Syria and Iran: Diplomatic Alliance and Power Politics in the Middle East by Jubin M. Goodarzi (I.B. Tauris London, 2009) Reviewed by Mateen Rokhsefat

Written by admin on September 8th, 2010

Jubin Goodarzi’s dense book is full of detailed historical events mapping the thirty year long Syrian-Iranian alliance. Goodarzi effectively reiterates his main points throughout the book. He maintains that with careful research and analysis he has detailed the origins and development of the Syrian-Iranian alliance, a feat different from other scholars who only provide a general overview of the formative years. He points to several key reasons for the alliance to have remained resilient and united for the past thirty years: regime survival in view of their authoritarian nature; a defensive alliance against Iraqi, Israeli and American encroachment in the Middle East; maintaining national security and the territorial integrity and independence of each country; their different areas of concern (Gulf for Iran and Levant for Syria) does not interfere with each other.

In his first chapter, Goodarzi explains that inter-Arab politics and revolutionary Iran’s foreign policy orientation and ideology were critical factors for this alliance. In late 1970s, the relation between Syria and Pahlavi Iran was severely damaged due to Iran’s close ties with Israel which prompted Syria to welcome the new Iranian government. Another deciding factor was the contentious relationship of both countries with Iraq. Iraq’s invasion of Iran brought Syria and Iran closer together, with Syria providing valuable diplomatic and military aid. Many expected Syria to join other Arab countries in backing Saddam against non-Arab Iran. However, Syria supported Iran and played a key role in preventing a united Arab front against Iran which strengthened the Syrian-Iranian rapprochement and transformed it into a formal alliance. Syria saw in Iran a powerful non-Arab ally that would increase the ability of the Arab states to undermine Israeli and Western power in the region and provide leverage against Syria’s Arab rivals.

Chapter two examines the period between 1982 and 1985 with Israel’s invasion of Lebanon and engaging Syria in the fifth Arab-Israeli war. Iran having pushed the war inside Iraq reciprocated Syria’s help and lent support by mobilizing Lebanon’s Shiites to drive out Israeli and Western forces.  These events created a period of even closer cooperation between Syria and Iran against their common enemies. However, by 1984 Iraq became the stronger partly due to rapprochement with Washington and Moscow and played a main role in “the Reagan administration’s overall approach to safeguard Western interests against states such as Iran and Syria.”

The third chapter covers the 1985-1988 phase which was the most critical and tumultuous time in the alliance when the two allies developed conflicting agendas. Areas of contention included Iran’s support of Hezbollah who was at odds with Syria-supported Amal. In addition, Arab states and the USSR were pressuring Syria to abandon Iran and there were signs of rapprochement with previously staunch enemies: Jordan and Iraq.  However, by late 1980s, their partnership had solidified and they had overcome difficulties by handling the extremely turbulent crises in Lebanese and Gulf politics. Goodarzi explains that Syria and Iran: “saw a unique role for themselves in the region and utility in preserving the alliance to pursue an independent foreign policy to shape events in the Middle East in a desirable manner in the long term, and to minimize foreign influence and penetration of the region.”

The very concise final chapter explains why the alliance lasted beyond the 1980s and into the 21st century. The Kuwait crisis changed the entire political equation in the Middle East overnight and gave Syria and Iran opportunities to capitalize on the new situation and recoup their positions. Furthermore, Iraq’s attack on another Arab country and the subsequent division in the Arab world provided an opportunity for both Iran and Syria to reconcile with Arab and Western governments and to break out of their regional and international isolation. Goodarzi states that the United States was a main reason for the fortification of Syrian-Iranian alliance in the late 1990s and specifically after the 2003 invasion of Iraq: “Overall, Washington’s pro-Israeli stance in the Arab-Israeli negotiations, its support for the emergence of a Turkish-Israeli alliance after 1996 to isolate Iran and cow Syria into submission, and its willingness to exploit Iran-Gulf Arab differences to justify military presence and huge arms sales to its regional allies reinvigorated Syrian-Iranian cooperation in the period after the cold war.”  Since the 2003 invasion of Iraq and increased US domination and presence in the Middle East, Syria and Iran have become more resolved in reinforcing their alliance.


Mateen Rokhsefat is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Near and Middle Eastern Affairs at the University of Toronto


The Third Lebanon War – Council on Foreign Relations (July 2010); Drums of War: Israel and the “Axis of Resistance” – International Crisis Center (August 2010).

