Scholars discuss central concerns in United States Middle East foreign policies
What if there had been no Egyptian revolution? How has life changed — or not changed — in Iran since the nuclear deal? Why did the Turkish coup d’état attempt fall short? Five years later, what has become of the Arab Spring? All of these questions are linked by a central concern: what should the next U.S. president know about the Middle East?
This question was the focus of the Crown Center for Middle East Studies’ kick-off event on Wednesday, during which a panel of five discussed current events outside the topic of religious insurgency — hence the title, “Beyond ISIS.” The panel, moderated by Prof. Eva Bellin (POL), included Renée and Lester Crown Professor of Modern Middle East Studies Pascal Menoret (ANTH); Crown Center Junior Research Fellow Ahmad Shokr; Charles “Corky” Goodman Professor of Modern Middle East History Naghmeh Sohrabi (HIST); Crown Center Senior Research Fellow David Patel; and Crown Center Neubauer Junior Research Fellow Serra Hakyemez.
After Prof. Shai Feldman (POL) introduced the panel, Menoret began the discussion by addressing the recent leadership change in the United States’ oldest ally in the region: Saudi Arabia. In January 2015, King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud’s death brought his half brother, Salman, to the throne. According to Menoret, while Abdullah’s reign brought about some “cosmetic and very limited reforms” such as municipal elections and modernization of schools, with Salman, “politics are not on the agenda anymore.”
The panelists also discussed Saudi intervention in Yemen’s ongoing civil war. Menoret described the war as “a way for Saudi leadership to basically solve domestic problems, and Yemen is in many ways a domestic issue in Saudi Arabia,” owing to their intertwined economies.
Next, Ahmad Shokr analyzed the aftermath of Egypt’s 2011 uprising. Since the military seized power in July 2013, the regime has jailed “unprecedented numbers” of journalists, students and humanitarian workers, he noted. “The possibility of political pluralism in Egypt has not looked bleaker over the past five years than it does today,” Shokr said. “Nothing was inevitable about the trajectory that Egypt followed,” he continued, explaining that the country has steered away from the path to democracy and pluralism as the Muslim Brotherhood and the military sought power.
The topic then shifted to Iran, focusing on the 2015 nuclear deal. “The domestic ramifications have been quite a lot and also nothing at all, simultaneously,” Sohrabi said.
As she explained, President of Iran Hassan Rouhani had argued that foreign sanctions threatened the survival of the regime — and the region. Beyond the sanctions, though, Iran struggles with corruption and high unemployment. “It’s almost like the nuclear issue became a very convenient way of not talking about a problem that requires long-term solutions,” Sohrabi said.
Sohrabi described how Iran’s economic problems have been highlighted by the Financial Action Task Force — an intergovernmental organization — which blacklisted it in 2015 for money laundering and terrorist financing. In June 2016, the organization announced that it had “suspended countermeasures” for twelve months to monitor the republic.
Corruption is also rampant in neighboring Iraq, as Patel discussed. Sectarian violence and factionalism have broken up the country, oil prices have collapsed and its government is facing a budget crisis. Everyone with ties to the political parties, Patel said, “had budgeted and created patronage networks based on a certain amount of oil.” As oil revenue has fallen, government coffers have emptied, signaling a “reckoning” down the road when state employees lose their income.
Lastly, Hakyemez spoke about the recent coup attempt in Turkey. Hakyemez argued that the coup had failed in part because it had little to no military backing. In the coup’s early hours, much of the military was in support; by the end, it had sided with the ruling party, the Justice and Development Party (AKP). The party also contacted imams en masse, urging them and their congregations to take to the streets in defense of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan — and, by extension, the country. “The AKP government made a very strategic move, saying that this is the second war of independence the Turkish people are waging against the infidels,” said Hakyemez.
There was a recurring theme throughout the event, emphasized particularly by Feldman and Shokr: Though the White House continues to wield significant influence in the Middle East, it cannot unilaterally solve the crises rippling through Iraq, Syria or Yemen. As Shokr put it, the region is in the midst of a “transformative moment … the likes of which we haven’t seen, perhaps, since the end of the first world war.”
“Imagine what’s going to happen after ISIS is defeated,” Feldman said at the end of the event. Regional powers will compete for their interests with greater fervor than before, whether it is Turkey in Syria or Iran in Iraq. To craft a strong foreign policy in the Middle East, he concluded, the next president must be prepared to look at the region outside an ISIS-focused framework.