When the Ottoman Empire was dismantled in 1922, it created a vacuum which a series of powers have attempted to fill ever since. None has succeeded, and the result has been a century of wars, coups and instability. Iran ruled all these lands before the Arab and Ottoman conquests. It could do so again. President Joe Biden’s intention of restarting the dialogue with Tehran is an opportunity to build, at last, an enduring successor to the Ottomans and prevent Iranian dominance.
How did we reach this point? The story begins on May 29, 1453, a Tuesday, with the moon in its final crescent quarter. Constantinople had been under siege for months, and tens of thousands of Turks were outside its massive impregnable walls. Inside were just 50,000 remaining Greeks, including the last Roman Emperor Constantine XI, or Constantine Paleologos. There were only 7,000 armed men, outnumbered at least 10 to one by the Turks. The Greeks had fresh water and could grow enough food within the walls to feed themselves. They could hold out. However, in the early hours of that morning, a Greek raiding party left the city to harry the sleeping Turks.
Navigating the Minefield of Arab Politics
On the way back into the city through a narrow entrance, the Kerkoporta, the last Greek in forgot to lock the door. The Turks followed them, opened the main gates, and Mehmet II’s Janissaries poured in. The Byzantine empire was no more.
Two days of looting, rape and blood-letting followed. According to custom, three days were allowed, but it was so awful that Mehmet stopped it after two. To commemorate the conquest, Mehmet added the crescent moon to the Ottoman flag, and since then, Tuesday remains the unluckiest day of the week for the Greeks. No Greek gets married on a Tuesday, and any Greek looking at the Turkish flag with the crescent moon is reminded of that calamity.
Consent to Be Ruled
The intervening 469 years were not of uninterrupted peace and stability, but the Ottomans did provide an overarching continuity of rule over the region. The legitimacy of the sultan and the caliph was accepted by all of the Sunni Muslim world. Ottoman rule over Turkey, Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, Jordan, Iraq and what is now Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states provided stability and a common rule of law. The Turks were not loved — they were authoritarian and brutal — but there was some consent to be ruled.
On November 17, 1922, the last sultan, Mehmet VI, was loaded onto a British warship, HMS Malaya, and sent off to exile in Malta and later Italy, never to return. He was allowed to take his four official wives with him, all of them Turkish. However, there were still about 400 concubines from all over the world in the Topkapi hareem. A young British officer was dispatched to the palace with a sack of gold sovereigns to pay the women off. Each got one sovereign for every year of service.
The Ottoman defeat and collapse of the empire after the First World War created a vacuum in the Middle East that the British and the French in particular wanted to exploit. The infamous Sazenov-Sykes-Picot Treaty negotiated in 1916 was the plan to carve up the carcass of the Ottoman lands between Britain, France and Russia. Russia, as party to the treaty, was to get Constantinople and surrounding lands, all of Armenia and parts of the Black Sea, but lost its place at the table after the 1917 revolution ended its participation in the war.
Vladimir Lenin’s new Soviet government found the Russian copy of the treaty and publicized it. A century before WikiLeaks, this was deeply embarrassing to the British who were telling the leaders of the Arab revolt that they were fighting the Turks for Arab independence. The Turks lost no time in giving as much publicity to the treaty as possible and telling the Arabs that they had been deceived into fighting with Christians against their own Muslim caliph. Although this had some effect, causing some Arab tribes to change sides, it was too late, and the Turks were expelled. The Arabs were indeed betrayed and, instead of the Arab kingdom they had been promised, they were divided into British and French protectorates.
The First War of Succession
The Brits and the French may have carved up the Ottoman Empire, but they soon came to regret it. Although they installed their own or client regimes in all the Ottoman provinces, there was little peace and certainly no profit for the Europeans. Enver Pasha, an Ottoman general and hero of the 1908 Young Turk Revolution, and Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the future first president of modern Turkey, led the nationalist war to expel the British and other allied powers from Turkey proper. The British and their allies had intended to carve up mainland Turkey itself as well as the Ottoman Arab possessions. When Enver Pasha prevailed, the Treaty of Sevres was torn up and the Treaty of Lausanne, negotiated in 1922-23, established present-day Turkey as the successor to the Ottoman state. It also forced Turkey to renounce all claims to former Ottoman lands.
The Arabs in all the new colonial possessions of the British and French were restless. This was particularly true in Palestine, where the British ruled. In 1917, the British government had issued the Balfour Declaration expressing support for a national home for the Jewish people in Palestine. That year, the British were losing the war because German U-boats were sinking a large number of ships bringing food and supplies from America. Britain was being strangled. The one area where the British — with Arab help — were winning was in Palestine. Former UK Prime Minister Arthur Balfour saw an opportunity to leverage the Jewish American vote to bring the United States into the war. It worked.
