A Year of Change--Much of it Progress
By MICHAEL COLLINS DUNN
MICHAEL COLLINS DUNN, Ph.D. is Editor of The Middle East Journal, the
scholarly quarterly published by The Middle East Institute, and also
of The Estimate, a biweekly newsletter of political and security intelligence
on the Islamic world, which he founded in 1989.
In the Middle East, 1999 differed considerably from 1998. While 1998
had been characterized by recurring confrontations between the United
States and Iraq, 1999 saw an almost ignored, but persisting, U.S. air
campaign against Iraq's air-defense capabilities, one which neither side
particularly sought to publicize. The Israeli-Palestinian peace process,
which had seemed mired in stasis in 1998, was given a new jump-start
after the decisive election of Ehud Barak. Iran moved more rapidly toward
normal relations with the outside world while continuing an internal
power struggle, the outcome of which was still uncertain as of early
December. The boycott on air travel to Libya was suspended after Libya
turned over the two intelligence officers accused of plotting the Lockerbie
bombing. Despite certain continuing confrontations--and, on the Middle
East's eastern periphery, the October military coup in Pakistan--it was
generally a year of positive movement, of optimism rather than pessimism.
But 1999 will be remembered for another reason. For many years, Middle
East analysts have been waiting for the inevitable generational change
in the Arab world. The survey article on the Middle East in last year's
Almanac of Seapower noted that so many of the region's leaders had been
in power for decades that a turnover was inevitable. And 1999 was the
year it began. For that reason, the past year will be remembered as a
landmark in the history of the Middle East, and thus the generational
change demands attention even before a discussion of the U.S. defense
posture in the region.
The three longest-serving Arab monarchs all died within a six-month
period: King Hussein of Jordan in February, Sheikh Isa of Bahrain in
March, and King Hassan II of Morocco in July. King Hussein inherited
his throne in 1952; the other two rulers ascended their thrones in 1961.
Jordan has always been a key player in the Arab-Israeli peace process;
Bahrain is the home of the U.S. Fifth Fleet, and Morocco has long been
a staunchly pro-Western friend in both Arab and African affairs. The
transfer of power to younger men--in their thirties, in the case of the
new Kings of Jordan and Morocco; in his forties in the case of the new
ruler of Bahrain--seems unlikely to change the alignment of those countries,
but is almost certain to change the governing style.
But these three successions in six months are unlikely to mark the end
of the story. Sheikh Zayed, the president of the United Arab Emirates
and ruler of Abu Dhabi, is already in his eighties. King Fahd of Saudi
Arabia, already semiretired, is in his mid-seventies--but his heir apparent
is almost the same age. The ruler of Kuwait and his heir are both around
70. Husni Mubarak of Egypt is 71, and received a flesh wound in an apparent
assassination attempt in September. He has no vice president or other
clearly designated heir. Yasser Arafat, president of the Palestinian
Authority, turned 70 in 1999 and is visibly frail, his hands shaking
during public appearances. He also has no clear successor. Hafiz al-Asad
of Syria turned 69 in October, amid rumors that his health is worsening
daily. Asad has made clear that he wants to be succeeded by his son Bashar,
but the latter is only 34 and the Syrian constitution says that the president
must be 40; Bashar almost certainly would find himself challenged if
his father were to die soon.
There is even some basis for believing that one reason that the new
Israeli prime minister, Ehud Barak, is seeking to push forward on both
the Syrian and Palestinian "tracks" of the peace process is
his recognition that whoever succeeds Asad and Arafat will have neither
the authority nor the confidence to make the hard compromises necessary
for peace. Barak is therefore determined, apparently, to cut a deal with
the old guard before it passes from the scene.
