Three fundamental and one extraneous force are currently colliding in our region. Each of these forces has its own agenda and because none of them is truly dominant, the end result is a clash rather than competition.
Iran: The hard power is the core issue at the heart of the region because it has many historical legacies that are still alive in the hearts and minds of both its leaders and its Persian people, all of whom dream of reviving the Persian Empire. It has a sizable population of nearly 75 million people and possesses technological and scientific superiority that far exceeds its neighbours. Iran also has the capability of creating a nuclear bomb in a region of the world that is significant due to the presence of oil. It is an authoritarian and undemocratic regime that does not believe in the people's right to self-expression or the decentralisation of power, which threaten the status of the regime and the current oligarchy.
Iran officially converted to Shia Islam 400 years ago during a conflict that it had with the Ottoman Empire, but it was not until the revolution of 1979 that the country officially took on the identity of being a theocratic state. It was then that the Iranian government became an authoritarian dictatorship ruled by a certain oligarchy based on a Shia identity. This new government seeks to amplify the sense of victimisation that has been associated with Shia Islam for the last 14 centuries. And yet, the sense of controversy that stems from this is also used as a tool with which Iran can exert its influence over the region and over the dominant Sunni doctrine. Iran seeks to export the Shia doctrine, which has been the Trojan Horse in the region, one that takes over at the expense of the Arabs, who are currently at their weakest point.
The results of this expansionist policy are evident mostly in Iraq, a country that fell victim to two wars, an American occupation and a tyrannical sectarian regime. In Yemen, the Iranians have sponsored the Houthi project in a takeover that will ultimately lead to the country's destruction. The same thing applies to Iran's support of Hamas in Gaza, a decision that ultimately prevents true national reconciliation in Palestine. In Lebanon, the Shia community has been transformed from a national, liberal and leftist group of people to one that pledges its allegiance to Iran and not Lebanon through groups like Hezbollah. This allegiance threatens to destabilise Lebanon once again. Iran has also tried to mobilise Shia communities in Bahrain and eastern Saudi Arabia and has contributed a great deal to the sectarian chaos that has taken place in Syria.
Turkey: The soft power is a key player in the region that has adopted a Sunni-based political ideology. Turkey is far more modern than Iran and views itself as a friend to many countries in the region based on two main principles. The first reason is that the Turkish government, which is viewed as Islamic to a certain extent, feels as though the country functions best within the historical mandate of the former Ottoman Empire, a region that encompasses much of the Arab world as well as eastern Europe and central Asia. Turkey's Ottoman history is one of the main things that encourage its leaders to adopt a friendly policy towards other countries within its proximity, including the Arab world and Europe. As a country of 75 million people, Turkey has very close ties with Europe, central Asia and the Middle East. It possesses the capabilities of producing a nuclear bomb but has yet to do so, which distinguishes it greatly from countries like Iran.
Turkey's use of its so-called soft power is the primary reason behind its success as a regional leader and it explains successful economic, trade and diplomatic relations through primarily cultural exports (like the Turkish soap opera craze). Turkey has managed to expand its trade relations with countries in the Arab world from 10 per cent to 35 per cent and it considers its Islamic doctrine to be moderate in nature rather than aggressive. In fact, the Turkish government had hoped that the Arab Spring would give rise to a number of new Arab countries with governmental structures similar to its model. Yet, there were many shortcomings in this regard and Turkey was eventually unable to spread its influence in central Asia, due to the heavy American influence. It is also important to note that a rather sizable number of the Turkish population sides with having a secular and democratic approach to government because they seek EU membership.
Israel: The foreign power that is the alien power, which can also be viewed as the realisation of a few lunatics' dream such as Britain first and foremost, followed by Europe, certain Arab countries and most importantly America. Israel and its Jewish population bask in the glow of this support for it is currently the number one producer of technological and scientific innovations in the area. Israel has nearly 200 atomic bombs in its arsenal despite its small size; however, because it is an alien power within the region, it has not succeeded in integrating with its neighbours nor will it succeed in doing so in the near future. The policies that have been adopted and implemented by its leaders have transformed Israeli society into a militant and pre-dominantly right-wing population, one that requires having an enemy to fight should it want to survive.
Israel is a small community of people who fear the possibility of peace and stability with its Arab neighbours because it views them as a sea of outstanding threats to its very existence. Yet, Israel's economic, technological and scientific advancements have allowed for it to far exceed its Arab neighbours. Today's world is one that highly favours technological superiority and Israel is smart enough not to let any extremists determine the fate of this particular domain, which allows it to protect its military interests in a hostile environment.
The Arabs: The failed power. They are the main power in region and they would like to revive a semblance of their glorious past through their unmatched manpower. Despite all of these and despite the fact that there are many economic strongholds in the region as well as the fact that it is located in a very rich part of the world and should have the support of the Arab league and other similar organisations, it remains effectively weak in all of its endeavours. Nationalists have failed to bring the Arab world back from the ashes. The nationalistic movement remains very much sporadic and lacks effective leadership. It is the "sick man" of this century much like the Ottoman Empire in the 20th century.
Each one of the forces mentioned above seeks to implement its own agenda on the region and although historically speaking the Arabs were the first to experience their renaissance and a pan-Arab nationalistic movement via the policies of Gamal Abdel Nasser, they ultimately failed to lead a successful movement. We find that today there are certain groups that want to take us 14 centuries back in time rather than towards a modern renaissance.
In the beginning, the Arab Spring revived a notion of self-perceived popular consciousness, which would have been considered a triumph had it succeeded. However, our spring has since turned into a gloomy fall that threatens our potential and the future of any potential nationalistic projects. A pan-Arab nationalistic movement does not seem to be on the horizon in today's word, and yet, the Arabs will not succeed in becoming a strong power unless they move towards this outcome in a way that is guided by enlightenment and rationality.
Translated from Al-Araby Al-Jadid, 17 December, 2014
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.