All Writings
December 10, 2009

9/11: Repercussions And Realignment, Part 1

Recently I was asked by some colleagues at the International Strategic Research Organization in Ankara, Turkey to write a chapter of book they are publishing on the "Middle East after 9/11."* As many of you know, I am very supportive of Turkey's increasing involvement in the development of the Middle East, and I agreed to give my perspective on the seismic shift and its many repercussions that the events of September 11th had on the greater Middle East. Today, more than eight years have gone by since the economic and political hallmarks of United States were attacked by a rogue terrorist group, and the world is still coming to terms with how to effectively deal with terrorism born out of religious fanaticism and a discord between East and West that has been simmering since the Cold War. As the continuing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have proved, the brawn or logic of the US and its allies alone will not suffice to create stability in the Middle East. To this effect, a careful cultural and psychological reading of what has moved the Middle East in the past eight years is critical to understanding the crossroads we are at today. With permission from ISRO, I will be releasing sections of the chapter over the next few weeks, covering Afghanistan, Iraq, Israeli-Palestinian territory, Turkey, and starting with Iran, whose political and nuclear agenda is of paramount importance to the security of the region in the decade to come.


September 11th was nothing less than transformational in its implications, changing, perhaps permanently, the global alignments and America's relationship with the international community. The significance of 9/11 might be even greater in dimension than the collapse of the Soviet Union, in that it has brought to the forefront the huge gulf between East and West, substituting ideological differences with religious conviction. Whereas Communism as an ideology gave in to Capitalism by virtue of the demonstrable success of the latter, the differences between Western Christian secularism and Islamic orthodoxy will not be reconcilable by material means. 9/11 brought to the surface generations' old simmering resentment that many Muslim people felt toward the West. What was needed but tragically missing during the eight years of the Bush administration was a focused effort to understand the conflicting cultural and political nature of East-West relations. Yet in the wake of the largest attack on American soil, the US reverted to a doctrine of unilateralism and the use of brutal force.

These eight years following 9/11 created a void of international consensus and moral leadership, making President Obama's platform of multilateralism and dialogue so critical. Since taking office in January, the president has committed to withdraw American troops from Iraq, engage Iran directly, resume the Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations and restore relations with the Arab and Muslim world based on mutual respect and dialogue. While these tasks will be undeniably challenging, for the first time since September 11th the world is looking again to America for leadership and cooperation. President Obama's pledges for nuclear disarmament, overt concern with human rights abuses, and his determination to close Guantanamo and deal with environmental abuses all come as harbingers of hope for how to deal with the problems of today. In figuring out the way forward with a new US administration, it is necessary to look back at how the crises of today have manifested over the past eight years. The prospect of effecting a positive change, or even providing a solution to some of the intractable issues based on the Obama doctrine of constructive and mutually gainful engagement will need a sober assessment of what is happening on the ground.

PART 1: Iran after September 11th

In the wake on 9/11, no single country has used the changing regional circumstances for its own benefit more than Iran. After years of American dual containment between Iraq and Iran in the nineties, the subsequent invasion of Iraq played directly into the hands of the Shiite Iranian clergy. It is doubtful that any of the policy planners under President Bush could have contemplated to what extent the regional implications of the Afghan and Iraq wars would affect Iran's push for regional hegemony.

It is difficult to fully contextualize the unfolding of events between the US and Iran in the framework of post 911, as the history between these two nations is both extensive and complex. There is not a single country or combination of countries that Iran fears more than the United States. Tehran's concerns with the United States can be traced back to the 1953 when the CIA played an instrumental role in the coup d'etat of Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddeq in collusion with the Shah, who was largely detested by the Iranian masses. A series of tumultuous events following the overthrow of the Shah and the Islamic Revolution of 1979 strained relations between Tehran and Washington, and the Iranian clergy has been suspicious of US intentions since. In the eighties, bitterness over US support for Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war came to a brief thaw during the Iran Contra Affair-when senior Reagan administration officials indirectly sold arms to Iran through Israel-but returned in full force when the US Navy shot down an Iranian civilian plane killing 290 passengers.

The list of mutual grievances between the US and Iran is too long to numerate, and includes repeated attempts by both governments to sabotage each others' interests. Although cooperation undoubtedly would have served the national interest of both countries; neither side has been able to overcome a deep sense of animosity, preventing any kind of sustained or constructive dialogue. After 9/11, Iranian President Khatami surprised many by condemning the attacks on US soil and the spread of terrorism, offering his sympathy to the victims. This, coupled with the subsequent invasion of Afghanistan, provided the Bush administration a narrow window of opportunity to alter the relations with Tehran, but the Bush White House made it clear that engagement was not on the new US agenda.

