A little over three years ago now I spent a weekend at a Washington D.C. conference centre filled with 20,000 people– all there to lobby their senators and congress people to support defence and diplomatic ties between America and Israel. It was March 2015 and the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA, better known as ‘The Iran Deal’) was the hot topic of the day. As a collection of people committed to peace and stability in the Middle East, there were many strong views on the JCPOA, and more or less the entire conference was consumed by debate on the question.
When AIPAC (American-Israel Public Affairs Committee), the hosts of the conference, made a statement that they opposed the deal, I was furious. I was there to provide a progressive voice to pro-Israel advocacy, and to not at least try to curb Iran’s ambitions through diplomacy seemed a mistake. At the time, their decision made me really sour on AIPAC and the work they were doing.
How strange I find it then, that here three years later, we find the deal that was agreed being abandoned by the United States. President Trump clearly is acting out of self-interest (abandoning the deal being a token campaign promise of his), and the fact remains unquestionably obvious that he is utterly unfit to lead. Yet, despite that, I’m not terribly surprised that the deal which I once was so in favour of has fallen apart.
What I think many people in the West get wrong about the Middle East is that they try too hard to identify a ‘good guy’ and a ‘bad guy.’ There is no protagonist whom we can root for unquestionably– and I say this as a firm supporter of Israel. The reality of the Middle East today is not about morality at all, it is about history.
There are three major powers in play, all of whom have the same objective (stated or not): to restore their past imperial glory. The first of course is Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Their aim is to build a new khalifah (Caliphate) as it once was– centred on the Hejaz and extending across the Middle East and North Africa. To this end, they have supported all sorts of oppressive regimes as well as, until recently, being the primary sponsor of Salafi violence (Al-Qaeda being a notable example.)
The second player is Turkey, who while fairly democratic and secular until recently, has in the past few years slipped into an autocratic dictatorship under President Erdogan, whose sole aim appears to be a restoration of the Ottoman Empire, with himself as Sultan. To this end, Turkey has oppressed any ethnic minority that threatens its borders or its narrative of Ottoman unity (Armenians, Assyrians, Kurds, etc.) They likely have also had a big hand in fuelling and arming the Islamic State.
Third of course is Iran, who have combined the sort of revolution-spreading fervour of the Soviets with an extreme Shi’a doctrine. In the past decade they have instigated and supported violence in Gaza (via Hamas), Lebanon (via Hezbollah), and Yemen (via the Houthis), in addition to supporting Assad’s bloody crackdown on rebellion which has become the decade-long Syrian Civil War.
Caught in between them all is Israel, who, perhaps cynically, often plays one against the other. What matters to me, and what matters to us, is not that we support the ‘good guy.’ There is no ‘axis of evil,’ (or at least, not *only* one) and there is no axis of good. If we’re to make any progress in stemming the tide of violence in the Middle East, deal or no deal, we must understand who and what is at play in the situation.
The biggest problem in the Middle East is not one country or one leader but the fact that the three most powerful coalitions all are looking at the past. Their aim is to recreate a glorious history– and that, above all else, should be our primary concern. We must promote a forward-looking vision in order to solve these issues. Until the countries who are affected and their leadership look towards tomorrow rather than yesterday we can’t make much progress.
This week has seen yet another escalation in violence and danger for the average citizen of many Middle Eastern countries– it concerns me and I know it concerns many of you as well. Partially that is due to President Trump’s foolhardy and impulsive decision-making, but the much bigger and much more significant factor, which we cannot allow ourselves to be distracted from is that no one is looking towards a better tomorrow.
My prayer for us and for all those millions who have no stake in the political battles at hand and simply want to live a better life is this: keep looking toward tomorrow, thinking about the next generation, hoping for a better future– and maybe that will filter up to the rash leaders who doom millions to violence, both in the Middle East and in the West.