The Middle East is a complex reality of many historic divisions, a region in which the contemporary nation-state is not always the principal reality. But traditional nationalism is broader, older and may have returned as a primary driving motivation.
What currents are driving this scene?
European colonialism riding on the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and Caliphate nurtured modern Arab secular nationalism. That too has now collapsed. Unravelling the layers of conflict and we see the age-old competition between Turks and Persians re-asserting itself as both reach for, if not regional hegemony, then at least regional influence. This competition is emerging as the major underlying current or theme of current Middle East politics.
It is fairly classic commentary to describe a nation-state in geographical terms thereby neatly combining its two components. “A state is a political and geopolitical entity, while a nation is a cultural and ethnic one.” The term “nation-state” implies that the two coincide, but they don’t always. But it has become the dominant form of political organization today. People identifying with them, although often with an additional identifying characteristic. Nazi Germany spoke of Teutonic tribalism, while in the Middle East the identifying characteristic, the badge of membership, so to speak, is religion.
Most 20th century conflicts have indeed been basically ethnic or nationalist in character. This is a reality which conflicts of ideologies often obscure, especially if one is American. “At the outset of the century there were two dominant views…. the liberal expectancy, which held that ethnic attachments were pre-modern modes of thought, not very attractive, and would soon go away with the progress of enlightenment…. the Marxist prediction, which held that ethnic attachments were epiphenomena of pre-modern mode of production, and would soon go away with the progress of socialism. Both were wrong. Ethnicity is in fact post-modern.”1
This reality is particularly true in the Middle East where a superstructure of state organization was imposed on a base of ancient nationalisms and in the cases of Iran, Turkey, and Eqypt on ancient political structures. (Israel as well but a rather different case.) Throughout the wider Middle East we are dealing with a complex pattern of ethnic, religious, clan and tribal loyalties, sometimes with their own admixture of nationalism. The defining boundaries are largely local or, rather, regional. The major theme of nationalism shares the arena with those other conflicting complexities of allegiances, fealties and identities. Unfortunately, the ancient boundaries do not fit well those of today’s countries.
We now have “Bundles of Divisions”, each bundle has it own boundaries on the ground, and they do not coincide with the boundaries of existing states. While they are not purely tied to physical boundaries, “It is an illusion to believe that conflicts rooted in geography can be abolished”.2
An ancient war revives.
The 21st century history of the Arab world may become known as the 100 year struggle to reconcile Islam’s relationship with a globalized world. The Arab world, having failed the earlier promises of Arab Nationalism and then the Arab Spring, is now being torn apart by a renewal of the ancient intra-Islamic war between Sunni and Shiite. Two questions spring to mind. Is this theocratic conflict the cause or the symptom of nationalism and ethnic politics? Are we doomed to suffer the Arab world’s schisms and Arab decimation for the foreseeable future?
Fundamentally the turmoil and conflict ripping through the Middle East is a competition for power. From one perspective it looks like a religious conflict between Sunni and Shi’a. But other significant differences are at play: Arab-Persian, Arab-Turk, Turk-Persian, Egyptian-Others, Kurds-everyone, Berber-Arab (in North Africa), secular-religious, elements of modern nationalism as in Iraq and Syria in particular, and tribal/family/dynastic loyalties just to name the most obvious. This complex disarray at the heart of the Middle East is being reflected in the renewed struggle for power between Iran and Turkey.
Nor, while trying to grope one’s way through the tangle of loyalties afflicting this region, must one forget the pervasive evil which exasperates ordinary people more, perhaps, than anything else—lack of government competence. The governments in the region by and large just do not produce the range and quality of services people increasingly have come to expect: security first of all, then jobs and income, and education and health services.
Instead they are faced in daily life by ugly and demeaning corruption. There is no point in dwelling too much on the competitions of relative ugliness produced by Transparency International or others. In whatever form corruption comes it saps at societies. Arguably it was as important as any other factor in provoking the Arab Spring. Important is the degree to which corruption, in any given state, impairs that state’s capacity to deliver security and other services to its people. And right now Middle Eastern governments, with budgets stricken by collapsing oil prices, now have less money to grease the hands of popular discontent. This phenomenon too is largely due to the lack of basic government or administrative competence.
