Lowy Institute

'His highness criticised the actions of the United States in the South China Sea, describing such measures as being in conflict with Chinese and Saudi interests.'

This was the last line of an otherwise unremarkable article published last week in the Saudi newspaper, al-Watan. The Highness referred to was Prince Muhammad bin Salman, Saudi Arabia's Deputy Crown Prince and Defence Minister, and the country's most powerful figure after his father, the King. The article was published ahead of Prince Muhammad's trip to China this week to attend the G20 Summit in Hangzhou.

On the basis of a quick search, this appears to be the clearest public statement of the Saudi position on the South China Sea; assuming, of course, that it is an accurate reflection of what the Deputy Crown Prince said.

CSIS's Asian Maritime Security Initiative (AMTI) has listed Saudi Arabia as one of 31 countries that supported China's view that the Permanent Court of Arbitration's hearing of the Philippines case on the South China Sea was illegitimate. But the basis upon which AMTI has listed Saudi Arabia as supporting China was a general statement included in the communique of the last ministerial meeting of the China-Arab States Cooperation Forum held in May this year.

The communique said that Arab countries support the efforts of China and the countries concerned to find a peaceful solution to territorial and maritime disputes through friendly consultations and negotiations, and on the basis of bilateral agreements and regional consensus. The communique does not specifically mention the South China Sea, or the Tribunal. (The communique only appears to be in Arabic or Chinese. But there is a summary in English here.)

If the Deputy Crown Prince really did criticise US actions in the South China Sea, it is pretty noteworthy. You would be hard pressed to think of another US ally that has come out so strongly on the Chinese side of the South China Sea issue.

Saudi Arabia has been deepening its relations with China for a few decades mainly because it sees China as a critical market for Saudi Arabia's oil. This is particularly important now that many of Saudi Arabia's traditional oil markets are no longer growing. In that regard the comment may have been intended to warm the Deputy Crown Prince's welcome in Hangzhou.

The Chinese are not, however, about to supplant the US as Saudi Arabia's main strategic ally any time soon. Beijing cannot supply Riyadh with the sophisticated weapons, intelligence and training that the US currently provides. Nor is it clear that the Chinese have a desire to be playing a bigger strategic role in the Middle East at the moment.

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It is also worth noting that the line about the South China Sea immediately followed another comment in the article attributed to the Deputy Crown Prince. The article referred to a growing campaign in some Western capitals for the imposition of an arms embargo on Saudi Arabia over its military intervention in Yemen. Prince Mohammad was quoted as saying that if Western countries stopped selling arms to Saudi Arabia it had alternatives among Asian allies, both for the import of weapons and for the export of oil.

The Deputy Crown Prince has already gained a reputation for shooting from the hip. This tendency, combined perhaps with some agitation over talk of an arms embargo, suggests his comment about the South China Sea may have been a loose rhetorical shot across America's bow.

Even if there is no strategic intent behind the comment, it does highlight the potential for strategic dynamics in West Asia and East Asia to become a little more intertwined. But if this does occur it is not entirely clear that the Saudis would be ready for it.

When I was in Riyadh a few years ago I asked a number of Saudis how their country would react if the United States came into conflict with China and sought to impose an oil embargo. (The US imposed an oil embargo on China during the Korean War). Mostly the response was a shrug of the shoulders.

Things may have changed in recent years, as Sino-Saudi relations have developed. But given that the Deputy Crown Prince's advisers would be hard pressed keeping up with changing strategic dynamics in the Middle East at the moment, I doubt they would have much time to keep abreast of developments in Asia.

Photo by Lintao Zhang/Getty Images


There has been a lot of parsing of yesterday's reputed snub of President Obama by King Salman of Saudi Arabia. It certainly was a snub. In 2009 the late King Abdullah greeted Obama off the plane during the US President's first to the Kingdom; yesterday King Salman sent the Governor of Riyadh to welcome the US President while he received his Gulf counterparts a few hundred metres down the runway.

The reasons for the snub are pretty obvious too. Saudi impatience with Obama personally has grown exponentially. They blame him for an assortment of failings, real and imagined: abandoning the Mubarak regime in Egypt in 2011; failing to hold his his red-line against Bashar al-Assad in 2012; and cozying up to the Iranians with a nuclear deal in 2015.

For Obama, sharp-eyed about US interests and unsentimental about US allies, the snub will have mattered very little. But if the Saudi leadership thinks, as it apparently does, that it can simply wait for Obama's successor to resume normal service then they are in for a nasty surprise.

The truth is that, with or without Obama, the fabric of interests that once tied the two countries together has been fraying for some time now. Certainly personalities do matter, especially in a country like Saudi Arabia, run more like a family business than a state. The Saudi royal family's close ties to the Bush family in the US, for example, certainly helped to hold some of threads of the relationship together.

But absent these personal ties, interests are brought into sharper focus. The US needs less Saudi oil. It no longer bases much of its regional military forces in the country. And in recent years the answer to the question of whether Saudi Arabia is more of an asset or a liability in the fight against terrorism is much more finely poised.

Americans are asking more questions about Saudi Arabia's role in promoting extremism by exporting its intolerant brand of Islam. Congressional legislation that would allow 9/11 victims to sue the Saudi state in US courts is just one manifestation of this.

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Some of the questions that are raised about the Saudi state's support for extremism are unfair, but others aren't. Either way, for a country that is more comfortable wielding its influence in the US through quiet lobbying, it is going to be a struggle to answer these more public charges.

None of this means that the US-Saudi relationship is going to disintegrate. There are still strong and mutually beneficial military, intelligence and economic strands to the relationship. But to pull these back into a tighter weave will require some re-thinking of US-Saudi ties.

It would be easy, for example, for a future US president to reassure the Saudis by being more receptive to the Kingdom's external security fears and more overtly supportive of its regional military adventures and proxy wars. But this would do neither the US, nor the region, nor frankly Saudi Arabia, any good.

It would be much better to return to the economic origins of the US-Saudi relationship.

In 1933 Saudi Arabia granted a historic oil concession to Standard Oil of California (SOCAL, later to become Chevron). The fact that the grant was to an American company, rather than one from the Middle East's colonial powers, France and Great Britain, was highly significant at the time. According to one account, possibly apocryphal, Saudi officials told the SOCAL representative that despite his company's inexperience in the region, it's nationality had been a distinct advantage: 'Your country...(has) no imperial designs. And besides, you are so far away'.

Things have certainly changed, but the company that emerged from this American economic venture in Saudi Arabia, Aramco, was central to the transformation of the Kingdom from a sleepy, impoverished exporter of dates to the world's most important energy producer. 

Aramco's importance, however, was not just in the oil riches that it unearthed. It helped to diversify the Saudi economy by creating new industries. Saudis that trained at Aramco have gone on to be some of the Kingdom's most effective administrators and officials, not least the current Saudi Oil Minister who started his career as an Aramco trainee.

As I noted in a recent post, today the Saudi leadership's main challenge is not its battle for regional supremacy with the Iran, but the struggle to diversify its economy away from a dependence on oil income. Indeed, the race to reform their respective economies will be far more consequential for Riyadh and Tehran's battle for regional influence than anything that happens in Syria or Yemen. This is relevant to both the ability of Saudi Arabia to spread its largesse regionally as well as to its internal stability. According to one estimate, for example, unless the Saudis can create at least 4.5 million new jobs by 2030 the unemployment rate could creep to 20%.

But this also matters to the US. Helping the Saudi leadership ensure that Saudi youth are gainfully employed and have a stronger base of technical skills will do more to undercut religious extremism in the Kingdom than any demands from Washington that Riyadh change the curriculum of its religious education.

Ironically, one of the ideas that the Saudi leadership has floated as a part of its economic reform effort is the partial privatisation of Aramco. But there is a lot more the US government, global institutions and the private sector could do to help the Saudis increase the role of the private sector in the national economy and reduce the pressure on state finances. 

The trick to sustaining and reviving the US-Saudi relationship will be weaving a new fabric of interests based on economic cooperation and reform. Given the Saudi leadership's antipathy to Obama this may need to wait for his successor. But it will also depend on the willingness of that successor to look beyond the recent past of US-Saudi relations into its deeper economic origins.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user The White House.


'Egyptians are very easy to provoke. Two people can be talking among themselves about Morsi, then others jump in and interrupt. It happens on the tram or the train. Even though they don’t know one another, when they’re standing next to each other and don’t have the same opinion, they just jump in. Sometimes it even becomes physical. After observing the culture and characters of the Arab people, I support the use of military in transition. Only the Prophet can control the Arabs; if not the Prophet, then at least the military!'

Since the start of the Arab uprisings in 2010 we have become accustomed to reading and listening to the reflections of Western Middle East experts, journalists and commentators on the region’s tumult.

But how do other Muslims from outside the Middle East view the current turmoil and what do they think it means for them?

Today the Lowy Institute is launching a Report, jointly produced with the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict in Jakarta that tries to answer that question. 

Indonesian students in Egypt and Turkey, which I co-authored with Sidney Jones and Navhat Nuraniyah, is based on in-depth face-to-face interviews with 47 students across both countries.

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The goal was not just to understand how Indonesian students saw the recent years of turbulence in the Middle East, but how it might have impacted on their political and religious outlooks. 

We chose Egypt both because it hosts the largest Indonesian student population in the Middle East with some 4500 there, but also because it has gone through some of its most tumultuous years of its modern history, with a popular uprsing and a military coup in the last five years. That disturbance has raised all sorts of important questions relevant to a range of Muslim countries, not least about the role of Islamist parties in democratic politics.

Turkey has more recently become a destination for Indonesian students, and not all students go there to study religion. The student population is smaller, just over 700 strong, and more widely dispersed around the country. Turkey’s recent history has been less turbulent than Egypt’s but it has become a major transit point for foreign fighters going into Syria.

