Tehran has had a longstanding alliance with Damascus since 1979, and its relations with Baghdad have steadily improved subsequent to the ouster of Saddam Hussein. This has resulted in close ties between Iran and these two key Arab states. However, this has all been called into question with the eruption of the Syrian revolt, and the recent rise of ISIS and its challenge to the Iraqi state. This article provides an overview of the conditions in Syria and Iraq which facilitated the rise of ISIS, and explains what is at stake for Iran, particularly in the case of Iraq.
The Tunisian parliamentary election that took place on October 26 has been widely hailed as a rare and heartening success story. It was a moment of bloodless democratic transition in a broader Middle East that appears to be crumbling daily into anarchy, from the lawless militia zone of Libya to the killing grounds of Syria and Iraq. The election went off peacefully, without accusations of fraud, and even the principal losing party—the Tunisian Islamist group known as Ennahda—held a celebration to honor the event as a “victory for all Tunisians.”
Since the revolution that led to the end of the Ben Ali regime in January 2011, Tunisian women have obtained political parity and participated, for the first time, in the writing of the country’s new constitution. With just a few weeks remaining until new elections that will determine the country’s political orientation over the next five years, a look at the experiences of women who have been involved in formal politics can help us understand the political culture of a society in the process of a democratic transition.
Military action in Iraq and Syria is moving ahead without a political strategy to accompany it. Although the administration argues that defeating ISIL requires the formation of inclusive governments, neither Iraq nor Syria has such government. The absence of a real political strategy will undermine any military success.
After three years of constant discord, relations between the United States and Saudi Arabia have taken a definite turn for the better as they team up to lead a coalition of Arab and Western nations in the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. But the two old partners have different goals and immediate concerns that could come to test once again their long-time tangled relationship.
In the quick move to resolve the nuclear issue, Rouhani’s calculation was that navigating Iran’s highly contentious domestic environment will become easier with the resolution of Iran’s external issues first. Without a nuclear agreement in hand, his platform of “moderation and prudence” will become more difficult to pursue and implement, but not impossible.
For this issue of Viewpoints, the Middle East Program reached out to a number of its regular contributors and invited them to share with us their thoughts and concerns on the treatment of women and girls by ISIS.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan unquestionably won the presidential poll, the first ever direct election of a president by the populace in Turkey. His score of 51.7 percent represents a first round victory, but it is likely to have disappointed the Prime Minister and his close supporters. In fact, less than 24 hours after the conclusion of the contest, the political jockeying that has started reveals Erdogan’s hand may not be as strong as his die-hard supporters claim. Turkey may be entering a period of political turbulence for which there is no precedent.
The momentum of the Arab Spring has weakened, at least temporarily, in Jordan. This has returned the relationship between Jordan’s Muslim Brotherhood and the Jordanian regime to its historic position of limited engagement rather than full cooperation. Having survived the initial wave of Arab Spring unrest by relying on its traditional political formula, the regime is now confident that it can maintain stability without making major compromises on political or institutional reforms.
The Lebanese Parliament failed to elect a president for the sixth time since the term of President Michel Sleiman expired on May 25, 2014. Due to the lack of Christian consensus, Lebanese sectarian divisions, and regional discord, an early resolution to the vacant presidency is difficult. Despite the void in the presidency, several internal and regional factors, unique to Lebanon, are likely to ensure stability.
Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, is marking the end of his first year in office. He has made a resolution of the nuclear issue and the lifting of sanctions against Iran the center-piece of a broader strategy. He hopes a breakthrough here will open the door for a revival of the Iranian economy, the reintegration of Iran into the international community, a recognition of Iran’s major role in the region and perhaps the loosening up of domestic restrictions on politics and basic freedoms. But he faces formidable opposition from an entrenched ruling elite.
The election of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to the presidency brings Egypt one step closer to the full implementation of the transitional road map. The last step, the holding of parliamentary elections, is also on schedule. Yet Egypt is not getting closer to democracy. The lopsided result of the presidential elections, with 96.91 of the votes going to al-Sisi, is not a sign of healthy pluralism. The draft of the new parliamentary election law will further hamper pluralism and it will promote fragmentation by reserving about 70 percent of parliamentary seats for independent candidates.
Despite a spiraling crisis in Ukraine and discontent in Israel and Saudi Arabia, the Iranian nuclear talks have hit their stride. At a meeting in March in Vienna, Iran and six major powers talked through the nitty-gritty of intractable issues, even if both sides made clear that it was too early to expect any breakthroughs.
