March 20, 2015
by Avi Melamed
At the peak of its power and influence, the United States’ foreign policy was described as Pax Americana. That description was inspired by the term Pax Romana –”The Roman Peace” – the term that describes the period of time between 27 BC and 180 AD known as the “Golden Era” of the Great Roman Empire, a period characterized by prosperity and stability throughout the wide territory of the Roman Empire.
On June 4, 2009 the President of the United States, Barack Obama, delivered a speech at the University of Cairo entitled “A NEW BEGINNING” in which he called for the opening of a new page in the relations of the West with the Muslim world. Obama’s speech created expectations for a substantive change that would have a positive impact on the Middle East.
Five years after that speech, the picture is completely different.
The prevalent tone among the dominant leaders in the Arab world, as well as among leaders and influentials that shape public opinion in the Arab world, is one of disappointment, growing criticism and anger which is sometimes expressed in a manner that violates the rules of protocol regarding diplomatic etiquette – and even that of Arab etiquette – regarding the policies of President Barack Obama. In their eyes, Obama’s policies appear to be hesitant, inconsistent, directionless and clumsy, stemming from a total lack of understanding on the part of decision makers and those who influence and shape policy in the United States regarding the processes and trends that are taking place in the Middle East, as well as the power bases involved.
However, the criticism in the Arab world with regard to the United States policies in the Middle East does not end there.
There are those in the Arab world who think that the policy of the United States in the Middle East in the second decade of the 21st century does not reflect confusion, bewilderment or a lack of direction – but rather actually reflects a calculated, strategic change of direction of the United States government, the essence of which is a hand extended in friendship to the Iranian regime in place of the Sunni Arab world.
Looking these very days at the dramatic events in the Middle East, one cannot rule out these Arab sentiments. In fact, these very days we are witnessing an earthquake of historical scale in the Middle East as Iran is expanding its influence throughout the region.
Four Arab states – Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen are today under direct and indirect growing Iranian influence; the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, as well as Iranian backed Shiite Militias – Afghan Shiite Militias, Hezbollah, and Iraqi Shiite Militias, are fighting in Iraq and Syria; while in Yemen, the Iranian backed Shiite Huti tribe occupies northern and central Yemen – including its capital, Sana’a.
The shocked Arab world watches as their worst nightmare materializes right in front of their eyes.
Why is this nightmare for the Arab world?
The two axes of an historic struggle have played – and continue to play – a central role in the history and the reality of the Middle East:
One axis is the struggle between Sunnis and Shiites in Islam. Most Muslims are Sunnis. A minority of them, about 20%, are Shiites. The word shi’a in Arabic is related to the term Shi’at Ali – “The Ali Faction.” Ali was the fourth Caliph (ruler) of the Islamic Caliphates. He was the son-in-law and cousin of the Prophet Mohammed, the founder of Islam. Ali was murdered in the year 661 CE, and after his eldest son, Hasan, declined to rule, his younger son, Al-Hussein, demanded the throne. The Caliph at that time, Yazid ibn Muawiyah ibn Sufyan, was not pleased with Al-Hussein’s demand. The struggle for control soon became violent, and in the year 680 CE, Al-Hussein, his family and his supporters were killed in a battle against Yazid’s army in the Karbala region (the Iraq of today). Al-Hussein ibn Ali became a symbol of tortured sainthood within Shi’a and he is referred to as “the Master Martyr” by Shiites.
The slaughter at Karbala is the cornerstone of the Shi’a. Since then, Shiites commemorate the day of Al-Hussein’s murder every year. On that day they curse Yazid ibn Muawiyah, shave their heads and beat themselves with swords, knives and chains until they bleed in memory of Al-Hussein’s sufferings, in a ceremony called Ta’zieh (consolations).
The struggle between Sunni Islam and Shiite Islam was one of the key factors that shaped regional history. An abyss of hostility, differing ideological and theological opinions, political clashes and mutual violence has divided Sunni and Shiite Islam for more than 1300 years.
