The Arab Revolt

3 02 2011

Last month in Tunis, a young man set himself on fire in front of a government building. This act of desperation set in motion the current unrest we are witnessing throughout the Arab world today.  An already tumultuous region has exploded in an expression of frustration with government oppression, indifference, and inability to provide a reasonable quality of life for the people.

While not all revolts are created equal and the situation is different for each country, one thing that binds them together is that the taboo of modern Arabs protesting and overthrowing their government has been shattered, possibly forever. But why are people so angry? What are the implications for the future? And what does it mean for the United States? Egypt, Jordan, Yemen, and Lebanon…a closer look reveals that while each case has its own personality, there are many similarities.


Egypt is the most populous and influential country in the Arab world. Before the events in Tunisia, it was unthinkable that the politically apathetic Egyptians would rise up against their government in this manner. Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak has ruled the country since his predecessor, Anwar Sadat, was assassinated 1981. He immediately instated emergency law, which is still in place to this day. Mubarak has used “emergency law” to maintain order and suppress the opposition, while maintaining an iron grip on the country and stifling all manner of protest.

From 1981 to 2011, the frustration of the powerless Egyptians usually gave way to a kind of Arab fatalism that it was their lot in life to live under a dictatorship. Then, as history’s curious meandering has demonstrated on countless occasions, something happened. Fed-up Tunisians took to the streets, demanded change, and most importantly, they got it.

The events of Tunisia may have shown Egyptians what was possible when people take to the streets, but the fuel for the blaze had been accumulating daily over the last thirty years, and was sparked by the June 2010 beating of 28 year-old Khalid Said at the hands of police. Mr. Said, an alleged suspected drug dealer, was sitting in a cafe in Alexandria when police pulled him into a building and beat him to death in front of stunned onlookers. Two outcomes of this event were the surprising outbreak of large public protests, and the fact that the protests were led by the bespectacled, milquetoast revolutionary, Noble Prize-winner Muhammad El-Baradei.

El Baradei, a respected former IAEA chief, was encouraged by the nation’s youth to run for president against Mr. Mubarak, but the mood of the opposition at the time was so acidic that Mr. Baradei refused to participate on the grounds that it would give the elections a hint of legitimacy. Today in Egypt change seems possible, and it will be interesting to see what role El-Baradei will play if the government does indeed crumble under the weight of the protests.

Egypt is now at a turning point. The protests may ultimately fail, but for the Mubarak regime there is no going back to the way things were. While Egypt does not have a major organized opposition party waiting to take power, the country does have regular (if crooked) elections, a responsible military, a strong civil society, and an independent judiciary. These factors will help a fledgling democracy stay the course.

Another factor in the opposition’s favor is that the movement is not Islamist in nature; it is firmly rooted in students and the middle class. While the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) is a major force in the country, their ideology is not as radical as their name suggests, and as someone smarter and better informed than this author put it,” they are neither a marginal nor mainstream organization”. The MB is not leading this revolt, but it is sure to have some say in any new representative government. This is a good thing, as by most accounts the MB is moderate in its aims, yet it will give more conservative (or radical) constituents a voice in the new government.

Right now, all eyes are on Egypt to see what changes the civil unrest of the last few weeks will bring, but other countries are also in play and it will be interesting to see what courses they take.


Simply put, Yemen is in deep trouble.  The Yemeni people have no shortage of reasons to be upset with the government: Yemen is by far the poorest country in the Middle East; in 6 years Yemen will run out of oil, from which the government depends heavily for revenues; in 15 years, Yemen will run out of drinking water; and in 20 years its population is expected to double. The government has little control outside of the capital of Sana’a, and it faces challenges from rebels in the north and separatists in the south. Add to this list the fact that the Yemeni people are heavily armed on average and the situation is ripe for violence.

Indeed, there is little to be optimistic about in Yemen. Unemployment and illiteracy are high, as is religious extremism. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has a firm foothold in Yemen, where the group’s anti-West/anti-government stance is popular with the locals. Poverty, illiteracy, unemployment, weak central government, religious extremism, endemic tribalism, arid mountainous terrain, the presence of Al-Qaeda, the source of attacks on the United States. All of this is reminiscent of Afghanistan, which is a worrisome comparison.

It would be nice to end this summary on a high note for Yemen, but there is not much to be optimistic about. Even if the current regime falls and a democratic government emerges (which is unlikely), Yemen still faces monumental challenges. Just repeat this mantra to yourself: “running out of oil, running out of water, population to double.” Without unprecedented help from the international community, it’s tough to see how Yemen averts a historic humanitarian crisis.


Following the lead of Egypt and Tunisia, Jordan is also seeing its share of protests. Protesters are upsets high unemployment, high cost of living, and high commodities prices, as well as austerity measures enacted by the government in the wake of the global economic downturn. The situation is complicated by Jordan’s political structure, which is based upon tribal hierarchies and the nation’s constitutional monarchy.

Jordanian’s already have a functioning democracy, but are unhappy with the country’s system of the King appointing cabinet ministers to run the country. As a result of the protests, King Abdullah II sacked the cabinet and appointed a new Prime Minister. While Jordanians may have been inspired by Egypt and Tunisia, they are reportedly not pursuing regime change, only political reforms. So the King is safe for now.


Compared with Egypt and Tunisia, Lebanon seems to be a bird of a different color. But a closer look reveals that the three have more in common than meets the eye.

In Lebanon, Hizballah and its coalition (composed mostly of Shia and Maronite Christians) pulled their ministers and collapsed the pro-Western March 14 government led by Prime Minister Saad Hariri. Hizballah then appointed its own candidate (billionaire Najib Mikati, a Sunni Muslim as Lebanon constitution mandates) who won the support of a majority in Lebanon’s parliament.

The fall of Hariri as Prime Minister was swift and was based on his resistance to drop his support for the UN-led tribunal investigating the 2005 death of his father, Rafik Hariri. The Tribunal is expected to indict members of Hizballah, and the group wanted Hariri to distance himself from an investigation which they believed was biased at best, and an Israeli conspiracy at worst.

