Ankara has nuclear ambitions, such aspirations cannot be ruled out as Turkey becomes more deeply engaged in the Middle East and simultaneously upgrades its already respectable technological infrastructure.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is likely to intensify as well as undergo a major paradigm change over the next two decades. The Israeli withdrawal from Gaza will not presage a negotiated peace leading to Palestinian statehood, as the Israeli government explicitly rejected a negotiated withdrawal from the Gaza strip. It is clear that the move is a unilateral jettisoning undertaken by Israel for demographic reasons and as a result of Israel’s incapacity to control the increasingly militant 1.3 million Palestinians, most of them children of refugees of the 1948 War and the Palestinian displacement that accompanied it. Moreover, there is no indication that the trajectory of Israeli policy toward the occupied territories is likely to undergo substantial change. Ariel Sharon seemed to have received a green light from the Bush administration to continue creating new facts on the ground in the West Bank in return for withdrawal from Gaza.27 His successors are more than likely to continue down that road. Israeli efforts at expanding settlements, vivisecting the West Bank into cantons by constructing Israeli-only roads and barriers well inside the West Bank that effectively cut off Palestinian enclaves from each other, and cordoning off Arab Jerusalem from its hinterland, all continue unabated.28
The situation is likely to evolve over the next couple of decades to a point at which it will be impossible even for the most moderate Palestinian leaders to justify to their constituents continued efforts toward a two-state solution. In fact, as a consequence of Israeli settlements and the expropriation of Palestinian land, a viable Palestinian state may no longer be possible.29 Soon most politically conscious Palestinians will come to the conclusion that the only feasible option left to them is to accept a one state solution between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River encompassing both Jewish and Arab populations. Consequently, one can envisage a radical shift in Palestinian strategy symbolized by an increasingly vocal demand to live in a single state, call it Israel if you will, as equal citizens with the same political and civil rights as the Jewish citizens of Israel.
This will confront the Israeli leadership with the stark choice between incorporating the Palestinians as full citizens or ruling over them indefinitely as occupied people circumscribed within “reservations,” as the West Bank enclaves and Gaza will increasingly come to be seen around the world. Given the radical transformation in international sensibilities in the past half century, the 1948 formula of “population transfer” will not work in 2010 or 2020. Neither will the unilateral jettisoning of heavily populated parts of the West Bank, which constitute about 42 percent of the territory according to Israeli calculations. This will be the case for the simple reason that there will be no takers. The Palestinian Authority, Israel’s last best chance, would have collapsed because of the untenable nature of its position simultaneously as a resistance movement and a buffer between the occupiers and the occupied.30 Mahmoud Abbas is likely to be the last Palestinian leader who would try to be both De Gaulle and Pétain at the same time. If the wily Arafat failed in squaring that circle, Abbas is almost certain to suffer the same fate.
The Israeli and American reactions to the Hamas victory in the Palestinian elections of January 2006 are likely to speed up the process of the collapse of the Palestinian Authority rather than force Hamas to recognize Israel immediately as a precondition for negotiations. Many Palestinians believe that the PLO squandered its major bargaining chip by recognizing Israel in the absence of a final settlement and Israel’s simultaneous recognition of a Palestinian state. Hamas is unlikely to follow the same route to a dead end. However, there have been clear indications that Hamas is willing to enter into a long-term truce with Israel if the latter withdraws from lands occupied in 1967.31 This could have been interpreted as a first step on Hamas’s part toward eventual acceptance of a two-state solution, with mutual recognition coming at the end of the process.
The Israeli and American responses to Hamas’s attempt to soften its position have been so negative that Hamas is likely to return to its hard-line rhetoric so as not to lose credibility with its base by looking more and more like the PLO, which was willing to negotiate with Israel under the most disadvantageous terms. Such a scenario is likely to make the one-state solution even more appealing to large segments of Palestinians, once they realize that a negotiated settlement leading to Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories is out of the question.