Meanwhile another layer of unrest has arrived, an overriding global Angst is producing religious/social fundamentalism throughout much of the world. The emergence of global religious fundamentalism in the mid-20th century, in every major religion, has surprised the hitherto secular modern world and continues to upset traditional analysis. Is, in the last analysis, religious fundamentalism a cause or a symptom of political and social unrest? Probably both.
Islam is not alone as, among others, Hasidic Judaism and the rise of Evangelical Protestantism remind us. But it is particularly striking in the Muslim world, if only because of the sheer size of that community—one third of the world. But even in that world, the predominant fallout is in the Middle East. “And these swirling movements in the Middle East are taking place in a region where the dominant political culture (Sunni Arabism) feels that it is under pressure and losing its self-assured dominance. The centre no longer holds in the Arab Middle East.
Or is it Islam’s painful attempt to return to a (different) global world it knew a millennium ago? As ISIS and Al Qaeda soul-snatchers compete for the hearts and minds of thousands of Arabs, Europeans, and Americans to join their Jihad, imagination and determination have rarely been in such demand. The lure of salvation for fanatical defence of the faith is irresistible for many. Tranquilizing the venom of Sunni and Shi’a mutual hatred in battling for Mohammed’s mantle is beyond the mental capacity of western civilization.
In any case, the area is clearly now a political-religious-social free-for-all. But coming to the fore are two other traditional Middle Eastern movements or powers: Turkish or Ottoman versus Persian imperialism. Both have played major roles in the history of the Middle East, the Persians long before the arrival of Islam and the Turks, later intermingled, with the Mongols, and originally as non-Islamic invaders. Most of the political history of the 11th to late 19th century was about the competition between these two, with the Arabs as the occupants of the fought over territory. This is “one of history’s great fault lines, the ancient boundary between the Ottoman and Persian empires.”3 Is there paradoxically scope for contriving positive energies out of these tectonic thrusts?
The “Trio of the Serious”
The major actors in this drama are the region’s three reasonably robust, competent, modern nation-states: Iran, Turkey, Israel. Israel is an outlier and, while getting much attention, is really on the margin of the central turmoil. But each of the three provides a “bundle” of attributes: ethnic, national, religious, cultural, economic, power.
All three countries concerned are, each in their own way, fragile, vulnerable, and unpredictable and one doesn’t even have a guarantee of survival as such.
Nevertheless we focus here on these three countries—we call them the Trio of the Serious—which we believe hold the keys to containing, if not indeed improving, the plight of this afflicted region and its benighted inhabitants. Naming them and lumping them together thus will, depending on one’s analyses, predilections, and interests, immediately raise hackles, protests and much derision. The authors beg the reader’s patience while they lay out their argument. Before readers protest further with eruptions of incredulity, let us take a closer look at these three.
A Question of “weight”
So what do these three have in common? “Not much” is a comment immediately springing to a reader’s mind. All three countries to various degrees officially loathe, fear and/or rival each other. The polities of all three could not be less similar. Iran is a theocracy where elections can and do matter. Israel is a boisterous if fragmented democracy. Turkey is an increasingly flawed and authoritarian democracy. All three face internal strains which could jeopardize their futures.
Yet in reality there is more substance to the claim of communality in our thesis. It is a question of weight.
Iran. Iran’s history—stretching back to its emergence as a regional Achaemenid superpower in 650BC—has been turbulent. When not exercising imperial appetites on its neighbours, notably the Greek world and Mesopotamia, it has whetted others’ appetites for conquest, such as Russia and Britain. Almost permanent war with the Ottomans characterised much of Iran’s 2nd millennium AD. Iran was under pressure in both 20th century world wars. In 1979 the last royal dynasty fell and an Islamic Republic took its place unleashing decades of tensions with the “west”, notably the US. A horrific war with Iraq in 1980-88 left deep physical and psychological scars. A prolonged international stalemate over Iran’s nuclear ambitions is being painfully and uncertainly unravelled. Predominantly Shia’a, Iran is entrenched in bitter ideological and geopolitical rivalry with Sunni Saudi Arabia.
