Thursday, April 7, 2011

The Middle East Score So Far This Year: Iran and Brotherhood, 8; Hamas, 6, U.S., -11

By Barry Rubin

Events in the Middle East have moved so quickly that one almost needs a daily scorecard to keep up. This article will try to give a basic picture of what has, and hasn’t, changed.

Have Iran and revolutionary Islamists gained in recent months? Yes, since Islamism is advancing at the expense of declining Arab nationalism as well as other reasons.

From the Muslim Brotherhood’s perspective gains have been made for its branches and allies in Egypt (which also helps their ally Hamas), Jordan, Libya, Syria, and Tunisia.

That doesn’t mean they will take power now but these groups are all stronger than they were at the end of last year.

Iran has benefitted by gains made in Bahrain (though Saudi intervention blocked its clients from taking power), Lebanon, and Yemen along with indirectly in all of the other places except Syria. Moreover, Tehran can take satisfaction in the removal of Egypt, its most important Arab foe, from the anti-Iran and pro-U.S. category to, at best, a neutralist stance.

And all Islamists can take pleasure in the dramatic decline of U.S. credibility and alliances, with Egypt, Lebanon, Tunisia, and probably soon Yemen no longer cooperating with U.S. policy at all.

Let’s list the main aspects of U.S. policy:

--It is now in no way opposed to Muslim Brotherhoods or Hizballah being in government and has helped create a situation in Egypt where the Brotherhood is making a bid for leadership.

--Backing for all practical purposes Syrian repression of its own democratic upsurge because it sees dictator Bashar al-Assad as a “reformer.” (Ironically, Mubarak was much more of a reformer than Assad, at least on social and economic issues.)

--Doing nothing about Lebanon, where Hizballah and its allies have gained power, making the country a satellite of Iran and Syria;

--Thinking that the Turkish regime is just fine, in fact a model for other countries (which is strange since the regime is now an ally of Iran, Syria, Hamas, and Hizballah);

--Highly critical of Bahrain’s suppression of its opposition (part of which is pro-Iranian);

--Intervening in Libya, an operation to which none of the Islamists are opposed because they hope to benefit from it. In addition, the U.S. forces could get bogged down in there. Isn't the Libya war just another version of the invasion of Iraq except with less rationale, less to gain, and more to lose?
--Distancing itself more from Israel than any previous administration has for the last 50 years.

--Refusing to back the Saudis, having created the worst friction in the history of the U.S.-Saudi relationship.

What’s there for a revolutionary Islamist not to like? Obviously, they’d like an end to U.S. sanctions on Iran and other things but, generally speaking, American policy is terrific from their standpoint.

Let’s take a quick country-by-country survey:

Bahrain: The regime has used repression, Saudi intervention, and offers of compromise well to split the moderate (which wants a fairer share of power for the Shia majority) from the radical opposition (which wants a pro-Iran Islamist republic. Minus one point for Iran, no thanks to U.S. policy.

Egypt: The Brotherhood is far more powerful than ever, will win about one-third of parliament probably; will shape Egypt’s cultural, educational, intellectual, and religious atmosphere; and can now help Hamas. Egypt is no longer in the anti-Iran and pro-Western camp. Two points for Brotherhood, two points for Hamas, one point for Iran. Minus two points for U.S. interests.

Gaza Strip: Egypt has turned from enemy to ally. Arms and terrorists flow in freely. Two points to Hamas and one each to Muslim Brotherhood, and Iran. Minus two points for U.S. interests: Hamas and revolutionary Islamism get stronger; future Israel-Gaza or even Arab-Israeli war is more likely. 

Jordan: While the monarchy should survive, the Brotherhood there is more active and demanding. It also undermines another anti-Iran Arab state that is pro-Western. Two points to Brotherhood and one each to Iran and Hamas.

Lebanon: Everyone seems to forget Lebanon, which went from having a moderate government friendly to the West to being a country now largely controlled by Hizballah and other Syrian clients and in the Iranian-Syrian sphere. The moderates (Christian-Sunni allied forces) tried to build protests against the new regime but failed. One point to Iran. Minus one to the United States.

Libya: Hard to say since the opposition is complex. On the other hand, it is not clear that Western interests will benefit and the impact of the Western intervention is unclear. While Muammar Qadhafi was historically an anti-Western sponsor of terrorism, he hasn’t caused much international trouble in recent years. No points awarded yet.

Palestinian Authority/Peace Process: The Palestinian Authority knows that it will never face a rebellion from being too hard-line but only if it is perceived as too moderate. If the peace process wasn’t dead before, it certainly is now. One point to Hamas, Muslim Brotherhood, and Iran. Minus one to the United States which has now sabotaged once again its own peace process effort.

Saudi Arabia: While the anti-regime effort in the kingdom hasn’t gotten far, the Saudis feel that their relationship with the United States and the West is undermined and that they need to appease Iran and Syria. Plus one to Iran. Minus one for United States.

Syria: This is also complicated. Syria is an ally of Iran, Hamas, and Hizballah. Thus, its destabilization is not in their interests. But what if an Islamist government comes to power, probably a Muslim Brotherhood-dominated one (though non-Brotherhood Islamists could also play a leading role Minus one for Iran and Hamas, but plus one to the Brotherhood.

Tunisia: While Islamists are weak in Tunisia, the fact that they can operate legally now and that Tunisia will probably move into a neutral-type stance is a gain for Islamists and a defeat for the West. Score one point for Brotherhood and Iran.

Turkey: The Turkish regime, which may well win reelection later this year, is now an ally of Iran, Syria, and Hamas. One point to each. Minus one for the United States.

Yemen: In Yemen, all politics is local But the destabilization of a country that has at least partly cooperated with the United States against terrorism is to Iran’s strategic advantage, whether or not it has influence on some of the domestic rebels. Score one for Iran. Minus one for the United States.

Extra credit: Tensions make oil prices rise, providing more money to Tehran. Score one for Iran.

 Obama Administration Factor: The United States has lost four friendly regimes--Egypt, Lebanon, Tunisia, and Turkey (some would add Yemen)--as well as the confidence of three others--Israel, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia (one might add Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates). With the Palestinian Authority seeing that it can--and in some ways must--ignore U.S. requests to do anything, that is another defeat. For general loss of credibility, minus one for United States.

For failing even now to understand the material in this article--and thus by not recognizing defeats or errors being unable to correct them, another minus one for the United States.

Muslim Brotherhood: 8
Iran: 8
Hamas: 6
United States: -11

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). The website of the GLORIA Center is at and of his blog, Rubin Reports,

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