An additional axis which has played a role in the shaping of the region was the rivalry between two large regional civilizations: the Arab civilization of the Arabian Peninsula on one hand, and the Persian civilization on the other. Hundreds of years of political, military and cultural rivalry have characterized the relations between these two civilizations. At a certain point, the Persian civilization converted to Islam and adopted the Shi’a faith.
In 2015 it seems as if the wheels of history turn.
As Iran moves full steam ahead and occupies Arab states either directly, or indirectly – through its proxies – Iranian senior officials today are openly talking about the return of the Persian Empire. Recently, a senior Iranian official announced that Baghdad, Iraq’s capital, is the capital of the Persian Empire. Another Iranian official announced that Syria is the 35th district of the Iranian Empire.
One should remember that both Damascus and Baghdad are not only Arab State capitals; they were the center of the two biggest Arab Sunni dynasties that ruled the Muslim Caliphate from 661 – 1250, and these dynasties were responsible for the creation of the Sunni – Arab domination over the Shiites and the Persian civilization. Hence, one can understand why the Arab world is traumatized by the current Iranian momentum.
Arab analysts are convinced that the Iranian momentum is taking place not only with the United States of America’s silent consent; they believe it is actually a joint US-Iran strategy aimed at making Iran the dominant super power in the Middle East over the Arab Sunni world.
As a fact, the Iranian regime’s current achievements are taking place right under the nose, and directly in front of the eyes, of the current US administration.
To say it simply: Arabs are convinced that the current United States administration is throwing the Arab world under the bus.
There are many indicators to support that argument:
The first indicator is of course the discourse characterizing the US-Iranian talks regarding the Iranian nuclear program. It is quite clear that the United States administration is determined to cut a deal – some argue, that they are willing to do so at almost any cost.
A second indicator is the fact that the United States seems to accept – almost in an indifferent way – the fact that Iranian military forces openly and directly operate in Syria and Iraq, and that the Iranian backed Huti Shiite tribe occupies the northern and central part of Yemen.
A third indicator is the fact that in the Worldwide Threats Assessment of the US Intelligence Community that James R. Clapper, the United States Director of National Intelligence, presented to the Congressional Intelligence Committee on February 26, 2015, Iran and Hezbollah were not mentioned at all in the context of terror groups. Only a year ago, in the 2014 report, here is what the US Intelligence assessment on that matter was:
“In 2013, Iran’s state sponsorship of terrorism worldwide remained undiminished through the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Quds Force (IRGC-QF), its Ministry of Intelligence and Security, and Tehran’s ally Hezbollah, which remained a significant threat to the stability of Lebanon and the broader region. The U.S. government continued efforts to counter Iranian and proxy support for terrorist operations via sanctions and other legal tools. The United States also welcomed the EU’s July 2013 designation of Hezbollah’s military wing as a terrorist organization”.
Thus, it is quite clear that the US administration is making a dramatic shift in the Middle East.
The US views Iran as a partner – perhaps a major partner.
What are the reasons for this shift?
The common arguments Arab analysts make to explain the US’s dramatic shift towards Iran are:
US policy reflects the American view that the disintegrating Arab societies are a limping horse. It’s time to choose a new one – Iran.
The US administration believes that Iran can generate and secure stability in the troubled Middle East, and can be useful in successfully fighting Militant Islam groups like ISIS, Al-Qaida and other Sunni Militant groups.
The US–Iranian alliance is part of an orchestrated deal aimed to ensure the interest of four partners: the US, Iran, Turkey and Israel – at the expense of the crumbling Arab states and societies.
The US administration came to terms with the idea of Iranian nuclear weapons and subject to that view embraces a policy of containment – and they are not willing to confront Iran.
Iran’s markets are desirable targets for US and Western companies. Signing a deal with Iran and lifting the sanctions will open the Iranian market for US companies to make big money.
