Category Archives: Arab World

Three Recent Essays: Iran’s Subs, Huma Rights Violations, and the Case for Pessimism on Syria

My July 3 National Interest piece argued that Iran stands to waste a huge pile of money if they attempt to develop nuclear submarines. Iran is clearly using the subs as an excuse to lawfully boost enrichment above the current 19.75% level. They have also suggested that problems fueling their ships abroad may lead them to develop nuclear powered commercial vessels . . . I have not done the math but I am suspecting these would carry enormous opportunity costs that would take years to pay off, if they can be paid off at all. Hints are already coming out that a higher level of enrichment could be in the cards–most recently, a Khamenei aide stated that if international pressure continues, Iran may move up to 56% enrichment. Western negotiators should latch on to this matter. Higher enrichment is not necessary for naval reactors–it’s merely preferable–and Iran does not have good reasons to develop nuclear vessels anyway. While we shouldn’t get too hasty and say this all means Iran really is going for the bomb, it does shred the common Iranian refrain that the purpose of the nuclear program is fully peaceful and aimed only at economic and scientific advancement. The current levels and rates of enrichment make this scarcely plausible (Iran claims it is making the 19.75% enriched uranium for, among other things, fuel for an array of yet-to-be-constructed research reactors). Higher enrichment makes Iran’s multiple goals quite clear.

On July 23, I weighed in for MENASAWorld on the accusations that the Secretary of State’s Deputy Chief of Staff, Huma Abedin, is a secret Muslim Brotherhood infiltrator. Since the strangeness of this claim was already exposed in depth by heftier writers than me, I took a different angle, arguing that with or without legions of Muslim secret agents, the United States would have opened up to the Muslim Brotherhood. Brotherhood secret agents, incidentally, are easily spotted: most will be in regular contact with a cleric about whether taking a cyanide pill during Ramadan would break the fast or whether it is unclean to use a shoe phone.

On July 31 I suggested in the National Interest that Western observers are mistakenly viewing the Syrian civil war as a war of national liberation in which the displacement of the regime will be welcomed by all sectors of society. In fact, I suggest, the fall of Damascus will merely mean that the rebels now have the upper hand in the conflict, and not that it is anywhere close to over. The mutual distaste that has sprung up between sects friendly with Assad and those friendly with the opposition will make reconciliation extremely difficult. If the rebels can drive him from the capital, Assad will retreat behind the mountains of the Syrian coast and hold off further advances by the Free Army.

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Two Visions of Freedom: Understanding the Arab Spring’s Democracy

After being initially embraced by many Westerners, the Arab Spring has become a subject of concern. The crowds of Tahrir and Tunis chant for freedom, for participation, for democracy; their spokespeople are young “latte liberals” with perfect English; their rallies see Muslims and Christians side-by-side in clouds of tear gas. However, the elections they established have heavily favored Islamist parties who are ambiguous on religious pluralism, on nonsectarian governance, and on individual liberty. What’s going on?

The logos of the hardline an-Noor Party (left) and the more moderate Freedom and Justice Party (right), two Egyptian Islamist parties that will likely be able to form a strong coalition should they choose. (Image via the FJP's English website, fjp25.org)

There are of course many factors driving this gap. The people that came out to protest in Tahrir, especially the ones that Western (and Qatari) media outlets chose to interview, were not a representative sample of the Egyptian public. At the core, however, are two different visions of freedom. In Egypt, and in many Middle Eastern countries, a collective vision of freedom predominates; in America, and many Western countries, an individualistic vision of freedom predominates. The West’s confusion thus results from a miscommunication–when Westerners cheer for “freedom” in Egypt and beyond, they expect one thing and find something unfamiliar. Individual freedom is the right of one person to choose to live their life and express their views as they see fit, provided they do not harm others. Collective freedom is the right of a common group to live in a society that accords with its vision.

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Absurd Mideast News, 6/26/11

I’m a big fan of using Google Alerts to get my news on the Middle East, because it scours a huge array of media outlets and sorts (by no obvious algorithm) them into a short list of important stories. One downside is that it picks up a lot of propaganda pieces–my Iran alert, for instance, is usually 50% stories from the very state-run Fars News Agency. The upside of this is getting exposed to some pretty absurd news, like the claim I recently mentioned by Iran to have powerful missiles that could target aircraft flying in space. Anyway, here are a few of the more ridiculous stories:

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Turkey: the United States of the Middle East

Turkey, under Erdogan and Davutoglu, has taken a much-publicized turn towards the Arab world. The common theory is that, with their EU membership bid making no progress, they’ve decided to seek influence elsewhere. Turkey has pursued a foreign policy of “zero problems” with its neighbors, and has attempted to turn into a new regional powerbroker–for instance, it defied the United States to offer Iran a compromise on their nuclear program. The maneuver has made PM Erdogan a consistently popular figure among Arab publics, and many were lauding Turkey’s newfound diplomatic independence and leadership and calling their new direction “neo-Ottomanism” (said with a straight face, since almost nobody in the Middle East looks back at the Ottoman era with pride, with the exception of a few nutty fundamentalists).

