The birth of a new Middle East

During the recent armed confrontation in Lebanon, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice declared from her unparalleled vantage point that the international community was witnessing «the birth pangs of a new Middle East.» A kind of pre-revolutionary situation is indeed almost palpable, although the conclusions of this apparent new chapter in the region’s history are far from certain. At this point, the following trends and realities appear to be primarily driving and defining developments in the new Middle East: – The unpredictable, unimaginably brutal and dangerously opportunistic regime of Saddam Hussein has ceased to be a factor in regional politics. This positive change is often not sufficiently appreciated, overshadowed as it is by the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and the violent turn of events now threatening civil war. – Democratic elections and practices have assumed greater regional significance. Successful elections took place in Iraq, Palestine and Lebanon, while democratizing measures were witnessed in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Egypt. At the same time, however, it is precisely via democratic procedures that Hamas became a ruling party and Hezbollah increased its political influence. Elections are but one (admittedly crucial) component of a liberal democratic regime, which also requires many more freedoms and well-functioning institutions, including the judiciary, the press and the military. If all politics is local, then ethnic and sectarian considerations, as well as issues of social sensitivity and good governance will greatly influence voting patterns in the region. There is no guarantee that electoral victors will be palatable to the West. In the final analysis, it is a chimera to expect the Middle East to become an oasis of tolerant liberal democracies overnight. Nevertheless, efforts in this direction deserve to be supported, especially if conducive to regional stability. – A Shia ascendancy can clearly be observed. Shia Muslims rule Iran, constitute the largest and most significant group in Iraq, are a force to be reckoned with in Lebanon, represent the overwhelming majority of Bahrain’s population, recently received full rights in Afghanistan and more recognition in Saudi Arabia (where they constitute a minority that resides in the country’s oil rich region). Shia Islam is not monolithic but it is certainly becoming more assertive in ensuring and protecting its religious and political rights. At the same time, a Sunni reaction to this trend cannot be precluded. Thus, the Shia-Sunni sectarian dynamics will certainly influence the future of Iraq, as well as the pattern of regional alliances and stability. – Iran is making a serious bid for regional hegemony. The country’s ambitions are partly fueled and reinforced by the aforementioned Shia ascendancy. Crucial in these efforts is its attempt to attain a nuclear weapon capability – a development that would redefine the Middle East’s balance of power overnight. Iran would become «safe» from invasion, constitute an existential threat to Israel, solidify the rise of Shia Islam, create (at least in theory) possibilities for nuclear terrorism, and quite possibly «push» Sunni regional states such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and perhaps even Turkey, into an arms race in order to also acquire nuclear weapons. Whether Iran acquires nuclear weapons, and whether it will act as a revolutionary or a rather status quo actor remains to be seen. That it aspires and is already acquiring a more significant regional role is not in doubt. – A comprehensive, long-lasting peace agreement between the Palestinians and the Israelis, which would defuse regional hatreds and conflicts, is not likely in the near future. The rise of Hamas, complications with Israel’s disengagement policy and the fact that the US will not be easily accepted as an honest broker suggest a more pessimistic outlook on this crucial issue. – International involvement in the region will in all likelihood take place on the basis of multilateral organizations and frameworks as witnessed on the Iran nuclear issue, as well as with the diplomatic efforts that recently produced an international force for Lebanon. Ad hoc coalitions like the one that successfully invaded Iraq lack adequate legitimacy on the global level – a fact that greatly complicates efforts once military confrontation is over. It is thus reasonable to expect to see in practice much more (if not exclusively) of the «Lebanon model» of international intervention, as opposed to that of Iraq. – Throughout the Middle East, militant Islam is on the rise. Hamas, Hezbollah, the Muslim Brotherhood, al-Qaida, al-Qaida-Mesopotamia and others are the manifestations of a worrisome trend for the West. The Middle East has failed to sufficiently modernize by supporting various ideologies such as socialism, Arab nationalism and Baathism. Militant Islamists, both Shia and Sunni, now want their chance to govern, a development that if actualized would probably produce predictably disastrous results. The new Middle East that is thus emerging will be potentially even more dangerous and unstable. But it is too early and essentially impossible to predict with accuracy what will ensue. A lot of crucial issues remain unresolved: Will Iraq slide into a full-scale civil war? Will Iran acquire nuclear weapons? How will the Shia-Sunni dynamics play out on a regional level? How strong will the forces of liberal democracy prove to be? Will terrorist jihadist groups continue to increase in influence and deadliness? Given this situation, Greece ought to utilize its membership in international organizations and its various military, political and economic capabilities to support, to the fullest, all legitimized multilateral efforts aiming at regional stability and democracy. (1) Dr Aristotle Tziampiris is lecturer in International Relations at the University of Piraeus and research associate at the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy (ELIAMEP). The views expressed in this article are his own.