For a half-century, Middle East politics were dominated by Arab nationalist regimes and movements, defined by the struggle among them for regional hegemony. Now the area has moved into a new era in which the central feature is the struggle between Arab nationalist regimes and revolutionary Islamist forces. Yet many Western policymakers have failed to understand this transformation. This article discusses the nature of the central conflict, including the identity of the Islamist side and the balance of forces.

The problem at present is not just that the Middle East may be heading for disaster and the Western strategic situation could be moving toward collapse, but that such an unfavorable outcome is made more likely by the fact that Western governments don't seem to comprehend this situation and are following policies that make it worse. There are five main critical developments which threaten the region's already fragile stability.

First, and most basic, is the rise of revolutionary Islamist movements everywhere in the region. While in 2000, the Islamists were bogged down, unable to seize power in any country (except Afghanistan) 20 years after Iran's revolution, a number of events perceived by them as victories have given a big boost. Whether or not these are real successes, they are credibly portrayed as such to their constituencies.

These include: Hamas's electoral success followed by its takeover of the Gaza Strip in a coup; Hizballah's "victory" in the 2006 war with Israel and electoral gains in Lebanon; the resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan and inroads in Pakistan; Iran's nuclear weapons project; the development of an Islamist insurgency in Iraq; the integration of the non-Islamist Syrian regime into an Iranian-led Islamist bloc; a brief seizure of power in Somalia followed by an insurgency there; the opening of a new, Iran-backed Islamist rebellion in Yemen; continued periodic international terrorist attacks, most notably the September 11, 2001, assault on the United States; the political success of a neo-Islamist regime in Turkey, which has promulgated a pro-Islamist foreign policy; and a growing Islamist movement among immigrants in Europe; among other developments. Equally important in this mix is the belief that the West is weak and uncertain in responding to these situations.

The belief that revolutionary Islamism is on the march brings new recruits and makes existing ones bolder. Certainly, the most important development in the Middle East would be the Islamist ability to seize power in additional countries. While this is not an immediate prospect, it has already made the existing regimes bend their policies to avoid antagonizing or to appease those who might otherwise be recruited by revolutionary Islamist movements.

Meanwhile, Western countries persist in acting as if the sole problem were al-Qa'ida. They, and especially the Obama administration, have not taken on the job of building a coalition against revolutionary Islamism but have spent more time--except regarding al-Qaida--in trying to engage Islamist forces and "proving" their friendliness toward Islam.

Second, Iran's nuclear drive is continuing without seriously effective international opposition. After years of negotiations conducted by Britain, France, and Germany failed, higher sanctions were supposed to be imposed in the autumn of 2007. As of 2010, nothing has been done.

After the failure of an almost year-long attempt at engagement with Tehran, the Obama administration has already missed two deadlines set by itself (September and December 2009) and has made clear that if any higher sanctions are to be imposed, they will be narrow and defined to avoid damaging Iran's economy. Meanwhile, a number of European states--and notably Italy--continue to do large, profitable business with the Iranian regime.

For Tehran, then, the opposition has been a joke, only reinforcing its conclusion that the West--and especially the United States--is a paper tiger.

What will happen if Iran does get nuclear weapons? The most often-discussed scenario is an Iranian nuclear attack on Israel, a possibility for which the likelihood seems reinforced by the statements of Iranian leaders. In the face of such a threat, Israel may well at some point attack Iranian nuclear facilities, setting off a crisis that Western passivity in confronting Iran has made far more likely.

Yet this is far from the only problem posed by Iran possessing long-range missiles and nuclear weapons that can be fired on them. Other outcomes would include a high level of Arab and European readiness to appease a powerful nuclear Iran accompanied by fear of opposing it on any issue. To cite only one example, no Arab country will act to help an Arab-Israeli or Israel-Palestinian peace process that they know Iran opposes. Oil costs would likely go high, due both to fear of Iran's hawkishness on prices and fear of crisis in the Persian Gulf. Finally, and perhaps most significantly, revolutionary Islamists (both pro- and anti-Iranian) would reap tens of thousands of recruits from the belief that Iran proved Islamism was a success and provided a powerful patron.

Third, and clearly linked to the two previous points, is a flourishing of Iran's strategic ambitions and that of the bloc it leads. Iran, Syria, Hizballah, Hamas, and the Iraqi insurgents--with some support from Turkey--are linked in an alliance that is seeking regional hegemony. The main battlefronts are Iraq, Lebanon, and now Yemen.

While the Iranian-led bloc is fairly coherent, the other side is very much divided. Relatively moderate Arab regimes and Israel do not and cannot cooperate closely. Moreover, the country that could provide them with a powerful patron, the United States, is not doing so due to the Obama administration's perceptions and policies. Some elements in this potential alignment--notably Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Lebanon--are moving toward high levels of appeasement or outright defection.

All of this is happening at a time when Iran's rulers are the most radical faction. While challenged by an active opposition, the regime is still firmly in control of the country. Its perceptions are based on the belief that they are following the deity's will and that their foreign rivals are weak, corrupt, and divided. This is a regime most likely to engage in adventurous actions, taking high degrees of risk in a perhaps mistaken belief that victory is inevitable. Such a situation is a recipe for crisis, sponsored terrorism and subversion, confrontation, and war.

Fourth, virtually unnoticed in the West has been Turkey's switch to the Iranian-led bloc, pro-Islamist camp. While the Obama administration is still engaged in defining the Turkish regime as the very model of a moderate Muslim-majority democracy, the AKP regime is gradually transforming the country from a secular society to a relatively Islamized one, institution by institution.

This does not mean the AKP will succeed in remaking Turkey, but it has been very easy for the government to change Turkey's historic foreign policy. In the past, Turkey viewed the United States as its patron--trying to prove itself a loyal member of the West in order to facilitate membership in the European Union--and saw Israel as an ally against a threat from Islamism, Iran, and Syria.

Now all this is reversed. Iran and Syria are seen by the regime as allies; Hamas and Hizballah are friends to be promoted; and Israel is portrayed as an enemy. The only reason the Turkish regime has found it easy to maintain good relations with the United States is that Washington has neither demanded Turkey do anything nor criticized Ankara's statements or actions.

Fifth, connected to all the above points has been the loss of Western credibility. At a time when the main goal of the United States and Europe seems to be to avoid offending any Arab or Muslim-majority state, they have been on the defensive. While moderates have been demoralized, radicals have been encouraged by this perception of weakness and retreat.

Meanwhile, the main priority of U.S. and often European policy has been to promote an Israel-Palestinian peace process that has no chance of working, given the Palestinian Authority's intransigence, weakness, and fear of its Islamist rival, Hamas. Ironically, even in the unlikely case of progress, any perspective compromise solution would inflame--not dilute--Islamist militancy, which would mobilize against such a "treasonous" outcome.

This is a pessimistic assessment, which does not mean it is not an accurate one. Many or most of these problems can be reversed given the West's power and the broad range of supporters it could find in the region if only there were a comprehension of these problems and the will to confront them seriously and energetically. Yet that type of thinking and action still seem far from realization.

Perhaps the greatest, most dangerous miscomprehension...



*Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal.

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