Iraqis are heading to the polls at the end of April. More important than the results of these elections are fundamental issues confronting the country such as the economy's utter reliance on oil, the prevalence of corruption in every sector, and the deepening sectarianism that is impacting political and economic decisions.
Iran marked the 35th anniversary of its Islamic Revolution on February 11. Shaul Bakhash, who witnessed the revolution first-hand, reflects on the revolution’s tumultuous birth and its legacy and how it differed from the still-born revolution in Egypt during the Arab Spring.
The Egyptian referendum was not about the content of the constitution, but about the popularity of the military. Thus, it is not the first step toward democracy in Egypt. The United States has nothing to gain by embracing this regime. It should not condemn it, preach to it, or try to change it, because it would not work. But it should not go to the opposite extreme of praising it for leading the country to democracy. Rather, it should keep its neutrality and its distance.
On January 16 in The Hague, the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) will open the trial of the suspects in the assassination of former Prime Minister of Lebanon Rafiq Hariri and 21 others who died with him. This trial can be important for Lebanon, for the region, and for the United Nations' tribunals because it carries the hope of ending a culture of impunity in Lebanon and in introducing a new culture that chooses the courts and the rule of law over revenge, retribution, and violence in the Middle East. The outcome of the trial has stark implications for the future of Lebanon and for international justice.
Following the interim P5+1 deal with Iran, the world has never been this close to resolving the Iranian nuclear issue. There is no doubt that a de-escalation in Western relations with Tehran will help usher in a more cooperative and less threatening Iran whose domestic political dynamics would positively influence the region as a whole.
One year ago, Egypt was marred by a democratically-elected, autocratic, theocratic president and a deeply flawed constitution. Looking back at the past six months, the fact that Egypt was given a second lease on life and a chance to rewrite the constitution seems like a fairy tale. Is our new constitution a dream constitution? More importantly, could it be a dream that will not come true?
The draft of the Egyptian constitution, which will shortly be submitted to a referendum, is largely an aspirational document painting a picture of Egypt as a modern, progressive welfare state—an unattainable goal for the bankrupt country. But the constitution also provides an accurate map of power distribution in the country.
Iraq’s Kurdistan has signed multiple energy agreements with neighboring Turkey and is about to become an independent oil and gas exporter in defiance of Baghdad and Washington. This will provide Kurdistan, already an autonomous region within Iraq, with the financial and economic basis for its possible eventual independence. Turkey strongly opposes this and even limited autonomy for its own Kurds but has succumbed to its voracious appetite for new energy sources.
The Rouhani government, barely 100 days old, has delivered what no other Iranian government had achieved since the initiation of Iran’s nuclear program: a deal between the United States and Iran.
Michael Adler has been covering the Geneva talks on Iran’s nuclear program. The confrontation over Iran’s nuclear work contains contradictions that will be difficult to resolve, even with the better atmosphere brought in by President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif. The mixture of Iran reining in its nuclear work and the United States and its allies letting go of sanctions requires sacrifices that neither side is yet willing to make.
The failure of Tunisia's ruling Islamic Ennahda movement to convince secular parties and civil society groups that it is truly committed to the separation of religion and state underlies the current political crisis there. Ennahda's moderate leadership has made repeated compromises on religious issues to meet secularist demands for a new constitution. But it has lost their trust by showing too much deference to its own militant Islamic wing and fundamentalist Salafis outside the movement.
U.S. policy toward the Maghreb countries is presently driven above all by security concerns. Although three of the four countries—Morocco, Tunisia, and Libya—have experienced considerable political change since 2011 and Algeria is on the verge of a succession crisis with potentially significant consequences, the United States is not deeply involved in these transitions. Exhausted and disappointed by failed nation-building efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States seems to be moving toward the opposite extreme, neglecting political transformations to focus on security. Unless the countries restore or maintain political stability, however, counterterrorism efforts cannot succeed
The Obama administration’s policy of non-intervention in Syria has been criticized both for permitting the ruling minority Alawite regime there to continue oppressing the Sunni Arab majority as well as for allowing the radical jihadist opposition to grow in strength vis-à-vis the moderate opposition. Several important domestic political and foreign policy concerns, though, have impelled President Obama to pursue this non-interventionist policy.
The opening of a dialogue between the United States and Iran has stirred deep-seated fears in Saudi Arabia that the Obama administration may be headed for a “grand bargain” with Tehran at the Saudis’ expense, raising further doubts about Saudi dependence on Washington for its security. The Saudis have already sensed flagging U.S. support in their confrontation with Iran over Iraq and Syria as they wage a bitter battle with the Iranians for Arab and Muslim world leadership.
