January 18, 2016 - Basic questions on the broadest issues



This week, Alpher discusses the Iran nuclear deal being fully implemented, with sanctions lifted earlier than originally predicted, and the US and Iran exchanging detainees; where these leave Washington’s relations with Israel and the Sunni Arab states; and the essentially Sunni Arab movements of Islamic State and al-Qaeda and the collapse of several Arab states - how and why all this began five years ago and whether we have figured that out so we can avoid repeating past mistakes.

Q. As of this past weekend, the Iran nuclear deal is being fully implemented, with sanctions lifted earlier than originally predicted. And the US and Iran have exchanged detainees. What’s your reaction to these breakthroughs?

A. There are two ways to look at these developments: the way the Obama administration and most of the world see them, and the way many Israeli strategic observers and Israel’s Sunni Arab neighbors see them.

Obviously, some of the developments can at one level or another be welcomed by all parties. Delaying Iran’s nuclear weapons program is a good thing. The release of Iranian-Americans jailed by Tehran on trumped up treason and spying charges is a good thing. To the extent that genuinely moderate Iranian politicians are gaining power and influence, that too is welcome news.

But beyond these developments, the gap in perception is huge. In the eyes of the Obama administration and many others worldwide, the thaw in Iran’s relations with the international community is proceeding positively. Dialogue with the Iranians works. The world can collaborate with Iran to end the bloodshed in Syria and can work with Iran to combat Sunni Arab extremism in the Levant and elsewhere. The sharp rise in commerce with Iran that will result from the removal of sanctions will strengthen Iran’s moderate camp and be good for both regional stability and the global economy.

In contrast, in the eyes of many Israelis and Israel’s Sunni Arab neighbors, Iran has not changed. It has successfully outmaneuvered the US and its partners in nuclear negotiations and in prisoner-exchange negotiations. Ten years from now, as a wealthy and accepted partner in global politics it will legitimately become a military nuclear power, yet without taking its eye off Israel and without abandoning its hegemonic aims in the Arab region. It has freed its agents from American jails by imprisoning US citizens on ridiculous charges and holding them until the nuclear deal could not be derailed, then exchanging them for Iranians who really did break US laws and are criminals.

Further, Iran can now “legitimately” pursue its hegemonic and subversive interests in Syria, Yemen and Bahrain. Mssrs. Rowhani and Zarif can roll their eyes and negotiate in a civilized manner while the Revolutionary Guards al-Quds force, together with its proxy Hezbollah (still designated by the US a terrorist organization, with much American blood on its hands) and Russia consolidate their grip on Syria and while al-Quds force and Hezbollah seek to build up a military threat on Israel’s northern border.

Saturday’s deals appear to reflect the existence of a basic fault line separating the US threat assessment from the Israeli and Sunni Arab threat assessments in the Middle East. In Washington’s eyes, the primary threat emanating from the Middle East and within the region is Sunni Arab extremism: Islamic State, al-Qaeda and the support provided this current by extremist Wahabi and other religious movements backed by Saudi Arabia and additional Gulf actors. These extremists kill Americans and have to be stopped at any cost. In order to combat this threat, collaboration with Iran is justified and is proving successful.

In Israel’s eyes, Iran and Hezbollah are the greater threat. They pose an immediate military danger on Israel’s northern borders. Iran, alone among the nations of the world, continues to call for Israel’s destruction. In contrast, the Saudis and other Sunni Islamist states are willing to cooperate with Israel against Iran and to tolerate the problematic Palestinian situation. The Islamic State and Qaeda also oppose Israel’s existence, but they do not list Israel at the top of their “to do” list. They basically ignore Israel.


Q. Where does this leave Washington’s relations with Israel and the Sunni Arab states.

A. The fault line, now “ratified” by US deals with Iran, poses a major problem for the ongoing US-Israel strategic relationship and the US-Arab relationship. Obama’s answer (“We remain steadfast in opposing Iran’s destabilizing behavior elsewhere, including its threats against Israel and our Gulf partners, and its support for violent proxies in places like Syria and Yemen”) is to provide Israel and the Arabs with major new weapons systems, presumably so they can defend themselves against Iran even as the US restores Iran’s economic might. Indeed, the Iran nuclear deal now opens the way for Iran to finance its own sophisticated arms industry and arms purchases. So one outcome of all this is almost certainly going to be a major new Middle East arms race and possibly conflicts, by proxy or directly, between Iran and Sunni Arab states like Saudi Arabia and conceivably at some point between Israel and Iran.