Written by admin on September 2nd, 2010

Lebanon traditionally has been the Middle East venue where the proxies of outside powers have wrought destruction; now there is apprehension that it may be the local from which a region-wide, Middle East conflagration will erupt. This concern prompted the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) to issue a “contingency planning memorandum” for the next Lebanon war. Authored by Daniel Kurtzer, a former U.S. Ambassador to Egypt and Israel as well as the first commissioner of the short-live Israeli Baseball League, it suggests that Washington pressure Israel not to attack Hezbollah. An Israeli-Hezbollah war, he concludes, “would hold almost no positive consequences for the United States.” Kurtzer doubts that the Obama Administration could resist pro-Israel pressure so he also advises that providing more advanced U.S. weaponry to Israel could induce Israeli restraint. He warns that Israel could strike swiftly and without warning, providing almost no time for U.S. sponsored “preventive diplomacy.”

The cause of Israeli-Hezbollah tension is the large quantity and enhanced quality of missiles that Hezbollah has acquired since the 2006 war. Secretary of Defense Gates described Hezbollah as possessing more missiles than most governments, which, if not misleading, Kurtzer says has “breached the limits of what Israel considers acceptable behavior.”

The International Crisis Center (ICC) concurs with Kurtzer’s prediction but forecasts a wider war embroiling Israel, Syria, Hezbollah, Lebanon, and perhaps Iran. It too recognizes that Hezbollah’s robust missile inventory underlies current tension but its in-depth analysis offers a more complex portrait of events. In contrast to Kurtzer, who views Hezbollah’s missiles only in terms of a threat to Israel, the ICC interprets the missile build-up as part of the dynamics of deterrence. Hezbollah, according to the ICC, can now retaliate to an Israeli strike by inflicting serious harm on a wide swath of Israeli civilians. The report finds that officials “from both Israel and Hizbollah privately share the conviction that the ability to inflict widespread damage represents their most effective means of deterrence.” But this stability is precariously fragile. The ICC quotes a Hezbollah official’s observation that “the new paradigm of ‘mutually assured destruction’ adds to the uncertainty. It could deter Israel from attacking, for fear of the fallout. Or it could prompt it to do so, out of concern that Hizbollah’s capability might rise even further.”

Whether the next war is sparked by premeditation or a miscalculation, Lebanese civilians and the country’s infrastructure will not be spared. It will likely include an Israeli attack on Syria to stop it from supplying weaponry to Hezbollah and perhaps to topple the regime. The fear of an unrestrained Israeli attack has caused so called “axis of resistance” – Hezbollah, Hamas, Syria, and Iran – to intensify their security ties, creating something echoing a mutual defense agreement. Not surprisingly, these moves only deepen Israel’s sense of peril. The ICC report is both sobering and chilling. It and Kurtzer offer some worthwhile recommendation to ameliorate the growing risk of war; unfortunately, past history suggests that such counsel may fall on deaf ears.


The Future of Islam by John L. Esposito (Oxford University Press, 2010) Reviewed by James A. Reilly

Written by admin on August 3rd, 2010

John Esposito makes the case that what he calls the “mainstream” of Muslims worldwide are engaged in vigorous debate about their future as communities, and the future of Islam as a faith, in the modern world. He introduces his readers to clerical and lay thinkers, writers, televangelists and political figures from Muslim communities and societies who are engaged with issues of Islam and democracy, Islam and human rights (including especially women’s rights), Islam and citizenship, the role of Muslims living in Western lands, and the place of Islamic law in the modern world. The book’s geographic breadth is wide, encompassing Muslim personalities — men and women — from the Arab world, South Asia, Southeast Asia, Europe, and North America.

His protagonists’ methodologies, like their geographic origins and national identities, are diverse. Some can be characterized as progressive and liberal, whilst others are deeply conservative. Some argue for a reinterpretation of early Islamic sources; others argue for a reassertion of traditional understandings of Islam against present-day attempts to bowdlerize Islam and turn the religion into a political ideology. What Esposito’s protagonists have in common, however, is that they are critical of “extremist” Islam. “Extremists” are defined by their advocacy of political violence; or of misogynistic and narrowly punitive understandings of Islamic law; or of intolerance toward other religions, and of sectarian attitudes vis-à-vis other Muslims. Again and again Esposito asserts that the extremists of various types do indeed have followings, but that they lie outside the “mainstream” understandings of Islam to which most Muslims subscribe and which are most relevant to the future of Islam and of Muslims.

Esposito is a liberal American scholar writing for an American audience. Thus many of his comparative references are to American phenomena. One goal of his book is to normalize Islam and Muslims, to portray the religion and its members as part of a wider Abrahamic moral tradition with which Americans are assumed to be comfortable. Another goal of his book is to prescribe approaches for US policy and policymakers dealing with the Muslim world (i.e., Muslim-majority countries for the most part). Esposito emphasizes the importance of dialogue, mutual comprehension, and identification of shared interests rather than what he sees as a Bush-era preoccupation with “security” and “terrorism” as determining factors in US-Muslim relations. Written in the glow of Barack Obama’s June 2009 speech in Cairo, The Future of Islam expresses hope that US relations with the Muslim world are about to take a turn for the better, under the aegis of a new US administration prepared to act according to new criteria. The year that has passed since this book went to press has not been kind to its author’s more optimistic assumptions.