And, finally, there is another argument:
Arabs are more and more convinced that it is a cynical US policy aimed not to stabilize the Middle East, but rather to do just the opposite. It is a policy whose goal is the deliberate destruction of the Arab world by encouraging more instability in the Arab societies. That way – according to that particular Arab mindset – the US will have the legitimacy to strengthen its relations with Iran under the excuse of “fighting together against militant Islamic factors who generate instability.”
What are the ramifications of the USA’s shift?
It is hard to imagine that Arabs and Sunnis will do nothing to push back the Iranian occupation of Arab soil. Iran’s actions will likely result in a Sunni counter reaction.
There are initial signs of the formation of a Sunni coalition led by Turkey and Saudi Arabia to block the Iranian momentum. The fact that these two states – who have a long and bitter history of rivalry and animosity – are willing to cooperate indicates that their top agenda item is one thing and only one thing: to confront the Iranian threat – by all means.
The struggle between the axes of the Sunni states and the Iranian Mullah Regime is creating a Sunni-Shiite “mutual stranglehold” is manifested by endless rounds of violent clashes between Sunnis and Shiites in Syria, Iraq and Yemen. And Lebanon is slipping further into chaos as an outcome of the Sunni –Shiite war in Syria.
We can see the actual results of that mutual stranglehold playing out right now:
In Syria more than 215,000 Syrians have been killed and millions have become refugees.
In Iraq dozen of thousands of people have been killed in the clashes between Sunnis and Shiites.
In the last couple of days alone, reportedly 4,000 Iraqi Shiites militants were killed in the fierce battles against ISIS in the city of Tikrit in Iraq – numbers of Sunni Iraqi casualties are uncorroborated.
Thousands have been killed in Yemen – and the war in Yemen seems to be expanding.
And speaking of Yemen, the most recent example of this mutual stranglehold is the attack on the Shiite Mosques in Sana’a on Friday, March 20th, killing over 140 Shi’ites. The Sunni Militant group, ISIS, claimed responsibility for this attack.
The flames of the Sunni- Shiite conflict expand and threaten to drag the region into total chaos.
Another immediate clear ramification of the US policy is already taking place right now:
Saudi Arabia is sending very clear hints that it will not sit by quietly and watch Iran arm itself with nuclear weapons.
The Saudi King recently met with all the senior political and military leaders of Pakistan, the only Muslim state that possesses nuclear weapons.
Saudi long range missiles were recently displayed in a military parade.
The Saudis recently signed a contract with South Korea to establish a nuclear program for civilian purposes in Saudi Arabia – which includes the building of two nuclear reactors and the qualification of Saudi physicists.
The Middle East is on the verge of a nuclear arms race.
Another very likely ramification is that Sunni Militant Islamist groups (ISIS, Al-Qaeda, etc.) who loathe the Shiites will get stronger because they will recruit more and more Sunnis to confront the Iranian-Shiite occupation of the Sunni Arab states.
In that context, the recent announcement of US Secretary of State, John Kerry that the USA should negotiate with Syrian President Assad regarding the future of Syria will very likely play straight to the hands of the Sunni Militant Islamic groups. The Syrians who lost everything in the brutal war imposed on them by Assad and Iran are not looking to dialogue with the brutal dictatorship; they are looking for one thing only – to take their revenge. That road leads them directly to ISIS, Al-Qaida and other Sunni Militant Islam groups.
Another possible ramification – no less disturbing – is in the Israeli context.