But in terms of capability and resources, Iran has size (1.648 million km2), population (77 million) and economy (GDP $370 billion—$4763 per capita). It is arguably the giant of the region. Historically it has “pedigree” reaching back at least 4 millennia. It stands at the crossroads between the Indian Ocean and Red Sea, the Caspian, Anatolia and much of Central Asia. Ethnically (sources disagree) some 60% of its people are Persian, 25% Turkish speaking Azeri, 10% Kurds and smaller groups such as the Baluchi. Iran is the world’s 6th oil producer, pumping some 4% of the total produced. Iran reportedly has the world’s second largest national gas reserves and is 4th in proven crude oil reserves.
Turkey. The once huge Ottoman Empire and Caliphate dissolved in 1922 and gave way to the modern Turkey of Kemal Atatürk, laid down on strict secular lines. “The Westernized Turkish national state of Mustafa Kemal’s creation, looked… like a successful achievement. Nothing like it had as yet been achieved in other parts of the Islamic World.” Turkey has always been the major military power of the region. The traditionally overweening and putsch-prone power of the military in Turkish politics has now been curbed by the ruling AK party government, supported by a new Anatolian commercial middle-class that has arisen to provide the sinews of the conservative-Islamist political movement, replacing Atatürk’s legacy by a so-called “neo-Ottoman” vocation.
Turkey also has size and politico-economic weight. With a land mass of 784,000 km2, a population of 74 million and a GDP of $820 billion ($8700 per capita) it is, together with Iran, the region’s other giant. Its economy, bereft of oil, is highly diversified. Turkish historians tend to start the national story with the arrival of the Selcuks in the 11th century. Yet Selçuk and Ottoman Turkey are the heirs too of the “other”, Greek, heartland in Anatolia. Turkey too stands at crucial crossroads. Like its overwhelming neighbour, Russia, it faces the frequently erupting question—is it European or Asian? Ethnically (again, sources disagree) some 75-80% of its people are Sunni Turks, another 20% Kurds, and smaller groups. Disputed is the issue of how many Turks are of the Shi’a-related Alevi family—perhaps 20-25%?Israel is definitely the odd man out. Much smaller in size (20,770 km2) but with a per capita GDP of $36,000 for its small population of 6.2 million (20% of whom are ethnically Arab) Israel is closer to European than to Middle Eastern norms of wealth. Historically Jews place their origins in Palestine back over millennia. In terms of recognisable statehood Israel is the post-WWII newcomer with a major question mark over its illegal occupation and settlement of the West Bank. Arguably Israel has a much narrower focus of its national purpose derived from its Zionist roots. Israel is the obvious irritant to most inhabitants of the region but that may actually be irrelevant to its future, except possibly as the speck of sand which forces the oyster to create a pearl.
One could immediately object—what about Egypt? Or Saudi Arabia? Not long ago Egypt would have counted among the “serious” but its continuing problems of mastering its own governance rule it out. Saudi Arabia remains, as a state, a new kid on the block with little substance in its economy or society beside its oil wealth. It can play the role of spoiler, perhaps, but not a principal over a long period.
But all these factors must be mobilized and deployable, and this requires competent government. Only the “Trio” are, at the moment, reasonably competent administrations in that sense. All three know corruption, of course, with Iran high on the Transparency International index, Turkey in the middle, and Israel somewhat better. But, we must remember, that these rankings are impressionistic and in any case what counts is whether or not the government in question also does a reasonable job of delivering the goods. All three arguably do.
In a major work, “Politics as a Vocation”, Max Weber defined the state as an entity that successfully claims a “monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory”. He categorised social authority into distinct forms—charismatic, traditional, and rational-legal. On bureaucracy he emphasised that modern state institutions are increasingly based on “rational-legal authority.”
All three countries of the Trio have professional administrations arguably capable of delivering essential services to their citizens and providing security without excessive authoritarianism. All three possess competent diplomatic services which add considerably to the attributes giving them political weight and influence in the region, and in fact, on the broader international scene. And, lest we forget, the three are the most powerful military actors in the region. When it comes to diplomacy and old-fashioned power politics, all this weighs heavily. This includes the roles and influence of Iran and Turkey, each in their different and often disparate ways, as leaders in the Muslim world.