It is this scenario that prompted Sharon and now Ehud Olmert to advocate drawing Israel’s boundaries unilaterally and jettisoning heavily populated Palestinian territories. However, the absence of a negotiated settlement, the collapse of the Palestinian Authority, and the impossibility of sealing off the West Bank will force Israel to eventually reoccupy the unilaterally jettisoned territories, which are likely to become hotbeds of radical militancy. There is the clear possibility that in the next two decades the Israeli-Palestinian dispute will return to a state of civil war reminiscent of, but far more virulent than, that of the British mandate of the 1930s and 1940s.
One counterintuitive trend that is likely to come to fruition in the Middle East in the next 20 years is the role of moderate and mainstream Islamists as important vehicles for democratization.32 Turkey, Iran, Egypt, Iraq, Tunisia and Morocco all seem to be demonstrating the validity of this assertion to various degrees and in different ways. Democratization and political openings that provide mainstream Islamist groups avenues for legal political participation usually end up taming Islamists. They then tend to shift their strategy from Islamism, which seeks the imposition of Sharia law, to “Muslimhood,” which aims not so much at Islamizing state and society as reflecting society’s Muslim identity through the infusion of Islamic normative values and Muslim political sympathies into state policy.
Islamism –– Islam as a political ideology –– thrives in a state of opposition to oppressive, authoritarian regimes, as it becomes the major vehicle for the expression of political dissent.33 Once free political participation is permitted and Islamists have the opportunity to attain or share power, the hollowness of the slogan “Islam is the solution” becomes quickly apparent. Moreover, Islamist sympathizers, most of them lukewarm about Sharia law, now feel confident that Muslim normative values can be reflected in state policies through democratic means and lose interest in extremist platforms that they had come to support because of lack of alternatives under authoritarian rule. Turkey is a good example of this phenomenon, but one can see this happening in other countries as well. Post-Islamist tendencies are evident in Egypt in the effort of the Wasat (Center) party, several of whose founders were Muslim Brothers, to gain official recognition.34 The Muslim Brotherhood itself, shedding its radical image of the 1960s, would like nothing better than to be recognized as a legal political party so that it can enter the electoral fray. The performance of Brotherhood-supported candidates in the recent parliamentary elections in Egypt, despite regime repression, is bound to strengthen this trend among Egyptian Islamists. Such post-Islamist but normatively Muslim tendencies are likely to proliferate in the Middle East as countries begin to democratize, and political participation becomes the norm. Participation in the political system enforces responsible behavior that no amount of regime repression can achieve.
What do all of these projections imply for U.S. policy toward the Middle East over the next 20 years? Taken together they point to the need for U.S. policies that come to terms with these projected trends. First, given that feasible alternatives to oil and gas as major sources of energy at affordable prices are not likely to appear within the time frame of this paper, Washington should begin treating oil suppliers not as clients or supplicants but as equal partners. This means it should be sensitive to their domestic opinion –– which will increase in importance as these countries move towards greater popular participation in governance –– as well as to their long-term strategic and economic interests. This becomes all the more important because energy is going to be a suppliers’ market for some decades. The industrialized countries will face stiff competition for the scarce energy resources of the Middle East from China, India, and in a decade’s time from countries such as Turkey and Brazil.