At the turn of the century, Iran was exceedingly concerned with the rise of the extremist Sunni Taliban state to the east, and welcomed the opportunity to topple such a government. Notwithstanding its enmity to the US, for its own national interests Iran provided the US with intelligence and worked to prevent the smuggling of weapons and materials to the Taliban and al Qaeda. This strategic change of heart however, failed to alter the Bush administration's policy toward Iran. Instead, shortly thereafter in January of 2002, President Bush used his State of the Union Address to publicly condemn Iran, Iraq and North Korea, declaring that: "States like these, and their terrorist allies, constitute an axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world." The Iranians, who have historically had serious misgivings about American intentions, felt directly threatened and insulted by President Bush's affront. The clergy then felt vindicated by their rejectionist policies toward the US, and continued to undermine US efforts throughout the region.

Not only did the Bush administration forsake another opportunity to mend relations with Iran; but this new approach represented a point of departure, from containment to active opposition-the ramifications of which became known only after the invasion of Iraq. President Bush's refusal to engage Iran directly, combined with Tehran's fear that its regime would be the next target following Iraq, resulted in an Iranian regime determined to counter any American interests in the region. As this schism widened, Iran worked fervently to upgrade its trade relations and alliances with partners such as Russia, China, Turkey, and Syria.

An integral part of Iran's greater regional strategy is based on the destabilization of Israel and the Arab-Israeli peace process. Ayatollah Khomenei once declared Israel an "enemy of Islam," and his predecessor Khamenei followed in suite, stating that "Iran's stance has always been clear on this ugly phenomenon [Israel]. We have repeatedly said that this cancerous tumor of a state should be removed from the region." To this effect, Iran has spent much of the past decade expanding military and financial aid to both Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Palestinian territories, namely in Gaza. Iran has supplied short and intermediate range rockets to these two fundamentalist groups, introducing a new and far-reaching dimension to the Arab-Israeli conflict. Both Hezbollah and Hamas have been emboldened by the Iranian courtship and support, and have waged active campaigns challenging Israel's occupation while destabilizing the region. The net result of Iran's determination to establish its foothold on the Mediterranean by instigating Hamas and Hezbollah helped facilitate two wars; the first in Lebanon between Israel and Hezbollah in 2006, and then the major incursion of Israeli forces into Gaza to defeat Hamas in 2008. While the violence between Israel and these groups has dramatically receded since the start of the Obama administration, it is hard to gauge how Hamas and Hezbollah will behave in future conflagrations if Israel acts militarily against Iran's nuclear facilities.

Although Iran has made a continuous effort to undermine Israel through its proxies in Hezbollah, Hamas and other extremist groups like Islamic Jihad, Iran has also challenged Israel directly. On numerous occasions, Iran's president Ahmedinejad has threatened Israel's existence, denied the Holocaust, and systematically tried to persuade the Arab states from normalizing relations with Israel. Moreover, Iran has made the plight of the Palestinians its own cause, and insidiously attempted to perpetuate the violence between Israel and the Palestinians. Its tactic of pitting parties against each other to enhance its own dominance in the region has seen a fair amount of success. By providing money and training, Iran and its Revolutionary Guards became one of the main players behind the second Intifada (the Palestinian uprising between 2000 and 2005) that resulted in the death of more than a thousand Israelis and twice as many Palestinians. To be sure, the Iranian leadership remains committed to Israel's downfall and continues to pursue policies with this objective in mind.

Iranian-Syrian relations have been expanding for the past two decades, yet in the years since 9/11, the alliance became a deep and vested partnership. Unlike most of the Sunni Arab states that have serious trepidations about Iran, Syria has become a strategic partner and beneficiary of Iran. After negotiations with Israel collapsed in the nineties under the guise of President Clinton's Middle East team, President Bush labeled Syria a sponsor of terror and refused any form of engagement, making Iran a convenient ally. Many scholars continue to debate whether the Damascus-Tehran axis is tactical or strategic, perhaps resulting from the enmity the Bush administration displayed against both nations. Regardless, however, of the exact nature of the relationship, Damascus continues to act as a conduit for Iran to strengthen its foothold in Lebanon through Hezbollah, while also supporting Hamas' militancy in the Palestinian territories. Now that the Obama administration is in direct negotiations with Syria, Bashar Al-Assad may show an increased level of cooperation with the US, especially if he feels this can lead to discussions with Israel over the Golan Heights. While Assad maintains that Syria's relationship with Iran would not be jeopardized by a peace deal with the US or Israel, any deal with the US would lessen Syria's dependence on Iran for economic and military support.