Because Esposito presents the future of Islam and of Muslims as a foreign policy challenge, his book is less successful in achieving the author’s clear wish to normalize Muslims as part of American society. Interpreting “them” to “us,” The Future of Islam reinforces a framework that defines Muslims as outsiders, as foreigners who need skilled interlocutors in American society. For the past generation, few academic interlocutors have been as skilled, tenacious and prolific as John Esposito. But as Muslims assert a role for themselves as American citizens by right and not by sufferance, a different kind of discourse will need to develop.

James A. Reilly is a Professor in the Department of Near & Middle Eastern Civilizations, University of Toronto


The East Moves West; India, China, and Asia’s Growing Presence in the Middle East by Geoffrey Kemp (Brookings Institution Press, 2010) Reviewed by John W. Garver

Written by admin on July 23rd, 2010

Kemp provides a solid and comprehensive survey of relations between China, India, and Japan and the countries of the Middle East.  Greatest attention is given to the three major East Asian powers (with Indian being included here in “east”), but summaries  are also provided for policies of South Korea, Indonesia, Pakistan. The strength of Kemp’s analysis is that he considers the policies of the three Asian giants (China, India, Japan) side-by-side rather than in isolation.  Kemp provides an encyclopedic account of the elements of this East Asia-West Asia interaction:  China-Saudi Arabian relations;  Japan-Indian ties;  China-Israeli and India-Israeli ties,  South Korean-Iran links;  Iran-Pakistan-India interactions; China’s ties to the small Persian Gulf states; etc. Virtually every conceivable aspect of the East-West Asia relation is at least adumbrated.  Current efforts to develop railways, roads, and pipelines to tie various regions together are also surveyed and placed in the strategic context of efforts by various countries to claim a share of the wealth to be had by bringing Central Asian energy resources to global markets.  Security links of China, India, and Japan with the Middle East countries are surveyed, as is the security policies of each of those three countries toward the Indian Ocean.  The book would work well as a text in a course on Asian international relations.

It will be no surprise that Kemp finds demand and supply of oil and gas to be the key driver of the emerging East Asia-West Asia relation.  The current and projected future energy relation is analyzed in considerable detail, as are the efforts of China, Japan, and India to secure energy from the Persian Gulf region.

The organizing theme of the book is that, driven by the energy imperative, the relation between West and East Asia is growing more important, diverse, and thick, with all three East Asian powers seeking to expand ties with oil rich West Asia.  Kemp’s major analytical concern is prognostication about the future evolution of the China, Japan, India relation toward West Asia/ the Middle East in their mounting struggle for energy.  A premise of Kemp’s argument is that Western influence in the Middle East is declining and will continue to decline as the energy-hungry East Asian powers struggle to meet their energy needs from the Middle East.

A major sub-theme is whether the three East Asian powers will be able to individually or collectively fill a vacuum left by possible U.S. withdrawal from the Persian Gulf.  Kemp argues that the United States is currently in the midst of a debate similar to Britain’s in the late 1960s that led ultimately to withdraw from “east of Suez.”  Now the United States, confronted with lengthy, costly, bloody, and seemingly unwinnable wars and nation-building projects in Iraq and Afghanistan, combined with mounting domestic demands and fiscal problems, may well decide to withdraw and leave the Persian Gulf region to its own devices.  Kemp does not predict this outcome, but rather speculates about its consequence.

Kemp considers unlikely some sort of China-Japan-Indian concert to maintain peace and stability in the Persian Gulf.  Historical memories and current conflict of interests are too great for that.  An “Asian balance of power” between the three with the East Asian powers choosing regional partners and building up positions and capabilities in the regions, is a possibility.

Kemp considers India to be the most likely winner to supplant the United States as a provider of security assistance to the Persian Gulf countries.  India (unlike China) has a long and rich history of security involvement in the Middle East, has historically been viewed as a benevolent and non-interventionist power, and currently is rapidly developing military and security ties with the smaller Persian Gulf states. It is building the force structure and multilateral organizations to give it a preeminent role in the Indian Ocean.  India also enjoys the great advantages of proximity and “expatriate” dominance in the Persian Gulf economies.  If and when the U.S. decides to withdraw from “east of Suez,” Washington (and perhaps Tokyo too) could support India as the new cop on the block, rather like Nixon supported Iran in that role during an earlier era.  Kemp does not discuss this, but one wonders if China’s advocates of multi-polarity would prefer Indian to U.S. domination of the Gulf.  Kemp’s discussion also casts a new and interesting light on the India-Iran-China relation.  In maneuvering for influence in a post-U.S. Gulf, Beijing and New Delhi would recognize Tehran as a major player.  In fact, Beijing’s current policies are probably intended, in part, to build capital in Tehran against that future day.