Second, the United States will have to accept Iran’s rise to regional preeminence and begin building bridges to it.35 No legitimate and stable structure of regional security can be established in the Middle East and the Gulf without Iran’s willing participation. It is almost inevitable that Iran will acquire a nuclear capability, even if it is cloaked in a policy of deliberate ambiguity, much like that of Israel or of India and Pakistan until 1998. Attempts to destroy Iran’s emerging nuclear capability by attacks from the air are likely to be counterproductive and provide Iran with the excuse to withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. As two leading Washington-based analysts of Iran point out,
The costs, uncertainties, and risks of waging an air campaign to destroy Iran’s nuclear sites are too great to make it anything but a measure of last resort –– the hopes of some in the Bush administration notwithstanding. Because Tehran has managed to conceal major nuclear facilities, it is unclear by how much even successful bombing could set back the country’s nuclear development. Moreover, no matter how little damage it suffered, Iran would likely retaliate. It has the most capable terrorist network in the world, and the United States would have to stand ready for a full onslaught of attacks. Perhaps even more important, a U.S. military campaign would probably prompt Tehran to unleash a clandestine war on U.S. forces in Iraq.36
Moreover, an aerial attack on Iran after the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan will take anti-Americanism in the Muslim world to unprecedented heights and multiply the threat of terror attacks on the United States and its allies. Therefore, creative compromises on the nuclear issue will be necessary. Washington has demonstrated in the case of India that it can engage in such creative compromises. It accepted it as a de facto nuclear-weapons state and promised to supply it with dual use technology while convincing Congress to lift restrictions and by getting around the restrictions imposed by the London Suppliers Group. The United States will have to do much the same in the case of Iran or, at the very least, desist from putting undue pressure on Tehran to roll back its nuclear program.
Once Washington gets over its accumulated prejudices, it will realize that Iran is basically a status quo power. It has too much at stake in the stability of the region to engage in adventurism unless it feels pushed to the wall. This lesson should have been clearly drawn from Iran’s behavior in the past four years in relation to Afghanistan and Iraq. In both cases Iran could have acted as a spoiler but did not. In fact, Iran facilitated the achievement of American goals by supporting the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan and by advising Iraqi Shia leaders to work with and not against the U.S. occupation authority. Washington missed an opportunity to build on Iran’s cooperation and instead included it in the “axis of evil.” It may still not be too late for a change of course on Iran by this or a subsequent administration, despite the current bellicose rhetoric.
Third, the United States must give due respect to Turkish interests in the region. This will apply with particular force to the Kurdish issue, which has enormous potential to complicate U.S.-Turkish relations. Turkey is likely to emerge as a formidable power straddling the Middle East and Europe, as well as a potential model in a loose sense for the future development of Middle Eastern and Muslim polities. Domestic lobbies in the United States that denigrate Turkey’s importance or attempt to obstruct the further development of U.S.-Turkish relations will have to be ignored. Turkey, like Iran, is a pivotal power in the region, and no durable structure of regional security can be established without its participation.
Fourth, it is essential that the United States change its policy of unquestioning support to Israel and use of double standards, including on the issue of Israel’s noncompliance with UN Security Council resolutions concerning Jerusalem, Jewish settlements and its treatment of the occupied population. The United States should begin to treat Israel as a part of its foreign-policy calculus toward the Middle East rather than as an extension of domestic American politics, despite the pressure generated by both AIPAC and the Christian Right. Israel’s security should be underwritten by the United States on Washington’s terms and not those dictated by Israel. The almost craven support extended to Ariel Sharon’s policies by the Bush administration has left the distinct impression in many quarters that Israel no longer acts as America’s proxy in the Middle East (which was the perception during the Cold War years and into the 1990s, and which the Arabs could understand if not appreciate) but that America now acts as Israel’s proxy in the region. Nothing has hurt American standing in the Middle East more than this perceived reversal of roles with the tail appearing to wag the dog.37
U.S. policy towards Israel-Palestine will face graver challenges if nothing is done to change course immediately. Time for a solution based on the two-state formula is running out fast, thanks to Israel’s policy of creating new realities on the ground in the West Bank. Washington will have to face much more wrenching choices once the Palestinian Authority collapses totally and the Palestinian demand shifts to a binational one-state solution.