The rapid transformation from a government led by a Saudi and Western-backed Saad  Hariri, to a government led by a Syria and Hizballah-backed Nijab Mikati brought thousands of Lebanese Sunnis to the streets for a “Day of Rage”, where Sunni protesters expressed their anger at such a swift loss of power. The maneuvers by Hizballah complete the group’s transformation from a fringe resistance group formed in the 1980’s during the Civil War, to a powerful political machine dominating the government.

What does this have to do with Tunis and Egypt? On the surface, not much. But the case of Hizballah in Lebanon again shows what can happen when a group of people are oppressed for too long. For decades, Lebanon’s Shia were relegated to the bottom rungs of the socio-economic ladder, with Christians and Sunnis above. This was historically the case in Iraq, where a Sunni minority dominated the Shiite majority. Today, both nations have transitioned to democracies dominated by Shiite political parties.

In Iraq, it took a US-led invasion to initiate such a change, but for Lebanon, the change has been happening incrementally over the last fifty years.  Imam Musa Sadr began preaching equality for the Shia of Lebanon in the 1960’s, eventually founding the secular Amal Movement. Lebanon’s Shiite population has been making slow and steady gains over the years, building to what we are seeing today.

While Lebanon is a democracy, it is not representative of the country’s demographic makeup. Christian’s make up less than a third of the population, yet they control half the seats in parliament. The rest are allocated to the other sects. This allocation is based on the 1932 census, and many estimates have the Shia vastly outnumbering the other sects today, representing as much as 40% of the population. Lebanon’s Shia believe that this is unfair and they have worked over the years to reverse the situation.

In Egypt, Tunisia, and Lebanon, oppressed groups have taken matters into their own hands and demanded a change. The difference with Lebanon is that the change took place on a more incremental pace, and it should be noted that this latest “Hizballah coup” was done completely within the confines of the constitution.


The recent developments in the Middle East have to be troubling for Israel. Egypt and Jordan are Israel’s only neighbors to sign a peace treaty with the Jewish State. As a result of these treaties, Egypt and Jordan have been showered with military and development aid from the United States, a close ally of Israel. Israeli’s have to be wondering what will come out of the protests, and how it will affect them. Will a new Egyptian government honor the old agreements with Israel? How will Hezbollah’s ascension to power affect Lebanon’s relationship with Israel?

And will there be any protests from Israel’s own oppressed masses of Palestinians? It seems as though the Gaza War of 2008-2009 broke the backs of the violent Palestinian resistance, and that a third Intifada is highly unlikely, but a month ago it also seemed highly unlikely that Egypt’s government would be on the verge of collapse. For now, Gaza and West Bank are quiet, but for how long? Israeli official have publicly come out on the side Egypt’s Mubarak, but it’s unclear what good, if any, such a stance does for Cairo’s embattled despot.

United States

The United States is in a delicate position. Its old friends in Cairo (Mubarak), Amman (King Abdullah II), Beirut (Hariri), Sana’a (Saleh), and Tunis (Bin Ali) are under attack, and no one is sure what kind of political order will emerge from the chaos. What doesn’t change is the region’s high importance to the United States.  America’s oil supply is at stake, and there are troops in Iraq and Afghanistan to worry about. And then there is Israel, who is arguably of little strategic interest, but is very influential in Washington.

The Obama administration has taken a wait-and-see approach in Egypt, gradually and subtly shifting support from the regime to the opposition. Washington does not want to be on the wrong side of history on this one (see: Iran, 1953, 1979). After Obama took office, he traveled to Cairo to deliver an impassioned speech to the Muslim world. He told Muslims that America was not against them, and that he supported them in their struggle for democracy. Now Obama’s word will be directly tested. Will he come to the aid of the dictators and Israel, or will he support the Egyptian people in their demands for a truly representative elected government?  For the time being, Obama is more comfortable on the fence.

Finally, it is natural to look forward to see who could be next in line for a revolution. Other countries in the region and around the world have to be watching and wondering if it could happen to them. The more time goes by, the more time authoritarian regimes have to sure up support and consolidate power in expectation of a possible popular challenge. Or they could take proactive steps to ensure a peaceful transition to democracy. Saudi Arabia, Libya, Bahrain, Iran, and countries throughout Asia and Africa are all candidates for similar unrest. Time will tell how for this goes, but today revolution is in the air.



Welcome back Syria

23 09 2010

By Patrick Vibert

Editors note: this article originally appears on the Foreign Policy Association website.

Last week, Prime Minister Hariri publicly dismissed his case against Syria in the assassination of his father. His opinion on the matter carries no formal weight, but for the people of Lebanon, Mr. Hariri’s actions are indeed significant.  It was his father that was killed and if he can look past the issue in order to ensure Lebanese stability, then perhaps the public can as well.

On February 14, 2005, former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was killed, along with 22 other, by a massive car bomb that detonated as his motorcade drove along the Beirut seaside. Syria took the blame from an enraged Lebanese public that had grown weary of the occupation of their country by their brutish and unsophisticated neighbors to the north and east. They wanted the Syrians out.

Normally, such discontent would not have register very high on Damascus’ radar, but in this case timing  was everything.  Back then, the United States was angry with Syria for not controlling its border with Iraq at a time when the US military was seeing heavy casualties. To punish Syria, Washington put its full weight behind the pro-Western leaders of Lebanon. This, combined with broad popular support in Lebanon to end the occupation, spelled then end of  Syria’s dominance over Lebanon. At least for a while.

Following Rafik Hariri’s assassination, the son publicly blamed Damascus for the loss of his father and eventually rode the tide of discontent to the same office he had occupied. After being selected by parliament to be the next Prime Minister of Lebanon, the young Saad Hariri, considered a relative political novice at the time, waded into the complicated world of Lebanese politics. His primary task was to form a cabinet to govern the country, and it was likely here where it became clear that he could not remain hostile to Damascus forever.