Most of the studnets we interviewed came from two large Indonesian Islamic movements, Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah. Just under a quarter were affiliated with the Islamist Prosperous Justice Party, a political party originally modeled on the Muslim Brotherhood that is represented in Indonesia’s parliament. 

The perspectives provided by the students did throw up some surprises.

Most of the students interviewed in Egypt for example, backed the military in its 2013 coup against the elected-president Mohammad Morsi from the Muslim Brotherhood.

One might have expected that they, as religious students, would show more sympathy toward the overtly religious Morsi. Why they didn’t reflected a range of factors, not least a sense (as demonstrated in the quote above) that the locals seemed an unruly mob who required a firm hand.

Also interesting was the limited role religiosity seemed to play as a criteria in students’ judgments of local political leaders. Turkey’s president Recip Tayyip Erdogan won points for piety, but even greater kudos for his transformation of the Turkish economy. Morsi, by contrast, was seen as a failure because he didn’t fix Egypt’s economy and moved too fast in pursuit of his Islamic agenda.

There is also interesting detail in the report about the interactions of Indonesian students with the locals. Many supplemented their formal religious education by attending the study circles of prominent local preachers. But as the quote below suggests, it doesn’t always seem that the choice of scholar was made on the basis of their religious knowledge:

'We study with Sheikh ‘Alaa. He is closest to foreigners, especially from Indonesia and Malaysia. People who live in Alexandria get jealous, because there are very few Indonesians there, but he bonds with us. Almost everyone is invited to converse, almost every day there’s a study session, we have hadroh [Islamic music], nasyid [Islamic songs]. And that’s why, if you go to Alex for a break, after exams, it’s really crowded. Spiritual refreshing, we call it, ha ha. The reason we like Sheikh ‘Alaa? Because he’s, well, if you saw him, you’d fall in love, ha ha ha. Handsome, smiles a lot and, wow, he’s sooo tall!'

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Asian Development Bank.


This is the final entry in this seven-part series. Part 1 is here; part 2 here; part 3 here: part 4 here; part 5 here; and part 6 here.

In the last decade and a half there has been a subtle evolution in Australian policy toward the Middle East.

At the start of this century, the region was largely seen as a place where Australia traded, provided consular services to its citizens and kept a watch (and occasionally expressed a view) on regional developments, particularly those of interest to domestic community groups.

The region was not, however, seen as falling within Australia's core area of strategic interest. The fact that Australian military forces (in different deployments, sizes and configurations) had been present in the Middle East almost continuously since 1948 was largely a function of the US alliance and, to a lesser degree, UN commitments, rather than a reflection of any intrinsic strategic interest in the region.

In the aftermath of 9/11, however, the size and scope of Australian military deployments to the region changed. In the space of a decade and a half Australia made sizeable contributions to the war in Afghanistan, the invasion of Iraq and the military campaign against ISIS in Iraq and Syria.

These deployments continued to be, largely, an expression of Australia's alliance commitment to the US. But they also had the effect of stretching Australia's strategic horizon to include the region. 

One reason for this was the need to independently develop bilateral defence relationships in support of Australia's military deployments in the region. In particular, the UAE has become a basing hub for Australian forces in the Middle East, but has also become something of a security partner with whom Australia consults and engages in joint training.

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Another reason for this extension of Australian strategic horizons to include the Middle East has been the way in which the terrorist threat from the region has come to have more direct security implications for Australia. Of particular concern have been the small but significant number of Australians, but also Southeast Asians, that have joined the ranks of extremist groups in Syria and Iraq, most notably ISIS. 

So if at the beginning of this century the Middle East didn't really figure in Australia's strategic calculations (at least not outside the alliance), today the government openly talks about having enduring strategic interests in the region. As the 2016 Defence White Paper noted:

'Australia will have strategic interests in the Middle East for the foreseeable future, including preventing the spread of violent extremism, supporting stability and the security of vital trade and energy flows.'

This subtle evolution, has however, been an uncertain one. It has its critics both inside and outside the national security community. Some question whether Australia's interests in the region really are strategic. Others would much rather see Australia reserving its military for operations much closer to home.

There is also something of an intellectual and diplomatic cringe that accompanies Australian policy in the Middle East. There is a view within parts of the national security bureaucracy (most typically among those who have avoided working on the Middle East over the course of their careers) that Australia has no real expertise to offer on the region and no real leverage to exercise in it, other than in close company with the US.

One consequence of this uncertain, even half-hearted, evolution in Australian policy is that it is not entirely clear what having strategic interests in the Middle East really means. Put crudely, Australian policy in the Middle East today could be largely described as 'we sell stuff and we bomb stuff'.

Matching means to interests

This is, of course, an oversimplification because the terms of Australia's official engagement with the Middle East is broader than this: day-to-day diplomatic, consular and immigration work, and a little bit of aid and cultural engagement also fill out the portfolio. Nevertheless, all of these other forms of engagement tend to be overshadowed by our military activities and this needs to change for a couple of reasons.

First, as I argued in part 5, the West needs to match its current short-term efforts, including military efforts, to deal with the consequences of the collapse of the old order in a number of states, with longer-term efforts to help build new and more stable orders in the region. 

Australia should be a part of this. In the same way that it has been an active and effective participant in military campaigns in the region, Australia should become an active and effective participant in efforts to build more stable economic and political orders in the Middle East as well.

There are a number of opportunities for Australia to help states, societies or groups in the region build more peaceful and durable domestic economic and political orders over time. Those opportunities might include providing technical or financial support for countries engaged in political or economic reform; helping to modernise local education systems; or supporting programs aimed at the development of the private sector. 

Australia might also choose to focus these and/or other efforts in particular countries with which we have strong relations. Jordan is an obvious example. It is strategically important and it has not been plunged into turmoil, but like other countries in the region it is struggling with the consequences of the decay of its old political and economic order, as well as the fallout from the conflicts in Syria and Iraq.

An obvious objection is that Australia is hardly going to transform the region through such niche contributions. But that is equally true of our military efforts. ADF personnel have made significant and highly professional contributions to military campaigns throughout the region, but these contributions have never been a decisive factor in the outcome of the overall campaigns. 

A focus on development and good governance will also mean abandoning our intellectual cringe with respect to the region. Indeed, DFAT has long had a small but significant cohort of staff who know the region very well, even if they do not always rise to the upper echelons of the national security community. Some of our current ambassadors in the region, for example, are as knowledgeable, and in some cases more knowledgeable, than their counterparts in the US State Department or the UK Foreign Office.

The second reason that we need to think beyond the largely military terms of our current engagement with the Middle East relates to the debate about our strategic interests in the region. Indeed, in many ways this debate misses the point. It's not really a question of whether we have strategic interests in the Middle East; self-evidently we do.

But not all strategic interests are created equal. The real question for Australia, therefore, is whether we are engaged in the appropriate level of national effort relative to those interests. Is, for example, the significant and expensive military effort to defeat ISIS justified by the terrorist threat posed by the group to Australia?

In fact, I would argue that there is a strong case for sustaining our current military efforts in the Middle East. And as I argued in part 1, there are good reasons to believe that coalition efforts against ISIS will prove successful. 

But it is also true if we only think primarily in terms of military engagement with the Middle East then we are more likely to encounter situations where the national effort is not really justified by the national interests involved. Arguably our participation in the invasion of Iraq was one such case.

Moreover, the net imbalance between effort and interest will only increase over time. If indeed, as the 2016 White Paper argues, Australia will have strategic interests in the Middle East for the foreseeable future, we will need to find more creative and less expensive ways to pursue those interests rather than just through new ADF deployments to the region. 

Ultimately expanding our engagement with the region to include efforts to promote development and build better governance and economic opportunities won't just be cheaper than sending detachments of Super Hornets, it will do more good in the region in the longer term as well.

Photo courtesy of Australian Defence Image Library.


Part 1 of this seven-part series is here; part 2 here; part 3 here: part 4 here; and part 5 here

Barrel bomb attack in west Ghouta region, Syria, September 2015 (Photo: Stringer/Anadolu Agency/Getty)

Long before Jeffrey Goldberg gentrified the ‘Obama doctrine, the US president’s approach to foreign policy occupied a somewhat coarser neighbourhood apparently called ‘don’t do stupid shit’. 

Obama’s reduction of US foreign policy to a glib aphorism was widely criticised, including by his one-time Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton. And while some would argue that the real organising principle of Obama’s foreign policy, at least in the Middle East, has been ‘don’t do any shit’, I do think the president has a point.

In my last post I argued that to restore stability to the Middle East, Western countries should help the citizens of the region build new political and economic orders in their states. This would match the West’s current, and necessary, short-term military focus on security threats with a more positive effort to cultivate ‘green shoots’ that will contribute to a more stable region in the long term.

But, confident that Western foreign ministries won’t be rushing to adopt my suggestion any time soon, I would argue that Western countries and other external players in the Middle East should at least avoid doing things that make the current regional turmoil worse.

Perhaps the best example of what not to do at the moment is to sell weapons to the Middle East.

According to SIPRI, in the five years since the outbreak of the Arab uprisings arms imports to the Middle East have increased by 61% compared to the previous five-year period. Saudi Arabia has become the second biggest arms importer in the world; its imports since 2011 have increased some 275%.

A hard-headed analysis might argue that it is reasonable for Middle Eastern states to be buying weapons at a time when heightened regional unrest has made them feel more insecure. But an equally hard-headed analysis would also be asking why are outside countries funnelling weapons into a region riven by civil conflicts and proxy wars that have had so many disastrous consequences, including for those same outside countries?

