[A-List] Middle East Cauldron: Next Five Years - I. Wallerstein, November 1, 2004

Ralph Johansen michele at maui.net
Fri Oct 29 15:40:23 MDT 2004

*Fernand Braudel Center, Binghamton University


*Commentary No. 148, November 1, 2004

"The Middle East Cauldron - The Next Five Years"

*Whoever is President of the United States, the basic political dilemmas 
of the Middle East will be the same in the coming five years. There are 
three loci of crucial happenings and probable major shifts in the coming 
period: Iraq, Iran, and Israel/Palestine.

The issue in Iraq that will have most impact on the future of Iraq, the 
Middle East, and the world is when and under what circumstances U.S. 
military forces will quit the country. At this point, the U.S. military 
presence has come to be a surgical graft that the Iraqi body is 
rejecting, and rejecting definitively. Sooner or later, U.S. forces will 
have to leave entirely, including from the prospective permanent bases. 
There are only three manners in which U.S. withdrawal can take place: as 
an early autonomous decision of the U.S. government; at the later 
request of the Iraqi authorities; or ultimately chased by Iraqi insurgents.

The first alternative is undoubtedly the one which would serve U.S., 
Iraqi, and world interests best. It is also the least likely to occur. 
The U.S. president will find this impossible politically to do in 2005 
or 2006 because it would be interpreted, first of all at home in the 
United States, as a major political defeat for the United States. And it 
would be. Antiwar sentiment in the United States is growing, but it is 
not yet at the point where members of Congress would willingly endorse 
such a move. Even those in the military who think the entire Iraqi 
invasion was a grave error would regard withdrawal now as a slap in the 
face of the U.S. military. And those leaders in other countries who have 
backed the U.S. fully - Blair, Berlusconi, Howard - would equally be 
dismayed, because it would have very negative political consequences for 
them in their countries.

The second alternative - being asked to withdraw by the Iraqi government 
- is more plausible. Of course, it depends to some extent on political 
developments within Iraq. The elections of January may well take place, 
even if participation in many areas will be fitful or even virtually 
nonexistent. The elections are likely to take place because a number of 
important actors are at the moment committed to them: the U.S. 
government; the interim Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi; the Kurdish 
leaders; and Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani, who sees the opportunity for a 
legislature dominated by religious Shia.

But this does not ensure a legitimate regime after January. For one 
thing, if the U.S. forces go into Fallujah, as they seem to intend to 
do, not only will this guarantee Sunni non-participation in the 
elections but it threatens to ignite new eruptions in Shia areas, now 
that Moqtada al-Sadr has committed himself to full support of Fallujah 
resistance. And if, despite such eruptions, the elections take place, it 
is by no means clear whether Allawi would be able to consolidate his 
control of the central government or would be displaced by a figure 
closer to al-Sistani and less dependent on the United States.

But whatever the makeup of the Iraqi government in 2005, its prime and 
most immediate concern will be to secure popular support and 
legitimation. What can such a government offer a population that is 
unhappy with American military presence, massively insecure because of 
the insurgency and the U.S. response, and in great economic difficulty? 
Such a government will have only two choices: moving much closer to the 
U.S. proconsul and his military forces, or distancing itself 
considerably from them.

Closeness has not paid off thus far, either in deepening legitimacy or 
in getting significant material support from the U.S. It follows that, 
at some point, the likelihood is that the Iraqi government will turn 
against the U.S. They will certainly be encouraged to do so, for 
different reasons, by all their neighbors - Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria, 
Iran. Even if they have deep reservations about each of these neighbors 
and their governments, the pressures coming from them plus the pressures 
coming from their populations plus the undoubtedly erratic behavior of 
the United States will probably be enough for the Iraqi government to 
shift its basic position vis-a-vis the United States.