But with the British now in control of Palestine, the Zionists insisted that the UK live up to its promise. Large numbers of Jews began to arrive in Palestine. This caused conflict between newly arrived Jews, the indigenous Arabs and the hapless British, who were supposed to keep the peace. Ethnic unrest and independence movements grew in the other provinces. The British and French rule did not last: Both powers gave up or were forced out by a series of nationalist uprisings in the 1940s and 1950s.
In the period between 1920 and 1925, Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud led a successful series of wars to establish the new Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. In 1945, the Saudi king held a fateful meeting with US President Franklin D. Roosevelt on board the USS Quincy in the Suez Canal that marked the beginning of the ambitions of the latest would-be successor to the Ottomans — the United States. At the same time, the Soviet Union was also eyeing the spoils, and while neither great power was able to take control of the Ottoman lands, their division between the two great rivals provided some stability, but not a permanent solution.
The Second War of Succession
The Russians had missed an opportunity both before and after the Sykes-Picot affair but have not lost their interest. The leftist revolutions in Syria, Iraq, Egypt and Algeria gave them an entrée, as did the sharpening Arab-Israeli conflict that put the US on the wrong side as far as the front-line Arab states were concerned. Russian arms sales, economic assistance, trade deals and leftist solidarity were all employed in what would become one of the theaters of the Cold War. At stake was control of the oil fields and trade routes through the Persian Gulf and the Suez Canal. If the USSR gained total control, it would have given it a stranglehold on the West.
While the Cold War rivalry lasted, there was some stability — or at least an absence of an all-out conflict, though the Yom Kippur War of 1973 tested this fragile equilibrium almost to destruction. The origins of the Yom Kippur War were not in great-power rivalry but local feuding — in this case, the struggle for land between Arabs and Israelis — but it was super-power hegemony that stopped the war. At one point, US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger moved America’s military stance to DEFCON3 — ready for nuclear war.
The USSR backed down, and a truce was agreed. While the balance of power between the USSR and the West held, in the Middle East, as elsewhere, low-intensity cold conflicts ensued, with no one winning overall control. The continuing retreat of British and French interests accelerated, and the US and the USSR competed for successor rights.
The Iranian Revolution of 1979 was a shock. Iran had been America’s main proxy in the region. The Arabs opposed its ambitions, but Iran had been favored by the US as a bulwark against Soviet encroachment. The Sunni nations with sizable Shia populations saw the revolution as a major threat. They feared, rightly, that the Iranians would want to export not just the ideas of their revolution but also the facts. Iran agitated among the Shia in Iraq, Bahrein and Saudi Arabia, and sought to expel US influence from the region by launching terrorist attacks on US installations.
Saddam Hussein particularly feared the Shia majority in Iraq and, with encouragement from the Sunni Arabs and the US, invaded Iran in 1980. But his war aims were thwarted. The revolutionary Iranian regime survived; in fact; the country unified behind it. The war lasted until 1988 and ended with Iraq’s defeat. The Iraqis had been supported financially by all the Arab states as well as provided with logistics and intelligence by the United States and its allies. The US was reluctant to become directly involved, and so were the Russians. It had been a local war, held within bounds.
The Iran-Iraq War was an example of the instability resulting from the absence of an overall peace settlement in the region. It did have one remarkable result: All the petrodollar surpluses built up by the Arab and Iranian oil exports since the quintupling of oil prices in 1975 flowed back into the West. By the time the war was over, all of the Middle Eastern oil exporting nations’ foreign exchange reserves were exhausted while Western economies were booming.
The Third War of Succession
The fall of empires continued. The USSR collapsed in December 1991 after rotting from economic failure and internal rivalries for years. The Soviet contraction and internal focus also meant a retreat from its overseas interests and the Middle East in particular. In Europe, NATO and then the EU lost no time moving into what had been the Warsaw Pact, signing up a number of former Russian satellites and USSR republics to be part of the alliance, taking membership from 19 to 26 in its eastward expansion.
In the Middle East, none of this happened — a missed opportunity. The partial order the Cold War had imposed on the region was gone, and, once again, local rivalries erupted without the moderating influence of either one of the two global superpowers to temper them.
In 1990, Saddam Hussein attempted to extort billions of dollars from Kuwait to replenish his reserves that had been exhausted by the war with Iran. When Kuwait refused, Iraq invaded, without the international community trying to restrain the aggression, and the First Gulf War began. Kuwait had allies that eventually came to its defense. But as soon as Iraqi forces had been expelled, they departed, leaving a regional vacuum still unfilled, with no general peace settlement.