Russia's relations with Iran also assumed a new dimension in the wake of September 11th. Russia, who is still smarting from the loss of the Soviet Empire, wasted no time to capitalize on the growing rift between the US and Iran and pushed further to expand its relations with Iran on several fronts, including trade, military sales, oil and gas explorations, and above all building nuclear plants while providing nuclear training to Iranian scientists. For Iran, courting Russia and establishing lucrative business relations has an additional strategic importance. As a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, Russia has provided Iran with political protection against tough sanctions and international pressure to halt its enrichment of Uranium. On more than three occasions, Russia managed to mitigate UN sanctions against Iran, thereby allowing Tehran to expand its nuclear program with impunity.

Iran has also fostered extensive trade relations with China, including tens of billions of dollars in contracts, especially in the gas and oil sectors. The expanded relations between the two countries and China's growing dependency on Iran as an energy supplier provides Iran with yet another layer of protection against international sanctions, especially since China, too, is a permanent member of the UNSC.

Iran has moved aggressively to further improve its relations in the immediate neighborhood. Here too, Iran has capitalized on its important partnership with Turkey, which is largely based on mutuality of interest in the energy area as well as their mutual interests in northern Iraq where they share a border. This relationship has flourished, in spite of Turkey's trepidations about Iran's nuclear program. For Tehran, forging a friendship with Turkey as a NATO member was critical in and of itself, as Iran is determined to ally itself with powerful nations in the East.

Throughout the tenure of the Bush administration, Iran wasted no time making several strategic moves to advance its regional ambitions by speeding up its nuclear program. In 2002, after it was discovered that Iran had secretly been developing a nuclear program in Natanz and Arak for the previous 18 years, Tehran moved pointedly to accelerate the enrichment of uranium. Iran has more than doubled its centrifuges every year through the use of its nuclear facility in Natanz, reaching a total number of 7,000 by September of 2009 and accumulating nearly 1,500 kilograms of low grade enriched uranium. This is enough, once further enriched to weapons grade, to make at least one nuclear weapon. Iran has further built several other nuclear plants dispersed throughout its countryside; most recently it was revealed that Iran built another secret plant near the city of Qom. Beyond that, Iran has continued to recruit Russian scientists to work on its nuclear weapons program, assuring that Tehran is bent on advancing its capacity for nuclear development. Iran is clearly committed to maintaining a uranium enrichment program on its soil, yet whether the international community will arrive at a consensus on this issue remains to be seen.

The recent alacrity around Iran's nuclear weaponization efforts has created a shared sense of urgency throughout the West. As a campaign promise, candidate Obama reassured his electorate that the US would open up to Iran diplomatically, while keeping a military option in tow. As President, Obama followed this momentum in his address to Cairo, declaring that, "It is clear to all concerned that when it comes to nuclear weapons, we have reached a decisive point. This is not simply about America's interests. It's about preventing a nuclear arm race in the Middle East that could lead this region and the world down a hugely dangerous path."

The negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 may yield few results, and any agreement for Russia to enrich Iran's nuclear material could potentially fall through. The effect that additional sanctions might have on Iran will depend largely on Russia and China's support and enforcement. To this end, President Obama has worked to appease both nations, by scrapping US plans for a nuclear defense shield in Poland and easing up on demands for China to deal with the issue of Tibet. Meanwhile, as Israel feels directly threatened by Iran's nuclear program, it is carefully watching and weighing every turn that these developments take and will act based strictly on its national security concerns, including the option of striking Iran's nuclear plants.

To be sure, the Bush administration's post-9/11 doctrine and the two wars that followed in Afghanistan and Iraq placed Iran in the center of any future development in the Middle East. Whether this will lead to a new conflagration of terrible magnitude, or a new regional security arrangement and even peace, remains to be seen. Certainly President Obama's policy of engagement will be put to a real test.

*Sedat Laciner – Arzu Celalifer Ekinci (eds.), /11 Eylul Sonrasi Ortadogu/, (Ankara: USAK Yayinlari, 2009)