The handshake that's killing Turkey: Assad meets Erdogan. (Image via indynewsisrael)

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The Shifting Sands of Arab Politics

The Arab Spring has complicated relations within the Middle East. Prior to the revolts, one could point to only one real state-to-state axis—the Arabs against the Iranians. The Arab states were, despite their massive securitization, more or less united as status quo powers, seeking to keep down liberal and Islamist oppositions while making slow, or no, progress on reform. The revolts ended that consensus. Egypt and Tunisia have been forced to accelerate reforms and be at least slightly responsive to popular demands. Morocco and Jordan have forestalled revolution with moves towards constitutionalism. Some states, like Syria and Yemen, have lost what little regional influence they had, and some states, led by Saudi Arabia, are attempting to salvage what they can of the old order.

(Image via Travel-Destination-Pictures.com)

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Saudi Arabia’s Driving Women and the Threat of Civil Society

Pliny the Younger, a Roman governor of a province in modern Turkey, once witnessed a large fire in the city of Nicomedia (modern Izmit), and wrote to the emperor Trajan requesting permission to form a company of firemen, noting that he would keep it small  and carefully overseen. Trajan, however, was uninterested, replying (as recounted by the historian Edward Luttwak):

We must remember that it is societies like these which have been responsible for the political disturbances in your province. If people assemble for a common purpose, whatever name we give them and for whatever reason, they soon turn into a political gathering. It is a better policy to provide [firefighting] equipment and to instruct property owners to make use of it.

Trajan successfully ruled over many parts of the modern Middle East, including virtually all of the Mediterranean states and much of Iraq. The region’s modern tyrants share their ancient predecessor’s philosophy towards civil society organizations: they are a potential source of trouble, whatever their purpose. Nobody exemplifies this better than the House of Saud, who bar all forms of political organizations and insist that the rare low-level elections they have be conducted in a “nonpartisan” fashion. Civil society–that is, all voluntary, nongovernmental, noneconomic associations of individuals, ranging from sports leagues to activist groups to knitting circles–is woefully underdeveloped in Saudi Arabia, and this is an outcome of deliberate government policy.

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Mideast Peace, Israel, and the Arab Economic Context

Fellow Government in the Lab contributor Michael Omer-Man, an American writer based out of Jaffa, Israel, wrote an excellent analysis of US President Barack Obama’s latest Middle East policy speech. As Omer-Man points out, all sides are “over-reacting” to Obama’s assertion that the 1967 borders should be the basis for a final settlement. The Middle East Quartet, for instance, has already expressed “strong support” for Obama’s remarks, for his remarks were consistent with decades of American policy, and the policies of most other aspirant brokers. Netanyahu’s reaction has been overplayed in the media, and was likely nothing more than an attempt to show off to his fragile and hawkish domestic coalition while riling up Israel’s friends in the American political sphere. Netanyahu was certainly not surprised by the content of Obama’s remarks, since they reflected a known US position. What’s more, Obama’s refusal to extend support to the Palestinian statehood bid–which he referred to as “symbolic actions to isolate Israel”–would have gone over quite well in Tel Aviv, as would his line about “efforts to delegitimize Israel,” which might as well have been penned by Avigdor Lieberman himself (well, in a good mood). The media storm will blow over quickly, and the diplomatic storm was likely more of a drizzle.

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Hamas and Fatah reunite

News emerged this week of a peace deal, brokered by Egyptian intelligence, between rival Palestinian factions Hamas and Fatah. The two had split violently in 2007, with Fatah losing control of the Gaza Strip to Hamas fighters. This week’s news is something of a surprise–the two factions have a deep distaste for one another, and the physical gulf between them, coupled with the siege of Gaza, meant that they had no way to confront each other directly. Their division had posed a major obstacle to the coming Palestinian statehood, and to the peace process generally. How, after all, could Fatah settle the many claims of the Palestinians when a large portion of them live on land it does not control? How could Fatah sign any peace with Israel on behalf of Palestine generally if Hamas could interfere at any moment?

Palestinian negotiators celebrate their deal in Egypt. (Image via Al Jazeera)

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Saleh Stepping Down in Yemen, with Immunity

News has emerged in the past several days that Yemen’s longtime president Ali Abdullah Saleh is to resign within 30 days, receive immunity for his crimes, and hand over power to a caretaker government pending elections within 60 days. Protesters are on the streets throughout Yemen today in condemnation of the deal, which has not met the wishes of many that he be tried for the many excesses of his regime, including the killings of many opponents since the uprising began. It is indeed true that the Yemeni people are denied some justice by this plan, but politics is, as they say, the art of the possible, and it should have been clear to all that Saleh would not leave willingly without immunity.

Riding off into the sunset?

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Arab Elder Statesmen

Several former American presidents. Carter, Clinton, and Bush have assumed elder statesman roles; Nixon's soiled reputation made this an impossibility.

I encourage you all to read this post by Bahraini blogger Burajaa, which discusses several possible future elder statesmen of the Arab World. I especially agree with his nomination of Rafik Hariri–his international background and continued symbolic influence testify to what a giant he was. I’d like to add a few potential future elder statesmen myself.

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