Or to put it another way, at a time when the Middle East is burning, why are we selling matches to pyromaniacs?

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Syria is the most prominent example of how weapons sales, and indeed gifts of weapons, to both the regime and the opposition have undermined efforts to de-escalate the conflict. In fact, perversely, at least until the Russian intervention, the military support provided to the various sides in the conflict has never been enough to allow anyone to win, but has been just enough to keep everyone fighting.

Likewise in Yemen, where the Saudi and Emirati intervention in that country’s civil war has stalled, deepening Yemen’s humanitarian crisis (for which Riyadh’s opponents, the Houthis, deposed Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh, and Iran, are also to blame). Today more than 80% of the Yemeni population require some form of humanitarian assistance, and a third of the population is severely food insecure.

Publicly the US has backed the Saudi-led intervention. Privately Washington has well-founded reservations about the war that it has muted for the sake of its relationship with Riyadh.

Yet last year the Obama administration approved the sale of $US1.29 billion worth of smart weapons to the Saudis to replenish Riyadh’s war stocks expended at a great rate in Yemen.

But for me the most egregious example of an unnecessary and unhelpful arms sale is one that has not actually cost any lives, at least not yet. Last year France agreed to sell Egypt two helicopter carriers that it had, in an equally dubious decision, originally built for Russia. France was forced to abandon that sale when Russia annexed Crimea (thereby proving how dubious the original decision was).

Hoping to recoup their losses, the French then shopped the almost complete carriers around until they finally found a buyer in Egypt (despite a partial and clearly pretty ineffective EU arms embargo on Egypt). So in June this year Egypt’s largely brown-water navy — a motley assortment of second-hand frigates and patrol boats — will be joined by two large helicopter carriers almost the size of HMAS Canberra.

The story might not be so bad if it were just a case of Egypt wasting money that it does not really have on equipment it does not really need. What makes it potentially worse are reports that Russia is preparing to sell Egypt attack helicopters to use on the vessels. 

The carriers may end up as bases for helicopter strikes in Sinai where the Egyptian military has already been making a hash of its counterinsurgency campaign by overusing heavy weapons.

But if reports that the purchase of the carriers was partly funded by Saudi Arabia are true, it might be that they are intended as transports for the mooted but yet unrealized plan to create some form of joint Arab force. Just what the Middle East needs now: more heavily armed troops floating around the region.

Selective embargoes 

There are some obvious counter-arguments to embargoing arms sales to the Middle East: an arms embargo (or embargoes) would have little impact in a region already awash with weapons; some regional countries have legitimate defensive needs that should be supported; if the West stops selling weapons in the Middle East then the Russians or the Chinese will simply take its place; and if the West does not sell smart weapons to some of its allies in the Middle East they will use dumb ones, increasing the risk of collateral damage to civilians.

But rather than being an obstacle to any consideration of arm embargoes in Middle East, the more well-founded of these arguments should instead be used to shape the kind of embargoes that might be both effective and have a reasonable chance of implementation.

It is true that a general embargo on arms to the Middle East is never going to get off the ground. Some regional countries do have legitimate defensive needs and major arms suppliers to the region have alliance commitments that they are unlikely resile from. 

But this has never precluded selective embargoes. Indeed there are currently a number of UN arms embargoes in place, of varying degrees of effectiveness, on either specific groups (Islamic State and al-Qaeda) or specific countries (Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Sudan, and Yemen).

These existing embargoes could be strengthened with an obvious case being Iran. Under the terms of the Iranian nuclear deal it is now possible to sell conventional weapons to Iran, although these sales need to be approved by the Security Council for the next five years Given that major purchases of conventional arms by Iran would fuel regional tensions and arms racing, the Security Council could block major sales without doing major violence to the nuclear deal.

Other countries should be added to the list. There is currently a UN embargo on supplying weapons to the Houthi rebels in Yemen, but no such embargo on other countries fighting in that war. Indeed, US support for Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen, as well as UK arms sales to the same, have drawn considerable criticism in both countries and seen calls for an arms embargo, including by the European parliament. Any arm embargo on Saudi Arabia need not be total, but focused on de-escalating the conflict in Yemen by denying Riyadh new stocks of weapons for its airforce.

Another form of selective embargo would be to ban particular types of conventional weapons that are likely to fuel regional conflicts or exacerbate tensions. This has also been done in the past and at times has been the product of quiet diplomatic understandings rather than any formal UN embargo. For example, for a number of years Russia dragged its feet on the sale of s300 air to surface missile to Iran. (Last year it lifted the self-imposed ban).

Finally, more needs to be done to stop the flow of weapons within the region. It is not just the sale of arms to the region that is contributing to instability, but also the smuggling of arms across the region from looted government armouries in Libya, Syria and Iraq. There should be an expanded effort by external powers to interdict these smuggling operations, backed by a strong UN Security Council resolution prohibiting the transfer of weapons to non-state actors in the Middle East.

The expanded use of selective embargoes, both unilateral and/or multilateral would be complicated, messy and incomplete. In some cases it will also require sacrificing some short-term interests for the sake of trying to stabilise the region in the long term.

But most of all it will require some focused coordination from the major supplying countries, perhaps in the form of some high-level working group. Conveniently, the countries that would need to be in this working group are few. According to the Congressional Research Service, between 2011 and 2014, the US accounted for almost 60% of the value of arms sales to the region, followed very distantly by major European countries (just over 17% collectively), Russia (just over 14%) and China (just over 1%)

Acting on its own the US could achieve a lot, but obviously this is not an ideal way to assure US allies that they are not the only the target of this effort to de-fang the region. Getting a real commitment from the Russians to slow the pace of arms sales to the region would also be required, and there is a reasonable chance of getting that cooperation in some cases. And, as the foregoing implies, there is a spectrum of mechanisms that could be used to impose such embargoes, from unilateral action and quiet diplomatic understandings to Security Council resolutions.

If none of this sounds like a silver bullet (pardon the pun), it’s because it isn’t. If there is a theme to the second half of my series it's that returning stability to the Middle East will be grinding, piecemeal, long-term work. But it will also require Western countries and other external players to re-think how they act in the region, including what they sell to it.


Part 1 of this seven-part series is here; part 2 here; part 3 here: and part 4 here.

In February 2014 I visited Za'atari refugee camp in Jordan, near the Syrian border. According to official estimates it today houses around 80,000 refugees from the conflict in Syria, although in 2014, the Jordanian police commander of the camp put the population at some 110,000.

The thing that strikes you about Za'atari is how flat, arid, dusty, and white the terrain is. On an overcast day, such as the day that I visited, the terrain, the white UNHCR tents and the pale sky all fade into one another. In fact, were it not for the dark-coloured clothes of the refugees and the blue UNHCR logos on the tents the whole camp might disappear into the landscape.

Za'atari is a great metaphor for the Middle East at the moment, and not just because it is harsh and bleak. Walk through the camp and you find surprises such as the enterprising refugee I spotted who had somehow contrived a garden out of the chalkly white rubble on which the camp had been built. Rocket, mint, and other plants rose barely a foot above the soil, forming a dense lawn over a few square metres; green shoots among the uniform bleakness of the camp.

In my previous post I argued that the focus of Western policy needs to be on helping to build a new, more stable, political order in the region, as the old order decays and in some states, collapses. This will require changes to the way most states are run.

The best way to do this is not for the West to dictate some new order in the Middle East (even if this were possible, which it isn't); nor is it to try to replicate the type of liberal democratic societies that have taken decades and in some cases centuries to build in the West. Instead what the West should do is to identify and cultivate indigenous green shoots of political, economic and social change that will, over time, create a less violent, more stable and more durable regional order.

Like the little garden I found in Za'atari, these green shoots do exist and in some instances are already being supported by Western donors. For example, Tamkeen in Syria, which is supported by UK DFID and EU funding, is helping local communities in northern Syria deliver services, but most importantly develop experience in local governance.

Likewise, despite the upheaval caused by the Arab uprisings in recent years, the start-up sector seems to be growing, if from a very low base. Money for these start-ups is also being generated.

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It may even be the case that some of the youthful energy that went into the Arab uprisings is now being directed into business as the space for political activism shrinks. As one young Egyptian activist noted to me a few years ago, the failure of the uprising meant that he and some of his friends were returning to their professional lives. In his particular case he was going from being a videographer of the uprising to setting up his own advertising and video production company.

There are also more substantial and more obvious green shoots. Tunisia is one of these. Whilst Tunisia's transition to democracy has been fitful and difficult it is still the only country whose uprising can still be described as a relative success. In the same way as its overthrow of the Ben Ali regime inspired uprisings in other countries, the success of its transition to a new more durable political order could serve as a model for other countries in the region.

Act short-term, think long-term

Western governments have a long history of supporting governance and economic reform programs in the Middle East. Some of these have been very effective, but the effort in sum has also been, variously, half-hearted, grandiose and all too often sacrificed at the altar of political expediency.

To be fair, encouraging, cajoling or even just nudging governments in the Middle East to undertake comprehensive economic, social or political reforms is hard work. Western governments do not have much leverage, or at least not much they are prepared to use. And it is relatively easy for even friendly Middle Eastern governments to portray these efforts as high-handed foreign interference, as has been the case in Egypt, for example. 

A 'green shoots' approach would have three main components.

The first would be a much more intensive, comprehensive and coordinated effort to identify green shoots of positive change. Rather than focusing just on emerging threats in the region, Western countries need to lend equal weight to identifying emerging opportunities, from local experiments in good governance to new sectors of economic entrepreneurship.

The second component would be a coherent and large-scale effort to support and protect these green shoots. This wouldn't necessarily mean, in the first instance, more money for the region. But it would mean in some cases a shift in where and how that money is spent.

