The Middle East Channel

What do Arabs really think about Iran?


Arab governments have been basking in the glow of all the attention focused on them recently in relation to their concerns about Iran.  It seems that hardly a day goes by without some new article touting Arab government support for a U.S. attack on Iran, the latest by Jeffrey Goldberg in his new Atlantic piece.  For governments which have been literally begging the United States to end Israel's occupation of Palestinian and Syrian territory in exchange for full normalization with Israel, having your opinion being considered on something - on anything - by the policy elite in the United States should be cause for celebration.  Unfortunately, the glow is turning to sunburn as all the latest hype on Arab support for a U.S. attack on Iran misses the true nature of Arab government concerns about Iran's regional dominance.  

There are three points to remember concerning Arab - Iranian relations:

  • Arab governments seek a "balance of forces" in the region - not regional conflagration.
  • Arab governments and the Arab publics tend to be in slightly different places on concern about Iran and entirely in the same place in their concern about Israel's continued occupations of Arab territory.
  • A U.S. war with Iran which would have disastrous consequences for Israel and the United States, would only be that much more destabilizing to the current security of pro-U.S. Arab regimes. 

Ever since Iran's revolution in 1979, Arab governments have been concerned about the possibility of the revolution being exported.  The idea that millions of citizens of a state would engage in mass scale non-violent resistance against a U.S.-backed authoritarian government kept Arab leaders awake at night.  The fear was so palpable that almost all the Arab states (along with the U.S. and many European states) supported Saddam Hussein's invasion of Iran in 1980 in the hopes of quashing the new model of governance that Ayatollah Khomeini was overseeing.  One decade and one million lives later, Arab governments were reassured that Iran could not extend its influence into their countries, but quickly turned on their benefactor, Saddam Hussein, when they realized that he had become the regional behemoth as a result of their support for him during the war (as evidenced by his takeover of Kuwait).  In 1991, the Arab states turned around and supported the United States as we destroyed Iraq's military and civilian infrastructure. But they drew the line at regime change - Arab states were not prepared to support the U.S. in overthrowing the Baathist government and urged the U.S. to allow Saddam to crush the popular uprising throughout the country to overthrow him on the tail of the U.S. war.  Estimates indicate that as many as a quarter of a million Iraqis were killed.  As a result, both Iran and Iraq were "contained."

Are Arab governments considering yet another war?  Despite the repeated unconfirmed reports about anonymous Arab leaders urging Obama to follow Israel's lead, the circumstances today are very different than 1979 or 1991.  There is no threat from either Iraq or Iran toward any neighboring Arab state, not real or imagined.  Iran's unique blend of western parliamentary democracy and the "rule of jurisprudents" hasn't really gained any adherents outside Iran.  Sept

The two other states with a Shia majority and plurality respectively*, Iraq and Lebanon, have effectively adopted western parliamentary forms of government without any clerical overlay.  And the popularity of Iran's leaders has been eclipsed - not by any Arab leader - but by the Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan whose ambitious and vigorous diplomacy in the region (combined with very real economic engagement) has made him a superstar - draining the air out of the Ahmadinejad bubble.  The final popping of that bubble for Arab states will not come from a disastrous U.S. attack on Iran, but from resolution of the Israeli-Arab conflict. And finally, of course, no one in the region believes that Iran will invade any other country.  

King Abdullah of Jordan has tried to convey this publicly and privately to American audiences on behalf of governments in the region, as noted in today's excellent piece by Steve Clemons. Here is an excerpt from King Abdullah's interview with Fareed Zakaria:

KING ABDULLAH: I still go back to saying the core issue is the Israeli-Palestinian problem, because all roads in our part of the world, all the conflicts lead to Jerusalem.

Today, Iran is putting itself as the defenders of the Palestinian cause. Several days ago, Osama bin Laden in his taped message to the United States again underlined the suffering of the Palestinians. It is the injustice felt towards the Palestinian people that allow other states actors and non-state actors to take the role of being the defenders of the Palestinians.

If we solve this problem, then I believe we start to unwind all the other pressure points inside of the Middle East.

ZAKARIA: But could you in Jordan live with an Iran with a nuclear weapon?

KING ABDULLAH: If we solve the Israeli-Palestinian problem, why would Iranians want to spend so much money on a military program? It makes no sense.

I mean, the country has social challenges. It has economic challenges. Why push the envelope in getting to a military program? For what cause? If you solve the problem, you don't need to pursue that path.

ZAKARIA: People in Washington who listen to this are going to say, "He's soft on Iran."

KING ABDULLAH: President Obama said something that was very, very critical about the future of the Middle East. He said that, for the first time -- and I think it should have happened many, many decades ago -- America wants to see a resolution to the Israeli- Palestinian conflict, because it is in the vital national security interests of the United States.