Fifth, if Washington were to demonstrate greater acceptance of Muslim/ Islamist political formations as legitimate political players in the Middle East and as essential participants in the political process within countries, it would both reduce Islamist hostility toward the United States and neutralize the argument made by authoritarian rulers that without them the Islamists would turn the region into a hotbed of anti-Americanism. It would also curb the growth of Islamist extremism that feeds transnational networks like al-Qaeda. The participation of Islamist political formations in open polities and the shift toward post-Islamism taken together will narrow the operational space for transnational extremist organizations and substantially reduce, if not eliminate, their recruitment pool in the Middle East. Therefore, while in the short run Washington may face greater problems in its relationship with some of the Middle Eastern governments that succeed today’s authoritarian rulers, in the long term such changes will help the United States meet the terrorism challenge much more effectively than is possible either by military means or by supporting authoritarian regimes that claim to combat Islamism.
In short, it would be productive for the United States to abjure an overweening posture in the region, disavow unilateral intervention, and work with the major regional states, such as Iran and Turkey, not merely to ensure energy supplies at affordable rates but to prevent this strategic region from turning irretrievably hostile to wider American strategic and economic interests. An essential precondition for such a collaborative endeavor would be to respect the strategic autonomy of important regional states and demonstrate sensitivity to popular opinion on issues such as Palestine that Middle Eastern populations consider to be vitally important. Public diplomacy cannot succeed unless the substance of policy undergoes an urgently required transformation. It is essential that the United States evolves a new paradigm and change the direction of its policies toward the Middle East immediately if it is to regain a position of trust and safeguard its strategic interests in the region. It may be much too late by 2025, or even by 2015.
* An earlier version of this paper formed the basis of a Sesquicentennial Lecture at Michigan State University to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the university’s founding
1 Putting Energy in the Spotlight: BP Statistical Review of World Energy, June 2005.
2 Putting Energy in the Spotlight. For a well-argued case regarding the importance of the Gulf, especially of Saudi Arabia, to world oil supplies, see Shibley Telhami and Fiona Hill, “America’s Vital Stakes in Saudi Arabia,” Foreign Affairs, 81(6), November/December 2002.
3 Putting Energy in the Spotlight.
4 Daniel Yergin and Michael Stoppard, “The Next Prize,” Foreign Affairs, 82(6), November/December 2003.
5 For example, see Colin J. Campbell and Jean H. Laherrere, “The End of Cheap Oil,” Scientific American, March 1998; and Peter Maas, “The Breaking Point,” New York Times Magazine, August 21, 2005.
6 Putting Energy in the Spotlight. For the impact of Chinese dependence on Middle Eastern oil on China’s policy toward the Middle East, see Jeffrey A. Brader and Flynt L. Leverett, “Oil, the Middle East and the Middle Kingdom,” Financial Times, August 16, 2005.
7 Energy Information Administration, Annual Energy Outlook 2005, accessed through the internet at http:// www.eia.doe.gov/oiaf/aeo/forecast.html on September 19, 2005.
8 Jad Mouwad, “Such Good Friends, Again: Why America is More Dependent than Ever on Saudi Arabia,”
The New York Times, August 6, 2005.
9 “The beginning of wisdom is to recognize that the ongoing war in Iraq is not one that the United States can win. As a result of its initial miscalculations, misdirected planning, and inadequate preparation, Washington has lost the Iraqi people’s confidence and consent, and it is unlikely to win them back.” James Dobbins, “Winning the Unwinnable War,” Foreign Affairs, January/February 2005.
10 For an incisive analysis that leads to similar conclusions, see Mark Danner, “Taking Stock of the Forever War,” The New York Times Magazine, September 11, 2005.
11 According to a knowledgeable military historian, “Should the Kurds actually attempt to form Kurdistan, there is almost no question that the Turks would invade Northern Iraq.” Edward J. Erickson, “Turkey as Regional Hegemon—2014: Strategic Implications for the United States,” Turkish Studies, 5(3), Autumn 2004, p. 41.
12 For a persuasive and well-documented argument that pro-Israel neocons were the primary advocates of a belligerent American policy aimed at regime change in Iraq without regard for its impact on the future of Iraq and the Arab world because they saw it as enhancing the Israeli position in the Middle East vis-à-vis the Palestinians and its Arab neighbors, see John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt, The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy, Harvard University, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Faculty Research Working Paper Series, March 2006, accessed on the Internet at http://ksgnotes1.harvard.edu/Research/wpaper.nsf/rwp/ RWP06-011/$File/rwp_06_011_walt.pdf on March 19, 2006.
