Al-Ahram Weekly Online   23 - 29 March 2006
Issue No. 787
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Hassan Nafaa

Revisiting the 'Eastern Question'

Players, not tactics, have changed in the West's attempts to control the Middle East, writes Hassan Nafaa*

The term the Eastern Question was coined in the mid-19th century in the course of intense speculation over the fate of the declining Ottoman Empire. The Sick Man of Europe was on his last legs and European powers were manoeuvering to position themselves to pounce on Ottoman territories. Although the term fell into disuse following the end of World War I and the final collapse of the Ottoman Empire the division of its territories among the powers that had emerged victorious from the war, and the conflict between colonialist claimants to Ottoman territory and its indigenous heirs, continued to rage. Indeed, the conflict is still alive, even if it has assumed different outward forms.

Mohamed Ali, who had set into motion an ambitious modernisation project radiating outwards from Egypt, was at one point poised to rejuvenate the Ottoman Empire from within. Surprised by this sudden threat European powers, which at the time were conspiring to drive the final nails into the Ottoman coffin, rallied their forces against the new upstart in the eastern Mediterranean. Not only did they succeed in dismantling the bases of Mohamed Ali's autonomous strength, they were henceforth resolved to prevent the reemergence of a similar indigenous power. It was no coincidence, therefore, that immediately following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, Western powers were keen to promote the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine. Henceforward, the fledgling national entity would become their trusted agent, responsible for safeguarding their interests and for forestalling the emergence of a unified Arab state in the region. In order to help the Zionist enterprise gain a tactical edge, Western powers resorted to every possible means to sow discord in the region, fostering false antitheses and fuelling animosities where none had previously existed: Pan-Arabism versus Islam, Judaism versus both pan-Arabism and Islam, and virtually every religious sect and denomination versus every other sect and denomination.

It was not long, however, before the winds began to change for those European powers seeking to consolidate their hold on the territorial legacy of the Ottoman Empire. When Hitler entered the competition the other colonial powers were forced to pay such an enormous price in order to defeat him that they emerged from World War II with their own wings clipped. As a result the Middle East became one of the main arenas for the unfolding rivalry between the US and the Soviet Union, the two non-European powers that would lead the post-world war bipolar order. Ironically, it was the circumstances engendered by this very rivalry that enabled the countries of the region to attain their independence and to set into motion a new project for regional revival which, once again, was spearheaded by Egypt, now under the leadership of Gamal Abdel-Nasser. Unfortunately this project, too, was fated to flounder, especially after the US-Israeli alliance delivered a debilitating blow in 1967.

Again one cannot help but notice the presence of the thread that weaves itself through the modern history of the Middle East. Ever since Mohammed Ali, Western powers aspiring to assert their hegemony over the region have sought the services of a local ally -- never difficult to find in view of the enormous contradictions generated by the tumultuous circumstances to which the region has always been prey -- only to drop that ally once it had served its purpose. When the Islamic Caliphate was the primary obstacle to the realisation of British imperial ambitions, London struck up an alliance with the Arab nationalist trend. Holding out promises of national independence the British enlisted Sherif Hussein, then governor of Mecca, in its fight against the Ottoman Empire, which was then fighting alongside Germany in World War I. They succeeded in driving Ottoman forces out of the Levant. No sooner did the war end than the British reneged on their pledges to the Arab nationalist movement and hastily patched things up with the Hashemite rulers by placing them on a couple of thrones from which they would not be able to exercise any effective power.

In a similar way, when the radical Arab nationalist movement, led by Abdel-Nasser, challenged America's ambitions in the region in the 1950s and 1960s, Washington turned first to traditional Islamic forces in order to contain and sap the movement, before turning to Israel to deliver the decisive blow in 1967.

The old game seems to be playing itself out again, this time against a backdrop of fundamentalist or radical Islam as the primary threat to the American project of global, and the Israeli project of regional, hegemony. Once again the powers seeking to assert their domination over the region appear confident of their ability to recruit local allies, whether traditional Islamic forces or secularist nationalist forces, to debilitate fundamentalist Islam. It further appears that these powers are readying themselves for a decisive engagement aimed at toppling the Iranian regime, which it regards as a major bastion of fundamentalist Islam. Although the current confrontation is ostensibly about Iran's nuclear ambitions, what it is actually about is best described by that seemingly obsolete rubric, the Eastern Question.

This latter-day version of the Eastern Question began with the victory of the Islamic revolution led by Khomeini in 1979 and grew more compelling the more it became apparent that the revolutionary state could become the locus of a new project of autonomous revival that would threaten the Western grip over the region. The clash between the Iranian revolution and Israel, striving for regional hegemony, and the US, striving for global hegemony, found early symbolism in two acts -- the expulsion of the Israeli diplomatic mission from Tehran and the conversion of its premises into PLO offices and the takeover of the US embassy by Iranian students and the holding of embassy staff hostage for 444 days.