This was 2009, and over the course of four years much had changed in the world. The situation in Iraq had stabilized, Iran was the new big threat to the West, and there was a new President in Washington. The tone coming from America towards Syria was one of reconciliation.  The Obama administration wanted to bring Syria in from the cold and out of its troubling alliance with Iran and Hizballah. In these conditions, the coyote was let back into the henhouse.

The true turning of the tide came when Syrian President  Bashar Assad traveled to Saudi Arabia in the fall of ‘09 to bury the hatchet with the Saudi King. King Abdullah was a close personal friend of Hariri Sr.’s, and like the son, he took his death hard and blamed Damascus for it. But time had past and things had changed. The Saudis were worried about the rising power of Iran as well, and it would be useful to get closer to Syria, a fellow Arab and Sunni Muslim state.

Saad Hariri was summoned to Riyadh and was informed that he could not afford an acrimonious relationship with the Damascus. Historically, geographically, and politically, it just was not feasible. Syria has dominated Lebanon for centuries. On the map, tiny Lebanon is basically surrounded by Syria. The two states had had their tiff, but now it was time to get on with life.

The writing on the wall became more vivid when Hariri Jr. himself traveled to Damascus to formally reconcile. This must have been a bitter pill to swallow, and it’s not clear whether he truly believes that some other actor could  have been behind the hit on his father. But with each passing strip to kiss Assad’s ring (three so far), it became more obvious that the relationship between Syria and Lebanon was returning to the status quo.

There is still the Special Tribunal for Lebanon that was set up by the United Nations to look into Hariri’s murder, which has yet to issue any indictments, but it’s crystal clear to all observers of the Middle East: the boys are back in town.

Lebanon enters “very serious phase” with STL

26 07 2010

Rafik Hariri

Editor’s note: This article originally appears on the Foreign Policy Association website.

Hizballah leader Hassan Nasrallah announced in a press conference Thursday that he expects Hizballah members to be charged in the investigation into the 2005 assassination of Rafik Hariri, and that as a result, Lebanon was now entering a “very serious phase”.

Depending on who is charged within the group, the indictments could be extremely damaging for the Party of God and could push Lebanon into instability.

Nasrallah dismissed the forthcoming charges as an Israeli plot, linking the United Nations Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) to a wave of Israeli espionage that has been continuously uncovered since 2009.

Charges that the STL investigation is a politically motivated Israeli plot are less believable in the wake of the UN’s Goldstone Report regarding Israeli’s Operation Cast Lead  in Gaza in 2009. The scathing report accused the IDF (as well as Hamas) of war crimes, exhibiting the UN’s capacity for carrying out a seemingly neutral investigation.

Saad Hariri

Current Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri (son of the aforementioned slain Rafik Hariri) has, as reported by Nasrallah, declared that he will make a public distinction between Hizballah as an organization and “undisciplined members” who might have been involved in the plot.

While this may be just a way for Hariri to keep his ties with March 6 alive, the move may also be to keep Lebanon from tearing itself apart. If Hariri shows no public animosity towards Hizballah after the charges are released, it will be difficult for any other party to show it either.

Since Hariri took office, he has made it apparent that he values Lebanon’s stability over almost anything else. His reconciling with Bashar Assad, his seemingly endless trips abroad to garner support for his small nation in the face of Israeli aggression, and now his handling of the STL results…every move made is with one end in mind: stability.  Whether that quest for stability is out of love for his country or some personal interests is anyone’s guess, but his commitment is beyond question.

In his own effort to diffuse tensions, Sayyed Nasrallah has gotten way out in front of the issue. From political blogger Elias Muhanna, as reported by the AFP, “By the time that the STL gets around to indicting Hezbollah members a few months from now… the development will be old news, already dissected, analyzed and picked over by Beirut’s punditocracy…No one will be surprised and (if Nasrallah and others get their way), no one will really care.”

Sandwiched between “What happened to Imam Musa Sadr?” and “Who killed Imad Mugniyeh?”, “Who killed Rafik Hariri?” remains one of the Middle East’s most intriguing mysteries. Syria  had the most to gain from Hariri’s death, as well as the intelligence and technical capabilities to pull it off, but it is also unlikely that Damascus could have undertaken such sophisticated operation without getting the attention (an perhaps the approval) of Hizballah.

Hassan Nasrallah

It is hard to see where Israel would fit in to all of that. I suppose, in this land of smoke and mirrors and castles made of sand, that anything is possible. But when Hizballah takes to blaming everything on Israel, the charge kind of loses its effectiveness. Just like not everyone that criticizes Israel is an anti-Semite, not every problem in Lebanon is caused by the Jewish State. In this case, attempting to dismiss the STL investigation as an Israeli ploy sounds childish coming from a warrior like Nasrallah.

Nasrallah’s actions aside, the big question going forward will be how this news affects the stability of Lebanon and the greater Middle East. At first glance, this is an internal dispute- a Lebanese killed by Lebanese- but it is sure to have repercussions for the surrounding states and beyond.

Damascus has to be secretly smiling right now. As long as those charged do not start giving up names of Syrian intelligence operatives, President Bashar Assad has dodged a bullet for now. However, don’t be surprised of those charged “turn up missing” for good measure.

Israel must also be enjoying this moment, as there is little doubt that many there relish seeing Nasrallah in such a predicament. But it is likely that they are also wary that, with Hizballah in such a tight spot, the group may do something unexpected.

Iran cannot be happy with the news, as it could make the Islamic Republic seem to be a more active and nefarious meddler in Lebanon than ever before.

Indictments against Hizballah members could also have an effect on regional relations. Rafik Hariri was an immensely popular figure in the Sunni Arab world, and charges linking the Shiite organization to his death could be damaging within Lebanon and without. For example, Hariri’s assassination destroyed Saudi Arabia’s relationship with Syria, which took four years to rebuild to where it is today.

Bashar Assad

But are Hizballah’s dismissals entirely unfair? As no entity in the Middle East has a monopoly on the truth, Hizballah’s counter charges must be addressed. While it is most improbable that Israel was involved with Hariri’s assassination, it is far less improbable that both Israel and the United States did not at least try to influence the findings of the STL.