Take for example US non-humanitarian (military and economic) aid to Egypt and Tunisia. The Obama Administration is planning to double its aid to Tunisia, and extend $500 million in loan guarantees, out of recognition that the country's political transition could be an important model for reform in the region. But excluding the loan guarantee, this is still less than a tenth of what the US is planning to give Egypt, which these days is not a model for anything in the region other than hyper-repression

The money and the expertise does not just have to come from Western governments, however. Foreign investment, for example, will be critical to the transformation of Middle Eastern economies. But Western governments and agencies can help ensure the money comes into the region by working with Middle Eastern government to reform investment and other economic regulations.

The effort to support green shoots also needs to be coordinated to ensure that financial resources are well directed, and that lessons learned are exchanged. Donor coordination has been difficult to achieve in the past, not just in the Middle East. But if Western countries can coordinate military campaigns in the region there is no reason why they could not coordinate good governance ones.

Coordination is also important in terms of leverage. Middle Eastern governments are well versed at playing off one Western donor against another. Coordinated pressure may not work in every case, but it will provide Western countries more leverage than they currently have.

That is not to say, however, that this effort to support green shoots of change in the region would, or should, in every instance be pursued in opposition to regional governments. Some regional governments will welcome technical assistance in reforming their economies or bureaucracies or indeed investments in new industries that produce large numbers of new jobs.

In some instances changes to economic or social order will be resisted, perhaps quite vociferously, by elites who feel their interests threatened. In these cases using political or economic leverage may be necessary, especially where elites either threaten or are an obstacle to a green shoot growing. But in other cases it may be possible to work around those elites, especially when it comes to promising but small-scale projects that might not initially seem threatening to them.

The question of how you work with or around existing regimes, including some that may be allies, also relates closely the third component of a 'green shoots' approach: an effective communications strategy.

Western leaders will need to communicate in some overarching way that the West's approach to the region is changing, while avoiding the mistake of the grandiose rhetoric of the past.

None of what I am proposing means that current, short-term efforts to deal with the consequences of the Middle East's disorder should be abandoned. Western governments should still be conducting a military effort to destroy ISIS, and it will still be necessary to conduct drone strikes against other extremists in the region from time to time. Western governments will also need to continue managing, as best as they can, the humanitarian impact and refugee outflows caused by the region's conflicts.

But these short-term fixes need to be matched by some longer-term plan to deal with regional instability in a sustainable way. I would argue than an approach focused on cultivating green shoots over the longer term is better than the alternatives: on the one hand, some grand scheme for regional transformation; or, on the other hand, doing nothing.

Critics will argue that all this sounds neat, familiar and perhaps even naïve in exposition, but very tough in implementation. My counter is that the West no longer has a choice. The old domestic orders in the Middle East will continue to decay and will need to be replaced. The West can either help some citizens of the region build new, more positive, more stable domestic orders; or it can sit and watch other citizens of the region replace the old orders with something much less stable and far less savoury.


Part 1 of this seven-part series is here; part 2 here; and part 3 here.

In the first three parts of this series I focused on what I think will happen in the Middle East. I didn't, and couldn't, cover everything, so I focused on those things happening in 2016 that would be most consequential beyond 2016.

In the second half of the series I will focus on things that Western policy makers should do to respond to unrest in the Middle East. A good place to start is the so-called 'Obama doctrine'.

Jeffrey Goldberg's now infamous article on US president Barack Obama's approach to foreign policy has lots of people up in arms about lots of things. American allies, including those in the Gulf, are fuming about being described as 'free riders' by the US president, for example.

But there has also been some muttering amongst Middle East watchers about Obama's claim that tribalism, seemingly broadly defined to include sectarianism, is the source of much of the region's problems.

Surprisingly, less controversy has been generated by Obama's comment in relation to his Cairo speech in 2009:

…I was hoping that my speech could trigger a discussion, could create space for Muslims to address the real problems they are confronting — problems of governance, and the fact that some currents of Islam have not gone through a reformation that would help people adapt their religious doctrines to modernity. 

I will come back to governance in a moment. But here is Obama making a call for a reformation in Islam not that dissimilar to that made by former Australian prime minister, Tony Abbott. 

I don't agree with Obama that tribalism is at the heart of the region's problems. Nor do I agree with Obama (or Abbott for that matter) that the problem is some fault in Islam that requires a reformation of the religion (even if that term actually made sense in an Islamic context, which it doesn't).

But this is not my point here. What I am trying to highlight is the current tendency of Western policymakers to make problems in the Middle East appear so utterly intractable as to make any effort to address them futile.

It is almost as if the problems are made bigger to ensure that efforts to address them are kept smaller: for example, drone strikes as a substitute for a comprehensive approach to countering terrorism in the Middle East.

There are two ironies here. First, mostly the 'little' things that Western countries do in the Middle East, while necessary in the short term, often make matters worse in the long term: for example, pragmatic alignment with dictators whose overuse of repression radicalises their own citizens who then direct their violence at the West.

The second irony is that the big things we identify as the problem are not really the problem. Take sectarianism. It's frequently mentioned as an explanation of the current disorder in the Middle East. There are clearly sectarian dimensions to many of the current conflicts in the region, most notably in Syria, Iraq and Yemen, but it is not a cause of these conflicts in the way many people think it is.

As I argued in part 2, the Arab uprisings were not the cause of the region's current disorder but a consequence of the decay and in some cases collapse of the old domestic political order in the region. The heightened sectarianism (or tribalism for that matter) that we currently see in the region is similarly a consequence of the failure of the old order.

Indeed, it is precisely because nothing has yet emerged to replace the old order that people in the region have, where possible, fallen back on their sect or tribe for security. Or political leaders and pretenders to power have exploited sect or tribe in an attempt to build their own new political order. We see this most clearly in Iraq and Syria, where Islamic State both feeds off sectarian tensions created by the Assad regime in Syria and the former Maliki regime in Iraq, but also fuels it in an attempt to consolidate and expand its self-declared Caliphate.

With the exception of some pretty marginal hardline currents, most Sunnis and Shi'ites in the region couldn't care less how the other practices their faith. Islam is innately pluralist. Even with Sunni Islam, for example, there are four main schools of jurisprudence: in effect, four different ways of practicing the faith.

In other words, mostly there isn't an innate hatred of other sects. Where the sectarian question does become tense, and occasionally violent, is when the question turns to who rules states and how.

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Typically, citizens of the region don't think in terms of the ruling system, they think in terms of the ruler and ruling class. In states where there is a significant sectarian divide, communities fear the consequences of one sect ruling over another. Iraqi Sunni's fear rule by Iraqi Shi'ites; Syrian Allawites fear what will happen to them if Syrian Sunnis assume power.

But to mitigate or resolve that fear does not require a resolution of a centuries-old schism in Islam; it means finding a way to run societies where one sect's or one tribe's control of government does not make those from other sects or other tribes fear for their interests; or indeed for their lives. There are various ways you can do that: building broad-based governments; devolving power by adopting federal structures; or creating governments that are so effective in in delivering security and prosperity to all their citizens that their sectarian identity does not matter. The point here is that this is not a theological, or tribal or identity problem, it is fundamentally a governance one.

Building a new order

At this point in my post I would expect any Western policymaker reading this, or observers of largely failed Western efforts to build governance in Iraq and Afghanistan, to be howling with indignation, or at least with laughter.

'Focus on good governance you say, I would rather try solving a centuries-old schism in Islam', many would be snorting.

My retort is there is no getting around this problem. In my last three posts I highlighted different degrees of the governance problem in the region: in Syria, where there will be no end to humanitarian suffering, refugee flows and radicalisation until a new political order is constructed; in Egypt, where efforts to renovate the old authoritarian order will probably fail and result in new rounds of instability and violence; and in Saudi Arabia and Iran, where the need for deep and serious economic reform of the old order is becoming urgent.

These are by no means the only states where a new way of running states and societies is required. In Iraq, the Abadi government still has to find a way of ruling a country riven by sectarian tensions. In Jordan, the country is increasingly being kept afloat by foreign aid, which only serves to paper over the deficiencies of its current economic and political model.  There are plenty of other examples.

Of course, 'promoting good governance' can mean a lot of different things, from supporting human rights to advocating democratisation. What I am talking about here, however, is a sharp focus on the things that will over time —  in some cases a very long time — contribute to more sustainable, durable, and stable domestic orders in Middle Eastern states.

This means focusing on things such as: increasing the size of the private sector in ways that make it a central driver of economic growth and job creation; improving the ability of the bureaucracy to deliver services to the state's citizens; improving the quality of education to make the citizens of Arab states more employable; reducing an over-reliance on repression to avoid radicalisation; and making politics and decision-making more transparent and consultative.

None of these ideas are new to observers of the region, or indeed to the drafters of the various Arab Human Development Reports who anticipated many of the problems the region is having today, and will have tomorrow unless these issues are finally addressed.

Some might contend that this is all too much for the West to take on financially, politically or even intellectually. Or they might argue that even if we could transform governance in the Middle East, why should we? Surely this is something that the governments and citizens of the region need to manage.

Ultimately, the people of the region have to take responsibility for transforming their own countries; in fact, many of them want to, as the Arab uprisings demonstrated. Indeed, one of the things that Western policymakers need to avoid are grandiose schemes, even well-intentioned ones, for regional transformation that bear little resemblance to the way that locals wants to change their states and societies.

But it is too much to expect that the locals will manage this transformation successfully on their own, especially in the current period of chaos and crisis. The West needs to help and has good reasons to do so. Working with the right governments, groups and individuals in the Middle East is a way to share the burden that these efforts will involve. Exactly how Western countries should do this will be the subject of my next post.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user: Cordella Persen


Part 1 of this seven-part series is here; part 2 here.