13 For a well-reasoned article that demonstrates the counterproductive nature of the Bush administration’s policy toward Syria, see Joshua Landis, “Don’t Push Syria Away,” The New York Times, September 17, 2005. For a stringent critique of American policy toward Iran and a plea for greater pragmatism, see Fareed Zakaria, “Talk to Tehran,” The Washington Post, August 16, 2005.
14 Iran’s Strategic Weapons Programmes – A Net Assessment, International Institute for Strategic Studies, London, 2005.
15 The Iranian search for deterrence against American intervention has a close parallel with a similar consideration that prompted Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s decision to detonate India’s first nuclear device in 1974. The decision to do so was taken in early 1972 following the sailing of the American nuclear carrier, the USS Enterprise, into the Bay of Bengal in December 1971 during the Bangladesh War in a failed attempt to prevent India from bringing the war to a favorable conclusion. New Delhi reached the conclusion that only the acquisition of nuclear weapons would send the signal to Washington not to repeat such a venture when Indian vital interests are involved.
16 “When the Bush administration invaded Iraq, which was not yet nuclearized, and avoided using force against North Korea, which already was, Iranians came to see nuclear weapons as the only viable deterrent to U.S. military action.” Kenneth Pollack and Ray Takeyh, “Taking On Tehran,” Foreign Affairs, 84(2), March/ April 2005.
17 For a thoughtful and balanced study of Iran’s influence in Iraq after the American invasion, see International Crisis Group, Iran in Iraq: How Much Influence?, Middle East Report No. 38, March 2005.
18 For a perceptive analysis of the complex nature of Iranian politics and crosscutting cleavages within the country, see Ali M. Ansari, “Continuous Regime Change from Within,” Washington Quarterly, Autumn 2003.
19 For one report, see Nicholas D. Kristof, “Overdosing on Islam,” The New York Times, May 12, 2004.
20 For a fine preliminary analysis of Ahmadinejad’s election, see International Crisis Group, Iran: What does Ahmadi-Nejad’s Victory Mean?, Middle East Briefing No. 18, August 2005.
21 For an account of pressures and counter pressures operating on the Saudi regime, see Michael Scott Doran, “The Saudi Paradox,” Foreign Affairs, 83(1), January/February 2004. Also, see International Crisis Group, Saudi Arabia Backgrounder: Who Are the Islamists?, Middle East Report, No. 31, 2004.
22 For liberal tendencies in Saudi Arabia, see Gwenn Okruhlik, “Empowering Civility through Nationalism: Reformist Islam and Belonging in Saudi Arabia,” in Robert W. Hefner (ed.), Remaking Muslim Politics: Pluralism, Contestation, Democratization (Princeton University Press Princeton, NJ, 2005), pp. 189-212.
23 I have discussed this in greater detail in Mohammed Ayoob, “Turkey’s Multiple Paradoxes,” Orbis, 48(3), Summer 2004, pp. 451-463.
24 For a discussion of “Muslimhood” as distinct from “Islamism”, see Jenny B. White, “The End of Islamism? Turkey’s Muslimhood Model,” in Robert W. Hefner (ed.), Remaking Muslim Politics: Pluralism, Contestation, Democratization (Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 2005) pp. 87-111.
25 For Turkish military capabilities and prospects for strategic autonomy, see Edward J. Erickson, “Turkey as Regional Hegemon—2014: Strategic Implications for the United States,” Turkish Studies, 5(3), Autumn 2004, pp. 25-45.
26 Mustafa Kibaroglu, “Clash of Interest over Northern Iraq Drives Turkish-Israeli Alliance to a Crossroads,” Middle East Journal, 59(2), Spring 2005, pp. 246-264.