As of now, thousands of Shiite militants including the Iranian Revolutionary Guard forces, militants of Hezbollah from Lebanon, Afghan Shiite militants, Iraqi Shiite militants and others – under the direct command of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard officers are fighting against Syrian rebels on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights, a few miles away from the Israeli side of The Golan Heights. A US-Iranian deal that will leave Assad (or any other Syrian figure who will obviously be an Iranian lackey) in power, together with an Iranian nuclear capacity, will enable Iran to create a new stage of instability – the Golan Heights. The Iranian regime does not conceal its desire to generate a new arena of confrontation against Israel in the Golan Heights. It will probably be done under the excuse of “fighting the Israeli occupation of the Golan Heights” – that model has been very successfully deployed by Iran; in the name of “resistance” and “ending the Israeli Occupation,” Iran successfully created and nurtured two arenas around Israel which produce constant violence and instability. One is in Lebanon and the other is in the Gaza Strip. (I have written many articles on that issue, see for example: “Is War in the Middle East Inevitable?” (February 2012).
Today, on top of the aerial corridor it uses to send weapons and ammunition to Syria, Iran can create and deploy a land corridor stretching strait from Iraq to Syria. Under an Iranian nuclear umbrella, Iranian conveys of missiles and rockets will freely make their way from Iraq to the Syrian side of the Golan Heights, adding to the hundreds of thousands of Iranian rockets and missiles that are already deployed in Lebanon and the Gaza Strip, aimed at Israel. Thus, Iran will almost complete the construction of a noose around Israel’s neck; Israel will face an existential threat – and we haven’t even mentioned the Iranian nuclear capacity yet. I find it hard to believe that any Israeli government will sit quietly and watch that scenario evolve.
A reminder – in January 2015, according to foreign reports, Hezbollah senior militants and an Iranian Revolutionary Guard General (together perhaps with other Iranian officers) were killed in an Israeli attack near the Israeli-Syrian cease-fire line in the Golan Heights. In my article A Significant Message (January 2015) I estimated that the attack, attributed to Israel, was an Israeli signal that it will not allow Iran to open a new front on Israel from the Golan Heights.
Thus, from almost every possible angle – ironically and very disturbingly – the American administration’s policy today might very well be extremely counterproductive resulting in increasing instability, encompassed by a terrifying increase of bloodshed as well as a nuclear arms race in the Middle East.
Is the United States administration aware of this?
Does the United States fully calculate the ramifications of its policy?
Is it possible that the United States administration is totally oblivious to these very possible ramifications?
I must admit that I – like many other analysts – find the United States policy puzzling. Time and time again US officials send out confusing, contradicting messages:
While senior US officials say that the “USA has no clear information regarding the Iranian support to the Huti tribes in Yemen,” the US Secretary of State openly declares that the USA is aware of Iranian support for the Huti.
While the US Secretary of State declares that the United States should negotiate with Assad, a State Department Spokesperson declares that Assad is totally not a counter part to dialogue with.
The US Secretary of State announces that Iran is operating in Iraq, and on another occasion he says that the United States is disturbed with the Iranian presence in Iraq.
The President of the United States declares he will not allow Iran to have a nuclear weapon, yet it is clear that he is determined, some argue that he is not only determined – but he is eager, to sign a deal with Iran; a deal which at best slows down Iran’s race towards nuclear weapons.
Obviously no one has a crystal ball. Yet, we may ask history to come to our aid here. In 1979 the Mullah regime came to power in Iran. It is argued that the appeasement approach of the US President at that time, Jimmy Carter, towards the Iranian Mullah Regime was based upon the hope that the regime will become cooperative and will play a positive, stabilizing role. Today we have the perspective to say that that hope – if it existed – proven to be a bad gamble.
A generation later, the Iranian Mullah Regime can proudly exhibit its achievements thus far:
It has brutally imposed its dictatorship over the Iranian people.
It gladly and cynically sacrifices Israelis, Palestinians, Syrian, Lebanese, Iraqis and others on the altar of its interests.
It is responsible for the massive destruction and devastation in the Gaza strip, Lebanon and Syria – and to a lesser extent Israeli cities (thanks to the successful performances of the Israeli Iron Dome interceptive rocket system).
The Iranian regime is now controlling / influencing significant parts of the Arab world, thus marking an historical triumphant milestone in its rivalry against its bitter loathed enemies – the Arabs and Sunnis.
