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Topics / Arab Region Transitions

Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Societal and Political Change in the Middle East

How did we get here? And where are we going? Lina Khatib, Karim Sadjadpour, and Hillary Wiesner debate shifting conflict dynamics in the region


How are developments in the Middle East viewed from within the region?

For more than 20 years, Carnegie Corporation of New York has engaged with academic and scholarly communities in the United States and the Middle East with grantmaking that expands the activity, connections, and impact of the knowledge sector while addressing critical trends that are shaping the future of the region and beyond. In December 2019, the Corporation hosted a discussion on emergent social movements and political competition rising with the region’s next generation.

Lina Khatib leads the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Chatham House in London. Formerly director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, she cofounded the Program on Arab Reform and Democracy at Stanford University’s Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law. Karim Sadjadpour is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a prominent media commentator on Iran and U.S. foreign policy. As an adjunct professor at Georgetown University’s Walsh School of Foreign Service, he teaches a class on U.S. foreign policy and the Middle East. They spoke with Hillary Wiesner, director of the Transnational Movements and the Arab Region program at Carnegie Corporation of New York.


 

Hillary Wiesner: Events in the region sometimes seem futuristic. The region seems at the cutting edge of trends that are really global and not special to any one region. But when it comes to the number of internationalized conflicts — and countries operating proxy groups in other countries — this region looks special. How do you think we came to this point?

Obviously, one important year is 1979, the year of the Iranian Revolution, when Iran went almost overnight from being a U.S.-allied monarchy to becoming a U.S.-opposed theocracy.

Karim Sadjadpour, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

Lina Khatib: I mean it depends on how far back we want to go in history. We can go back to the days of colonialism and Western mandates that created these countries in the region and that entrenched divisions in societies. The political systems that were installed after colonialism or after invasion, such as the 2003 war in Iraq, have been deeply flawed. All of them were either authoritarian, or they entrenched patron-client relations as in Lebanon. Over the decades these kept increasing divisions in society, and widening the gap between the elites and ordinary people.

Karim Sadjadpour: Obviously, one important year is 1979, the year of the Iranian Revolution, when Iran went almost overnight from being a U.S.-allied monarchy to becoming a U.S.-opposed theocracy. Iran’s vision for itself and for the Middle East fundamentally changed. It started to see itself as a revolutionary cause, and it started to create allies and militias overseas like Lebanese Hezbollah.

Saudi Arabia saw the emergence of this revolutionary ethos as an existential threat. And so Saudi Arabia started to support Sunni counterparts throughout the region, also in the war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, supporting Sunni fundamentalism and trying to spread Sunni conservative values at home. If you fast forward to today, however, one reason why Iran has prevailed over Saudi Arabia in regional conflicts is that virtually all Shia radicals are willing to fight for Iran, while virtually all Sunni radicals want to overthrow the government of Saudi Arabia.

If you had to craft an overarching narrative about popular protest in the Middle East, it’s usually a young population rising up against the corruption and nepotism of a ruling establishment. Iran, Syria, Gaddafi’s Libya, Yemen, or Lebanon today. I think really what angers people is seeing the same politicians and their families treating themselves as the country’s owners, the sense of entitlement that they have over the state and its resources.

— Karim Sadjadpour, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

Khatib: Other countries compete, too. Saudi Arabia and Qatar for a while were engaged in competition for influence. That led them to support rival opposition groups within Syria after 2011.

Wiesner: And in Libya, and Eastern Africa, Somalia.

Khatib: Absolutely. And let’s not forget that Syria had occupied Lebanon militarily for decades as well. So these instances of countries meddling in others’ affairs are not new. They have political ambitions that go beyond their own national borders.

Wiesner: This is a region of wealth and also growing poverty. Social scientists are documenting collapsing middle classes in some countries, growing pauperization, while at the same time extremes of wealth — as we have in our country. Young people growing up in this context today, they’re the new majority and they’re now becoming vocal in protest movements. What are young people calling for?