27 According to one Israeli analyst, Sharon is “the first to agree to evacuate settlements inside Eretz Yisrael, the Biblical land of Israel. He is the first to hand over territories without a formal agreement; but he is also the first to get American backing for the establishment of facts over the Green Line.” Nahum Barnea in Yediot Aharonot, 21 February 2005, quoted in International Crisis Group, Disengagement and After: Where Next for Sharon and the Likud?, Middle East Report No. 36, 2005.
28 Some of the best sources of objective analyses of the situation in the West Bank and Jerusalem are the reports periodically published by the International Crisis Group. For example, see International Crisis Group, The Jerusalem Powder Keg, Middle East Report No. 44, 2005. On Jerusalem, it concludes that “Perhaps, most significantly, current [Israeli] policies in and around the city will vastly complicate, and perhaps doom, future attempts to resolve the conflict by both preventing the establishment of a viable Palestinian capital in Arab East Jerusalem and obstructing the territorial contiguity of a Palestinian state.”
29 The infeasibility of the two-state option and the argument for a one-state solution are most cogently stated in Virginia Tilley, The One-State Solution: A Breakthrough for Peace in the Israeli-Palestinian Deadlock (University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, 2005). Also, see Tony Judt, “Israel: The Alternative”, New York Review of Books, 50(16), October 23, 2003, pp, and Gary Sussman, “The Challenge to the Two-State Solution”, Middle East Report, 231, Summer 2004.
30 The crisis facing the Palestinian authority is well encapsulated in International Crisis Group, Who Governs the West Bank? Palestinian Administration Under Israeli Occupation, Middle East Report No. 32, 2004. The crisis has intensified since the publication of this report.
31 Top leaders of Hamas, Khaled Meshaal and Mahmoud al-Zahar, have stated such views clearly in interviews soon after the Hamas electoral victory. For Meshaal’s position, see his interview with the BBC, “Hamas ‘Ready to Talk to Israel’, ” accessed on the Internet at http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/ 4692114.stm on March 6, 2006. For al-Zahar’s views, see his interview with CNN, “Hamas Leader Sets Conditions for Truce,” accessed on the Internet at http://www.cnn.com/2006/WORLD/meast/01/29/ hamas.interview/ on March 6, 2006.
32 For a similar argument, see Reuel Marc Gerecht, The Islamic Paradox: Shiite Clerics, Sunni Fundamentalists, and the Coming of Arab Democracy, AEI Press, Washington, DC, 2004.
33 For details of this argument, see Mohammed Ayoob, “Political Islam: Image and Reality,” World Policy Journal, 21(3), Fall 2004, pp. 1-14.
34 See Augustus Richard Norton, “Thwarted Politics: The Case of Egypt’s Hizb al-Wasat,” in Robert W. Hefner (ed.), Remaking Muslim Politics: Pluralism, Contestation, Democratization, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 2005, pp. 133-160.
35 I had made this argument more than four years ago in Mohammed Ayoob, “South-west Asia after the Taliban,” Survival, 44(2), Spring 2002, pp. 41-68.
36 Kenneth Pollack and Ray Takeyh, “Taking On Tehran,” Foreign Affairs, 84(2), March/April 2005.
37 For a perceptive study of the influence of the Israel lobby on the making of U.S. policy toward the Middle East and its negative consequences for the United States, see John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, “The Israel Lobby,” London Review of Books, vol. 28, no. 6, March 23, 2006, accessed on the Internet at http:// www.lrb.co.uk/v28/n06/mear01_.html on March 19, 2006. For an expanded version of the article that provides meticulous documentation, see John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt, The Israel Lobby and
U.S. Foreign Policy, Harvard University, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Faculty Research Working Paper Series, March 2006, accessed on the Internet at http://ksgnotes1.harvard.edu/Research/wpaper.nsf/rwp/ RWP06-011/$File/rwp_06_011_walt.pdf on March 19. 2006.