Obviously Israel, whose last 18 months seem to have been a never ending public relations nightmare, enjoys Hizballah’s implication in the plot. But as for the United States, the situation is more opaque. Washington has been courting Damascus’ assistance in both containing Iran and helping the stability of Iraq. It is conceivable that Washington used its influence to direct the STL away from a Syrian indictment. But just how likely or possible that scenario is remains to be seen.

Though the names of those charged have not been released, it’s hard to imagine the men named would be anything other than low level conspirators. If Hassan Nasrallah, Bashar Assad, or even former Syrian intelligence chief Rustom Ghazaleh were charged, that would be truly astounding.

In the mean time, Nasrallah’s tone in his press conference was threatening (in text). In his speech, the Secretary General stated, “There is a dangerous project that is targeting the resistance…We are not at all afraid, nor are we worried. We know how to defend ourselves.”

Such rhetoric has been an interpreted to be a not-so-subtle hint warning the STL that it should tread carefully in the coming months, as their actions could have a disastrous impact on the future of Lebanon. Such talk is a stark reminder of the chaos that ensued in May 2008, when government forces clashed with Hizballah and Lebanon nearly went back into the abyss.

It is an interesting theoretical exercise: is knowing the so-called truth about Hariri’s assassination worth all the harm it could do? Unfortunately for the people of Lebanon, it looks like we are going to find out.

Is El-Baradei the next Mousavi?

22 07 2010

Mohammed El-Baradei

Last month, there was a rally in Alexandria attended by some 4,000 Egyptians protesting the death of Khaleed Mohammed Saeed, allegedly at the hands of Egyptian police. Eye witness accounts say Saeed was dragged from the street by police to a building where he was then beaten to death. Egyptian police claim that the man died after ingesting drugs, but postmortem photos of Saeed tell a different tale.

However, the story here is not the abuse of power by Egyptian police , but the fact that the rally was led by former IAEA chief Muhammad El Baradei. Such a high-profile and anti-establishment appearance by El-Baradei represents a big step forward for the man whom many want to run for president. The situation that exists in the run-up to the 2011 Egyptian presidential election is reminiscent of that which existed in Iran in 2009, when reformer Mir Hussein Mousavi ran against incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and it might be useful to compare the two.

To start, Mir Hussein Mousavi and Muhammad El-Baradei are sort of similar in appearance. Bespectacled and quiet, at first glance the men look more at home on a university campus.  Both men were born in 1942, making them 68 years old, and each are considered to be “reformers” in countries that seem to be democracies in name only. Both men have strong appeal with the urban and educated. After that, it is less clear how much these men share both in terms of personal style and political will.

Mr. El Baradei’s position in the Egyptian political scene is a relatively new phenomenon. After serving for years with the IAEA, he had hoped to retire to a quiet life in south of France, but he returned to Egypt to find that he was the new hope for a generation of Egyptians who have grown ever more tired of the regime of Egypt’s current president, Hosni Mubarak.

Mubarak took power after the assassination of Anwar Sadat in 1981. Immediately after taking office, Mubarak instituted “emergency law”, which gives the government sweeping powers to enforce security. But nearly 30 years have passed since those measures were taken and still the rules of emergency law remain in effect. Over that time, the government intelligence service has vigilantly snuffed out dissent, and Mubarak’s rule has be uninterrupted. That is, until now.

Hosni Mubarak

Hosni Mubarak, 82 years old, is believed to be of weak health, and it is unclear whether he will “run” for reelection in 2011 (It is speculated that his son, Gamal, is the chosen successor). If Mubarak does indeed retire, Egypt could have its first new leader in thirty years.

Even in the best of times, succession in any state is a tricky proposition and is never a given.  In the United States, every four to eight years, power is transferred from incumbent to elected in an orderly and predictable fashion that is steeped in tradition. This is true for many developed democracies, and it means that while the power of one regime chosen by the people is handed over to the next regime chosen by the people, the rights and values of the country will remain the same.

Egyptians are not used to this. Since 1954, Egypt has had only 3 leaders: Gemal Abdul Nasr, Anwar Sadat, and Hosni Mubarak.  Three leaders in 56 years. Nasr died in office and Sadat was assassinated by Islamic extremists. It’s unclear how Mubarak’s time in office will come to an end.

Egypt’s propensity for long-serving leaders dates back before the Ottoman Empire, to the Pharaohs. It could be argued that Egyptian society is not accustomed to regularly choosing new leaders and therefore might not be ready for it, but Egypt has been a faux democracy for nearly sixty years and its people are  clearly familiar with it’s tenets, including an active civil society and an independent judiciary.

Iran is in a similar situation. For centuries, it was ruled by kings (shahs) and the people had little power. Iran flirted with a full-fledged democracy in the 1950’s, yet was thwarted by the nascent CIA in 1953, when Kermit Roosevelt orchestrated a coup allowing Shah Pahlavi to return to power. With the help of the United States, the Shah ruled with an iron fist until 1979. That year, the Islamic revolution swept the nation and the Ayatollah Khomeini took charge.

In the 30-plus years since the Islamic Revolution, the military and intelligence establishment exercised its control of the country. Today, elections (like the presidential election of 2009) are a predetermined farce. Sound familiar?

Mir Houssein Mousavi

In both Iran and Egypt, the elites maintain a stranglehold on power, information, and decision-making. In both countries, voter apathy remains high and the potential for change remains low. Still, few people predicted the massive outpouring of protests in response to Iran’s elections last year. And it is not outside the realm of possibility that the same could happen in Egypt.

The protests in Iran came from mostly dissatisfied educated urban elite, whose values were not necessarily shared with the conservative citizenry of the more rural parts of the country. In Egypt, there is certainly a large group of “educated urban elites” that would like to see a change in leadership, but there is also the discontent of the popular Muslim Brotherhood to be considered.

The biggest difference between Muhammad el-Baradei and Mir Hussein Mousavi is in there ability to credibly criticize the regime in power. Mousavi got in on the ground floor of the revolution, and is one of the Islamic Republic’s founding fathers. Mousavi was very close with Khomeini, and this background gives his opinions and criticisms substantial weight while making it very difficult for the regime to try to silence him.