In this sense, Arab governments are allying their long-term strategic interests with those identified by President Obama (an Israeli-Arab peace and Middle East stability) and not with those of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The Arab government position represented by the King of Jordan is also one allied with those of the Arab public as recently illustrated by Shibley Telhami's latest poll of Arab public opinion.  The poll shows that 86% of Arabs would be "prepared for peace if Israel is willing to return all 1967 territories including East Jerusalem" even though a majority doubts Israel will do so without pressure.  This is a remarkable asset for U.S. peace-making if the U.S. chose to operationalize the President's Cairo speech from last year.  At the same time, 77% believe "Iran has a right to its nuclear program."  Perhaps more surprisingly, 57% of all those polled believe that it would be a more positive outcome for the Middle East if Iran actually developed nuclear weapons and an additional 20% believe it wouldn't make a difference to the region.  This might be a consequence of believing that the U.S. will not be able to convince Israel to either end the occupation or to give up its own nuclear weapons program.

At the end of the day, the Arab public is not only not concerned about Iran's regional strength, but thinks it would be better for the region, probably in light of America's perceived weakness vis-à-vis Israel, for that regional strength to continue - unlike the assessment of their rulers.  However, on the need to end Israel's occupation, there is unanimity between the rulers and the ruled.

A final note on those misconstruing the nature of Arab government concerns - at the end of the day, Arab governments want to remain in power.  A strong and popular United States is the ultimate guarantor of that until there is a transition to representative forms of government.  A United States that has been unable to secure Palestinian independence, that is still tied down in Afghanistan and Iraq, and that is reeling from a new war with Iran will be neither.  Jeffrey Goldberg does try to set out some of the costs to the U.S. in attacking Iran, including:

sparking lethal reprisals, and even a full-blown regional war that could lead to the deaths of thousands of Israelis and Iranians, and possibly Arabs and Americans as well; of creating a crisis for Barack Obama that will dwarf Afghanistan in significance and complexity; of rupturing relations between Jerusalem and Washington, which is Israel's only meaningful ally, of inadvertently solidifying the somewhat tenuous rule of the mullahs in Tehran; of causing the price of oil to spike to cataclysmic highs, launching the world economy into a period of turbulence not experienced since the autumn of 2008, or possibly since the oil shock of 1973; of placing communities across the Jewish diaspora in mortal danger, by making them targets of Iranian-sponsored terror attacks, as they have been in the past, in a limited though already lethal way; and of accelerating Israel's conversion from a once-admired refuge for a persecuted people into a leper of nations.

Steve Clemons adds to that list noting that "China and Russia may exploit the incident and provide a back door to Iran - thus potentially breaking the back of U.S. dominance of the world's oil and natural gas regimes."  Zbigniew Brzezinski has noted in the past that Russia's stranglehold over Europe would be almost complete if a U.S. attack on Iran precipitated the expected closing of the Straits of Hormuz:

[The Russians] also know in the back of their heads that if worse came to worse-and I am not saying they are deliberately promoting the worst-but if worse came to worse, which is an American-Iranian military collision, who would pay the highest price for that? First, America, whose success in ending the Cold War the Russians still bitterly resent. And we would also pay a high price in Iraq, Afghanistan, and massively so with regards to the price of oil. Second, who would suffer the most? The Chinese, who the Russians view as a long-range threat and of whom they are very envious, because the Chinese get much more of their oil from the Middle East than we do, and the skyrocketing price would hurt them even more than us. Third, who would then be totally dependent on the Russians? The West Europeans. And fourth, who would cash in like crazy? The Kremlin.

A U.S. that rushed headlong into economic decline and strategic incoherence as a result of war with Iran would end up being a direct threat to the stability of Arab regimes - perhaps one reason why al-Qaeda's leaders are believed to be in agreement with those pundits urging a U.S. war with Iran.  For Wahabbi Salafist jihadi groups, a U.S. attack on Iran kills two apostate birds with one stone. 

For those advocates in the United States desperately trying to create a sense of inevitability to war with Iran, there is a logic to citing Arab leaders "who are more afraid of Iran than Israel." It makes it sound as if this war is not only about maintaining Israel's "military autonomy" to operate as it will in the region, but about the security of the region as a whole.  It is excellent misdirection, intentional or not.  Arab leaders will need to be more vocal in the coming days and months about their own interests and those of the region, in light of the campaign for a U.S. attack on Iran - and that is probably advice that is useful for the White House as well. 

Amjad Atallah directs the Middle East Task Force at the New America Foundation and is editor of the Middle East Channel.


*Correction: The original article inaccurately called Iraq and Lebanon "Shia majority states." The author regrets the error.


The Middle East Channel

Yemen: not on the verge of collapse


The Republic of Yemen is often spoken of in the press and in policy circles as a society on the verge of collapse (last year it was "another Somalia"), based largely on two claims, the first being the supposed weakness of its state, the other the supposed lawlessness of its tribal population that makes up the majority ethnic group (about seventy-five percent are settled agriculturalists in the mountains and another five per cent, nomadic Bedouin in the eastern desert). And supposedly being on the verge of collapse, Yemen is seen as vulnerable to take-over by terrorist organizations such as al-Qaeda that threaten America's and the region's security. Let us consider how tribe and state, law and conflict operate in Yemen that few analysts seem to grasp when they make these pronouncements.