John Garver is professor of International Relations at the Sam Nunn School of International Affairs, Georgia Institute of Technology and the author of China and Iran: Ancient Partners in a Post-Imperial World (Univ. of Washington Press: 2006)


Will Iraq Join a Middle East Nuclear Arms Race?

Written by admin on July 8th, 2010

In the current issue of Joint Forces Quarterly, Richard L. Russell, a professor at the National Defense University, portends a Middle East on the verge of a nuclear arms race.  His prognosis is based on the many Arab states, plus Turkey, that have expressed an interest in acquiring or reinvesting in nuclear power to meet their future energy needs.  Russell fears that peaceful nuclear power in the Arab world inevitably will lead to clandestine nuclear weapons development.

Russell faults Iran for prompting the likelihood of a nuclear arms race but he also recognizes that the Islamic Republic is not the only contributor to a regional nuclear arms race. Russell identifies five factors influencing the acquisition of nuclear weapons in the region: “to deter adversaries, compensate for conventional military shortcomings, fight wars, garner domestic political power, and win international political power, especially to leverage against the United States.”

Russell warns that “given this powerful array of determinants for nuclear weapons present and pervasive in the Middle East, the current Western push to market and sell nuclear power infrastructure and capabilities to the region is dangerously short-sighted. These capabilities could well be converted for military nuclear weapons programs in some shape or form in the next generation.”

Absent from Russell’s review is consideration of war-torn Iraq, a significant omission in light of an in-depth study published by the U.S. Army War College.  Authored by Dr. Norman Cigar, a former senior Pentagon Middle East analyst, the report concludes that Iraqi political elites are determined to reconstitute their country’s nuclear program, including the possible development of nuclear weapons. Cigar readily acknowledges that forecasting Iraq’s future is unpredictable but concludes that “one should expect in Iraq the same movement toward nuclear power as in the rest of the Middle East, at least in the civilian sector.”  He relates how as early as 1993, Iraqi nuclear scientists were urging a resumption of a nuclear program and that “virtually everyone in [Iraq’s] informed public” view nuclear power as “quintessentially emblematic of scientific and intellectual progress.”

The Iraqi  Shi’a community, Cigar found, was largely supportive of Iran’s nuclear endeavors and some viewed a nuclear armed Iran as a shield against threats from neighboring Sunni countries, Israel or the United States. In contrast, Iraqi Sunnis and secular leftists viewed Iran’s nuclear proclivities with alarm. But generally, “within the informed [Iraqi] public opinion,” Cigar found a “domestic and intellectual and political environment that is receptive to the notion of nuclear weapons as a useful and legitimate instrument of national power.”

Iraq has begun to reestablish its nuclear program by reintegrating itself into the Arab world’s official nuclear research mainstream, asking France to help build a nuclear reactor in Iraq, and seeking Italian investment in its nuclear industry.  The government is also trying to reconstitute the country’s scientific community – Cigar’s sources estimate that some 5,500 Iraqi scientists were lost through emigration or assassination; of those killed, 350 were nuclear scientists.

Cigar concludes that a near-term resumption of an Iraqi military program is unlikely, although how Iraqi leadership views regional threats could change that prediction.  He implicitly takes issue with Russell’s thesis in JFQ that rejected any suggestion that Israel’s nuclear weapons play a role in the possible proliferation of nuclear weapons in the Middle East. Cigar asserts that a resolution of the Arab-Israel conflict “would create an environment that is less conductive to consensus for the need of nuclear weapons” and recognizes that “a continuing fear of Israel’s nuclear intentions … spurs and justifies calls for proliferation of nuclear weapons as a counterweight.”  He also identifies the double standard on which the U.S. and the international community judges Israel’s nuclear weapons and those of other regional states as a cause for proliferation. Lastly, the former Pentagon analyst recommends that the United States and its allies avoid “threatening regimes such as Iran’s with forcible change.”  He counsels that such intimidation only “make regional rulers defensive, putting a premium on acquiring a nuclear deterrent as a buttress to regime security, thus sparking a cascade effect.”


Engaging the Muslim World by Juan Cole (Palgrave MacMillan: 2008) 247 pp. + index. Reviewed by Rex Wingerter

Written by admin on May 23rd, 2010

The late Edward Said  lamented  years prior to 9/11 that America and the West were adopting a “devil theory of Islam,” where behind every explosion hid a worldwide Islamic conspiracy.  Since the attacks, the theory has emerged full blown.  Juan Cole views such Western fears to be indicative of “Islam Anxiety,” a condition where the Muslim world is viewed “solely in a cultural and religious context and not understanding the social and economic dynamics that drive its tensions with the West.” Engaging the Muslim World is tendered as an antidote to this angst. A history professor at the University of Michigan and a recognized top expert on the Middle East, he’s been offering his insights for some time on his well-known web log Informed

The first chapter bluntly explains why Americans need to take a fair-minded approach to Islam: oil.  A resource found largely in Muslim-majority countries, Cole warns that these oil producing countries soon will tire of America’s threats and demonization and sell their product to non-American buyers. The result will be dangerous resource wars between and among oil suppliers and consumers. “Petroleum makes the world go round,” he notes, “which means that, increasingly, Muslims will make the world go round.” Assuring the continued supply of oil to the U.S., in his view, is best served by improving friendly relations with the Muslim world.