El-Baradei, on the other hand, is a complete outsider. He spent most of his career outside of Egypt, working for the United Nations. He is neither a military man, nor an Islamist. The biggest weapons that he brings to the table is his international name recognition and his potential as a reformer. In Egypt, this will not be enough. Any presidential candidate needs the approval of parliament to run, which is controlled by the Mubarak clique. So it is unlikely that his name would ever appear on the ballot.

Another difference is in their respective levels of international support. The West, particularly the United States, wished desperately for the protests in Iran to morph into a revolution that would have swept both Khamenei and Ahmedinejad out of power. This is not the case with Egypt.

Egypt is a powerful and populous Arab nation that has been an ally to the United States for decades. It is also one of the few Muslim nations to recognize Israel and sign peace with the Jewish State. It is easy to understand why both nations would want to ensure continuity in Egypt, and the best way to do that is not the inconvenient and unpredictable use of the ballot box, but through predetermined succession.

In this regard, the United States, Israel, and the Egyptian military establishment are on the same page, as neither would like to see a popular Islamist movement take power that might threaten their interests and prior agreements.

Still, as the aftermath of the 2009 Iranian parliamentary elections have shown us, succession, especially in counties with a deeply dissatisfied citizenry, does not always go as planned.

The protests that took place in Iran have yet to precipitate any major change in leadership, but that hand has yet to fully play itself out. The kinetic energy of such massive displays of civil disobedience do not simply evaporate into the air like a pipe blowing off steam. Instead, these actions could have long-term effects that will ripple through Persian society for generations. Where it all will lead is unclear, but Iran’s protests will likely be reflected upon in the future as the catalyst of something major that has yet to occur.

Is a similar situation possible in Egypt next November? Probably not, but one never knows. The Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s most significant opposition group, is lying low for the time being. The group is rumored to be in support of El-Baradei’s candidacy, but their real motives are uncertain, as they would likely support any alternative to the current regime. They are a wild card in all of this.

For El-Baradei, the political, military, and intelligence establishment- as well as the United States and Israel- are against him. With such internal and external hurdles in the way, it is unlikely that his candidacy, if he so chooses to run, would inspire anything other than intense public debate. However, in Egypt as in Iran, perhaps for now that is enough.

Lebanon loses a giant

6 07 2010

by Patrick Vibert

Editor’s note, this article originally appears on the Foreign Policy Association website.

Sayyed Fadlallah

Thousands of people from all over Lebanon and the Middle East turned out today to mourn the passing of Grand Ayatollah Hussein Fadlallah, who died this past Sunday at the age of 75. The loss is big not only for Lebanon, but for the entire region, as Fadlallah was a highly revered and influential figure in the Shiite community and beyond.

Though he was known in the West for his tough stance against Israel and the United States, those that are familiar with the region know that he was frequently the voice of reason and pragmatism in Lebanon.

He was often cast as the “spiritual leader” of Hizballah, but that term is a bit of a misnomer. While Hizballah’s massive following in Lebanon no doubt revered Fadlallah, the organization’s upper leadership frequently proclaims Iran’s Ayatollah Khamenei as their leader. This is in direct contrast with the fact that Fadlallah was often critical of the concept of walayat al-fiqah, which establishes Shiite holy men as politicians to rule over the people. Over the years, both Hizballah and Fadlallah have denied any direct affiliation with one another.

Before becoming the pillar of the Shiite community in Lebanon, Fadlallah was busy in Najaf helping to advance the equally marginalized Shia of Iraq. He helped form the Dawa party to give the Iraqi Shia some political influence. Today, the Dawa is one of the most powerful political parties in Iraq, and is headed by current Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

Fadlallah’s death leaves a gaping hole in the upper echelon of Shiite leadership. Though Tehran has expressed its condolences for his passing, the regime has to be quietly happy at the removal of one of its most powerful critics. It is one thing for Ayatollah Khamenei to be criticized by the President of the United States, but the words carried much more weight when they came from a respected rival in Khamenei’s own religious community.

The leadership of the Shiite community is primarily based in Lebanon, Iran (Qom), and Iraq (Najaf). Ten years ago, Ayatollah’s Fadlallah, Khamenei, and Iraq’s Sistani and al-Khoei were the most influential Shiite holy men in terms of followers. But with al-Khoei’s death in Iraq in 2003, and Fadlallah’s death this week, only Sistani and Khomeini remain at the top*. This means that there are far less men capable of credibly criticizing Tehran than at any time in the past.

*Iran’s Khamenei and Iraq’s Sistani maintain opposing views in regards to religion and politics. Sistani seemingly goes out of his way not to get involved in politics, while Khamenei is of the opinion that the two are inseparable.

Perhaps another Shia scholar will step into the power vacuum that Fadlallah’s death has left, but right now it does not appear that any one person is ready or capable. Those Shia in Lebanon that are aligned with Hizballah’s ideology will continue to be influenced by Ayatollah Khamenei, while Fadlallah’s followers that are looking for new spiritual leadership will likely be divided between Ayatollah Sistani and Fadlallah’s successor as Grand Ayatollah of Lebanon.

Imam Musa Sadr

Fadlallah’s life resembled that of another Shia giant of Lebanon, Imam Musa Sadr. The two were only separated in age by six years, and like Fadlallah, Musa Sadr was born outside Lebanon (in Sadr’s case, Qom), but returned to his ancestral homeland to become a force in Islam. Both Sadr and Fadlallah were highly influential, and both worked tirelessly to improve the lives of the downtrodden Shia of Lebanon, establishing many social, educational, and charitable programs. Both were regarded as “moderates”, preaching science, reason, and cooperation between the sects. Both were commonly associated with Shiite militias either by fact (Musa Sadr founded Lebanon’s Amal Movement) or by rumor (Fadlallah was often linked with Hizballah).