History may provide some perspective. There has been a state or dawlah in Yemen for thousands of years, whether the Sabaean state that built Marib Dam and was the reputed homeland of the Queen of Sheba, or the Islamic state created shortly after the advent of Islam which lasted for a thousand years, or the republican state that came into being in 1962 and has lasted until the present day, despite two bitter civil wars. To be sure, the state has waxed and waned in power and contracted or expanded in territory during this history, and it has faced formidable outside opponents, beginning with the Romans and most recently with al-Qaeda, but it has never fully collapsed or disappeared from the scene. It is unlikely to do so in the present in spite of arguments that the current regime is at a tipping point and about to fall apart because of an unprecedented number of seemingly intractable problems facing it (an ever weakening economy, unsustainable water consumption, projected diminished oil reserves, conflicts between the state and certain regional populations, rampant corruption, and let us not forget al-Qaeda).

To those who would say to me, "How do you know it is not at a tipping point?" I can only respond with, "How do you know that it is?" and remind ourselves of the longue durée of Yemeni history.

But what does it mean to be a "weak state" in contemporary Yemen? Again, some historical perspective is helpful, though thankfully we need not go back three thousand years. When the current president of Yemen, Ali Abdullah Saleh, came to power in 1978 I remember people taking bets in the country's expatriate community that he would not last a year. Not only has he expanded his own personal power, he has managed to consolidate and broaden the state's presence in the country. In 1978, there were few military checkpoints along Yemen's highways; I could go from the capital, Sana'a, to the western town of Marib and be stopped at most two times along the way by state authorities. Now there are over a dozen such stops and identity papers are checked. Military outposts can be seen on most mountain-tops. And there is an administrative system doing the state's business in even the most far-flung regions of the county. Paved roads, state-run or sponsored schools, clinics, and hospitals represent a different aspect of state power and legitimacy, and perhaps they are more effective in that they penetrate into the everyday lives of people. Usually none of this context is taken into account when the western press glibly asserts that the state can barely control the capital, let alone the hinterlands beyond it.

The power of the tribes in Yemen is crucial to understanding the state and its ability (or not) to operate. Historically the Yemeni state has worked with tribal groups to secure the nation's territory (the two most powerful tribal confederations, the Hashid and the Bakil, were called the "wings" of the imam, the former king of Yemen, because he would call on them rather than a standing army to defend the borders; the same is true today when the state calls on loyal tribes to help fight Huthi rebels in the north of the country). As a way of bringing the southern part of the country to heal under the central state after the second civil war in 1994, the current regime embarked upon a tribalization of that part of the country (just as the socialists in the same part of the country had repressed, often brutally, the presence of the tribes because they were thought to be anti-progressive or traditionalists). It is also important to bear in mind that Yemen's army is composed mostly of tribesmen who depend on wages, meager though they be, for their families, and that tribesmen make up a large part of the economy in the towns (both informal and formal), and that the majority of elected members to parliament are tribal sheikhs.

To us, this symbiosis of tribe and state may seem puzzling, for the two are often seen to be antithetical to each other: tribes value honor and autonomy and the state is perceived as threatening to the integrity of both (in the case of autonomy this may be obvious; in the case of honor the cultural logic is that anyone or anything that is more powerful than you has the potential of putting you in a compromised or potentially dishonorable position). Even more surprising is the notion that the state should depend on the tribes in some areas to keep the peace and maintain order, for it is presumed that tribes are inherently "lawless" and feud-addicted.

In fact, there are three distinct systems of law in the country, tribal law or curf (which has its own code as well as its own legal processes for resolving disputes), Shariah, and civil law. Conflicts are usually not settled by coercion but by persuasion and the rule of law. The three legal systems co-exist without much competition with each other (as long as long as tribal and civil laws are compatible with the Shariah), and they operate more or less in their own spheres. And so when a state official says, "That is a tribal affair," he is not necessarily shirking responsibility for dealing with the conflict but acknowledging the relative autonomy of the tribes as well as their own elaborate rules for adjudicating disputes on which the state should not encroach. It is rather like the U.S. government acknowledging state's rights or state authority in place of federal law. Of course, problems can arise in the tribal system, and when they do one or the other legal system can be appealed to for a solution. And so it is hard to know what someone means when they assert that "there is no rule of law" in the largely tribal regions of the country.

It is my hope that by viewing some current events in Yemen with this history and these contexts in mind, we may arrive at more nuanced and more accurate understandings of them.

Dr. Steve C. Caton is Professor of Contemporary Arab Studies in the Department of Anthropology at Harvard University.