And on top of that, the Iranian regime is making its way steady toward nuclear military capacity.
As a fact, the Iranian regime has for the last generation been the most destabilizing factor in the Middle East. The important thing to understand in that context is that for the Iranian Regime constant instability is the preferred situation – for both ideological and operational reasons.
It is argued that President Obama’s policy towards the Iranian regime is also motivated by a similar hope that guided the Carter administration in 1979. Given the gloomy outcomes of Carter’s policy in the context of the Iranian Regime, one should seriously question whether the Iranian regime – encouraged by its achievements on the ground and heading towards nuclear military capacity, while its financial resources are again restored once the sanctions are lifted – will be friendly and cooperative and will play a positive, stabilizing role. The risk of a second bad US gamble is quite high – and accordingly is the price involved.
One cannot overlook the Irony. It seems as if one of the most anti-democratic regimes in the world, who despises every single value that Democracy stands for, who openly despises the USA and describe it as “The Big Satan,” marks its biggest achievements during the shifts of US Democratic presidents.
An Arab senior journalist, Tariq Humeid recently wrote in his article “America and the Gulf Area – who secures who?” (Published in Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, March 7 2015) the following words: “…One thing is clear: the US President is either looking for personal glory or more likely is totally oblivious to what he is doing. The fact is that a bad deal with Iran is a disaster…Obama is leading the Middle East to a catastrophe”.
Mr. Humid is not the only one making that gloomy prediction. Many share his outlook.
In a counter-balance to criticism of the Obama administration in the Arab world, it is important to emphasize three things:
First, in a way that is practically unavoidable, United States policy in the Middle East – on almost every subject – has always been subject to sharp criticism from various entities in the Arab world. It should be enough to give the example of the anger and the criticism in the Arab world towards the United States because of its support for Israel.
Second, the Middle East is an extremely complex system, full of challenges, problems and sources of power with differing and often clashing interests. Consolidating a policy with regard to a system so complex is not a simple task, and it is not possible to design a uniform policy that will be appropriate for every situation, or in a way that will prove satisfactory to all those involved. That is even truer in the face of the enormous shake-up that has overtaken the Middle East in the second decade of the 21st century.
Third, the according of appreciation to a policy and its results is both subjective and based on interpretation of the observer’s point of view. So, for example, the criticism in the Arab world of the United States’ unwillingness to intervene militarily in the war in Syria, does not necessarily attest to the fact that United States policy with regard to the issue is misguided. There are those who will argue, and with a measure of justice that cannot be dismissed, that, in the light of American interests, this policy is correct.
As I said, no one has a crystal ball. However I think that at this point two things can be said quite decisively.
First, the gloomy scenarios I portrayed here are definitely not science fiction. They should be considered and understood with the utmost seriousness and concern.
Second, five years after his speech in Cairo, President Obama can say that he did indeed open a new page in the history of relations between the USA and the Muslim and Arab world; as of today, the image of the United States in the Middle East has hit rock bottom; the level of anger of Arabs towards the USA because of Obama’s policy is unprecedented. Politeness is a major virtue in Arab culture; yet, the rhetoric used by Arabs to express their anger is shockingly impolite.
Turkey does not hesitate to criticize Obama openly; the Iranian regime hardly bothers to disguise its contempt towards the current US administration; Iran’s foreign minister screams at US Secretary of State in their meetings. I doubt if you can find today one single Arab Middle East analyst or political figure who will argue that President Obama’s policy in the Middle East is a story of success.
At the peak of its power and influence, the United States foreign policy was described as Pax Americana. In 2015 it seems like the United States Middle East foreign policy should be described as Pax Amer-Iran. As things look right now in the Middle East, it is more likely to assume that the results of Pax Ameri-Iran will be quite different in comparison to the “Golden Era” of the Pax Romana.