Seeking to shatter anti-Muslim stereotypes, Cole points to public opinion polls showing that most Muslims don’t hate our freedom after all. Nearly 60 percent of Saudi Arabians think democracy is the best form of government and four-fifth of Iranians view the American people favorably. His knack for invoking comparisons also is an effective pedagogical tool:  the 4 million displaced Iraqis resulting from the U.S. invasion would be proportionately equivalent to the entire populations of California and Michigan. Similarly, the estimates of the number of Iraqi deaths range from the entire population of Pittsburgh or Cincinnati to imagining that “a death ray had mown down everyone in Ohio.”

Cole’s critiques of “radical Islam” will be heresy for readers accustomed to mainstream U.S. punditry. He dismisses the idea that Islamic fundamentalist groups are powerful and pervasive in Muslim societies. The September 11th attacks did not herald the beginning of the Islamic revolution but symbolized “the flailing about of a dying organization of aging revolutionaries banished to camps in the rugged waste-lands of failed states.” Heretical nor not, his thoughtful insights and arguments are compelling.

Arab attitudes toward U.S. leadership – distinct from their attitude toward the American people – are poor.  Approval rates in Egypt for President Obama only reach 37 percent. This, advises Cole, is on account of “American Anxiety,” a condition where Muslim-majority countries fear that Washington seeks to cripple and destroy their religious identity and control their resources. Opinion polls support his theory: 79 percent of those questioned in Egypt, Morocco, Pakistan, and Indonesia believe that America seeks to “weaken and divide the Islamic world.” A similar percentage in those countries believe the United States wants “control over the resources of the Middle East” and about 64 percent believed Washington wanted to spread Christianity among them.

Such disquiet is understandable based on how the U.S. helped to overthrow Mosaddegh in Iran, perhaps placed Saddam Hussein in power in Iraq, and has propped up authoritarian regimes through the region. But the emphasis in Engaging the Muslim World is less on U.S. policy machinations and more on highlighting the confusing complexity of the Middle East. This is where Cole shines, deftly describing the histories and intricacies of individual countries. He disputes accusations that Wahhabism, the fundamentalist strain of Islam that dominates Saudi Arabia, is the cause for the Kingdom’s repressive political policies by pointing out that the co-religious State of Qatar is much less repressive. Pakistan and Afghanistan are shown to have their own factious, domestic agendas that often are distinctly different, if not contrary, to American efforts to fight Taliban insurgents. Iran’s political history makes it highly unlikely that it will halt its uranium enrichment efforts but similarly unlikely to embark on a campaign of regional conquest. Cole also touches on Lebanon, Syria, Hamas and Hizbullah with equal craftsmanship.

Little is said about Israel, except to contend that the Israel/Palestine conflict significantly undermines U.S. interests in the Middle East. Many would pause at his claim that the conflict’s equitable resolution would resolve 90 percent of U.S. problems with the Muslim world. But the suggestion that Israel’s return of the Golan Heights to Syria and the Shebaa Farms to Lebanon would vacate Hizbullah’s justification for militancy makes sense.

Many will cast Cole as an apologist for Islamic fundamentalist violence. Others will dismiss as naïve his call for mutual understanding and cooperation between North Atlantic and Muslim countries. But if Cole does at times sound like a defender of the Muslim world, it’s because he is one of the few knowledgeable voices that eschews fear mongering and offers a clam, reasoned approach to explaining the Muslim and Arab worlds. At a time when the Obama Administration appears to be adopting “Bush-lite” policies toward the region, such a perspective is sorely needed.


The Top Rated Think Tanks in the Middle East: University of Pennsylvania Study

Written by admin on April 26th, 2010

The University of Pennsylvania recently revised its 2009 list of top rated think tanks, “The Global ‘Go-To’ Think Tanks.” Housed at the university’s international relations department, a wide variety of researchers and judges culled through the world’s 6,000+ think tanks to come up a list of the most influential. “The primary objective,” states the report, “of the rankings is to recognize some of the leading public policy think tanks in the world and highlight the important contributions these organizations are making to governments and civil societies around the world.”

The study offers a statistical review of countries with the largest number of think tanks (the U.S. with 1,815; second is China with 428), the number of think tanks per region, the top think tanks by research area, and the top think tanks by special achievement. The Top Think Tank in the World was the Brookings Institution. In the category of the Top 25 Think Tanks Worldwide, including U.S. and non-U.S. institutions, the US accounted for 16, the U.K. 5, Belgium two and Sweden and Germany one a piece. As a way to discount the excessive influence of the U.S., the study lists the top 50 non-U.S. world wide think tanks. The U.K’s Chatham House is ranked number one.

