Saturday, December 26, 2009

The Arabic-Speaking World in 2010

By Barry Rubin

The politics of the Arabic-speaking world are going to face some serious challenges during 2010. Probably none of them, however, will have anything to do with the Arab-Israeli issue, despite the overwhelming attention and exaggerated importance usually given to that question by outside observers.

Unquestionably, the leading problem will be dealing with an increasingly powerful Iran and its sidekick Syria which aren’t being contained by the United States. The Arabs, after all, live in the neighborhood and if they conclude that America can’t or won’t protect them, they’ll have to cut their own deal combined with finding some way to defend themselves better.

Already we’ve seen huge gains for Iran in 2009 which U.S. policymakers seem largely to ignore:

--The Saudis have reduced their level of confrontation with Iran and Syria, especially abandoning their attempt to block Tehran’s influence in Lebanon.

--The Lebanese moderate May 14 movement has bowed to Iranian-backed Hizballah in setting up a government which won’t do anything Tehran doesn’t like.

--While the full extent of Iranian intervention in Yemen is not clear, it seems like Tehran is backing a tribal revolt which is extending its influence into a new area.

--Western reluctance to raise sanctions and the ease with which Iran fooled and made fools of the West over the nuclear weapons’ issue seems to show that Iran holds the stronger hand. Russia and China are basically defending Iran’s interests in avoiding international pressure. Despite the Obama Administration having set dedlines of September and December, as 2010 begins, the implementation of higher sanctions is still months away.

--While many think that opposition demonstrations and protests have weakened the regime, in a real sense it emerged as stronger. Other factions were forced out of the leadership; Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps leaders occupied more positions of importance. The spiritual guide accepted both the IRGC role and the reelection of President Ahmadinejad, despite his past economic mismanagement and the supposed international or domestic costs. In other words, the regime proved how tough it was which in that part of the world is a major asset.

--Iran seems to have stepped up efforts to extend its influence in southwestern Afghanistan, despite the U.S. military presence there.

Will this march continue in 2010? One of the things that the Obama Administration doesn’t realize is that it’s obvious unwillingness to confront Iran is demoralizing its allies in the Arabic-speaking world whose lives are on the line. If the United States won’t even use tough rhetoric or sanctions how could it be possibly counted on if things get really rough?

Consequently, it’s hard to see Arab states taking a tougher stand during 2010, though if Iran provokes them by getting caught doing internal subversion in Egypt or Saudi Arabia, for example, they could feel forced to take a stand.

A potential crisis is succession in Egypt. Will this be the year that President Husni Mubarak has to stand down? If so, there would be the long-awaited transition, forcing a final decision on whether or not the ill-prepared Gamal Mubarak is going to become president. Gamal is in many ways the West’s dream of an Arab president, Westernized and a technocrat, but could that mean he lacks the skills to keep Egypt stable?

Another issue to watch is the power balance in Lebanon, a delicate mechanism to say the least. Will Hizballah be content to get a long list of things it wants: a free hand for its militia, unlimited weapons’ imports, the country’s servility to Syria, a green light to attack Israel whenever it wants (though it is unlikely to do so this year), and an end to investigations about its own (and Syria’s) involvement in terrorism and murders within Lebanon? Or will it push harder to seize hegemony in the country?

Finally, there is Iraq, whose government is still fighting a terrorist war sponsored by Syria and Iran. As the American withdrawal proceeds will those two countries step up the violence in order to make it look as if the United States is running away in defeat? Here, the Obama Administration has not backed Iraq’s complaints about Syrian involvement in terrorism, thus undermining another ally. Baghdad’s current policy is, however, to remain on good terms with both Washington and Tehran if possible.

If this list makes it sound like nothing good is going to happen in the Arabic-speaking world in2010 then you’ve read it correctly.

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