It is not merely that these men are growing old. They have held dominant
roles in their countries' lives for a very long time. Hafiz al-Asad came
to power in 1970 and has been unchallenged since 1971; Arafat has been
leader of the Palestine Liberation Organization since 1968. While Mubarak
did not become president of Egypt until 1981, he has served longer than
either of his predecessors, Gamal Abdel Nasser and Anwar Sadat. Saddam
Hussein has been a major player in Iraq since the late 1960s, and has
been in unchallenged power for nearly 20 years. Even the enfant terrible
of the Arab World, Muammar Qadhafi of Libya, has been in power for 30
Looked at another way, the late King Hussein of Jordan ascended the
throne as a teenager, on 11 August 1952. Harry Truman was president of
the United States, Winston Churchill had just been returned to power
in Britain, France was under the Fourth Republic, and Egypt had sent
King Farouq packing just three weeks earlier. King Hassan II of Morocco
and Sheikh Isa of Bahrain came to power in the same year as John F. Kennedy,
1961. All of these men ruled through dramatic periods--several Arab-Israeli
wars, oil price booms and busts, and both revolutions and counterrevolutions
in neighboring countries.
By the time these three leaders died their worlds had changed in almost
unimaginable ways. Satellite television and the Internet were breaking
down old barriers and old censorship. Attitudes toward Israel had changed
dramatically. Jordan signed its peace treaty with Israel in 1994; Israeli
leaders attended the funerals of both King Hussein and King Hassan. Perhaps
most amazing of all, Israel's Foreign Minister met with eleven Arab delegations,
at the United Nations General Assembly session in September in New York,
something that would have been unthinkable even a few months earlier.
As the old guard passes from the scene, and younger men who came of
age in the era of the communications revolution take charge of their
countries, governing styles will inevitably change (as it already has
in Jordan and Morocco); the question is how much--and if--these changes
in style will bring with them a change in substance.
The Unsolved Problem: Saddam, Sanctions, and the West
While, as noted above, three of America's oldest friends in the Arab
world, the monarchs of Jordan, Morocco, and Bahrain, passed on in 1999,
one of its oldest enemies remained as entrenched as ever. Saddam Hussein,
almost a decade after Desert Storm and a year after the foreshortened
Desert Fox, was still very much in power in Iraq. The United Nations'
sanctions remained in place, and there was a growing clamor in the Arab
world--including at least some countries that took part in Desert Storm--for
a relaxation of sanctions to relieve the suffering of ordinary Iraqis.
Since Desert Fox, moreover, there has been no U.N. inspection regime
in place on the ground--the United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM)
having been withdrawn prior to the U.S. airstrikes--and there is a widespread
suspicion, in the absence of U.N. inspections, that the Iraqis are resuming
their pursuit of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs).
The United States insists that Iraq's "humanitarian problem" has
been caused by Saddam's deliberate diversion of the food and medicine
made available through the oil-for-food program, and that the suffering
is therefore Saddam's responsibility. There is no real doubt that Saddam
has calculated that there is a propaganda advantage to his own people's
suffering, but the cynicism of that calculation does not entirely undercut
the advantage: There really is a growing sympathy movement toward Iraq
in the Arab world, and that movement includes many who despise Saddam
U.S. efforts to reinvigorate the Iraqi opposition have, so far, produced
many conferences and press releases, but few visible results on the ground.
The Kurdish north, which has been de facto self-governing since 1991,
is divided between the two main Kurdish factions, and U.S. efforts to
bring them together have enjoyed only the most sporadic and temporary
In the absence of U.N. inspections or any real movement by Iraq toward
compliance with international demands (or an equivalent movement toward
relaxation of U.N. sanctions), the most visible reminder of the continuing
problem posed by Saddam Hussein in 1999 was the little-publicized, but
persisting, Western campaign against Iraq's air-defense system. In the
wake of the expulsion of UNSCOM and the Desert Fox attacks, Iraq announced
that it would no longer honor the northern and southern no-fly zones
that had been imposed after Desert Storm and extended through the years.
The allies (now primarily the United States and Britain) continue to
fly patrols over northern Iraq from Incirlik in Turkey, and over southern
Iraq either from U.S. carriers on station in the Gulf or from shore bases
in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.