A key feature of the Middle East's current disorder is the rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia. This has a long history, but in the last decade has once again become sharper and more overt.

Unsurprisingly, the geopolitical aspects of this rivalry capture a lot of attention. It is reflected in Saudi concern over the nuclear deal with Iran. It plays out most obviously in Syria, where Saudi Arabia has supported the opposition against the Iranian-backed regime of Bashar al-Assad. It also drove the decision by Saudi Arabia to send troops into Bahrain in 2011 and into Yemen in 2015, in both cases out a fear that Iran was meddling on its borders.

But there is another, and in many ways more significant, aspect to this rivalry: the race between Saudi Arabia and Iran to transform their economies. It is this race, rather than the proxy wars currently being fought by Riyadh and Tehran, that will ultimately determine which of these two countries will win the battle for influence in the region. 

The question of economic reform has become central this year for particular reasons. It is this year that sanctions have started to come off Iran as a result of the nuclear deal. Against that background, the Rouhani Government will be trying to make Iran attractive to foreign investment, carrying out significant economic reforms while managing popular expectation about how quickly Iran's living standards will improve.

In the case of Saudi Arabia, after a year of collapsing oil prices, and despite budget cuts and price rises, the need for far-reaching reform has become clear. At the start of the year the King's son, Prince Muhammad bin Salman, floated the radical idea of privatising the state-owned oil company, Aramco. Riyadh, like Tehran, will also have to mange popular expectations, but in its case it will be about how fast living standards might fall.

For both Saudi Arabia and Iran there is a lot at stake. The strength of their respective economies goes directly to the ability of each state to fight their proxy wars with the other in the region, from Yemen to Syria. Their economic strength matters in terms of their ability to prop up regional allies such as the el-Sisi regime in Egypt for Saudi Arabia and the Assad regime in Syria for Iran.

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Economic strength obviously impacts domestic stability, which is important in and of itself; but this in turn affects Riyadh and Tehran's ability to compete for influence in the region. Look at the way Egypt's internal turmoil has seen it virtually disappear as a regional actor in the last five years.

Reform or perish, or reform and perish?

There is also something of a bind here for both countries. On the one hand they need to strengthen their economies to underpin both domestic stability and their regional influence. On the other hand these reforms, especially in a period of low oil prices, could well have unintended political consequences.

Despite having quite different economies, Saudi Arabia and Iran share a common problem. They both have large youth populations, which means they need to create lots of new jobs to ensure political and social stability. According to one estimate Saudi Arabia will need to create at least 4.5 million new jobs by 2030 to keep pace with entries into the labour market. On current trends, and even with significant substitution of Saudi workers for low-paid foreign workers, Saudi Arabia would come up about 1.5 million jobs short, potentially pushing unemployment to 20%. In the case of Iran, some 600,000 Iranians enter the workforce every year and on current trends, even with accelerated growth as a result of the end of sanctions, the official level of unemployment is estimated to rise to 14%. The real unemployment figure in Iran tends to be much higher. 

What makes this an acutely political problem is the outsized role the state plays in each economy. In Iran the private sector is about 20% of the economy; in Saudi Arabia the state still provides jobs for about two-thirds of the population. 

Governments in both countries have long acknowledged that the state cannot meet the growing demand for jobs and that this can only be done by the private sector. But both have only undertaken limited rounds of privatisation. Often this has meant selling state-owned enterprises to institutions or individuals close to the regime, effectively turning them into semi-state owned enterprises. There has also been lots of talk about increasing the size of the private sector, but little has been achieved, especially during the last decade of booming oil prices.

If oil prices now stay low for an extended period both countries will need to get serious about privatisation. But reducing the role of the state in the economy changes the nature of the social contract in each country. This applies not just to the state's role as job provider but also as a provider of free or heavily subsidised services. Under these circumstances, Saudis and Iranians will be asking: if the state no longer provides me with jobs and healthcare then why should it receive my unconditional loyalty?

Economic reform also challenges the social contract in other ways. Putting young Saudis to work, for example, doesn't just mean creating a bigger private sector to employ them, it also means giving them the skills to make them employable. But reform of the education sector, or indeed the greater introduction of females into the workforce, touches on sensitive areas in the royal family's ruling bargain with the conservative Saudi religious establishment.

The state's predominant role in the national economy is also tied to the interests of key groups and individuals in the ruling regimes. Some members of the Saudi ruling family are key economic players. In Iran the Revolutionary Guard has become a major economic actor, especially as previous rounds of Western sanctions on Iran cleared the field of foreign competitors. If new, non-regime private sector economic players emergeas a result of a process of reform, it seems likely they will eventually seek a greater role in how these states are governed.

None of this is to suggest that the process of economic reform will inevitably bring down the Saudi or the Iranian regimes. A lot will come down to how well the leaderships of both countries manage the process of economic change. There are also a number of potential wild cards, not least of which is some unexpected spike in the price of oil that allows either country to put off tricky reforms. Nevertheless, even if the process of economic change does not ultimately change these regimes, at the very least it will probably shift the way they rule.

In this regard the most consequential competition in the Middle East today is not between Iran and Saudi Arabia's battlefield proxies in Yemen and Syria, it is between their respective economic planners in Tehran and Riyadh.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Adam Adamus.


Part 1 of this seven-part series is here.

One of the enduring myths of the Arab uprisings is that it was primarily a brave, noble but ultimately vain attempt by young liberals to overthrow the old authoritarian order in the Middle East. Many observers now dismiss the uprisings as a passing episode; a failed experiment with democracy that has mostly resulted in violence and disorder, and seen a return to repression.

Like all myths this one contains a kernel of truth. Young liberals and others deserve credit for the role they played in overthrowing long-time authoritarian regimes in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen. But a closer diagnosis of the uprisings finds that these regimes were less overthrown than collapsed as a result of their internal frailties.

In this regard, the Arab uprisings did not precipitate the current regional disorder. The uprisings were instead one significant consequence of the gradual but terminal decay of the old political order in the Middle East. The Syrian civil war and the emergence of Islamic State have been other consequences. Most importantly, we need to understand that the decay of the old political order throughout the region is far from over.

One of the interesting things about the Arab Middle East in the modern era (post de-colonisation) is that all states, whether republican or monarchical, came to be run in more or less the same way. Strong, one-man, one-party or one-family regimes ruled through a combination of co-option and coercion. The state provided public goods in return for public loyalty, and when this did not work, the state used its security forces to preempt or discipline dissenters.

In the decades leading up to the uprisings, the ability of all Arab Middle Eastern states to co-opt their citizens deteriorated (to differing degrees, and with a few exceptions). Among other things, populations got bigger, economic rents declined and regimes atrophied. Moreover, new generations of citizens raised new demands for material improvements or political and social freedoms that the old order was incapable of accommodating.

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The failure of the Arab state was anticipated in a series of Arab Human Development Reports published by the UN between 2002 and 2009. What wasn't predicted in these reports was when the moment of crisis would come. The fact that the trigger was provided by an isolated, desperate act of protest by an unassuming Tunisian street vendor underlines just how frail the old political order in many Arab states had become.

But the uprisings didn't just expose the old order's inability to co-opt, it exposed its inability even to coerce. We often forget this, but in every successful Arab uprising the military abandoned the long-time ruler. In cases where the military stuck with the ruler, as in Bahrain and Syria, the regime survived. This lesson has not been lost on other rulers in the region.

But coercion alone is not going to save the old order. Syria is the best illustration of this. Assad has had to destroy his country to save his regime, but it is still far from guaranteed that he will remain in power in the longer term. This is also true of Egypt.

Egypt's faltering autocracy

Ironically, the collapse of the old political order in the Middle East also partly explains the failure of the Arab uprisings, particularly in Egypt.

The standard narrative of the Egyptian revolt privileges the role played by media-savvy, twitter-wielding liberal activists. The truth is that the protests that precipitated the downfall of the Mubarak regime temporarily brought together a broad cross-section of Egyptian society that had lost confidence in the old order: liberals and young idealists seeking democracy; young thugs seeking confrontation; Islamists seeking an Islamic state; the poor and the aspirational middle class seeking material change; and of course the political opportunists.

Against this background it is hardly surprising that Egypt's transitional period proved to be tumultuous and violent. Egypt's post-uprising rulers and pretenders struggled to either meet or manage the diverse and often unrealistic expectations most Egyptians had for change. It was at this point that the current president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, launched a coup against then-President Mohammad Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, and then won popular endorsement in what was effectively a one-horse election.

Sisi capitalised on public exhaustion, a desire for stability, and well-founded fears about the Muslim Brotherhood's competence and commitment to democracy. In fact, Sisi seems to remain genuinely popular, although it is difficult to tell by how much and with whom.

But this is unlikely to last. Rather than trying to build a new, more durable, political order, Sisi, the Army and other elements of the old regime, such as the police and the judiciary, are trying to renovate the old one. They are trying to do this by cracking down on dissent and building up the economy. Neither approach is likely to work.

In the 12 months after the coup against Morsi, some 41,000 Egyptians were imprisoned, according to the Egyptian Centre for Economic and Social rights, or 'just' 22,000 if you believe Egyptian Ministry of the Interior. The Muslim Brotherhood has been banned and its leaders imprisoned. Non-Islamist political movements, such as the April 6 movement, suffered a similar fate. A previously relatively vibrant media and civil society are today harangued, arrested and largely domesticated.

But if Egypt is now more authoritarian than it was in Mubarak's time, and indeed even in Morsi's time, it is also less stable. There is a major jihadist insurgency in Sinai, a growing jihadist threat in the rest of the country and there are still regular strikes and small-scale protests.