Lebanon is finally getting Washington’s attention after spending the last four years languishing on the back burner. The Lebanese are now hopeful that maybe the days when Lebanon was a priority in Washington are upon them once again.
Iraq has slipped in the priority of the U.S. administration given the tumultuous events in the region, but this is not justifiable in the long run. Iraq's security is deteriorating as violence intensifies, and thousands of civilians have been killed or injured since the beginning of this year. Nouri al-Maliki is driving the country into a new style of authoritarianism.
The Obama administration has sometimes been tactically adroit in dealing with Egypt since the fall of Mubarak in February 2011; at other times it has been caught flat-footed. But the nature of political changes afoot in Egypt today now demands more than adjustment, but instead a fundamental rethinking of a relationship that has been a cornerstone of U.S. policy in the Middle East since the Nixon administration.
UNGA provides a convenient venue for foreign leaders to interact and has special utility for countries such as Iran that are estranged from the United States and thus have no embassies in Washington. With the election of a pragmatic new Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, suspense is building again. Will Rouhani shake hands with U.S. President Barack Obama at the annual luncheon for heads of state? Or, at a minimum, will Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif—a U.S.-educated former ambassador to the UN—chat in the hallway with Secretary of State John Kerry?
The alliance between Iran and Syria has been an important and persistent feature on the political landscape of the Middle East for more than three decades. The eruption of the Syrian uprising in the spring of 2011 has presented the greatest challenge to the survival of the Tehran-Damascus nexus. Does this signify the end of the partnership? This article provides a brief overview of the relationship and a detailed analysis of the evolution of Iran’s policies, perspectives, interests, and options in the ongoing Syrian crisis.
The EU designated the "military" wing of Hizbullah as a terrorist organization, inviting strong reaction from Hizbullah describing it as a "legal cover for Israel to attack" Lebanon. The party is using the decision to intimidate UNIFIL forces in South Lebanon through the use of its local elected officials and the population. Hizbullah needs UNIFIL more than ever to keep the calm in the South while fighting in Syria. The threats to UNIFIL should not prevent the UN force from doing its work. While the attacks by Hizbullah's supporters on the UNIFIL forces might increase, the last thing Hizbullah and the people of the South need now is another war with Israel. This is the best guarantee for the safety of UNIFIL.
After taking over the presidential office in early August, President-elect Hassan Rouhani will face a long host of economic challenges. He has made the economy—especially tackling unemployment—his highest priority, but it is clear that the process of reversing the negative trends of the past few years will be a medium-term process. This brief will discuss the challenges as well as the approaches of the emerging Rouhani government in the field of economy.
ElBaradei, the former international bureaucrat, is now in government in his homeland. It remains to be seen how he fares in this new role. The military, after all, is looking over his shoulder after putting him in power. ElBaradei’s delicate task will be to reassure the military while preserving his commitment to a real democracy. If the past is any guide, the mild-mannered Nobel Peace laureate may turn out to be surprising due to his tenacity.
The last week in Egypt was yet another breathtaking moment in the history of the Arab Spring. For the second time in two years, the Egyptian people have emerged victorious in a major confrontation with their government. Yet the road ahead is bumpy. Events in Egypt suggest that the Islamist ascendancy of the last few years has peaked and is now in decline. Yet the jury is still out on that question, and developments in Egypt will do much to answer it.
On the occasion of Hassan Rouhani’s election as Iran’s new president, the Middle East Program compiled the views of 25 Iran experts from the Middle East, Europe, and the United States on the topic, “The Domestic and Foreign Policy Challenges of the New Iranian President, Hassan Rouhani.”
Once again Lebanon is facing crises that are driving it toward communal strife. The Syrian crisis and Hizbullah's involvement in it on the side of the Bashar al-Assad regime is dividing the country, stoking sectarian feelings, and forcing a political vacuum in the government. The flood of hundreds of thousands of refugees is adding to the explosive mix. Few Lebanese are trying to find a way out. Their success will depend on how the Syrian crisis turns out.
Hassan Rouhani’s surprising first round victory in the presidential elections represents a significant shift in the Iranian political landscape. In a field of candidates dominated by conservatives, Rouhani ran as a moderate. He questioned the necessity of the expanding security state and the constant oversight of student and civil society associations by the security agencies. He spoke of the need for greater freedom of press and speech, and devoted attention to women’s rights issues. Whether he will succeed, or whether he will initiate a change of direction only to be blocked by yet another rightwing backlash, remains to be seen.