Iraq has continued to challenge the overflights, by moving its surface-to-air
missile batteries or locking on radar--but there was at least one air-to-air
encounter (in January 1999). The United States and the United Kingdom
have continued, in response to these challenges, to attack Iraq's radar
sites, missile batteries, and/or command-and-control centers. As a result,
there has been a persisting campaign to degrade Iraq's air-defense capabilities,
one far less intense than the four-day Desert Fox bombing campaign late
1998, but one that may have a longer-term effect in suppressing those
capabilities. By the end of September 1999, there had been nearly 250
attacks on targets in the northern no-fly zone, and some 130 on targets
in the southern zone. There was no visible diminution in numbers of Iraqi
challenges, however, or in Western responses. While receiving far less
international attention than the four-day Desert Fox or the bombing campaign
over Kosovo, this enduring war of attrition continued unabated.
By late 1999 Iraq was increasingly accusing the United States and the
United Kingdom of attacking civilian targets; the United States was charging
in return that Iraq--in an attempt to maximize collateral damage and
enhance the propaganda value of the attacks--had deliberately moved its
missile batteries closer to civilian housing and schools.
The continuing campaign against Iraq's air defenses appeared likely
to continue, but efforts by the United Nations to find a formula for
resuming inspections showed few signs of success, so the stalemate between
Saddam and the West seemed likely to endure with little change.
Iran: A Power Struggle And a Divided Government
Since the 1997 election of Mohammed Khatami as president of Iran the
country has been engaged simultaneously in an opening-up to the outside
world and a power struggle at home between reformers and hard-liners.
The divisions between the two are not always clearly demarcated, nor
are the reformers uniformly in agreement with one another.
In 1999, Iran marked the 20th anniversary of the overthrow of the Shah
in the Iranian Revolution (and the 10th anniversary of the death of the
Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini). In some ways the Iranian Revolution, its
young radicals now graying, has matured (or at least endured) into a
political system which is itself being questioned by a younger generation
with no memory of the Shah. Khatami, whose revolutionary credentials
are impeccable--his father was a close ally of Khomeini, and he was a
personal friend of Khomeini's son--has sought to liberalize at home and
open up abroad. But the president, even though he was elected by an overwhelming
margin in 1997 and seems to still enjoy enormous popularity, has had
to wrestle: (a) with a conservative (which often means reactionary) parliament
or Majles; and (2) with the fact that many key areas of political power--defense,
internal security, and intelligence among them--belong not to the president
but to the religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamene'i. Although Khamene'i
usually is portrayed as a hard-liner, on certain key issues he has supported
In the first two years of his presidency Khatami faced constant challenges
from the Majles and from the conservative judiciary. His interior minister
was impeached, his culture minister frequently attacked, and his ally,
the Mayor of Tehran, was sent to jail. Liberal newspapers were frequently
licensed by the Culture Ministry, then closed by the courts, then licensed
under a new name. Khatami recently gained a new and more moderate head
of the Judiciary. There will be elections in February 2000 for a new
Majles. If Khatami can win a reformist majority he will face far fewer
challenges in the remainder of his term. (His term expires in 2001, but
he is expected to seek a second term, the maximum allowed.)
One major indicator of Khatami's success in external affairs has been
the reentry of Iran into something like normal relations with most of
the world. Diplomatic ties were reestablished with Europe after several
years' hiatus. Saudi Arabia and Iran have been cultivating close ties--so
close that the United Arab Emirates (which has a dispute with Iran over
three key Gulf islands) has criticized the Saudis for cultivating Iran
at the expense of their Arab neighbors.
The main holdout on restoring ties with Iran has been the United States,
but exchange visits of sporting teams, academics, journalists, and other
unofficial envoys have accelerated, and in October 1999 the United States
confirmed that President Clinton had sent a letter to Khatami seeking
the extradition of Saudis accused of the Khobar bombings. Although the
substance of the letter was hardly flattering, it did represent a direct
approach to the Iranian leader. Ironically, Iran and the U.S. have been
equally alarmed, since 1998 at least, by the behavior of the Taleban
movement in Afghanistan, and thus find themselves on the same side of
at least one issue.