Sisi's efforts to revive the economy have delivered paltry results. There have been modest economic reforms, the launching of grandiose national projects such as the building of a new capital, and lots of money has flowed in from the Gulf. But tourism, a major source of income, remains stagnant because of terrorism. Economic reforms don't go nearly far enough, partly because they threaten the economic interests of the old Mubarak-era business cronies who are once again backing the regime. And as they did in the Mubarak era, mega-projects will fail either because of the incompetence of a still sclerotic bureaucracy or the corruption of business elites.

One effect of the current round of repression is the hollowing out of Egypt's moderate middle. Political activists who had drawn a line at violence have either withdrawn from politics or, as seems to be the case with the younger cadres of the Muslim Brotherhood, are turning to violence. 

There is a view that another uprising in Egypt is unlikely in the short term. This may be true. Egyptians may be growing less supportive of Sisi's promises but they are probably still wary of any return to revolutionary tumult. Nevertheless, we will probably see growing violent tensions between state and society this year. Indeed, one of the consequences of the regime's hyper-repression is that the fuse to violent confrontation is now much shorter than it used to be. And there is a lot of tinder lying around. The spark might be one of the regular protests or strikes, if it is repressed particularly harshly by the security forces; or it might be the rough treatment of an activist that becomes a cause celebre. But this time, rather than igniting the largely peaceful protest that Egypt witnessed in 2011, something far more ugly and violent could erupt.

Photo by Flickr user Dan H.


This is the first post in a series of seven on the Middle East in 2016. The first three will look at what I think will happen in the region this year; the second three will discuss how I think Western countries should respond; and a final post will discuss Australian policy.

To understand what will happen in the Middle East in 2016 the most obvious place to start is Syria. Indeed, so many issues are bound up in the Syrian conflict that what happens there will determine a lot of what happens in the broader region, not just this year, but in coming years as well.

This conflict drives the current humanitarian and refugee crises. Its outcome will determine not just who rules Syria (or parts of it), but also the future of Islamic State and other extremist groups. It will decide whether Iran consolidates its position as the region’s ascendant power and what role other regional powers will play. It is shaping (negatively) perceptions of the West in the Middle East and it will largely define what role the US and Russia play in the region in coming years.

With so much at stake it is hardly surprising that shifts in the conflict have tended to be grinding to date. When one side makes gains, the other side, with the support of its external allies, fights back. The result has been less a stalemate than a see-saw of escalation and counter-escalation.

In recent months, however, the conflict has swung more decisively in the regime’s favour. Russia and Iran’s muscular intervention last year has saved Assad, caused massive new humanitarian suffering, but probably also helped to make possible recent moves to cease hostilities and resume peace talks.

More significantly, there is unlikely to be a military counter-move that will shift the momentum back in favour of the opposition. US military efforts will remain focused on Islamic State and other extremist groups. This will also mean that the US will continue to place pressure on Turkey, Saudi Arabia and other regional players to limit the amount and type of military aid they provide to the opposition lest it fall into the hands of the extremists. Any (unlikely) change in US policy would need to wait for a new administration next year.

Meanwhile, talk of a direct Saudi or Turkish military intervention is mostly just that; talk. Saudi Arabia lacks the capability and the will to make anything more than a token military intervention on the ground. Turkey has greater will and capacity, but probably does not want to fight a war with Russia (and its NATO allies certainly don’t want it to). But even if there were some significant new military intervention against the regime it would probably just see the saw again.

Against this background it is very difficult to see how the armed opposition could, on its own, shift the momentum of the conflict back against the regime. Indeed, the most extreme, and in some respects more effective, parts of the opposition will be targeted more intensively this year. So far the US-led effort to degrade and destroy Islamic State has been slow and fitful, with uneven results. But this doesn’t mean that this effort won’t work over time, especially as the Obama administration grudgingly agrees to requests from its military for more special forces on the ground.

In recent months Islamic State has suffered a series of serious military reversals: it lost control of Sinjar cutting the highway linking its capital in Syria, Raqqa, to its biggest outpost in Iraq, Mosul; it lost control of Ramadi in Iraq to the Iraqi army with strong US support; and its siege of the strategically important Kweiris airbase in Syria was broken by the Syrian army with heavy Russian support.
More military setbacks for Islamic State can be expected, perhaps punctuated by the occasional tactical gain. In particular, the US and its allies will focus on dislodging the group from Raqqa this year and maybe even Mosul. But any gains against Islamic State in Syria and Iraq will come at the cost of more terrorist attacks in the West and elsewhere as the group tries to compensate for its losses on the ground.

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Who will pay for Russia’s facts on the ground?

Russia’s military intervention and the declining power of the opposition means that Moscow will continue to set the terms for any diplomatic moves to settle the conflict in 2016. Such a settlement seems unlikely at this stage, but for the Russians it does not really matter. They will use ceasefires and the diplomatic process to reinforce the facts on the ground established by their military campaign.

But the Russians are also at an interesting point in Syria. In some respects Moscow (and Tehran) are in the same position as Washington was in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Russians have secured their man, but having your client in the capital, or even in control of key cities, is not the same thing as having him govern the country over the long term.

The US invested billions of dollars and made a huge effort to extend the writ of the regimes it supported beyond the boundaries of Kabul and Baghdad, with very mixed results. It is hard to see Moscow putting the same resources and effort into trying to re-build governance, security and the economy in Syria, or even a rump of Syria (and not just because Moscow watched Washington’s efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq fail).

But Moscow may also be thinking it can get others to do this job. Short of other options (at least ones that it is prepared to take), the West’s focus has been on building and maintaining the cessation of hostilities and providing some humanitarian relief to help stem refugee flows, while intensifying the assault on the extremists. The problem is that, even if all of this works, the limited triage now being applied in Syria won’t significantly stem the human suffering and refugee flows caused by the conflict.

Syrians will still be left sitting among the ruins of their broken society, economy and national infrastructure. The number of humanitarian refugees seeking to leave Syria may ease, but the flow of economic ones will probably increase. Indeed, even if Islamic State is destroyed other extremist groups will rise to take its place in the ungoverned and misgoverned spaces that will remain in the country. (Although, there will also be other communities in Syria that will continue to escape the control of either the regime or the extremists)

As Richard Gowan has argued, assuming that the current limited cessation of hostilities does not break down completely (a big 'if'), the UN could well be placed in the 'morally and politically invidious position of trying to consolidate peace on terms effectively set by President Bashar al-Assad and his allies in Moscow and Tehran'.

Western capitals are in a similar position. It seems unthinkable that the West would even consider making investments in post-conflict stabilisation in a way that might prolong Assad’s rule in Syria. But faced with a choice between consolidating the current fragile cessation of hostilities on Moscow and Assad’s terms, or a continuation of the fighting with all the consequences that this entails, Brussels, Washington and New York may gradually and grudgingly choose the former.

This is in effect the ‘Assad as the least-worst’ option argument. The problem is it's pretty hollow. It is true that for a while Assad may be able to count on some combination of defeat, exhaustion, consent and continued coercion to ensure his rule over a rump of the country. But this won’t last long. To remain in power, let alone extend to other parts of the country, he would need to rebuild infrastructure, reconcile warring communities and provide jobs, security and a new social contract with Syria’s citizens. If all this sounds fanciful, it’s because it is.

But even if it is true that Assad is not a viable option for returning stability to Syria, it does not mean that the Russians will quickly or easily abandon him. No-one will be more receptive to Russian interests in Syria than Assad because no-one owes the Russians (and the Iranians) more than Assad does. Moreover, jettisoning its chief client would be a strange way for Moscow to celebrate its victory on the battlefield and the reputation it has earned for sticking with its allies.

Indeed, hoping that the Russians will abandon Assad may repeat the mistake made by Western capitals at the outset of the conflict when they assumed Assad would quickly fall. Forced to accept Russian terms for re-launching the diplomatic process last year, this year Western capitals may find that Moscow is not only expecting them to accept its terms for a settlement in Syria, it wants them to foot the bill as well.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user David Axe


In Manila this week Prime Minister Turnbull, echoing the language of other Western leaders of late, spoke of the need for pragmatism when it comes to Syria:

...what we need there is a political settlement. And it is clear that the principal determinants of, the people that will decide who can be in or out are going to be the people in Syria. You know that dictating terms from foreign capitals is unlikely to be successful. So, clearly the, as the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, David Cameron, said in Turkey, and I endorse what he said, the approach of all the parties to a resolution in Syria has to be one undertaken in the spirit of compromise, and in a spirit of pragmatism.

It all sounds reasonable and sensible and in many respects it is. But the subtext of this pragmatism is a willingness to compromise with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the interest of destroying ISIS. The idea that we should settle with Assad because ISIS is worse was given more clear-throated ventilation by former Prime Minister Howard this week. 

There is no question that the priority today must be to end the conflict in Syria above all else. The scale of the catastrophe in Syria means that all options need to be considered, even unpalatable ones. Indeed, this has been obvious for a number of years. In September 2013, Rodger Shanahan and I wrote:

Syrian policy needs to operate within the realm of the possible, rather than the preferable. Having signaled that it is not willing to mount a major military intervention, the West needs to focus its efforts on diplomacy. This will not be easy. The West will need to find diplomatic solutions to the conflict and its consequences without, as far as is possible, rewarding the Syrian leadership for its brutal behaviour and for the responsibility it holds for the death and suffering of millions of Syrians.

But in considering unpalatable options, it is also vital that we be clear-sighted about them.

The current formulation being used by Western leaders to climb down from the 'Assad-must-go' tree is a willingness to contemplate Assad remaining in power for a transitional period. It is upon this slender branch that a bridge was purportedly built between the US and its allies and Assad's international patrons, Iran and Russia, at the Vienna talks.