Sadjadpour: I think protest movements in the Middle East are often triggered by economic concerns, but they’re sustained by much deeper political and social concerns. If you had to craft an overarching narrative about popular protest in the Middle East, it’s usually a young population rising up against the corruption and nepotism of a ruling establishment. Iran, Syria, Gaddafi’s Libya, Yemen, or Lebanon today. I think really what angers people is seeing the same politicians and their families treating themselves as the country’s owners, the sense of entitlement that they have over the state and its resources.

You can afford not to have any political reforms or not to allow your citizens a greater say if you’re delivering for them economically, like say the Chinese government has done. But when you don’t deliver economically and you deprive them of social freedoms, and you deny them political freedoms, then I think many citizens look at the government and say, “What redeeming qualities does it really have? What is it that they’re providing for us?” For that reason I think we should expect to see continued protests throughout the region for the foreseeable future.

Khatib: Younger people did not experience the classic wars that their parents lived through, such as the Lebanese Civil War or the Iran-Iraq War. And they have quickly realized that the economic crises they are facing in their countries are not the source of the problem, they are an outcome of the problem. The problem is a political system that is deeply flawed, that fosters corruption and inequality, and that denies citizens their basic rights. Protesters are asking for a state that allows them the freedom to express themselves, a state that delivers services to them, a state that gives them an equal political voice.

Wiesner: Today’s technologies give superpowers to demonstrators and to social movements. But also surveillance and punishment by states, and social control — tracking and policing through social credit scores.

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Khatib: I just want to tell an anecdote that I thought was interesting, to illustrate how complex the role of social media or technology in general is. Karim, as you know in Iran there was an Internet shutdown to try to prevent protestors from communicating and mobilizing. In Lebanon it was the opposite. Large crowds gathering in downtown Beirut caused a strain on the mobile phone data network. Some of the protestors pleaded with one of the two big telecommunications companies in Lebanon to add antennas in downtown Beirut because the network couldn’t cope. And they did, even though the company is affiliated with the government. Why? Because Lebanon has some of the most expensive telecommunications services in the world. The company thought that this would be a great opportunity to increase their profits.

Wiesner: On the question of the identity of citizens: Kim Ghattas’s new book Black Wave talks about the history since 1979, showing a top-down political sectarianization coming from the Saudi gulf and from Iran. Governments tried to shift people’s social identities toward politicized religious identities. Do you see a change in those dynamics recently? Is there a shift toward nationalism happening both in Saudi Arabia and Iran? Do you think we’ve turned the corner on that trend?

Sadjadpour: It’s notable that protestors in Iraq and Lebanon wave national, not sectarian, flags. Iranians see themselves definitely first as Iranian, and they’re proud to be Iranian; having lived under a repressive theocracy for four decades, most are not interested in sectarian conflict. There’s been enormous and valid criticism of Mohammed bin Salman in Saudi Arabia, but he has tried to create a Saudi nationalism and deemphasize a “Wahhabi” narrow sectarian identity. Of course in Europe excessive nationalism led to self-destruction. There is a happy medium, in that excessive nationalism can lead to self-destruction, but insufficient nationalism can lead to implosion or state collapse. It’s good to see patriotism in the younger generations in the Middle East, and they’re not as ideological as previous generations. They’re not as sectarian, they’re proud of where they come from, they just want to live under good governance.

Wiesner: Lina, you’ve talked about the ongoing conflicts in Syria and Yemen. These are great disasters, humanitarian emergencies that Americans have often closely followed in our news. Is there an end in sight? How do you each see the situation progressing in Syria and Yemen?

The state in Syria is becoming hollowed out from within as Iran seeks to exert its influence in Syria both through state institutions and through its proxies and militias. Russia is taking over some state institutions in Syria and curating them to make them loyal to Russia in the long run, regardless of who the leader of Syria might be.

Lina Khatib, Chatham House

Khatib: When it comes to Syria, unfortunately the Syrian regime and its external patron Russia have not exhibited any sign that they are serious about political transformation happening in Syria or about reaching a peaceful resolution to the conflict. They feel that they have won the conflict militarily and they are just going to continue until they take over all areas that are not currently under regime and Russian control.