This does not mean that Iran suddenly has become a model of proper international
behavior. It continues to pursue long-range missile technologies, and
is suspected of a well-advanced nuclear program as well as programs for
developing other weapons of mass destruction. Given the fact that its
neighbors to the east, Pakistan and India, are nuclear powers, as is
Israel to the west, and that its historic enemy, Iraq, freed of UNSCOM,
may again be pursuing WMD programs, Iran has insisted on its rights to
maintain sophisticated defenses (though it does deny having a nuclear
The continued support--by at least some elements of the Iranian leadership--for
underground movements abroad also serves as an impediment to better relations
with the United States.
A major turning point in the near term will be the already mentioned
elections for the Iranian Parliament in February 2000. Most outside observers
believe that if enough reformers are allowed to run they will win control
of the Majles. But all candidacies are still vetted by the Council of
Guardians, which is still dominated by conservative clergy and jurists.
If a large number of reform candidates are disqualified, the conservatives
may retain control by default. If enough reformers are permitted to run,
and if they win, their support will greatly strengthen President Khatami
and increase his likelihood of winning a second term in 2001.
Libya: Business as Usual?
Another longstanding U.S. nemesis in the region also has begun to reemerge
from isolation. After Libya finally turned over--for trial in the Netherlands--two
Libyan intelligence officials accused of plotting the 1988 bombing of
a Pan Am flight over Lockerbie, Scotland, the United Nations lifted the
international ban on air travel to Libya. Many European and Arab states
quickly resumed service to Tripoli, and European firms were quick to
begin negotiations for new business deals with Libya. The United States
remains aloof from any rapprochement with Muammar Qadhafi, but many other
world powers seem prepared to adopt a business-as-usual approach toward
Libya. (The two intelligence officials were turned over under terms that
bar any legal action against higher-ups, but the United States assumes,
according to several published reports, that Qadhafi himself authorized
As Iran appeared to be building new bridges to the outside world, and
Libya was winning at least some outside business, there were some signs
of genuine progress elsewhere. Perhaps the most important progress was
made in Algeria, where a bloody civil conflict between the state and
radical Islamists has taken some 100,000 lives since 1992. The election
of Abdelaziz Bouteflika as president in April 1999 was marred when all
opposition candidates withdrew the day before the election, charging
that the Army had rigged the vote in Bouteflika's favor. But once in
power, Bouteflika--who served as foreign minister in the 1960s and 1970s,
but had been out of politics for 20 years--moved quickly to develop better
relations with the outside world, improving ties with traditional ally
France, moving closer to traditional rival Morocco, and even meeting
with Israeli leaders at the funeral of King Hassan of Morocco in July.
More importantly from a domestic viewpoint, Bouteflika introduced an
amnesty plan calling for the release of Islamist political prisoners
(as opposed to those charged with capital crimes); the Islamic Salvation
Front (FIS), the strongest and most moderate of the Islamist movements,
backed his endeavors.
Algeria's violence is not over, but the attacks have decreased in frequency,
and there seems to be some genuine hope of finding a way out of the impasse
that has locked the country into a spiral of continuing violence. If
nothing else, Bouteflika has raised hopes.
Barak and the Peace Process
Probably the sharpest reversal from pessimism to optimism in the region
came with the election, in May 1999, of Ehud Barak as Israel's prime
minister, decisively defeating Binyamin Netanyahu, who promptly left
politics. Since Netanyahu's election in 1996, negotiations with the Palestinians
had been sporadic and frustrating--with each side charging the other
with bad faith--and negotiations with Syria nonexistent. Barak, the most
decorated officer in Israeli history and a former chief of staff of the
Israel Defense Forces (IDF), is a protegé of the late Yitzhak
Rabin and, like Rabin, can bargain from a position of strength.
Barak's election so reversed the mood in the region that pessimism was
replaced for a while not with cautious optimism but with premature euphoria.
Israel's links with other Arab countries, which had been improving prior
to Netanyahu's election but withering since, were promptly revived, and
Israeli officials began open contacts with many Arab countries once again.
But the initial euphoria masked the very real fact that the hardest parts
of the peace process lie ahead.