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Significantly, that bridge does not yet extend to the Syrian opposition, who were not invited to Vienna, notwithstanding Turnbull's comment above that 'dictating terms from foreign capitals is unlikely to be successful.'

In any event, this does not really matter because I don't believe Assad or his international backers would stick to such a deal, even if they were prepared to agree to it. Over the last four years Assad has shown that he is prepared to sacrifice every last Syrian to remain in power. So far he has sacrificed a quarter of a million of them. Why would he budge now when his military position has been strengthened by Russian and Iranian intervention and when he thinks that the West fears ISIS more than it fears him remaining in power?

Nor do I think Russia or Iran will abandon Assad easily. Every so often they float the idea that they are not wedded to Assad personally remaining in power, and to some extent this is true. Were they, for example, to be forced to choose between protecting their interests in Syria and protecting Assad, they probably would give him up. But they have never been placed in that position. Instead they suggest they might give up Assad in the hope of dragging the West closer to their position, gradually eroding Western opposition to Assad remaining in power permanently. 

It is not ordained that the US and allies such as Australia should have to be Russian or Iranian patsies. To get to closer to a political settlement, the West will have to concede some transitional role to Assad. This is the right kind of pragmatism. But it has to be accompanied by a determination to ensure that Assad's rule really is transitional.

I fear, however, that this kind of pragmatism will be accompanied by the wrong kind; the kind that has seen Western countries tolerate and even embrace myriad Middle Eastern dictators at great cost to both the people of the Middle East and to Western interests and security. These repressive, dictatorial systems have incubated radicalism and terrorism, and even at times promoted it. Repression does not create jihadism and extremism, but it creates the conditions for it to thrive, helping it to gain supporters and foot soldiers. 

It was, for example, the repressive policies of the Maliki Government in Iraq that drove Sunnis in that country into the arms of ISIS. And it was Assad's brutal response to the originally peaceful protests of the Arab uprising in Syria that transformed it into a violent civil war and a magnet for jihadists.

Yet we still turn a blind eye to this connection between dictatorship and extremism. In Egypt, for example, Western pragmatism is gradually winding down pressure on the increasingly repressive regime of President Sisi. Yet under his rule terrorism in Egypt has grown rather than diminished, as the recent bombing of the Metrojet airliner in Sinai underlined.

In the case of Syria, this wrong kind of pragmatism will mean, I fear, that after Western leaders concede to Assad a transitional role in running his country they won't have the determination, persistence or patience to stop his rule becoming permanent. In fact, I suspect some Western policymakers privately know this already; some might even favour it. They may be thinking that even if we cannot dislodge Assad after this 'transitional period', a permanent Assad is still better than the alternative. 

But they are wrong. 

Assad is no more capable of returning stability to Syria with Western backing than he is without it. Any political process built upon Assad playing a transitional role in his country will soon collapse once it becomes clear that his role is becoming permanent. Any deal that unintentionally or otherwise helped Assad survive will also entrench Russian and Iranian strategic gains in Syria. No one in Syria owes more to the Russians and Iranians than he does. In fact, the West would be complicit in increasing the security threat that Iran and Hizballah pose to Israel as they expand their presence in Syria. 

But most damaging of all, such a deal would reinforce the view in the Arab world that, when faced with a choice, the West will always side with repressive dictators over their citizens. And we will probably still wonder why they hate us.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user US Department of State.


Over the weekend an Egypt court found Al-Jazeera journalists Peter Greste, Mohammed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed guilty on charges of operating in Egypt without a press licence and of ‘spreading false news’. Greste and Fahmy were given sentences of three years in prison; Mohamed was given three years and six months. While Fahmy and Mohamed have been returned to prison, the consequences for Greste, deported from Egypt last February, are also serious.

Greste won’t be able to travel to any country that has an extradition treaty with Egypt, a fatal impediment to his career as a foreign correspondent. He also now has a criminal record.

It had been hoped that the re-trial would find all three innocent of the charges, after their earlier trial had found them guilty and sentenced Greste and Fahmy to seven years in prison and Mohamed to ten years. Greste has called on Egypt’s president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to grant all three a pardon. The prospects seem slim.

It may well be the case that this was part of the plan all along: that the court would find the three guilty to save the blushes of the Egyptian judiciary, and then Sisi would show his magnanimity by pardoning them.

But because Greste, the only Westerner of the three, is no longer in an Egyptian jail, Sisi will feel less pressure to act; he is hardly likely to spare much thought for Greste’s career.

Indeed these days, Sisi is getting decidedly mixed messages from Western governments. The Al-Jazeera verdict is part of a much broader assault on press and other freedoms in Egypt being mounted by the Sisi regime. In the same week as Greste and his colleagues were found guilty, Sisi introduced new draconian anti-terrorism legislation. In addition to the establishment of special fast-track courts for terrorism offences, and new protections for military and police officers that use violence against terror suspects, the law also imposes fines of between US$25,000 and US$64,000 for journalists who contradict official accounts of militant attacks.

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One human rights activist, Jamal Eid, tweeted that the law marked the establishment of a 'republic of darkness'.

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop issued a statement over the weekend saying that she was ‘dismayed’ by the Greste verdict. But she has said nothing about the implication of the new anti-terror law for press and other freedoms in Egypt. The US State Department did at least express concern 'that some measures in Egypt's new anti-terrorism law could have a significant detrimental impact on human rights and fundamental freedoms.' But the general pattern of US relations with Egypt since the July 2013 coup that brought Sisi to power has been one of gradual warming. In March of this year, for example, the US resumed military aid to Egypt.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott has also praised Sisi on a number of occasions, including in his National Security Statement last February, when he singled out Sisi’s call for a ‘religious revolution’ in Islam.

The truth is, however, that Sisi’s heavy-handed policies in Egypt will create more radicalism and militancy than it defeats. Recently, Shadi Hamid did an excellent job at summarising in Foreign Policy how counter-productive Sisi’s policies have been. Hamid’s piece should be required reading for Western policymakers as they consider their approach to Egypt.

I know it's easy to be critical from the outside, and there are few good levers for influencing the Egyptian regime. But at the very least the US and other countries, including Australia, should be delivering a strong and consistent message to the Egyptian regime, and not just when one of our own gets caught up in the regime’s repressive net.

This is not just a moral issue for the West, it is also a practical one.  Western policymakers rightly condemned the former Maliki Government in Iraq for its repressive and discriminatory policies against the Sunni minority – policies that paved the way for ISIS to roll into Mosul and other Sunni towns and cities virtually unopposed.

Yet remove the sectarian dimension, and Sisi’s policies in Egypt don’t look all that different. Under Sisi, the jihadist insurgency in Sinai has already worsened and has seen partisans of ISIS raise the movement’s black flag on the peninsula. Meanwhile, Sisi’s crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood is driving younger members toward militancy.

Some Western policymakers will argue that sometimes you need tough measures to defeat terrorism and militancy. This is true. But it is also true that an approach that is all stick rarely ever works. Even the former Mubarak regime came to understand that.

The Sisi regime may eventually come to that realisation too. But for the moment at least, this seems unlikely. As Hamid notes towards the end of his piece: ‘when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail’.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Mohamed Azazy.


The conclusion of the Iran nuclear deal – or the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, to give it its formal title – has already guaranteed us one thing: mutually assured hyperbole.

Barrages of outrage were being fired even before the deal was signed. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tweeted on 8 July that 'Iran's increasing aggression is more dangerous than that of ISIS, and the true goal of this aggression in the end is to take over the world.'

Bibi's histrionics might be charming were they not so damaging to his cause. His deeply partisan speech to Congress last March has, for example, already made it more difficult for those Democrats with serious reservations about a nuclear deal to stand with Republicans in any veto-proof majority against the agreement. Iranian President Rouhani's comments that the deal came despite Israel's 'best efforts' to stop it even suggest that Bibi's loud complaints helped convince the Iranians to sign ('If Bibi is so dead against it, how bad can it be?').

But there is also plenty of hyperbole coming from those who support the deal. It is being described as 'historic'; the Middle East is about to be 'transformed'. All this before the 80-page agreement has been even lightly parsed.

The truth is, it is way too early to be either heading for the fallout shelter or vacuuming the Nobel Prize podium.

Certainly, the deal is a significant diplomatic achievement, especially at a time when diplomacy has become very unfashionable, and not just in the Middle East. It demonstrates that you can actually achieve something by patient, purposeful and well-executed talking. In fact, it begs the question of why similar efforts are not being made elsewhere in the region, most notably in Syria.

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But implementing this deal will be at least as hard as negotiating it. In fact, it will probably be harder, given that there will be more opportunities for opponents of the deal to throw spanners into its very complex works. As we have learned with other peace agreements in the Middle East, no one should be handing out Nobel peace prizes until the hard work of implementation is done. 

Supporters of the deal also have to acknowledge that there is a kernel of validity in the Israeli Government's complaint that, in signing the deal, the West has surrendered to Iran.

In his remarks yesterday, President Obama claimed that as a result of the agreement, 'every pathway to a nuclear weapon is cut off.' It is certainly true that one pathway has been cut off: the plutonium route via Iran's reactor at Arak, which is to be redesigned and its spent fuel shipped out of the country. But while other pathways, most notably Iran's enrichment program, have certainly been made longer and will now be subject to inspection and verification measures, it is not true to say they have been cut off.

As significant an achievement as the agreement is, it's founded on an undeniable concession: that Iran will, more or less, retain the means to produce a nuclear weapon. Iran will retain the infrastructure and the knowledge to produce fissile material for a nuclear weapon, and it may already have, or could relatively easily get, the knowledge to turn that material into a weapon.

