It is always sobering to revisit your own predictions. So, before I started writing this piece — about the region in 2020 and what we might expect in 2021 — I went back to what I wrote last year. I started with what had happened in Iran in 1978, when partisans of Khomeini burned down the Rex Cinema in Abadan and blamed the shah for all the deaths that inevitably followed. Even (or perhaps especially) when you’re writing about the future, history matters. And that’s partly because, with all its turbulence, certain underlying features of the region have remained constant over the years. And it is these that matter, not the transitory events that tend to overexcite some commentators.
Sometimes — only sometimes — you sense that something important has changed, some enduring underlying assumption has been proved false, some inflection point has been passed. And nothing will be the same again. For three reasons, that’s rather how I feel about 2020.
First, the coronavirus disease (COVID-19). In a world where a rebooted authoritarianism seems to be the fashion, the virus has been highly egalitarian, respecting neither borders nor status. There’s been much chatter about how some countries have managed the impact better than others. Personally, I think the jury is still out. No one now talks so admiringly about the Swedish model. Across Europe, we have seen the apparent reassertion of epidemiological control by governments, only for the incidence of infection to rise again. We have seen economies struggle to open up and then shut down again. Neither are outliers like New Zealand and Singapore, or China — the last with its highly centralized and surveillance-rich political system — likely to be viable models for large, diverse and densely populated countries with large numbers of tourists and business travelers. The Gulf states seem to have handled the pandemic pretty well. But there are clearly serious problems, and almost certainly massive under-reporting, in Iran, Iraq, Syria, Yemen and elsewhere in the region.
With the best will in the world, it is hard to see a return to quite the same global growth model once this particular virus is tamed
And the crisis has highlighted the task that all governments in the region face in restructuring their economies to meet the aspirations of their growing populations. The real challenge will be not just how well individual countries manage to protect their economies from the full impact of the virus, and then how fast they recover. Instead it will be how we collectively use the crisis to think of new and better ways to prosper, improve societal cohesion, and rebuild a sense of international solidarity. With the best will in the world, it is hard to see a return to quite the same global growth model once this particular virus is tamed. Whatever its origins, it has graphically exposed the vulnerability of open economies to biothreats. This will make the issue of national resilience even more urgent than it already was. We live in an age of heightened suspicion between and indeed within states. There was already growing distrust of China for its trade practices and its cavalier attitude to intellectual property. You can argue about the confrontational tactics of the Trump administration, but most Americans — and probably most Europeans — think they have a point. That’s not going to change.
Meanwhile, China’s aggressive expansionism in the South China Sea, combined with Washington’s ambiguity about its defense posture in the region, is leading Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Australia to reconsider their own defense postures and driving them toward more collective action. And, in a similar way, uncertainty about US intentions in the Gulf, Iraq and Syria is causing regional states to take matters into their own hands. There are asymmetries of power involved everywhere. And there are also external actors complicating the mix — Russia and Turkey in particular. This all adds up to a degree of global and regional uncertainty and change that we haven’t seen since the end of the Cold War.
Some people fondly claim that there is an opportunity for Europe to step up its international engagement, particularly in the Middle East and North Africa. That’s a fantasy. European engagement only makes sense in concert with the US. There has never been a single European position on Libya, Syria or Iraq. And what I wrote last year about the conflicting attitudes of key European states toward Iran remains true. In addition, the EU can’t even come to a common view of Turkey’s regional adventurism and Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s inflammatory actions and words toward his European and NATO allies.
And this brings me to my second point. The most important political development in the region has not been accomplished by traditional diplomacy. Instead it has been the Trump-driven move toward normalization of relations with Israel by the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan and now Morocco. Not all of this is quite what it seems: Morocco already had reasonable, if sometimes covert, relations with Israel, facilitated by its historic links with the large and increasingly influential Mizrahi community. The recent announcement of normalization clearly serves the interests of the outgoing Trump administration. And it comes with a significant price: US recognition of Moroccan claims to the Western Sahara, which may yet come back to haunt us all. But the open acknowledgement of the need for proper relations between Israel and the Arab Gulf states is based on a rational calculation of shared interests. It is something other Gulf governments have welcomed. And it represents a profound and historic change in the way Israel and all other states in the region will now approach questions of regional security.
Normalization with Israel represents a long overdue shift in the diplomatic architecture of the region
Again, that doesn’t mean it will all be plain sailing. The Palestinian issue may not have the visceral appeal it once had, especially to those who personally experienced the conflicts of 1956, 1967 and 1973 or the long agony of poor Lebanon. But a failure to address the enduring and deep-rooted Palestinian desire for national self-determination is still a political migraine-in-waiting, especially if Palestinian despair and anger leads to renewed violence in Gaza, the West Bank or over the holy sites in Jerusalem. In that case, normalization will put Israel’s new Arab friends on the spot. They cannot simply stand back. They will have to be part of the solution.