The publications and conferences sponsored at think tanks often signal a country’s future policy directions.  Writings from the conservative Heritage Foundation pointed the route of the Regan Administration’s foreign policy and personalities and papers from the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs and the Center for Security Policy foretold of the Bush Administration’s goal to radically transform the Middle East. “At their best,” the Pennsylvania study observes, “think tanks are the filters and synthesizers that facilitate the identification of policy issues, the design of policy solutions, and the implementation of and feedback on policy decisions.”

The top rated 25 think tanks in the Middle East and North Africa were:

1.  Carnegie Middle East Center, Lebanon

2.  Al-Ahram Center for Strategic and Political Studies, Egypt

3.  Institute for National Security Studies, formerly Jaffe Center for Strategic Studies, Israel

4.  Gulf Research Center, UAE

5. Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation (TESEV), Turkey

6.  Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies, Israel

7. Center for Strategic Studies, Jordan

8. Emirates Center for Strategic Studies and Research, UAE

9. Association for Liberal Thinking, Turkey

10. Begin Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, Israel

11. Dubai Institute of Government, UAE

12. Rabin Center for Israeli Studies, Israel

13. International Institute for Counter-Terrorism (ICT), Israel

14. Free Minds Association, Azerbaijan

15. Truman Institute for the Advancement of Peace, Israel

16. Israel Center for Social and Economic Progress, Israel

17. Lebanese Center for Policy Studies (LCPS), Lebanon

18. Center of Arab Women for Training and Research, Egypt

19. Israel-Palestine Center for Research and Information (IPCRI), Israel

20. Van Leer Jerusalem Institute, Turkey

21. Center for Palestine Research and Studies, Palestinian Authority

22. Centre d’Etudes et des Recherches en Sciences Sociales, Morocco

23. Shalem Centre, Israel

24. Jerusalem Institute for Market Studies, Israel

25. Egyptian Center for Economic Studies – Egypt

Readers seeking to discern what the future may hold for the Middle East may benefit from reviewing from time to time the discussions and analysis offered by these think tanks.


Cost of Conflict in the Middle East by the Strategic Foresight Group (2009)

Written by admin on March 17th, 2010

Bar graphs and pie charts may not top a photograph’s ability to express a thousand words but Costs of Conflict in the Middle East comes close. Published by the Strategic Foresight Group, a think-tank in Mumbai, India, this informative book offers a compendium of facts and figures on an array of subjects concerning conflict in the Middle East. Want to know the opportunity costs to the region since the Madrid conference failed to bring about a Palestinian-Israeli peace? ($12 trillion). Ever wonder about the number of lives lost in the three Arab-Israeli wars, Israel’s wars with Lebanon, and the Intifadas? (70,000 – 110,000).  How about which country has the largest portion of its citizens in the military? (Israel) Or which country has the largest number of paramilitary forces roaming its countryside? (Iran).

The information is categorized with an eye toward revealing not only the costs of conflict incurred by states but also the price exacted in human security. Calculating state costs are straight forward: tallying human deaths, military expenditures, missile numbers, nuclear capabilities, and itemizing the material consequences of a nuclear exchange in the region. Calculating human security costs is a more imprecise task but the authors identify some arresting issues. A chapter on the environment focuses on ruinous oil related damage, depleted uranium shells, and the destruction of water supplies and irrigation infrastructures. Social and political costs spotlight fractious religious demography, the curtailment of civil liberties and freedom of the press, and the woeful condition of children.

Another chapter shows how the international community is affected by Middle East discord but particular attention is paid to the Israel/Palestine conflict. For the Israelis, picture graphs show the number of youths killed by terrorist attacks against school buses, discos or malls. The number of Qassam rocket and missile attacks underscores the data assessing the psychological fear of terrorist attacks that envelop Israelis of all walks of life. For the Palestinians, charts detail the number of Palestinians in Israeli detention centers, the number of fatalities since the first Intifada, and Palestinian poverty rates. A sense of the occupation’s repression is offered with graphs displaying the number of village or city closures per day, the number of West Bank checkpoints and even an estimate of the time wasted due to the checkpoints.

Costs of Conflict was written with the general reader in mind; there are no regression analyses to confront or standard deviations to consider. The graphs, tables, and charts are large and the ample use of colors makes them easy to read and understand. A narrative offers observations and commentary on the data underpinning each chapter’s topic.