Supporters of the agreement would argue that this concession represents not so much a surrender to Iran as a surrender to grim reality, and they are right. For over a decade, the West has tried everything short of invasion and regime change to convince Iran to give up its nuclear program, particularly its enrichment effort. Not only did his effort fail, it failed spectacularly. When the Bush Administration began its highly principled but totally unrealistic effort to talk Iran out of its enrichment program in the mid-2000s, it was negotiating over a few hundred centrifuges. The talks that just ended in Vienna were negotiating over just under 19,000 of them.

Given these circumstances, the purpose of the deal is not so much to prevent Iran from having the capability to produce a nuclear weapon. That jinn is already out of the bottle. Instead, the goal is to create a framework of incentives and disincentives that ensure Iran never makes the decision to produce a nuclear weapon. 

In other words, the agreement is an attempt to convince Iran to be more like a nuclear Japan than a nuclear Pakistan. This relies on the assumption that all governments — democratic, autocratic or even theocratic — make more or less rational cost-benefit analyses of decisions. In this particular case, it relies on Tehran calculating that the costs of producing a nuclear weapon, even covertly, outweigh the benefits.

The problem for proponents of the deal, and the reason why the reality of this deal is likely to prove as grim for them as for its opponents, is that this is a highly complex equation to maintain. Ensuring that the costs of not producing a nuclear weapon outweigh the benefits will rely on what is in the deal, but also on what is not in it – and not all of that will be in the gift of the West.

It's doubtful, for example, that Iran would have made the concessions it has in this agreement if Saddam still ruled Iraq. The improvement in Iran's strategic circumstances caused by the demise of its most immediate enemy and rival is one of the less visible pillars upon which this deal is founded. But if Iran's security circumstances suddenly change, then its calculations around a nuclear program will probably change also.

Similarly, Iran has also been motivated to reach this agreement by the domestic economic damage caused by sanctions, particularly in recent years. But what happens once that damage is repaired and Tehran feels that the new international economic ties it has built can withstand any new effort to re-impose sanctions?

Finally, there is the question of Iran's ambitions. Even taking Tehran at its word (that it is not seeking a nuclear weapon), the regime probably saw its civilian nuclear achievements, and the implicit threat contained therein, as way to buttress its claims to regional leadership. Is the region now simply expected to accede to that leadership to keep Iran from building a bomb?

None of this is an argument against the deal that has just been signed in Vienna. Many of these questions have good answers. Nevertheless, they are a reminder that we are at the beginning of a difficult, complex and uncertain process. They are a warning that accepting the current deal as the best of a lot of bad options is not the same as accepting that the issue of Iran's nuclear ambitions is now resolved.

As Henry Kissinger once said, 'every victory is only the price of admission to a more difficult problem.'

Photo courtesy of Flickr user US Department of State.


The Lowy Institute for International Policy is looking for an experienced research editor. The position will be responsible for editing all major research publications, and will assist with the management and administration of research procedures. The role will also provide some editorial assistance to The Interpreter.

The successful applicant will need to demonstrate outstanding editing skills, including at least 5 years' experience in an editorial role. They will also need to possess a very high attention to detail and outstanding proofreading skills. They should also be highly organised and have excellent time management skills. Knowledge of international affairs is highly desirable.

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Applications close Friday 22 May. Only shortlisted candidates will be contacted. For more information email Dr Philippa Brant.


Last week's announcement that the P5+1 and Iran had reached agreement on the parameters for a comprehensive nuclear deal has, unsurprisingly, provoked heated debate. This is despite the fact that there is still no deal yet.

Although the Parameters for a Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action say a lot – perhaps more than we were expecting – about what a deal would look like, the detail still needs to be negotiated (by the end of June). This has not stopped people rushing to judge the parameters. It helps, of course, if you have already made up your mind about whether negotiating with Iran over its nuclear program is a bad thing or a good thing.

I would argue that there three ways to judge the Parameters: on its own merits; in comparison to alternatives; and in the context of future US policy in the Middle East.

Before examining each of these I want to be clear about my assumptions. First, whatever justification Iran has provided for its nuclear program (everything from energy production to national technical achievement, any of which may be true to some degree), a key purpose of Iran's nuclear program is to furnish Tehran with the technical means to produce a nuclear weapon.

My second assumption is that, because Iran has a track record of deceptive conduct with respect to its nuclear program and has been caught out a number of times, there is little ground for trusting Iran and good reason to assume it will cheat.

My final assumption is that Iran's nuclear program is just one part of the threat the Iranian regime poses to Middle East security and stability. Its support for terrorism, its denial of Israel's right to exist, its threats to the internal stability of many of its Arab Gulf neighbours, and its hegemonic ambitions in the Middle East are other key elements.

Of course, one can dispute these and even point to examples of other states in the Middle East posing similar threats (some of them are Western allies). Nevertheless, because Iran is seen as a threat in these and other respects by many of its neighbours, these are fears that must be dealt with in any effort to build a more stable order in the region.

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On the merits

Judged solely on its merits, the deal places significant obstacles in the path of any Iranian effort to build a nuclear weapon, but leaves much of Iran's nuclear infrastructure in place. In doing so it places an substantial burden on whatever mechanisms are put in place to both ensure that Iran does not cheat and to ensure it is punished if it does cheat.

Iran will have fewer (and older) centrifuges with which to enrich uranium, and will not be able to produce weapons-grade plutonium at its Arak reactor, which will be re-built. But these concessions are balanced by the fact that Iran will keep most of its nuclear infrastructure in place, including the underground facility in Fordow that it built in secret. Most of the measures are also time limited, so that after 15 years the restriction on enrichment levels and stockpiling of enriched uranium will end.

What the parameters are least clear on is what would happen if Iran cheated. President Obama has promised a snap-back of sanctions. In theory, military action remains on the table. But unless any cheating is really egregious it will be hard to get international consensus on what to do about it, particularly since, once sanctions are lifted, commercial and other national imperatives will come into play.

The Parameters also say nothing about other negative aspects of Iranian behaviour, from its support for terrorism to its threats against Israel and its Arab neighbours. Supporters of the agreement are right to say that dealing with these issues would make any deal impossibly complex to negotiate. But it is also true that any nuclear agreement will end Iran's political and economic isolation. Even if it limits Iran's nuclear ambitions (at least for a while), any agreement would leave Iran stronger at a time when its reach and influence in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen is already leaving its neighbours feeling deeply threatened.

So, judged by its merits alone, the Parameters do not appear to block every possible pathway to an Iranian nuclear weapon, as President Obama has suggested. Nor is it likely to make Iran's neighbours feel much safer, which is critical to ensuring that any deal does not result in others in the region building their own nuclear weapon.

Comparing the alternatives

The agreement does, however, get higher marks when compared to the alternatives. There are two of these: bomb Iran's nuclear facilities and/or continue sanctioning Iran until Tehran offers deeper concessions.

It is possible to bomb Iran's nuclear infrastructure, although it would take the US, rather than Israel, to do it real damage. Estimates as to how much this would delay any Iranian effort to produce a nuclear weapon vary. Some say 2-3 years, some much longer. But it is unlikely to be any longer than the 10-15 years that the Parameters provide for.

More importantly, without having at least attempted an agreement in good faith, it will be difficult for the US to gain support for military action. This matters for a whole lot of practical reasons, from the basing and overflight rights necessary to carry out an attack, to the support needed for sanctions to ensure that Iran did not rebuild its nuclear program quickly after a military strike.

And this is to say nothing of the consequences of a military confrontation in the Middle East involving the US at a time when the region is already in flames.

Others have argued that the international community should stick with sanctions and extract a better deal. The problem is, we have been down this path before. In the early to mid 2000s the Bush Administration insisted Iran would have to give up its right to enrichment as a precondition for negotiations. That principled insistence, backed by a growing regime of sanctions, had only one unfortunate result. In the early 2000s the two sides were negotiating over a few hundred Iranian centrifuges; today Iran has 19,000.

Sanctions have done nothing to slow down Iran's nuclear program. It is true that financial and oil sanctions of recent years have had a deep impact on the regime and the country. This has been supported by an unprecedented international consensus. But using sanctions to get the Iranian regime to the negotiating table is one thing; using sanctions to get the regime to capitulate is another altogether. The Iranian regime is perfectly willing for its people to suffer even deeper economic distress to protect its core interests. And sustaining really tough international sanctions over a prolonged period is difficult, as the gradual erosion of the sanctions regime on Iraq showed.

Moreover, all the things that critics of the current parameters point to — from the possibility of Iran cheating, to the difficulty of proving and sanctioning cheating when it does occur — are possible and in fact more likely under a continued sanctions regime.

US policy in the Middle East

So the Parameters raise questions when judged by their own merits, but look better when compared to the alternatives. How do they fare when examined in the context of future US policy in the Middle East?

Many of America's Middle Eastern allies fear that a nuclear deal with Iran is either a prelude to greater strategic cooperation between the US and Iran or a pretext for an American withdrawal from the region.

Concern about the latter, caused by Obama's efforts to extricate the US from Middle Eastern conflicts, has already driven competition between Sunni Arab states and Iran in the region, from Syria to Yemen. And in the deeply conspiratorial mindset of the Middle East, there remains a real fear that America would love to return to the days of the Shah when Iran was a pillar of US policy in the Middle East.

Indeed, more than anything, this agreement will need to be judged not by what is in it, but by what the US does around it. Washington will need to promise its allies that it is not going to strike regional strategic deals with Iran that cut across their interests. It will need to help allies defend themselves against Iran's conventional and covert threats to their security, and not just the nuclear threat. And most of all, the Obama Administration and its successors will need to reassure America's allies in the Middle East that it will not leave them to face Iran alone.

Photo by Flickr user United States Mission Geneva.