David Rothkopf

Will the Middle East be a part of the world or remain apart from it?

This morning’s New York Times contains an article quoting various "regional experts" as saying that the current upheaval in the region is playing into the hands of Iran. This is a flawed analysis on several levels. First, we are so early in this process that it is premature to say who will benefit from or ...

ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images
ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images

This morning’s New York Times contains an article quoting various "regional experts" as saying that the current upheaval in the region is playing into the hands of Iran. This is a flawed analysis on several levels.

First, we are so early in this process that it is premature to say who will benefit from or be damaged by it. It is still too early to know how many states will be affected or what the effects of the revolutions will be. Several scenarios are plausible. In one, prolonged upheaval, Iran may benefit as the alliance that existed against it is compromised. In another, a shift to democracy, Iran may or may not benefit depending on the orientation of the government, but in all likelihood it would be damaged as more democratic governments are likely to be both more open to the rest of the world and an inspiration to the repressed people of Iran. In a third, a new generation of strongmen emerges, you could theoretically have pro-Iranian Islamic states take hold, but the reality is, given the long-term history of Iran within the region, old anti-Iranian alliances would recoalesce. This is especially true because new regimes would likely have large military components comprising experienced officers who have been in anti-Iranian stance throughout their careers.

Iran is certainly working to take advantage of the current uncertainty, using Hezbollah, Hamas, and related networks to promote both the instability it seeks and voices that it considers friendly. But Iran is not, and cannot ever be, "of" the Arab world. The cultural and historic barriers are too great. And therefore, the notion of it somehow creating an enduring network of states aligned to it is far-fetched.

This point about Iran however, does bring into focus a bigger point about the nature and future of the remarkable wave of revolutions currently sweeping across the region. Just as Iran is in the Middle East without being, in the minds of its Arab neighbors, a real part of their world, so too has the great problem of the Middle East at large been that for a variety of historical, political, and cultural reasons it has been in the world without having been of it.

The cultural disposition of the region has been to set itself apart, to create barriers to integration to the rest of the world, and in fact, to view integration with the rest of the world as a threat. This is a generalization, of course. There are hugely sophisticated global business leaders from the region, and there are cosmopolitan pockets within each of the countries of the Middle East. But for intentional and unintentional reasons — education, religious views, political ideologies, social stratification, deliberate policy choices made by ruling regimes — the benefits of integrating into the global economy have not been as available to people from the region as they have been to others in the Americas, Europe, or Asia.

The regional experts assessing the situation in the New York Times article are viewing what is happening purely in terms of old paradigms and politics. But one of the most important questions raised by the current situation is whether we are not seeing merely the latest round of political musical chairs, but rather we are seeing something deeper and more profound that could alter historical patterns. This is not, by the way, just an abstract question. It has very practical strategic implications for how the world outside the region handles the remainder of this period of change.

Because if, as is apparently the case, a large portion of the motivation for the opposition groups that have sprung up is a desire to create new opportunities for themselves and their families, then the question of integration with the world versus continued separation from it becomes central. Already, we have seen the role social media have played in this period, and clearly, they are an integrative force and show a predisposition to connect and relate to the world in new, wider, and deeper ways. The important role that emerging regional media like Al Jazeera have played echo to this. The attacks on elites are not just attacks on cronyism and corruption, but on the people who have kept outside connections to themselves to profit from them in ways that the masses could not. (Are you listening in Saudi Arabia?) The desire for jobs and better futures is not something that can be satisfied without tapping into foreign capital, foreign markets, and the larger world.

Globalizing forces are no panacea and create hosts of dislocations and problems as the rest of the world has well discovered. But isolated, closed societies simply can’t compete in the modern world. One of the reasons so many feel that Egypt’s revolution will not go the way of Iran’s is because Egypt is already more integrated into the world economy and would stand to lose too much by breaking those ties off. But the people in Tahrir Square were asking for more — more connections, more openness, more opportunities — and that is the secret to defeating any Iranian ambitions to tie the rest of the region to its regime’s hostile, unconstructive, closed worldview.

That is why to truly support what is best about this process of change, the rest of the world must work quickly, systematically, and effectively to demonstrate that it is by becoming increasingly a part of the world rather than remaining apart from it that the Greater Middle East can become ever greater. Again, that means that this is a job for economists, investors, and businesspeople rather than just diplomats and the military. It needs to be about funding schools and roads and technology incubators more than the sale of tanks, aircraft, and other armaments. It means that the true test of a revolution that began with Twitter feeds and Facebook messages will be whether we can rapidly increase the number of people throughout the region who are technologically empowered enough to plug into one another and collectively join with the rest of the world.

To do that, we need to hear and understand what this revolution is about and embrace it. While aware of the powerful anti-progress forces in play, we need to focus on the even more powerful nature of progress. And if we do, then we pit the forces of backwardness, like Iran, against the rest of the world and the promise of the future. I don’t know about you, but I like those odds.

 Twitter: @djrothkopf

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