Iran, meanwhile, feels that the Syrian conflict paved the way for increasing its influence in the Levant in a way that is more extensive than ever since 1979. Events in Syria do not bode well for the kind of political transformation that the United Nations Geneva Resolution 2254 had called for. As for the U.S., I’d say that Syria has become a component of the Iran file rather than a standalone file. Speaking with American officials about this, I was surprised to hear them saying in very clear terms that they don’t mind if Russia becomes the most influential external actor in Syria. In the ongoing conflict, the state in Syria is becoming hollowed out from within as Iran seeks to exert its influence in Syria both through state institutions and through its proxies and militias. Russia is taking over some state institutions in Syria and curating them to make them loyal to Russia in the long run, regardless of who the leader of Syria might be.

Sadjadpour: On Yemen there are three key external actors: the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Iran. For Saudi Arabia they see Yemen as a core existential issue. Iran sees Yemen as more of an extracurricular issue. It’s not core to their strategic interest. They saw an opportunity to wield influence on the cheap. They have perfected the art of working with proxy militias, and they actually have used Hezbollah to train other militias. And it’s been a relatively low-cost endeavor for Iran. Saudi Arabia’s probably spent 100 times more in Yemen than Iran has spent — and to no avail.

And I think the humanitarian costs of the conflict, the reputational costs, have forced the United Arab Emirates to reconsider its approach, and I think you’re now starting to see the UAE try to phase out of Yemen, realizing that there is no viable endgame for them. For years the way Saudi Arabia had managed Yemen was essentially using what they call riyalpolitik — meaning financially co-opting the various actors in Yemen. And I suspect that is where it will end up again, a return to the power of the purse eventually.

Khatib: When it comes to the war on Yemen, Saudi Arabia has invested so much that it cannot foresee itself ending the war while saving face at the same time.

Sadjadpour: But in contrast to, let’s say Syria, which is a core issue for the Iranians, Yemen is something that Iran will probably use as a chip to exchange for something else.

Wiesner: That raises the topic of negotiation. Many point to a need for regional security architecture, perhaps an organization like the one based in Vienna, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). Rather than ad hoc solutions or competitions through militaries, negotiations might lead to ongoing structured dialogue that, say, Turkey and Iran would also participate in. Is there hope for conflict prevention or mitigation through such an organization in the future?

Sadjadpour: I’m not optimistic at the moment for a couple of reasons. One is that Iran feels like it’s benefitted from the current status quo. The weakness of Arab governments has created opportunities for Iran to wield influence beyond its borders, and the nature of the Iranian regime is kind of a bipolar one: its most powerful officials are inaccessible, and its most accessible officials are not powerful. So the diplomats in Iran aren’t powerful. The powerful folks in Iran do not conduct diplomacy. They are the military and the supreme leader, and they’ve never shown a willingness to really partake in multilateral structures which discuss things like governance and regional security agreements because the lack of a regional security framework and weak governance have been advantageous for them. From their standpoint, if it’s not broken, why should we fix it?

But will Iran inevitably see more and more of a backlash against its policies in the region, as we’ve seen in Iraq and Lebanon? In a future Iran, one more likely ruled by overt military autocracy than it is right now, I think you may start to see military leaders with a bit more pragmatism and a willingness to engage with its Arab counterparts. But I don’t see that on the near-term horizon.

Today, each country in the region seems to have national security as its primary goal and there is no longer interest in multilateralism or even regional engagement.

Lina Khatib, Chatham House

Khatib: Indeed, things may be moving in the opposite direction. A few years ago there was more potential for this kind of security architecture, or negotiating, or mediating body to emerge because Saudi Arabia and Turkey had kind of improved their relationship. The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) was still relatively viable. Today, each country in the region seems to have national security as its primary goal and there is no longer interest in multilateralism or even regional engagement. Even the GCC, because of the Gulf crisis mainly between Saudi Arabia and Qatar, has become merely a ceremonial institution. When Saudi Arabia and the UAE announced two years ago that they were going to establish their own security organization, separate from the GCC, disagreements over Yemen two years down the line completely derailed that plan as well. So right now we have a highly fragmented region in which there is no common vision, neither politically nor militarily, or on the security level.