Musa Sadr’s disappearance on 1978 trip to Libya is seen as one of the major events that precipitated the bloody downward spiral of violence that was the Lebanese Civil War. Some have written that if Sadr had been around, the relationship between the sects would not have deteriorated in the way that it did. Right now it is unclear how the loss of this monumental voice will go on to effect Lebanon and the greater Middle East, but the passing of such men frequently results in subtly vast geopolitical tectonic shifts that are only visible through the distant rearview mirror of history.

Nasrallah to Turkey

16 06 2010

Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah

Editor’s note: this article originally appears on the Foreigh Policy Association website.

The Kuwaiti newspaper As-Siyassah is reporting that Hizballah Secretary General Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah has been invited to Ankara to meet with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Neither Hizballah nor the Turkish government have confirmed the story, but if it is true, it marks a significant deterioration in Turkey’s relationship with Israel in the wake of last month’s botched flotilla raid.

Hizballah is one of Israel’s greatest foes, and Erdogan inviting its leader for a high-level meeting would show that the once close bond that existed between the two countries is in worse shape than most people previously thought. Relations between Turkey and Israel have been strained lately, stemming from January 2009’s Operation Cast Lead, in which Israel assaulted Hamas forces in Gaza, killing hundreds of Palestinian civilians in the process.


Turkey’s ruling AKP party is said to be more Islamic in nature than previous regimes, and it has been increasingly difficult for the party to maintain close ties with Israel, which many Muslims consider to be waging war on the Palestinians. The result is that the AKP benefits greatly both regionally and domestically when it takes sides against Israel.

Asharq al-Awsat’s Tariq Alhomayed characterized Turkey as “pulling the rug out” from under Hizballah and Iran in terms of supporting the Palestinian resistance, but it is unclear just how much this popularity contest actually means to either party. Mr. Alhomeyed’s statement was made in regards to Turkey’s stern condemnation of Israel after the flotilla raid.

Turkish television’s NTV reported that the alleged future meeting between Nasrallah and Erdogan was suggested by Hamas’ leader-in-exile Khaled Meshaal. The report also stated that Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps would facilitate the logistics of Nasrallah getting to Ankara, out of fear of IDF assassination attempts.

Such a summit between  Erdogan and Nasrallah would further represent Turkey’s reassertion of power in the region, as it tries to maintain productive ties with the West while also embracing its post-Ottoman role in the Middle East.

If Erdogan welcomes Nasrallah to Anakra, Tel Aviv and neoconservatives in Washington will no doubt be furious, as such a meeting would indicate Turkey’s continued alignment with the Resistance at the expense of Israel.

America and Iran

28 05 2010

Last week Iran announced an arrangement, brokered by Brazil, where the Islamic Republic would ship out uranium to have it enriched in Turkey. The deal, similar to one offered by the United States last year, was denounced by Washington as a means to delay United Nations Security Council (UNSC) sanctions against Iran.

Iran was offering to have a large portion of its uranium enriched abroad to levels that are consistent with nuclear energy and not nuclear weapons. Once the uranium is turned into rods for nuclear reactors, it cannot be further enriched to be used for nuclear weapons.

The problem that Washington had with the deal is that Iran would still be holding onto a significant portion of its uranium that could be used some day to make a nuclear warhead, and Tehran has stated that it has no intention of halting its current enrichment program.

The Prospect of Sanctions

Russia and China

The battle over Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons program has been slowly escalating over the last year or so, encompassing Obama’s entire presidency. To date, the Obama administration has opted to take a confusing, passive-aggressive, diplomatic course in dealing with the Iran: make offers and talk about diplomacy while arranging sanctions and preparing the Gulf for war.  This strategy only seems to be “diplomatic” in the absence of a battle.But, as mentioned, one battle has been raging for months: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s political wrangling to arrange sanctions on Iran in the UNSC.

If you don’t know how the UNSC works, it has fifteen members, five of which are permanent and have veto power (the P-5: USA, UK, France, Russia, China) and ten members selected on a rotating basis for a period of two years. Usually, the United States can impose its will on the majority of the non-permanent members of the council, but the P-5 members sometimes must be aggressively courted to produce a “yes” vote. In the current situation with Iran, the UK and France were not hard to win over, but Russia and China have been.

Generally speaking, Russia loves to exploit any situation where the United States needs Russian assistance, but at the end of the day it is unlikely that they would veto something that is obviously so important to Washington. In return for their support (if tepid), however, America had to scrap a missile defense system that it was planning on installing in Russia’s sphere of influence in Poland and the Czech Republic.

And just recently, it seems that China has come aboard the USS Sanctions. Traditionally, China will do business with anyone as long as it benefits China and as long as the other country doesn’t criticize the government in Beijing. Iran fits nicely into this mold: China buys millions of barrels of oil without facing any condemnations from Iran regarding communism or human rights (the same goes for Burma and Sudan). The oil goes on to fuel economic growth that China needs to stave of domestic instability. (I guess the theory is that as long as people are being productive, they will not demand freedom of the press or the right to vote.)


This is why it has been so hard for America to convince China to go the sanctions route: one, China needs the cheap oil; two, China thinks its domestic policies are no business of foreigners; and three, if Iran did acquire a nuclear weapon, they would not be using it against China anyway. So why should they care enough to upset such a crucial trading partner?  This is the question that Hillary Clinton has been trying to answer since she took office.

China can’t be threatened with force; it has a very large army and scores of nuclear missiles. China can’t be bullied economically; it is the United States’ largest trading partner and holds over a trillion dollars in US currency and debt.  So figuring out the right mixture of carrots and sticks has been understandably difficult for the Obama administration. But it appears something has worked, because just after Iran announced its plans with Turkey and Brazil (both of which are emerging powers that are starting to assert themselves in the diplomatic arena), the United States announced that it had reached an agreement on sanctions with both Russia and China.

Why did China change its mind? While Beijing’s first impulse might be to do the opposite of what the West wants it to do, it doesn’t change the fact that China’s relationship to Europe and the U.S. is very important as it represents two massive markets that buy Chinese goods, which in turn fuels the economic growth that fosters domestic stability. And once Russia was aboard, it was that much more difficult for China to stand alone.