At its heart, Costs of Conflict offers a cost-benefit analysis of war and peace in the Middle East. In stark, simple terms, it shows the terrible burden, in terms of lives, money, natural resources, and social torment, the states and peoples of the region have suffered on account of on-going conflict. Details of the opportunity costs incurred by the region – a subject rarely discussed in most studies – and a chapter showing the significant social and economic benefits that would result from a regional peace accord is startling. But another chapter projects the future risks which threaten to plunge the region into further chaos. Costs of Conflict in the Middle East offers unambiguous empirical evidence for why the crosscurrents of imperial hubris, ideological delusion, and ethnic chauvinism that buffet the region must make way for mutual respect and common security.


Understanding Iran: Everything You Need to Know, From Persia to the Islamic Republic, From Cyrus to Ahmadinejad by William R. Polk (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009) Reviewed by Farideh Farhi

Written by admin on March 15th, 2010

I must admit that I began reading William R. Polk’s book on Iran with quite a bit of skepticism. The rather immodest ‘everything you need to know’ subtitle, claiming both historical depth and breadth, made this short book suspect. But this is a book that should not be missed by those who would like to read a short, accessible, and well-written précis of Iranian history, political culture, and paranoia and fear-inducing historical memories and how this history has framed how Iran understands its relations with the United States.

Polk has been both an academic and a policymaker and while a good deal of the book covers Iran’s ancient and early-modern history – in a lively and enjoyable way that highlights key moments and the impact they have had on Iran’s historical consciousness and mental torments – he comes into his element when talking about events in the twentieth century.

By the end it is clear that the intent of highlighting Iran’s tormented history is to contribute to the thriving ‘what to do with Iran’ industry that exists in Washington.

What makes Understanding Iran decidedly different from other works, however, is Polk’s attempt to “appreciate” the influences, fears, and motivations which “in sum define Iranians.” The result is an argument that challenges the common perception about Iran as political or militarily expansionist state. It also rejects the religious aggressiveness of the Iranian state, pointing that Shi’a Islam is eschatological and not messianic.

Most importantly, the Islamic Iran Polk presents is not a caricature or a country led and shaped by a few deranged men intent on challenging the United States’ good will for no reason but spite.

Polk’s narrative makes it clear that one cannot adopt such a faulty approach toward a political system that arose out of a genuinely popular revolution and was a world historical event that changed the Middle East, even if the ensuing system ended up being a major disappointment to many of its participants.

Polk also reminds his readers that threatening, bullying, and containing Islamic Iran has been the norm in US policy for the past three decades. These policies have added to the older bitter memories of British, Russian and American machinations, invasions, and dominance. Despite it all, Islamic Iran has survived but it has done so with a chip on its shoulders and pursues policies that, given what it has faced, are merely rational for its preservation and security.

These policies include the imposition of stern ideological and security controls to make espionage impossible, creation of a capacity for guerrilla war that could survive an American and Israeli attack, cultivation of non-Western friends and allies, and attempted acquisition of the “ultimate defense.”  Polk is quite clear that he considers it both “ahistorical and illogical for Iran not to be acquiring at least the capacity to manufacture a nuclear weapon.”

Accordingly, the solution to the “Iran problem” for Polk essentially lies in giving Iran sufficient security guarantees. The US must renounce its assertion of the right to attack Iran preemptively and it should take steps to create a nuclear-free Middle East.

Polk’s points are of course well-taken. There is no doubt that US policies, by threatening Iran and by ratcheting up the sanctions noose, have led to a more security-conscious Iran. Instead of pushing Iran in the direction of compromise or giving in to external demands, these policies have created a hardened and securitized country. Different US policies should lead to different results.

But the reality is that external pressures are only one part – albeit a big part – of Iran’s story in the past 30 years. The other part of Iran’s story is its highly contested political environment that has made relations with the United States political football inside the country.

By mostly focusing on the “interests” of the Iranian state vis-à-vis the United States, Polk somewhat shortchanges the impact of domestic politics on Iran’s foreign policy and in the process assumes that drastic change of policy in the United States – no matter how unlikely that may be – will be reciprocated soon enough.

This is while in Iran, like in the United States, 30 years of animosity has created stakeholders who have a stake in maintaining the animosity for the sake of political power. While it is true that the imposition of stern ideological an security control is one way of making externally-inspired espionage impossible, it is also a path for certain forces insides Iran to maintain political power. At this point, it is not clear if these forces merely find American policies a threat or the whole idea of relations with the United States is something they reject.

After the June 12 election and the ensuing crackdown, it is also not clear if reconciliation with the United States is possible without some sort of reconciliation among key players and forces in Iran who are now openly in war.

Polk’s book went into print before the Obama Administration’s decision to engage with Iran, which as of now is in tatters after only one short meeting among the principals in Geneva, with Tehran turning even more defiant and distrustful of American intentions and the Obama administration talking about options that can be considered neither effective nor not dangerous. In short, yet another attempted encounter between the US and Iran intended to build confidence led to more mistrust on the part of both sides.

