In May 2003, less than a month before Baghdad's fall, I participated in the Ralph Miliband Lecture Series at the London School of Economics and Political Science. These lectures commemorate the father of Labour Party leader Ed Miliband. The theme for the series was "American Power in the 21st Century" and the series included ten lectures given by exerts in international, American and European affairs. It was my fate, that year, to speak about American influence (power) in the Middle East and the Muslim World.
I summed up by saying that American foreign policy in the region was ultimately ineffective, despite appearances, which suggested otherwise. I also pointed out that America's invasion of Iraq would prove to be a disaster in the region because it would strengthen Iran's influence and role in the Middle East. I also noted that Ayatollah Khomeini's supporters are excused if they felt that America's involvement in the region violates the Imam's privileges. Since 2001, America has, whether knowingly or unknowingly, implicated Iran in all of its schemes. Saudi Arabia was weakened the minute that American troops entered its territory in 1990 and with the fall of the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001. Moreover, American involvement in Iraq paved the way for the formation of a Shiite state and ally for Iran, which consequently placed Iraq under Iranian hegemony.
This prophecy gave way to two outcomes: the first of them was that the current disorder facing Iraq is a result of the Nouri Al-Maliki regime's deterioration despite its loyalty to Iran. This is due not only to Iranian influence in the country but also to the sectarian nature of Iraqi politics. The second outcome is a conference organised by the Arab Centre for Research and Policy Studies in Doha under the same theme; "Arabs and the United States: interests and concerns in a changing environment". Naturally, I attended this conference.
The debates that took place in Doha called for the re-evaluation of the Iraqi situation in light of recent events and developments in the region. Is there really any justification for me to change my argument that the United States paved the way for a Shiite Iraqi state under the influence of Iranian hegemony? Can one argue that Iran has not regained its strength in the region? There are two main perspectives on this matter, the first of which focuses on what appears to be Iranian expansion in the region based on what is happening in Iraq and Syria's conversion into an Iranian protectorate. One must also look to Hezbollah's increasing influence in Lebanon as well as the pressure being put on the Gulf States by Shiite groups.
The second perspective is less admirable and focuses on the negative impact that Iran has had on both Syria and Iraq. Iran is morally bankrupt when it comes to its foreign policy in Syria and due to the depletion of resources as well as a lack of economic and political support, backing for Hezbollah has decreased significantly and lost all of its credibility in the Arab world. Quite simply, Iran has been exposed as a sectarian state with Machiavellian politics. Moreover, the question of sectarianism is diluted so that it no longer has a religious dimension and instead focuses on identities such as "Persian" or "Kurdish". This type of rhetoric affords a secular Shiite the opportunity to implement policies that go against a Sunni believer.
There is no doubt that both of these perspectives are valid to some degree or another. Those who are not concerned with questions of morality can say easily that Iran expanded in the same way that Israel did, by confiscating lands and building settlements, or the way that America invaded both Iraq and Afghanistan so that it could establish military bases in the region. Yet, those who take a more holistic approach to their analysis would argue that Iran's decision to opt for a morally bankrupt approach in exchange for geographic expansion is truly a great loss and not a victory. The "bigger Devil" in this scenario is the true victor.
What makes the situation in the region even more desperate is the fact that Iran's competitors are not any less morally bankrupt and this is due to the fact that in addition to lacking morality, they are also defeated geographically and economically. Most of Iran's competitors, whether in the Gulf of or the Levant, are engaged in wars against their own people. Their bankruptcy is not limited to the moral or political level but also expands to their lack of military capabilities and diplomatic weight. In the light of this, all political Arab actors, whether Islamic, liberal or nationalist, are involved in the fight against oppression; Arab civil societies are engaged in this fight as well. On the technical level, Arab societies are being impacted negatively by sanctions and regulations that are implemented by their regimes and this makes them vulnerable to political paralysis and downfall.
In order to practise and implement oppression, the security apparatus (firstly) and the military sector (secondly) are the two factions that occupy the state's central power by controlling all resources and using them to their benefit. This is particularly true in Iran's case where the Revolutionary Guard and the Basij paramilitaries under them possess all forms of central power. These two powers dominate the economic sector and control all policies affecting the community. The difference between Iran and Arab means of control, when it comes to oppressive policies and regimes, is that Arab countries do not possess the military strength required for adequate self-defence and rely too much on external American or Western support, which may or may not arrive. In addition, Arab intelligence agencies have shown that they are subject to many shortcomings in the event that they need to protect themselves or thwart any external dangers and interference. In the Iraqi case, intelligence deficits have paved the way for groups such as ISIS to gain prominence. In the Syrian context, intelligence mechanisms have also been seen to have a striking deficit when it comes to protecting the country from Iranian-Syrian intelligence, despite international and regional efforts to support the intelligence sector.
This has resulted in creating a political vacuum at the heart of the Arab world, one that serves as a hotbed for extremist organisations such as ISIS, Al Qaeda and others. We all know that there is no future for and with such political parties and groups. The (political) paralysis affecting Sunni populations in Syria and Iraq proves this point. In contrast, groups such as ISIS fill a void in countries like Iran and have now gone on to expand in Syria and Iraq. The Arab world now finds itself facing two options: a Sunni ISIS or an Iranian ISIS.
Yet, the main problem remains the voids found in the foundations of the majority of Arab states, which govern their inability for self-defence and effective governance. Unless these countries reconsider their internal and external policies they will remain subject to fragmentation and vulnerable to sectarianism and, as such, they will collapse due to these divisions. These regressions will begin in politically fragmented countries such as Yemen, Iraq, Syria, Sudan and Libya and will go on to affect countries such as Egypt and the Gulf states. However, one could also argue that the dominoes will fall in reverse order affecting Egypt and the Gulf before the others. The situation in Egypt is not any less dangerous than the one in Iraq because Iraq has oil reserves that are supported by the US and it can bounce back in the end. However, the Egyptian regime is currently engaged in the impossible task of oppressing the people in its attempt to gain a semblance of legitimacy. It seeks to monopolise the state's resources and enjoy the legitimacy that previous regimes possessed in more favourable global conditions. This current situation will bring Egypt down for decades to come; what is even more troubling is that the Gulf States are dragging Egypt down further into the abyss.
Unfortunately, the greatness intended for God cannot be achieved by human kind and the last person to realise this truth is often the first person affected by blindness. Just as the Americans did not foresee the consequences of their polices in Iraq and just as the sects in old Andalusia did not realise the dangers of their actions until it was too late, today's modern sectarian communities will soon realise the dire consequences of their actions in today's Iraq.
Translated from Al Quds Al Arabi, 16 June, 2014
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.