The pace of reform in Morocco has been extremely slow since the enacting of the new constitution. Yet, buried in the maze of reports and studies that accompany any change in Morocco, a significant development is taking place: the program of “advanced regionalization” promoted by the king is transforming the 2007 proposal to grant a degree of autonomy to the Western Sahara into a one-size-fits-all system in which all Moroccan regions would enjoy more self-government, with the Western Sahara treated like any other region.
Two years after the uprising that forced President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali into exile, Tunisians are slowly coming to grips with the reality of politics in a pluralist system where opposition is real and the outcome of political contestation is not predetermined. The process is slow and somewhat uncertain, and it would be premature to conclude that Tunisian politicians have fully embraced not only the concept of democracy but also its concrete implications.
Tunisia’s transition to democracy, widely regarded as the most successful to emerge from the five uprisings that shook the Arab world in 2011, is being seriously threatened by violence in the wake of a prominent leftist politician’s assassination in early February. The killing of Chokri Belaid has not only triggered a showdown within the ruling Islamic Ennahda Party between its moderate and fundamentalist wings but also deepened the hostility between secularists and Islamists within Tunisian society.
Of all the states that rose against tyranny, Egypt and Tunisia have traveled the furthest on the road to democratic transformation. However, concerns about the Islamists’ fidelity to democracy continue to mount. This is particularly so in Egypt where the president seems susceptible to authoritarian proclivities and the Islamist elite show little inclination to compromise. In Tunisia, the prospects for democracy are relatively better as Ennahda, partners in the governing coalition, have little choice but to be flexible. It is rather ironic that democratic transformation is left in the hands of those professing fidelity to principles whose compatibility with democracy is contested.
Some call it the Islamist winter while others talk of revolution betrayed. Neither claim portrays accurately what is happening in Arab countries in the throes of popular uprisings and rapid political change. The rise of Islamist parties in the aftermath of the Arab uprisings took most by surprise, including in some cases the Islamist parties themselves, which were more successful than they dared to hope. Coupled with the disarray of the secular opposition, the success of Islamist parties augurs poorly for democracy, because a strong, competitive opposition is the only guarantee against the emergence of a new authoritarianism.
The Syrian refugee issue in Lebanon is threatening to become the real humanitarian crisis in the region. There are more Syrian refugees in Lebanon than in any other country in the region. Straddled by a weak economy, domestic political infighting, and internal divisions over the crisis in Syria, Lebanon is finding it hard to cope with the evolving problem inside its borders. In the absence of a quick and sustained international support, the refugee issue in Lebanon could become a full blown crisis with domestic and regional implications for Lebanon.
After several months of uncertainty, the Iranian government finally agreed to meet again with the P5+1 group in Almaty, Kazakhstan on February 26 for negotiations over its nuclear program. Iran’s economy is suffering the effects of the severe sanctions imposed by the West, but the government is not yet prepared to change course on the nuclear issue. Iran needs to be certain of a positive outcome from the negotiations before it commits itself to meeting the West’s concerns over its nuclear intentions.
The pronounced role of sanctions in creating shortages of life-saving medical supplies and drugs in Iran may have been unintentional, but it is also irrefutable. Iran’s own mismanagement of the situation has aggravated the problem, but it is not the root cause of it. While the list of issues leading to the supply crunch is long and complicated, at the heart of it all are the obstacles that sanctions have created in denying Iran the necessary banking operations and limiting its access to hard currency. Namazi presents findings based on a recent study that he and a number of Iranian consultants carried out.
Many young Saudis admire the youthful protesters of Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, and Bahrain. But they don’t seek to imitate their tactic of massive street protests. One reason why is that they still hope—despite the lack of available evidence—that the Saudi royal family will voluntarily begin to share power with the Saudi people. Presumably then, the government can rest easy? Not necessarily.
Iran's presidential elections will take place in June against a background of crisis. The ruling elite is deeply divided, reformist leaders remain under house arrest, economic problems are mounting and the stand-off with the West over Iran's nuclear program remains unresolved. Shaul Bakhash discusses the potential candidates, the major issues and vexed question of electoral freedom that are likely to dominate the election campaign.
Since Tuareg nationalists and al-Qaeda seized control of northern Mali in February 2012, the world has been dithering about what to do. Neither the United States nor Algeria, two potentially key actors in the unfolding drama, has decided on its role yet. Mali’s neighbors, the African Union, and the UN Security Council have not wanted to take any risky action and have found ways to put off a military response in the slim hope of finding a political solution.