From the beginning of the "Oslo" process, stemming from the
Israeli-Palestinian Declaration of Principles negotiated in Oslo and
signed in Washington in 1993, the strategy followed had been to defer
the hard issues until the "final status" negotiations, when
the most difficult problems--e.g., Palestinian statehood, the future
of Israeli settlements, final boundaries, and the vexing question of
Jerusalem--all would be addressed. Barak is known to believe that Palestinian
statehood is inevitable and that time should not be wasted on arguing
about whether a state will be created, but about what limitations should
be imposed on it--and how. Except for that one issue, however, the other
problems enumerated seem to be as hard to resolve as ever.
In effect, Barak's election swept away many of the obstacles to further
interim agreements; the Wye accords, negotiated with Netanyahu in October
1998 but frozen soon thereafter, were revived after new negotiations
at Sharm al-Sheikh in Egypt. But once the interim obstacles were removed,
the really hard part came next: how to shape a final-status agreement.
The parties committed themselves at Sharm al-Sheikh to seek an outline
settlement by early 2000 and a final treaty by late in the year. Those
deadlines, like most in the process so far, probably will be missed.
Nor is the "Palestinian track" the only problem Barak is seeking
to solve. The long-stalled talks with Syria, suspended throughout the
Netanyahu years, are a priority for both sides, but as of early December
there was no agreement on the conditions needed for resuming talks. Hafiz
al-Asad made some surprisingly friendly remarks about Barak after the
latter's election, but it is clear that Syria wants to resume the talks
where it claims they ended in the Rabin-Shimon Peres years--i.e. with
Israel already having agreed to withdraw from all of the occupied Golan
Heights. Israel has not acknowledged that that position was ever formally
Barak is undeniably far more eager to cut a peace deal than Netanyahu
was. He also recognizes that the advanced age and declining health of
both Arafat and Asad might, if he waits too long, deprive him of negotiating
partners strong enough to deliver on their agreements. But, although
the hard-line secular Likud Party is now much reduced in power, Barak
has to govern with a fractious coalition that includes religious parties,
and every concession he agrees to will incur some domestic political
costs. His coalition is far more dovish than Netanyahu's was, but no
Israeli coalition is a rubber stamp, and Barak has pledged to put final
deals to a referendum.
In short, the peace process is revived, and already there has been genuine
progress. But there remain enormous hurdles before all the suspicions
and memories of over 50 years of conflict can be brushed aside. Both
sides still have important fundamental decisions to make, and neither
will get its maximum demands. It may take a very long time, therefore,
before all outstanding issues are resolved. But some sort of final-status
agreement may indeed be hammered out, and that would be a major step
Problems on the Periphery
For decades, talk about the "strategic challenges" in "the
Middle East" meant, to many analysts in the West, the Arab-Israeli
conflict and, more recently, the security of the Gulf and the flow of
oil. Despite the somewhat more optimistic outlook discussed above: (a)
the Arab-Israeli conflict has not gone away (but the likelihood of another
war is rather remote); and (b) Saddam Hussein is still around--and a
definite problem, however much he has been declawed by the continuing
air campaign. There are, moreover, lingering problems elsewhere, as always.
The dispute over the Western Sahara, for example, with the promised U.N.
referendum continuing to recede into the future--it was most recently
rescheduled for July 2000, but that is hardly a firm date. There also
is the continuing war in southern Sudan. And Turkey has made some progress
against the persistent activities of the Kurdistan Worker's Party (PKK)
in eastern Turkey since the arrest last year of PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan,
who is now under sentence of death in Turkey.