But that offers an opportunity to be both involved and genuinely constructive. And it provides powerful leverage. Not least, it will position them as important partners in any new negotiating process if — or when — the Biden administration finally turns its attention to the issue. Most important, it represents a long overdue shift in the diplomatic architecture of the region. And it makes public something virtually everyone has understood for decades: Israel is here to stay and it shares strategic interests with most Arab states. It makes it possible perhaps to dream of a day when a truly integrated regional market might finally begin to emerge, offering an end to the waste of the extraordinary potential of young people in particular. And, more immediately, to imagine a real collective effort to at last meet the challenge of regional instability, with all its complex causes.
And this brings me to my third point. One of the main causes of instability is misgovernance and political corruption, which has helped accelerate the semi-collapse of the state over the last few years in Lebanon, Syria, Libya and Iraq. Misgovernance attracts predators. They have most recently included Russia, Turkey and some regional powers. But the most determined predator since 1979 has been Iran.
Yet, in Iran too, something fundamental has changed. It is clear to anyone who pays attention that most Iranians love their country but do not love the Islamic Republic. And the Islamic Republic has, even by its own standards, had a bad year, starting in January with the deadly strikes that removed two of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s most loyal and capable lieutenants, the apparently unassailable Qassem Soleimani and Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis. Tehran threatened vengeance. And then nothing much happened. Just as nothing much happened when Imad and Jihad Mughniyeh were killed or Mustafa Badreddine (though, to be fair, since Soleimani himself may have arranged that assassination, we should perhaps put that down to poetic justice); or when nuclear archives were exfiltrated in 2018 from an apparently secure warehouse in the heart of Tehran; or as a result of mysterious cyberattacks; or the sabotage of Natanz; or the repeated Israeli strikes on Iranian assets and positions throughout Syria and up to the Iraqi border; or the embarrassing assassination of Abu Mohammed Al-Masri — a senior Al-Qaeda leader — on the streets of Tehran in August. And now the year has been bookended with the assassination in broad daylight of yet another senior figure connected to Iran’s nuclear program, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) can’t decide whether he was killed by a miracle device controlled from the skies or just shot in the normal way by a lethal hit team that then vanished into thin air, leaving the authorities to catch and frame a bunch of ordinary Iranians they don’t like and claim the case is closed.
What the killing of Soleimani and Al-Muhandis told us is that, whatever the future might be for American ground forces in the region, the US can do what it wants from the air: After all, you can’t plant improvised explosive devices at 10,000 feet. And what the other incidents reveal is that, whoever was responsible can get to anyone and anything, anytime, anywhere. That’s not a good look for a state that prides itself on its culture of security, especially when the very IRGC generals who are supposed to guarantee that security are preparing themselves to take over completely when Khamenei eventually exits the stage.
The Islamic Republic has, even by its own standards, had a bad year, starting with the deadly strikes that removed Qassem Soleimani and Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis
In addition, the US campaign of maximum pressure, which has been increasingly targeted at named individuals in Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon (and now, interestingly, Turkey), has actually been pretty effective. Commentators like to claim that it is not working because the Islamic Republic is still there, but that is to assume the point of the policy is to overthrow the regime. What if it is actually designed to squeeze it, raise the cost of adventurism, and constrain its ability to harm others? That has had an effect. Khomeinist militias in Iraq may plant bombs on main roads and launch rockets at the Green Zone, Hezbollah may continue to claim that Israel’s days are numbered, and IRGC generals may bluster about destroying the US. But, if Washington does finally withdraw its ground forces from the region, it will be because of domestic politics, not playground threats from a cash-strapped Tehran and its allies. And that also won’t stop the US being able to project massive power if it wants to do so.
And, whatever happens in the security space in the short term, there are clear signs that ordinary people in the region — especially but not exclusively the young — have had enough of the sort of pointlessly destructive posturing in which Iran specializes; just as they are also fed up with the political instrumentalization of a great religion by extremists and the looting of national resources by corrupt elites.
Next year, we will see elections in Israel, Iran and Iraq. But Elections will not themselves be the vehicle of change. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is the most consummate political operator in Israeli history and, in both Iran and Iraq, bribery, corruption and intimidation will be decisive. But you can still tell a lot about a country from elections. And if the Biden administration is prepared to build on the profound changes we have seen through the four years of the Trump administration, reflect seriously on what the evidence tells us about the real priorities of people in the region, privilege evolution rather than revolution and build a new consensus among US allies about how we collectively go forward, then there is a whole world of opportunity out there.
That in itself is new. But one thing stays the same: Whatever changes a post-COVID-19 world brings, we will still need US leadership if we want to achieve anything worthwhile.