As for US-Israel relations, if PM Netanyahu had not left behind him scorched earth and failed abysmally to dialogue fruitfully with President Obama by violating almost every rule of conduct between allies, the two might be able to discuss the issues more constructively. If Netanyahu were not day-by-day closing the door on some sort of constructive relationship with the Palestinians, he might be able to recruit more western support for his far more defensible position regarding Iran. Saturday’s Iran deals represent a major policy failure for Israel’s prime minister.


Q. Speaking of radical Sunni Islamist terrorism, recent days’ attacks have expanded to Istanbul, Jakarta, Ouagadougou, and who knows where else. But the core remains the essentially Sunni Arab movements of Islamic State and al-Qaeda and the collapse of several Arab states. Do we know how and why all this began five years ago? Have we at least figured that out so we can avoid repeating past mistakes?

A. Here is a shortlist of the background questions, issues and developments that appear to be involved. Some of them have been the subject of important research and writing by expert analysts. But nowhere, to the best of my knowledge, has an attempt been made to reach an overall assessment of how the so-called Arab Spring began and how it metamorphosed into its current state of anarchy. While all these factors appear to be relevant, we still don’t seem to know how they interacted in early 2011 to cause the Arab Middle East to fall apart in a kind of perfect storm. 

First, what is the role of key negative elements of Arab society: state dis-functionality, the failure to develop civil society, and disappointed expectations of democratic reform? How does the “deep state” phenomenon of hidden dictatorship fit in? How do the education and gender gaps explain the collapse? What is the role of Islam in general and militant Islam in particular: unique phenomena such as martyrdom and blood sacrifice? The role of tribalism? How significant is an Arab political and societal factor that some prominent scholars point to: Saudi financing of extremist  Wahhabi preaching and teaching throughout the Sunni Muslim world? 

Second, what are the effects of historical events of the past century: the legacy of Ottoman rule, the Sykes-Picot creation of seemingly artificial Arab states in the Levant, the legacy of European colonial rule? How was the Arab Middle East negatively influenced by US and Soviet cold war competition in the Middle East, by the Shiite Islamic revolution in Iran as a model for all Islamists? By the creation and abuse of secular Arab nationalism by the likes of Egypt’s Nasser and the Baath Arab socialist movement in Syria and Iraq, and by the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the USSR?

Third, what has been the negative influence of the US as perceived by many Arabs since the end of the Cold War, beginning with the 1991 war to liberate Kuwait, followed by the 2003 invasion of Iraq, then the 2011 withdrawal from Iraq, and continuing with other instances of perceived intervention such as in Libya in 2011, abandoning Egypt’s Mubarrak in 2011, but also backing off from presidential threats against Syria’s Assad in 2013? Has Arab state interaction with Russia (intervening in Syria), China (aggressively seeking to exploit Middle East economic resources) and Europe (the Arab refugee issue) affected regime collapse?

Fourth, to what extent have Israel-Arab-related events affected Arab state chaos? For decades, Arab leaders blamed all their ills on the emergence of a Jewish state in the Arab heartland, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the refugee issue. Some Middle East scholars blamed the Six-Day War for the defeat and de-legitimization of secular Arab nationalism and the consequent rise of Arab Islamism. To what extent are these developments and insights valid and relevant to current Arab state dis-function?

Fifth comes global input. Climate change and water shortages ostensibly were catalysts for recent economic and political change and revolution in countries like Syria and Yemen. Some scholars blame economic factors like the role of declining oil prices and the lack of agrarian reform in countries like Syria. Some point to the more abstract absence of opportunity and dignity for educated youth in countries like Tunisia and Egypt. Then there are the demographic pressures in countries like Yemen that are unable to deal with population growth. And what about the role of twenty-first century technology--the social networking and digital communications that were so prominent in the early phases of the 2011 revolution in Egypt and are so skillfully employed by ISIS?

Finally, the broader picture. Why are Arab monarchies seemingly immune to the current wave of anarchy and revolution? Why did secular streams of protest yield eventually to militant Islam in Egypt but not in Tunisia? Is there a broader non-Arab Muslim inclination to chaos: in Pakistan, Nigeria (Boko Haram), the Sahel?

These are some of the big questions posed by the events of the past five years. An attempt to find and integrate comprehensive answers would surely help chart a better path for Arabs and Muslims in the future. And of course, as we are witnessing day-by-day, a more stable Middle East is vital at the global level too.