Israel and the US did not engage the new Iranian regime head on at this early stage. Firstly, the US needed the support of Islamic forces -- both conservative and radical -- in its fight against the Soviet Union, then still the major threat to the US, especially after the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Secondly, there were avenues open to take on Iran by proxy, with Iraq offering itself as the foremost candidate. The US thus prodded Saddam into war against Iran and gave the Gulf states the green light to support Saddam politically and financially. Then, once it succeeded in igniting the first Gulf war, the US hastened to fan its flames and perpetuate it for as long as possible, even if that meant covertly supporting both sides, a tactic ultimately exposed in Irangate, or the Contra Scandal. Finally, after eight years of war, that ultimately took a greater toll on Iran than it did on Iraq, Tehran appeared to have learned its lesson; the country was physically weakened, it seemed to have lost its revolutionary fervor and appeared ready to settle down and become an ordinary state that would remain preoccupied with domestic affairs for the foreseeable future.

The irony was that while Iran was getting its own house in order, focusing its energies on reconstruction and development, its enemies committed a series of follies that ultimately worked to hand Iran the kind of foreign policy gains it could never have dreamed of obtaining under its own steam. The first to perform the service was Iran's most implacable regional enemy, Saddam, who had imagined that the services he had performed for the West had earned him the right to flex his muscles and make a grab for Kuwait. The US, Iran's most implacable international enemy, wasted no time in slapping Saddam back into place and clipping his wings. Iran was also the primary beneficiary of the brutal folly its ideological enemy, Bin Laden, perpetuated against the US on 11 September 2001, though Tehran could not have predicted the even greater folly of the US response, which would rid it of its ideological and political adversary to the east, the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. Nor could it have foreseen the sheer madness unleashed by the architects of the "New American Century," a madness that played unwittingly but unerringly into Iran's hands. Washington not only performed the service of toppling Saddam but also of dismantling Iraq as a viable national entity. The neoconservatives in the Bush administration wanted to make Iraq their base for purging the Middle East of "renegade" regimes and organisations, most notably Iran, Syria and resistance forces in Palestine and Lebanon. What they succeeded in doing was creating a cesspool of warfare, terrorism and bloodshed in which the US is now sinking up to its ears.

Clearly, the US believes that Iran has become the greatest regional power in the Middle East and, perhaps, the entire Islamic world. As it regards this power as inherently hostile, or at least impossible to work with, it has adopted a policy the bottom line of which is to replace Tehran's current regime. This policy, moreover, has become top priority given Tehran's influence will only grow stronger. After all, thanks to the US, the Taliban regime in Afghanistan no longer poses an obstacle to the expansion of Iranian influence to the Islamic world to the east, and the fall of Saddam has removed any obstacle to the expansion of its influence into the Islamic world to the west.

I believe that the US is fully aware that its battle is not so much against the regime in Iran, per se, as it against what it stands for. This is why Washington has set its sights on the alliance in which Iran forms the fulcrum: that between Iran and Syria, supported by the Palestinian resistance and the Lebanese Hizbullah. Recent developments in Lebanon, beginning with the crisis surrounding the extension of Emil Lahoud's term in office and culminating in the assassination of Rafik Al-Hariri, marked the real beginning of America's war to topple the regime in Tehran, a war in which the Iranian nuclear issue is one more front.

Not that this war will be a picnic for the US. Tehran holds many cards, not least of which is its ability to affect oil prices at a time of market instability, even if other oil producing nations work at full capacity. Then there is Iraq, which Iran, due to its extensive influence, could transform into a greater hell for US forces than it already is. A third card is Hizbullah, which could be mobilised into delivering painful strikes against Israel should Tel Aviv contemplate striking Iran on behalf of the US. Finally there is the Palestinian armed resistance, which Iran could support with arms and money, with the purpose of augmenting the resistance's efficacy against America's foremost agent in the region.

Yet it appears even these formidable cards will not be sufficient to deter the current US administration. For one, the policy architects of this administration are too ideologically obsessed to change the thrust of their ambitions. Undoubtedly, too, they believe that they can rely on friendly Arab Sunni regimes in the region, which can be mobilised into action, or at least neutralised, by harping on the threat of what Jordanian officials have described as the "Shia crescent".

Arab regimes must be on guard against such ploys. It is not in their interests for a moment to ally with the US against Iran, or even stand on the sidelines as the confrontation between the two unfolds. Rather, it is in the Arab interest to attempt to forestall such a confrontation and, if that fails, to support Iran. Arab governments should hold talks with Iran immediately, with an eye to promoting Arab interests. Sadly, they are unlikely to do so. Arab regimes are too busy keeping their heads above their own troubled waters to be able to get a clearheaded view of the strategic situation in the region and the world. I fear, therefore, that unless some miracle intervenes to open their eyes, they will stumble blindly towards the precipice of a new disaster for themselves and their peoples.

* The writer is a professor of political science at Cairo University.

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