As for the sanctions themselves, it is difficult to say whether they will have any real impact on Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons program. Historically, the effects of sanctions in guiding rogue nations to the right course have been spotty at best, as sanctions usually only serve to strengthen the position and resolve of the regime while only the citizens of the sanctioned nation suffer.

In order to make sanctions work, you need to make the regime suffer. In this case most analysts agree that, while imposing certain banking and trading restrictions on Iran might be at most an inconvenience, they will likely not achieve the desired result.

For Iran, the key weakness is in its gasoline imports. Iran may have a lot of oil, but years of sanctions have crippled its ability to refine oil into gasoline (score one for sanctions). As a result, Iran must import a large portion of its gasoline, mostly from Russia. This is where Russia could have played a key role: if Russia agreed to halt gasoline exports to Iran, the Iranian economy would have ground to a halt and would have easily inflamed the anger of a public that is already visibly discontented with the regime in Tehran.

But the current UNSC resolution makes no mention of gasoline imports, and it looks like the price of having Russia and China on board was that the resulting resolution would be devoid of teeth. Perhaps the Obama administration thinks that it is more valuable to have their support to give the resolution the appearance of a multilateral consensus than it was to have a resolution that could actually have a direct effect.

Iran Gets Nukes: So What?

Enriched Uranium

With all this talk about what’s to be done with Iran, it is easy to get lost in the rhetoric. When such a big deal is made about a particular issue, and everyone has strong opinions on all sides, but they don’t really disagree, the question must be asked: why do we care?

(My personal policy is this: there should be no nuclear weapons anywhere in the world, and the international community should work hard towards that goal. But if Russia is to have one, the United States is to have two.)

The list of countries with (known) nuclear weapons is long: US, UK, France, Russia, China (the P-5), India, Pakistan, Israel, and North Korea. Really, aside from being counter non-proliferation, what is one more country?  The problem isn’t so much of “what” as it is “who”.The country in question has been hostile to the United States for over 30 years, continuously referring to the America as “the Great Satan” (with Israel being the “Little Satan”).  But that’s not really it either, as the United States was not nearly as aggressive towards North Korea’s nuclear weapons program (a rogue regime if there ever was one, one that actually fought a war with the U.S. in the 1950’s). Perhaps it was because Pyongyang’s possession of nuclear weapons came as a surprise and by the time the world knew about it, it was too late: because they had nuclear weapons.

No, America’s interest in Iran is different and its concerns are two-fold: the first is Iranian hostility towards Israel; the second is Iran’s direct challenge to American hegemony in the Middle East.

Tehran makes no bones about its dislike of Israel. The regime’s leaders constantly denounce Israel to gain support from the masses. For any nation, it helps to have an adversary for which to rally domestic support. North Korea has South Korea, Israel has Iran (they have each other), America had Communism, and now it has Terrorism. The question is whether this hostile rhetoric goes beyond mere speeches.

For Iran and Israel, it certainly does. Iran has been funding and training Hamas for years, and in 2006, Israel fought a 34-day war with Hizballah, an Iranian proxy. But what came first, the chicken or the egg? It’s difficult to say. On the surface, it would appear that Israel would have no problem with Iran if Iran had no problem with Israel. However, the Iranian revolution of 1979 was Islamic in nature, and one of the claims of the new regime in Tehran was that Zionism was evil, as it oppressed Muslims. Whatever you believe, one thing that’s true is that Israel worked closely with the hated former leader of Iran: the Shah. As it turns out, something that Iran’s three greatest enemies (US, UK, Israel) have in common is their ties to Reza Shah Pahlavi, the former King of Iran.

Since the Islamic Republic came in to being, it has been hostile towards Israel. And while Israel might have one of the most advanced militaries in the world, it is still a very small country in relation, and is understandably afraid of one of its greatest enemies acquiring weapons of mass destruction, particularly nukes. However, this doesn’t explain why the United States is so concerned. Or does it?

It is extremely unlikely that Iran would make a nuclear weapon, attach it to a missile, and launch it at the United States, because America would respond in kind and that would the end of the regime in Tehran. (The same goes for Iran attacking Israel for that matter.)  While not usually on the same page with the international community, it is safe to say that Iran is led by rational actors in that they value regime survival beyond anything else.

Let’s just say that Iran manages to build a nuclear weapon and launches it Israel the next day. Israel would likely reciprocate and the regime in Tehran would be toast. But even if they weren’t, Khamenei and Ahmedinejad would likely face a level of international isolation that they had never dreamed existed. Not only would they have been responsible for the Holocaust Part II, thousands of fellow Muslims would have been killed in the process. Adding another layer is that those Muslims would be Arabs, which would further widen the chasm between Arabs and Persians. The average (surviving) Persian, thoughtful and literate, would likely be appalled and ashamed of their government’s course of action. And not only would Tehran be destroyed, but likely Qom, the Shiite Vatican, along with it. Without exaggeration, it could very well mean the end of Persian civilization.

So while Israel would likely not ever face an Iranian nuclear assault, when you combine Iran’s hostility to Israel, as well as the two nations’ proximity, Israel’s concern is understandable.

And when Israel is concerned, America is concerned. This is a factor of the Zionist lobby’s power in Washington, especially as the U.S. heads into midterm election season. Congressmen from both sides of the isle draw support from pro-Israel advocates, and therefore we see Israel’s needs being quickly addressed. (Witness the recent Scuds to Hizballah scenario; a week later President Obama is clamoring for a $200 million missile defense system for Israel.) So if our “close ally” is threatened because it “lives in a tough neighborhood”, then the U.S. will  respond, as it has been for the past 43 years.

Of course, there is the other reason why Washington is taking such a firm stance with Iran: the continued defiance of Iran threatens American hegemony in the Gulf and symbolizes America’s deterioration as a superpower.