Sadjadpour: Just as America builds leverage against Iran with sanctions, Iran feels it builds leverage against the United States by either sowing chaos in the region or by restarting its nuclear program. So I think it’s likely we’ll see more attempts of sabotage by Iran in the region. They’re not likely to go after the same target twice, but to try to spike the price of oil and inflict costs on world powers so they get involved. If not sanctions relief, Iran may get some economic relief if they cease their acts of sabotage in the region. But the dangerous dynamic is that we’re incentivizing Iran to conduct acts of sabotage and to restart its nuclear program — by not rewarding them to stop doing those things.

Often in meetings with government officials the message is, “We want you here, America. We want a much stronger presence.” But it’s to bolster their rule. Meanwhile, citizens — or professors and academics — pretty much say the opposite. So, it depends who you’re asking.

Hillary Wiesner, Carnegie Corporation of New York

Wiesner: In an ideal world, what would you see the United States doing in the near future? What could people in this country or their government be doing, if anything?

Sadjadpour: I would argue the United States has a responsibility to countries in the Middle East because we’ve had an adverse effect oftentimes. Certainly the Iraq War had an adverse effect in the region, but we shouldn’t think that reduction of American power and American presence in the Middle East is going to create a vacuum that will be filled by Norway. It’s going to be actors like Russia, China, and Iran. That doesn’t mean that you have to maintain a large U.S. troop presence in the region. You obviously have to be strategic and mindful of popular demands in the United States. There isn’t a popular will to have another major U.S. conflict in the region, but our political system thinks much more short-term than our global counterparts and adversaries. Members of Congress view the world in two- or six-year increments; administrations use the view of the world in four-year increments. And Vladimir Putin, Premier Xi, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei: they’re not term limited. They can afford to have longer-term strategic plans in the region. The real world is a marathon, not a sprint. A place like Syria, it’s going to take at least a generation to rebuild. Yemen as well.

Wiesner: Often in meetings with government officials the message is, “We want you here, America. We want a much stronger presence.” But it’s to bolster their rule. Meanwhile, citizens — or professors and academics — pretty much say the opposite. So, it depends who you’re asking.

Sadjadpour: The Chinese and the Russians are not even going to pay lip service to human rights. No external power has had great success in the Middle East. It’s been kind of a string of failures. Still, I personally don’t think that total U.S. withdraw from the Middle East would make it a more safe, secure place.

Khatib: The protestors in Lebanon are accused by their detractors of being foreign conspiracy tools. The protesters have been mocking these accusations, while at the same time saying that past U.S. involvement has only led to great disappointment. So what the United States should do is have a balanced approach. We’re not talking hands-on interventionism and we’re also not talking complete disengagement. The United States under President Obama often said the right things while not following up with action. With the current administration there are no meaningful words and no action. Both of these things have reduced trust amongst citizens in the Middle East of the United States.

I have two recommendations. First, at the grassroots level, the U.S. should continue its soft engagement or “soft power” approach, which is support for media freedom, support for civil society, support for education, and support for female political empowerment, for example. Secondly, at a diplomatic level, what is needed is political will on the part of the United States to play a leading role in steering conflicts toward a resolution. I firmly believe that the United Nations has proven itself almost obsolete in its mission as a peace broker in the Middle East. However, it can play a role as a vehicle for implementing peace, but for that to happen the first step should be diplomatic leadership and for that role the United States is essential.


 

Conversation recorded at Carnegie Corporation of New York’s headquarters in New York City on December 5, 2019.



TOP (l–r) Lina Khatib of Chatham House, Karim Sadjadpour of Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and Hillary Wiesner of Carnegie Corporation of New York posed for a group portrait at Carnegie Corporation of New York's headquarters in New York City in early December 2019. (Credit: Filip Wolak)