The Obama administration’s mantra of change regarding Iran appears more and more like the Bush administration policies of threatening Iran with sanctions or worse.  Conversely, the chronic chaos of Iran’s domestic politics reinforces for many American policymakers what seems to be Iran’s perfidy and brutality.  Still, Polk’s basic point remains valid that the solving of the “Iran Problem” cannot come about without patience and understanding Iran and its fears.

. ***

Farideh Farhi is an Independent Scholar and Affiliate Graduate Faculty at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa. Her publications include States and Urban-Based Revolutions in Iran and Nicaragua (University of Illinois Press) and numerous articles and book chapters on comparative analyses of revolutions and Iranian politics. She has been a recipient of grants from the United States Institute of Peace and the Rockefeller Foundation and was most recently a Public Policy Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. She has also worked as a consultant for the World Bank and the International Crisis Group.


Crude Oil: the Violent Twilight of Oil by Peter Maass (Knopf, 2009). Reviewed by John Feffer

Written by admin on February 27th, 2010

It has become a staple of newspaper articles about lottery winners that, more often than not, their huge windfalls cause more grief than glamour. The lucky few frequently overspend themselves into bankruptcy, watch their families descend into nasty conflicts, and endure endless requests for money and gifts from people they don’t know.

So it is with the windfall profits of oil as well, but on a national scale. “One of the ironies of oil-rich countries is that most are not rich, that their oil brings trouble rather than prosperity,” writes journalist Peter Maass in his new book Crude World: The Violent Twilight of Oil, a blistering critique of oil companies, oil-rich dictators, and the oil-obsessed bankers that abet them both.

Maass takes his readers on a world tour of the mixed blessings of oil. Crude World describes the low-intensity wars of the Niger Delta, the presidential excesses of Equatorial Guinea, the environmental disasters of Ecuador, the corruptions of Texas, and the largely failed promise of Venezuela. It’s not a trip for the faint-hearted. In the depressing theme park of Oil World, the rich get richer and more paranoid and the poor get poorer and more outraged.

Surely, though, the rule of unintended consequences doesn’t apply to the Middle East. Aren’t the Gulf States awash in oil revenues? Saudi Arabia, with 21 percent of the world’s reserves, went from a sand-poor country of Bedouins to a wealthy and powerful geopolitical player in the space of a generation.

But the Middle East, too, is not immune to the malign military, political, and environmental effects of oil. The wealth that lies beneath the lands of the Middle East has inspired countless wars, the U.S. invasion of Iraq being only the latest. During the first Gulf War, when Iraq set about to destroy Kuwait’s oil industry, the burning oil wells and the 250 million gallons of oil that poured into the Persian Gulf irreparably damaged the environment. And on the political end, tyrants have used oil wealth to strengthen their dictatorships – in Iraq, Iran, Libya, and so on. If governments manage to avoid wasting oil through massive spills, they still manage to waste oil through direct plunder (siphoning off profits to off-shore bank accounts) or hare-brained schemes (like Dubai’s luxury real estate venture).

Even Saudi Arabia, the world’s top oil producer, doesn’t have enough to make its citizens rich. This is not a matter of distribution, but of production. “It is one of the oil industry’s structural tragedies that it requires few workers, so there was little room for Saudis at their own oil company,” Masss observes. “In a country of more than 20 million people, Aramco employed 50,000, and each year it hired just 500 employees.”

Then there is the ruthlessness of the industry itself. One former top official at Aramco and now a top consultant described for Maass the realpolitik of his former colleagues: “If they are in financial trouble and have to cut corners, they will cut corners. It means that if your tanker is old and you ought to retire it, you keep it working…It means if you have to abandon a facility that is a pollutant, you abandon it in place and walk away without cleaning it up.” Working with dictators scrambles the moral compass of oil company officials and bank executives alike.

If Oil World was a bleak place during the years of plenty, the passing of peak oil will make it bleaker still. As the extraction of what’s left under the ground or the ocean becomes more expensive or technically daunting, the fight over the scraps will become that much more intense. And thus the subtitle to Maass’ book: The Violent Twilight of Oil.

Maass does offer a few suggestions. Greater transparency in the oil industry could reduce corruption and the likelihood of the shell games by which oil-rich leaders feather their own nests. And then, of course, we must prepare for a post-oil economy. There are no shortages of ideas, Maass points out: “New technologies and Einstein-level genius are not required for new railways and wind farms.”

It also doesn’t take a genius to realize that investing lottery earnings makes more sense than buying five new houses. Rather than waiting for people – or countries – to make wise choices, we might have to change the very structures that reward the few and impoverish the many. After all his travels and all his interviews, Maass only skirts this conclusion. But until we repair this fundamentally crude aspect of our global economy, we’ll be left with the tragic ironies that oil and so many other valuable resources spawn and that Maass so ably documents.

John Feffer is the co-director of Foreign Policy in Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C.

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