Fault Lines: Ride of the Valkyries
1 February 2011
The following was written by Jawad Mian, Portfolio Manager based in Doha, Qatar
The script hasn’t changed. It always begins with an economic crisis that weakens social and political orders. People erupt into violent protests as problems surface to an extent that can no longer be ignored. The demonstrators direct their ire against unemployment, tyranny, and the general lack of dignity and justice in their own society. Meanwhile, the government operates in denial and tries to control the situation by establishing curfews, enforcing military rule, and cutting local access to news media. The public doesn’t seem to care: demonstrators grow in numbers, vehicles are burnt, lives are lost, and international coverage of the situation explodes. The President decides to reform his government and address the public. It makes no difference. The situation on the ground gets worse. In the meantime, a new leader is “imported” and the public rallies behind the opposition. It is only a matter of days now. The President wakes up one morning to this palpable fact and negotiates his survival with political actors on the world stage. The “key players” have lost interest and are busy carving out plans for the country’s future. They offer him a safe exit: a parting gift for being a loyal servant during his tenure. Democracy wins again – and history records it to be a momentous time.
It’s over. In little time, the Mubarak era will come to a decisive end. The advocates for a Western-style liberal democracy will claim victory and Mohamed ElBaradei will emerge as the new Egyptian leader. One need only look at the international news coverage of the Egypt unrest over the past week (and the attention specifically drawn to ElBaradei) to draw that conclusion. No crystal ball needed. I have no doubt the former UN nuclear inspector will bring ‘democratic reform’ to the country – whatever that means anymore. It is a widely known fact that the economic and security interests of Egypt are tied to the United States and the broader global economy. The country cannot afford to sink into political chaos. Nor will it. There can be many potential outcomes but only one stark reality: Americans will remain part of the region’s security architecture for the foreseeable future and Egypt is of strategic importance to their Middle East strategy. The more things change the more they stay the same. So, while the people of Egypt are ready for “change”, the geopolitical arrangements (US strategy since the end of the 1973 Arab-Israeli war) will remain unchanged. Egypt is one of those countries whose internal politics matter to more than its own citizens. The other is Iran.
In a 2009 paper titled The Revenge of Geography, Robert Kaplan wrote: “The instability Iran will cause will not come from its implosion but from a strong, internally coherent Iranian nation that explodes outward from a natural geographic platform to shatter the region around it. The security provided to Iran by its own natural boundaries has historically been a potent force for power projection. The present is no different. Through its uncompromising ideology and nimble intelligence services, Iran runs an unconventional, postmodern empire of sub-state entities in the greater Middle East: Hamas in Palestine, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and the Sadrist movement in southern Iraq. As with Russia, the goal of containing Iran must be to impose pressure on the contradictions of the unpopular, theocratic regime in Tehran, such that it eventually changes from within. The battle for Eurasia has many, increasingly interlocking fronts. But, the primary one is for Iranian hearts and minds, just as it was for those of Eastern Europeans during the Cold War. Iran is home to one of the Muslim world’s most sophisticated populations, and traveling there, one encounters less anti-Americanism and anti-Semitism than in Egypt.”
Viewed in this light, the rise of The Green Revolution during the 2009 Iranian Presidential election and its emphatic failure is better understood. People need to wake up to the fact that Iran is the only natural geopolitical power in the Middle East. This is something that the West is unwilling to accept for obvious reasons. The Persian Gulf possesses 55 percent of the world’s crude-oil reserves, and Iran dominates the whole gulf, from the Shatt al-Arab on the Iraqi border to the Strait of Hormuz in the southeast – a coastline of 1,317 nautical miles, thanks to its many bays, inlets, coves, and islands that offer plenty of excellent places for hiding tanker-ramming speedboats. No doubt, this is of utmost strategic importance to world powers. It is no surprise then that Iran is being wooed by both India and China, whose navies will come to dominate the Eurasian sea lanes in the 21st century, according to Kaplan. Rest assured, the Americans are not twiddling their thumbs. They aren’t happy bystanders. American ’diplomacy’ (read: arm-twisting) in the Arab world is about to become even more intricate. The regime change in Egypt is just the first step.
Alfred Thayer Mahan, a US naval captain and author of The Influence of Sea Power Upon History: 1660-1783, coined the term “Middle East” in 1890 to denote the area between Arabia and India that held particular importance for geopolitical strategy. The area falls within the inner core of Eurasia which is inherently unstable and registers all the primary shifts in global power politics. The rising tensions in the Middle East and proxy wars between Israel and Iran, Saudi Arabia and Iran, the United States and Iran, and the slow-motion civil war in Iraq are taking place in a very different milieu than is generally assumed. These events are not happening in isolation. Rather, these incipient fractures are part of a vast network of unstable fault lines at the interface of colliding geopolitical interests. They threaten to interact in a very destructive way as rising economic stress accelerates the radicalization of politics. The most important political fault line in the Middle East currently lies between Iran and the rest of the Arab world – oil producing and oil importing regimes supported by US weight. That is to say, between Iran and America. Who can coerce whom?
The final score will be orchestrated by Wagner’s classic tune – Ride of the Valkyries.