Perhaps the greatest long-term dangers facing the Middle East, though,
are along its eastern and northern peripheries. The subcontinent is not
usually seen as part of the Middle East, but Pakistan is part of the
U.S. Central Command's area of responsibility and has close links to
Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and other Gulf states, as well
as a lengthy border with Iran. The detonation of nuclear devices by India
and Pakistan in 1998, their conflict in Kashmir in early 1999, and the
coup in Pakistan in October 1999 all have Middle Eastern repercussions,
particularly in Iran and the Gulf. The continuing civil war in Afghanistan,
and the increasing U.S. campaign to isolate the Taleban there (because
of their sheltering of Usama bin Ladin), provoked strong reactions from
many political factions in the Middle East, with conservative states
backing efforts to capture Bin Ladin and Islamist radicals openly supporting
To the north, the proposed pipeline routes to carry Azerbaijani and
Central Asian oil and gas to market is a matter that directly engages
both Iran and Turkey, even as the Muslim states of the Caucasus and Central
Asia gradually resume their historic links with the heartland of the
Muslim world. The pipeline politics also involve the other Middle Eastern
oil producers--Oman, for example, which is a major investor in Kazakhstan.
Arab and other Muslim volunteers are fighting against Russia in Chechnya.
Increasingly, it seems, the previously accepted boundaries where the "Middle
East" ends no longer hold.
The area where Turkey, Iran, and Azerbaijan come together is crucial
to the future of oil exports. Historically, though (in the United States,
at least), Turkey has been treated as part of Western Europe, Azerbaijan
as part of the Soviet Bloc, and Iran as part of the Middle East. Such
traditional divisions are no longer helpful; in fact, they probably hinder
a proper analysis of the increasingly complex and interlinked relationships
in the region.
What has developed in recent years is something like a new "arc
of crisis" threatening the region that--unlike the earlier arc of
crisis that existed up to 1979--lies mostly to the north and east of
the Middle East: in the unstable Caucasus, in the continuing wars in
Chechnya and Afghanistan, and in the fragile peace of Tajikistan. And
now, it seems, along the tense Line of Control in Kashmir, where two
nuclear powers spar with each other.
The interlinked problems of those regions and the more "traditional" Middle
East are probably nowhere more evident than in the related questions
of missile proliferation and WMDs. The advanced missile programs of both
India and Pakistan are each fueled by the other, of course. But separately
and in combination they give further impetus to Iran's efforts to develop
missiles and, probably, nuclear weapons. Israel's possession of such
weapons to its west, Iraq's efforts to build (or buy) them, and Pakistan's
and India's advances to the east all more or less guarantee that any
Iranian regime will seek to develop its own WMD capabilities. (Some of
Iran's advanced weapons programs began under the Shah.)
There is a dangerous fallout effect from the proliferation of missile
and WMD programs: They deter disarmament efforts throughout the region.
India has said that it will not renounce nuclear weapons unless all powers
in the region do so. This is generally interpreted to mean not only Pakistan,
but China as well. The Indian and Pakistani tests were thoroughly watched
and reported by other nations throughout the Middle East.
By extension, instability in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Chechnya, and other
states or areas bordering the Middle East may destabilize neighboring
countries in the region proper. Iran has wrestled for years, for example,
with the problem of dealing with the enormous numbers of refugees from
Afghanistan, Iraq, and the Armenia-Azerbaijan war.
To conclude: In the core countries of the Middle East, there has been
genuine cause for optimism, particularly in the Arab-Israeli peace process
and in Iran's gradual reemergence from revolutionary isolation into the "normal" world
of nation-states. There is hope as well in some of the more localized
problems, such as Algeria's continuing hemorrhage.
But the continuing confrontation between Iraq and the West, the accelerating
race for missile technologies and WMDs, and the instability of the general
periphery from Chechnya to Afghanistan to Pakistan are reminders against
being overoptimistic. Missile proliferation is already an accomplished
fact. Chemical and biological capabilities are possessed by several regional
states (and not only the "rogue" states, but also several with
close Western ties). The existing nuclear arsenals of Israel, Pakistan,
and India further serve as incentives to spur on the program in Iran
and, probably, the suppressed but not extinguished efforts of Iraq. Some
of the Middle East's oldest conflicts now actually seem to be within
reach of settlement, but some of its newest show every sign of demanding
more and more attention in coming years.
For a sample copy of Dr. Dunn's newsletter The Estimate, please write
to Dr. Michael Collins Dunn, The International Estimate Inc., 3300 Red
Pine St., Falls Church, VA 22041-2524; telephone: (703) 671-2997; Fax
(703) 671-2998; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.