These are the positive arguments. To start with, Israel excepted, sheer territorial size and population numbers matter. Then there is economic clout. All three have higher per capita GDP than the regional average (with the exception of the Lebanon) and their economies are diversified. Iran is even one of the world’s few oil producers with a relatively diversified economy—unlike its Arab oil-producing neighbours. Each enjoy relatively sophisticated government and political experience. They are exposed to electoral process and public pressure. They know their region. They are rich in history; in one form and to some degree or another, all three have deep historical roots in the region. “So what?” you might say. Quite apart from the negative connotation of the “prisoner of history” syndrome, these things do matter—particularly to the heirs to that history. And the regional victims and witnesses of that history cannot and do not ignore it.
In sum, all three are robust nation-states, albeit with serious flaws. Unlike other polities in the region they do not seem likely to disintegrate in the near future—despite the worries of liberal Israelis about where their country is going.
All of the above, of course, also leads to the conclusion that no polity of the Arab world seems to have sufficient substance of statehood to play a constructive role in re-invigorating the region. The future appears to lie in the hands of its non-Arab residents.
It is axiomatic that ultimately solutions for the Middle East must stem from players in the region themselves. Efforts by the US, Europe, Russia, China to determine agendas for change are doomed to fail if only because public opinion in the Middle East rejects them and their own public opinions are wary at best. For better or worse, they can only be external onlookers, not principals.
And especially since the regional players are beginning to try the patience of both America and Europe. The intransigence of the parties in the Israel-Palestinian situation, the Saudi behaviour towards its own citizens and its succour of Wahabism, and the partisan fury of all parties in Syria are only a few of the developments which are causing many outsiders increasingly to wish to wash their hands of the whole region.
In fact it would be highly agreeable to many Americans and Europeans if they could stand completely outside this but they can’t. Which means that they have opportunities as well as obligations to act in ways that can help regional players. Oil and Israel influence their conduct of policy, among other considerations. They have to walk carefully, protecting their legitimate interests, and trying to be constructive. For instance, they can try sometimes to nudge actors towards an Israeli-Palestinian situation. They can persist in the long-haul purpose of securing deals with Iran which will bring it back into the international fold. They can combine to staunch the flow of weaponry fuelling conflict in the region. Such actions and others provide scope particularly, but not exclusively, for America and Europe to start gaining some credibility in the Middle East. Fathers and mothers are obviously the principals in every birth, but the assistance of a good midwife is often much apppreciated.
Can American and European public and political classes and media help manage this complicated and very long-range project? For the United States the European Union is an increasingly dubious partner with its serious internal strains, economic and political, its poor communality of objectives among its Member States, its lack of credible foreign policy and unfocussed military capacity. The EU is in serious need of revisiting its priorities.
Russia is not in the region but of it. Given its proximity to the Middle Eastern cauldron, its longer term interests must militate in favour of greater stability there. The exposure of Russia’s soft Central Asian under-belly to disruption from the wider Middle East must also be a factor in its calculations. Russia right now, with the Ukrainian crisis, is on a sharp change of course in both external and domestic policies of unpredictable directions. But whether we like it or not Russia is an inescapable player and preferably a partner in any Middle East initiative, as it already is in the Quartet negotiating with Iran over its nuclear ambitions.
Nor are there obvious multilateral institutions offering anything more than marginal leverage. The UN, NATO or the Arab League, for instance are too often condemned to be marginal players at the best. And yet every opportunity must be sought to empower and make them obviously useful to the countries of the region.
Echoing Martin Wolf, writing in the Financial Times, we can identify pointers for the international community in influencing the process:
- Accept that this is a long-term game of engagement and containment i.e. with no quick fixes, military or political;
- Recognise that the heart of the struggle is in the region itself. It is not a struggle that the West can “win”.
- Appreciate and respond to the frustrations many now feel, to the degree possible. A necessary first priority is dealing with immigrant populations in Europe itself.
- Accept the need the bolster security, but not at the price of an insidious process of creeping restriction of liberty and remembering that absolute safety is a myth.
- Restate and reinforce our own values and beliefs, especially in upholding the rule of law.
Is the Future In the Hands of the Trio?