Former Israeli Senior Official on Arab Affairs and former Intelligence Official and educator, Avi Melamed today is an Independent Middle East Strategic Intelligence Analyst, regional expert and lecturer specializing in the current affairs of the Arab and Muslim world and their impact on Israel and the region. He has a proven record of foreseeing the evolution of events in the Middle East and their impact on a local and regional level.
His expertise includes: The Arab awakening; Arab perspectives on Israel; Emerging challenges and opportunities in the Middle East; Evolving forces in the region and their current and future impact on Israel’s strategic environment, etc.
Avi is the Fellow of Intelligence and Middle East Affairs for the Eisenhower Institute of Gettysburg College with offices located in Washington, D.C. and Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, where among other responsibilities he leads a year-long program entitled “Inside the Middle East – Intelligence Perspectives,” designed to ensure that the next generation to be in positions of influence in the United States will have a more intimate understanding of the Middle East and will apply methods of critical thinking regarding Middle East Affairs in a way that will result in a more accurate reading the Middle East reality and which will better serve the West’s interest.
Avi is also developing a high school program to increase Media Literacy and Critical Thinking, this will be piloted to seniors and may be expanded to other grades.
His knowledge and wide and varied experience offer a behind the scenes insider’s view of the constantly-changing Middle East landscape and insight into future regional implications.
His outstanding analytical abilities, unique understanding of the Arab world and the Arabic language, decades of experience working in Arab speaking areas throughout the region, direct access to sources, and networks throughout the Arab world resources allows him to keep his finger on the pulse on the Arab world and has positioned him as one of the most well-rounded and insightful analysts in his field.
In his work as an analyst Avi provides intelligence analysis, briefings and tours to diplomats, Israeli and foreign policy makers, international media outlets as well as a wide variety of organizations and private clients on a range of Israel and Middle East affairs. His tours and briefings, based on Arab sources, decades of field experience, policy design and intimate connections throughout the Arab world, offer an insider’s view of the constantly-changing Middle East landscape and future regional implications.
In the public sector, Avi held various government and Counter-Terrorist intelligence positions. Fluent in Arabic and Israeli- Jew with a unique understanding of Arab society and culture, Avi spent over twenty years living in Arab cities and communities throughout the region, often in high-risk positions at sensitive times. During the first Intifada he was appointed the youngest-ever Deputy Advisor on Arab affairs to the Mayor of Jerusalem, Teddy Kollek and later he served in the Ehud Olmert administration as Senior Advisor. He was instrumental in developing Israeli policy in and around Jerusalem, and represented the city in local and international forums. He held various Intelligence and Counterterrorism field positions in delicate areas on behalf of the Israeli Defense Forces, the Israeli government, and Israeli security and intelligence services.
He is also the founder and creator of Feenjan – Israel speaks Arabic, a non-profit initiative which presents contemporary Israeli society and culture to the Arab world in Arabic, and serves as an online platform for Israelis and Arabs to discover and discuss issues of common interest.
In the private sector Avi facilitates relationships between Israeli and international firms and potential partners in the Arab world.
Through all of Avi’s efforts, as a speaker, an analyst, a writer, and an entrepreneur, he is a bridge builder. He dedicates himself to enhancing the Arabic, English and Hebrew speaking audience’s comprehensive understanding of the Middle East and of each other.
Avi is currently writing a book which will be released in the fall of 2015 that will be a resource for policy makers around the world when it comes to Middle East Affairs and will be a GPS to help everyone navigate the dramatically changing Middle East. Avi has authored two books, Separate and Unequal – Israel’s rule in East Jerusalem, published by Harvard University Press and Ubrusi, A Novel.
He is a frequent guest on English and Arabic networks including Al Jazeera and BBC Arabic, his articles are translated into multiple languages and are available on international news websites.
Avi has degrees from The Carmel Institute for Military Research, George Mason University, and The Hebrew University.
Avi is a frequent contributor in Arabic, Hebrew and English to many news outlets including Al-Arrabiya, Al-Jazeera, BBC, CBN, the New York Times, USA Today, the Wall Street Journal, etc.