Many analysts have rushed to declare a political outcome for Egypt's transition. Stacher argues that we must understand Egypt’s transition as a process of change rather than a finalized outcome. In doing so, he details the structural limits of governing Egypt as well as the receding capacity of state elites to deploy repression as a means of political control.
Egypt’s post-revolution constitution does not explicitly prohibit discrimination based on gender or religion. It only recognizes women’s domestic role within a family “founded on religion, morality, and patriotism.” Clerics will have the final word over the new laws.
In 2013, millions of Israelis, Iranians, and Arabs will vote in at least 10 pivotal elections that will, in turn, address basic issues facing the Middle East. These countries have vast political, religious, ethnic, and economic differences. But most confront a common trend—the rise of the right or the religious right—that will influence elections as well as policies both at home and in the broader region.
On December 20, 2012, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Resolution “Intensifying global efforts for the elimination of female genital mutilations.” This resolution is a very important step in the history of the women’s movement in the MENA region, especially at a time when women’s role and rights are being marginalized in a number of Arab countries.
On the occasion of the second anniversary of the Arab Spring, the Middle East Program (MEP) invited a group of experts from the region, Europe, and the United States to contribute to this publication by answering the question, “Has the Arab Spring Lived Up to Expectations?”
In the wake of President Obama’s reelection, senior Iranian officials close to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei are speaking publicly of direct talks with the United States over Iran’s nuclear program. But it remains unclear if Khamenei is ready. His deep suspicions of the United States and reservations regarding the utility of negotiations with Washington remain in place.
Hezbollah’s main strength in Lebanon is not its weaponry. Its real backbone is its popular support, which guarantees Hezbollah’s control over state institutions. Iran may be prepared to lose Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, but it is certainly not ready to lose Lebanon. Now that Hezbollah’s popular support in Lebanon is waning, Iran will do whatever it takes to overcome the results of Lebanon's parliamentary elections in 2013.
Ottaway, who has just visited Cairo, writes about the future U.S.-Egyptian relationship in light of the current political drift between the two countries and Egypt’s ongoing economic crisis. Egypt’s current attempt to secure a $4.8 billion IMF loan requiring potential subsidy cuts to gasoline and cooking oil serve to complicate matters as ensuing price rises could trigger riots and provoke Egyptians to blame the United States.
Hanin Ghaddar, a Lebanese public policy scholar at the Wilson Center, writes about the role that voting can play in empowering women in the Middle East. She discusses the need for the Arab Spring to be accompanied by a women's spring.
Farzaneh Roudi writes on the Iranian government's recent reversal of its population policy—its fertility policy, to be more precise. Alarmed by the country’s rapidly aging population, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is calling on women to procreate.
On June 20, 2012, the Wilson Center’s Middle East Program hosted a meeting on “The Arab Awakening: Is Democracy a Mirage?” This publication brings together the talks presented at the meeting.
David Ottaway is a senior scholar at the Wilson Center who has recently returned from Morocco. The following piece is an overview of his observations on Morocco’s Islamists.
Former Wilson Center fellow Rochelle Davis writes on the ongoing crisis in Syria involving refugees and the internally displaced. She makes a number of policy recommendations based upon the recent experiences of Iraqi and Palestinian refugees.
David Ottaway is a senior scholar at the Wilson Center who has recently returned from Algeria. The following piece is an overview of his observations of Algeria’s May 10 parliamentary elections.
The following is the text of the keynote address by Public Policy Scholar Moushira Khattab at the Centre for Development and Population Activities conference co-sponsored by the Middle East Program, “Fostering the Next Generation: Evolving Models of Women’s Leadership in the Middle East” held on April 18, 2012.
David Ottaway, a senior scholar at the Wilson Center, has recently returned from Tunisia. This piece is an overview of his observations of current challenges faced by Tunisia’s leadership.
Experts & Staff
- Haleh Esfandiari // Director, Middle East Program
- Kendra Heideman // Program Associate
- Julia Romano // Program Assistant
- Margot Badran // Senior Scholar
- Jason Brodsky // Policy Advisor to the Director, President and CEO and Research Associate
- Roya Hakakian // Fellow
- Lilia Labidi // Fellow
- Aaron David Miller // Vice President for New Initiatives and Distinguished Scholar
- William Green Miller // Senior Scholar
- Amal Mudallali // Senior Scholar
- David Ottaway // Senior Scholar
- Marina Ottaway // Senior Scholar
- Joseph Sassoon // Fellow
- Abdulkader Sinno // Fellow
- Robert Worth // Public Policy Scholar
- Robin Wright // USIP-Wilson Center Distinguished Scholar