Four trends in the Middle East are immediately obvious:
- Upheavals will continue to blight this core part of the world.
- Each of our Trio has a vested interest in stability in this wider region that encompasses them and of which they are substantial parts.
- None of them have anything to gain from protracted mutual hostility which locks them into culs-de-sac, reducing their options
- Each must therefore prepare to undergo far-reaching changes in their national ambitions.
In such a situation one grasps for opportunities and instruments—countries, states or institutions, areas of stability, power and predictability, social changes—with and around which to seek regional solutions potentially instrumental in bringing about change for the better.
Deep internal struggles are creating havoc in the Middle East. Blaming the “West” for past interference is an easy way out, and all of the current players—now even Israel—do blame the West to one degree or another. How seriously they mean this is another question, and the actual behaviour of Iran and Turkey would seem to indicate that this argument is a cover or excuse for more traditional power politics. This is more true for Iran than for Turkey, perhaps, as Iran quite openly bids to replace the West in countries as far west as Lebanon.
Daniel Patrick Moynihan made the observation would appear to be especially relevant in this situation and to our three countries: “The central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society. The central liberal truth is that politics can change a culture and save it from itself.” Accepting this insight, the outsiders can usefully and legitimately engage in politics in the traditional sense of foreign relations while avoiding the pitfalls of messing around in local culture.
What are those changes for our Trio?
Iran—hopefully without too much bloodshed (suppressing the power of the Guardians and the Basidj might involve some) must reconcile the theocratic identity of the state, the appeal of Iranian imperialism, and a widespread Iranian desire for a “modern” society.
Turkey must acknowledge that it has become trapped in a snowballing paranoia. Can it still be exemplary of a moderate Islam in harmony with modern values, the Kemalist legacy that consistently attracted thinking people throughout the Islamic world, and the Middle East in particular?
Israel must embrace some version the two-state solution with Palestine, as possibly the only way of eventually introducing Israel into the Middle Eastern world, a world which may increasingly be less Arab, while preserving its original objective of a Jewish democracy. Twenty years ago, on the eve of Rabin’s murder, talks in Amman produced a plan for an economic confederation between Israel, Jordan and an independent Palestine. The recent election makes that possibility appear even less likely than it has ever has been.
Building on current success, however, the Trio could each achieve their individual national ambitions within a regional context. Neither Iran or Turkey might be able to achieve a national goal of regional hegemony – neither the Ottoman Caliphate nor the Sassanid Empire in the days of their full glory will return. But Germany, France, and Great Britain were able to play global roles at the same time as pursuing their national goals. So could Iran and Turkey. And if the Gods smile, perhaps a Switzerland-type role for Israel could be at least imagined, if not soon implemented.
Such a happy outcome—happy for the people of these three countries at least and a relief to the regional “outsiders”—will obviously not be easy to achieve. It will require in addition to good luck, the exercise of fairly consistent “strategic restraint” on the part of the Trio. Each must in the pursuit of their national ambitions combine careful control of their ambitions and conscious avoidance of “do or die” situations. In other words, they must all adopt a longish term strategic perspective. It will be best if each believes that time is on their side.
1. Daniel Patrick Moynihan. “Memo for the President-elect” Zagreb, November 28, 1992
2. George Friedman, STRATFOR
3. Dexter Filkins, The Forever War
American Diplomacy is the Publication of Origin for this work. Permission to republish is freely granted with credit and a link back to American Diplomacy.
Edward Marks is a retired Foreign Senior Service officer. He serves on the board of the American Foreign Service Association.
Robert Cox, born in London in 1938, read economics, politics and languages at Cambridge University and the College of Europe. After a start in journalism with the “The Economist” in London and later in central Africa, he started on a second career with the European Commission, first in the Spokesman’s service, then in the private office of Commission Member, George Thomson. A spell in policy & economics work and international negotiations in the development field was followed by appointment as Head of the EC Mission in Turkey. On return to Brussels he held senior policy and management posts with the EC information services. After a detachment to Yugoslavia with the EC Monitoring Mission he served as deputy head of the new EC Humanitarian Office (ECHO). He lives mainly in Belgium working on contemporary challenges facing the EU, notably as a Trustee of Friends of Europe.