But if they don't, because they fear an inability to survive without 
U.S. military support, then it will be the insurgency that will grow 
stronger and stronger, and become the de facto government of the 
country. When that happens, Iraq is headed towards a Tet offensive 
scenario. And the U.S. may have to evacuate its personnel from the Green 
Zone in helicopters. This will be a far greater defeat than autonomous 
withdrawal in 2005.

Meanwhile, in Iran, the government will join the nuclear club in this 
same period. Iran is a major power in the region, heir to a very ancient 
civilization, a Shia state beside a largely Sunni Arab world, a country 
surrounded by nuclear powers. It needs nuclear weapons to realize its 
full weight as a regional power, and it will do what it takes to get 
them. It has three obstacles in its path. The most public is the 
opposition of the U.S. and the European Union to this breakdown in 
observance of the non-proliferation treaty. This is the most public and 
the least important obstacle, since in fact neither the U.S. nor the EU 
can do very much to stop Iran.

There are two more serious obstacles. The first derives from Iran's 
internal politics. The government in power has been losing popular 
support and legitimacy for more than a decade because of its repressive 
and fundamentalist politics. It is not that the opposition forces would 
really be against Iran acquiring nuclear weapons but rather that, should 
they be able to create turmoil, the government might not have the energy 
to move forward on the nuclear front. However, at this point, the 
opposition seems too weak politically to disrupt, and the government's 
strong stand on nuclear weapons would probably be a popular move at home.

The third and most serious obstacle is the Israeli threat to bomb 
Iranian nuclear facilities. There is little doubt that the Israeli 
government would like to do that. There are however three questions 
about an Israeli attack. Can Israel do it in such a way that the attack 
would really cripple Iranian capacity? Can the Iranians retaliate in 
such a way that Israel would really be hurt? And would world (including 
U.S.) opinion swallow such an attack as they did the Israeli bombing of 
Iraq in 1981, or would they react by turning Israel into a total pariah 

I doubt Israel can cripple Iran because I believe that Iran has 
scattered its facilities already enough to prevent this. I also doubt 
that the Iranians could retaliate with sufficient strength to hurt 
Israel seriously. But the weak point for Israel is world opinion. Israel 
has already lost a lot of legitimacy in the last four years, and this 
could be the last straw. The world's geopolitics are quite different 
today than in 1981. The lesson of South Africa is that it is politically 
extremely difficult to survive as a pariah state.

Finally, there is Israel/Palestine. Israel has tied its fate to that of 
the United States in the Middle East. A defeat for the United States is 
a defeat for Israel. At the moment, Sharon is trying the ploy of a 
unilateral Gaza withdrawal which would enable him effectively to 
foreclose a meaningful Palestinian state on the West Bank. But it 
doesn't seem to be working. Hamas is unalterably hostile and unappeased. 
And the Palestine Authority, which might have been willing to negotiate 
such an arrangement, has been excluded from its implementation, and 
therefore has to be ultra-reserved as well. In any case, Arafat may well 
die soon, and once that happens, the PLO may splinter into many parts, 
to the probable benefit of Hamas.

Meanwhile, among the Israelis, the refusal of the right-wing settlers to 
envisage even this tiny concession has led to a virtual split in the 
Likud party, and an implicit threat of total implosion of the Jewish 
state. Gaza withdrawal will never really come about. But in the process 
of trying to do it, Sharon might reunite the Palestinians and fatefully 
divide the Israeli body politic in ways that have never occurred up to 
now. And this division among the Israelis themselves might be the final 
blow to their political strength within the United States. 
Israel/Palestine might finally lose its status as an untouchable U.S. 
political issue and become a matter of public debate within the United 
States. This would bode ill for Israel's survival.

by Immanuel Wallerstein

[Copyright by Immanuel Wallerstein. All rights reserved. Permission is 
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immanuel.wallerstein at yale.edu; 
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These commentaries, published twice monthly, are intended to be 
reflections on the contemporary world scene, as seen from the 
perspective not of the immediate headlines but of the long term.]

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