After WWII, the United States and Russia emerged as the only two superpowers (closely related to their own nuclear arsenals). The two engaged in the Cold War for nearly fifty years until the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. After that, America was the last man standing and for the next 20 years or so, what America said, went. But now, with the ascents of Russia, India, Brazil and especially China (referred to as the BRIC countries); America is losing in terms of relative power. In this zero sum game of power politics, the gains for the BRIC countries represent loses for the United States. This means that these countries will be competing more than ever for natural resources to either ensure their position in the world (in the case of the United States) or to ensure their continued growth.

The International Relations landscape is shifting to a multi-polar world where there is no clear superpower. In fifty years, we could see America, China, India, Brazil, and Europe (if there is such a unified body at the time) exerting similar levels of influence in the world (Russia is left off because of its declining population and its inability to reform economically). This transition could be rough or smooth. Intuitively, such an adjustment would create conflict and war, but the end of the Soviet Union came so swiftly and gently that it caught everyone by surprise. The point is that we as a nation should do whatever it takes to ensure a smooth transition.

BRIC Leaders

But right now we are going through the birth pangs of our transition to the new multi-polar world order, and Iran is at the center of that transition. The United States has chosen to make Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons program a priority. Washington has burnt a lot of calories and invested a lot of political capital in making sure Iran does not continue to enrich uranium, so much so that the whole situation has become symbolic of declining American power. This is why the U.S. is trying so hard to get it’s way: Iran’s position on the matter is the ultimate defiance of the West and if America can’t get Iran to change its ways after investing so much time and energy into it, it projects to the world that America’s time as captain of the ship is over, and its decline may be happening in a more precipitous manner than was once thought.

America’s (and Israel’s) interest in Iran’s nuclear capability is boldly hypocritical. The biggest behind-the-scenes cheerleader for sanctions has been Israel, who has an ambiguous nuclear arsenal of its own and refuses to sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), but you would never hear Washington criticize this. Also on the list of those with nuclear weapons is India, where the U.S. actually encourages proliferation. Then we have Pakistan, an incredibly unstable country with an active al-Qaeda presence, which should be ten times more alarming than the prospect of Iran acquiring “the bomb”. Rounding out the list is North Korea, at best an enigmatic nation (at worst, insane) which actually withdrew from the NPT in 2003, and soon after declared that it had nuclear weapons. Popular opinion characterizes Pyongyang as a rational regime, in that it values regime survival, but in reality we have no idea what Kim Jong Il is capable of.

Pakistan and North Korea are far more threatening nations that have nuclear weapons; the problem is that they already possess them. But Iran does not, not yet anyway, and many think that it only a matter of time before they do. Then what? Iran should not possess nuclear weapons for many reasons, but there are worse scenarios for the United States. One of which is  the prospect of going to war with Iran to forcibly prevent (delay) Tehran from attaining them, as the result could be catastrophic for the world: war, oil shortages, economic collapse, domestic instability, war, repeat.

The fear of proliferation resulting from Iran acquiring nuclear weapons is probably overblown.  America actually still has sufficient clout to make sure others in the region – Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Gulf States – do not follow suit. There will be a certain level of anxiety added to the region with a Persian nation having such a defensive leg up, but that will likely only push those countries closer to the United States for protection, with the bonus of significant additional arms sales. Also, if Iran becomes nuclear capable, the regime in Tehran might be more secure not having to face the prospect of an Israeli or American attack, which could make Tehran less reliant on the destabilizing use of proxies such as Hizballah and Hamas.

Long Term Strategy

One way or another, the United States needs to reconcile with Iran. It would be better if it happened before Iran acquired nuclear weapons, but it should surely happen afterward (though reconciling immediately after could set a bad example). A friendly relationship with Iran could be highly beneficial to the United States. Just think how useful they could be right now in Iraq and Afghanistan, not to mention America’s war with al-Qaeda. Also, if America had Iran, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia as allies, it could really make our nation’s transition to post-oil that much smoother. Like it or not, the U.S. faces heavy competition for resources from the emerging giants of Brazil, India, and China, and having the aforementioned Middle Eastern countries locked down as allies would secure America’s access to petroleum in the days after peak oil.

Another beneficial move would be to increase America’s ties with Turkey. Turkey is a large Muslim nation situated in a key geographic region between East and West. Turkey, a long time member of NATO, has always had a foot in both camps, but lately it seems to be shifting to the East as a way to assert itself. Turkey has proven itself over the years to be an honest broker of sorts when it comes to diplomacy, as it has facilitated negotiations between Syria and Israel, as well as brokering the current deal (with the help of Brazil) to enrich uranium for Iran. Turkey would be a strategic ally in ensuring Europe’s access to natural gas. This natural gas would come from Iran, which in turn would provide Europe with an alternative to Russian natural gas. This would weaken Russia’s hand strategically, which is always nice.

Today, Washington’s key ally in the Middle East is Israel, but that relationship is becoming more trouble than it is worth. This is not to say that Israel is not a friend of the U.S. or that we should not support the Jewish State as we would any ally, it’s just that the benefits that America gets for its special relationship with Israel need to be closely evaluated against other possibilities as we enter a critical juncture in American history. A closer relationship with Turkey and reconciliation with Iran would have many long term strategic benefits for the United States, and this needs to be weighed honestly against what Israel brings to the table. Also, closer ties with Turkey and Iran do not necessarily have to come at the expense of Israel. Obviously Israel loses by not having its American big brother take its side in every conflict, but prudent U.S. foreign policy should be guided by national interests and not by guilt or sentimentality.

The decisions that the United States will make over the next ten years will have a direct effect on the next hundred years in terms of America’s place in the world. The too-brief period when America was the lone world superpower is coming to an end and Washington needs to carefully evaluate how it proceeds from here. Who are our true friends? Who do we want to be our new friends? What do we have to gain by being hostile to certain states and not hostile enough to others?

It is easy to beat the drum of America being too dependent on oil, but it is. However, this is not the problem. The problem is that the rest of the world is too, and state competition for resources causes conflict. Sometime over the next fifty years or so we will likely start running out of oil, and America’s access to cheap, readily available energy is absolutely critical to United States national security. From here on out, it behooves us to proceed with great caution.