The defeat of Saddam Hussein gave the Iranians a golden opportunity to meddle in Iraqi Shia politics. The situation in Iraq festered, and the absence of any stabilizing force eventually led to the second US intervention in 2003. The chaos that this fateful invasion produced was again an enabler for the Iranians to fill the vacuum that emerged after Iraq’s dictator was overthrown. By now, Iran’s focus has shifted from its zeal to export the revolution toward more realist politics. The rise of Iranian nationalism since the Iran-Iraq War had replaced revolutionary idealism with national interests — an overriding policy that prevails to this day. Here, yet again, Washington failed to seize the initiative and establish a general peace settlement or a Pax Americana.
The Fourth War of Succession
The Arab Spring, a series of revolutions and counterrevolutions that first ignited in Tunisia in 2010 before spreading throughout the region, set off a cycle of civil wars that are still with us. These conflicts flourished in the vacuum left by the collapse of regimes such as in Libya or Yemen, inviting intervention of regional players.
The current situation is typical. We have civil wars in Libya, Syria and Yemen, and in each case, local powers are interfering in order to win a supposed tactical advantage. Russia is in the category of a local player; it no longer has the overall superpower or imperial advantage it had but, like Turkey, it wields enough military force to make a nuisance.
Joe Biden Will Face a Much-Changed and Skeptical World
The civil war in Libya may worsen if Turkey and the UAE on one side, and Russia on the other, escalate their involvement. Syria, still engulfed in a decade-long civil war, has been carved up into Turkish, Russian, Syrian government and Iranian zones. Iraq appears to have slipped even more into the Iranian orbit. The slow US exit from Iraq and Afghanistan — the latter to the evident satisfaction of the undefeated Taliban — will further encourage struggles for a share of power.
The decline of US interest in the region is driven by the decreasing importance of oil and gas. In addition, the threat of regional domination by the USSR, or now Russia, has vanished. Public fatigue with the appalling loss of life, money and prestige the US has endured over the last 20 years has soured any appetite for further overseas wars. Arms deals and attractive opportunities for investment are declining, highlighted by the anxiety the Saudis are showing in trying to drum up disinterested foreign direct investment. The only motivators for continued US involvement are the security of Israel and the possibility that Iran, unchecked, may emerge as the local superpower.
More War or Peace?
Former US President Donald Trump’s policy was to try to force regime change in Iran. The campaign of maximum pressure to drive oil exports to zero, foment unrest and impose hardship was promoted as a way to push the Iranians back to the negotiating table and make more concessions in order to resuscitate the nuclear deal. The reality was that Trump sought the destruction of the regime. Despite enormous hardship, Iran did not buckle. It has a structural advantage: an educated and innovative population with well-balanced demographics, a diversified economy, fertile and productive agriculture, mineral resources and, of course, abundant hydrocarbons. It is a sleeping giant of an economy.
Moreover, in almost every other sphere, from historical legacy, self-sufficient industry, military prowess, agriculture, architecture, food, to art, poetry and literature, Iran has been the dominant cultural influence in the region since the Seljuk empire — the same empire that brought the Ottomans, a Seljuk offshoot, to Turkey. History may again be moving in Tehran’s direction.
The failed US, Israeli, Saudi and Emirati policy of pressure on Iran was tactical, not strategic. It had a short-term objective of regime change which, if reached, would actually accelerate the loss of US interest in the region and further underline the retreat of the most recent would-be successor to the Ottomans. Another vacuum is developing and, unchecked by binding treaties, Iran could regain its position as the major power in the region. Before Iran attempts to become the Ottoman successor, it is in the interest of all the other countries in the region to reach a general settlement.
Instead of examining short-term tactics based only on hatred or fear of the current Iranian regime, there is a need for a strategic view. Since the collapse of the Ottomans, the Middle East has seen continuous fighting, on and off, among international powers and regional players for the remnants of empire. The British and the French have come and gone, the US and Russia have come and are retreating — although they do intervene on a tactical basis here and there, usually leaving a worse situation than the one they found.
The Americans are clearly in the final stages of disengagement, driven, in part, by that declining need to keep the region and its oil in the Western camp. The power vacuum is growing, and if the sanctions are lifted, Iran will be back in business. The unity of Iraq and Syria is in question, Lebanon is a failed state and the future of the Saudi regime is not secure given the failure of the Vision 2030 initiative and the outlook for oil in a decarbonizing world economy. Turkey is eyeing the opportunities, as is Russia. Both have historical claims to Ottoman lands.
But there is very little likelihood that any big power might be willing or able to assert sovereign rule over the Middle East. Even thinking about this is to court accusations of neo-colonialism. The solution lies in a different direction, not in more confrontation and threats of military conquest. A better vision is for an economic, political and security dialogue among all the parties in the region must be conceived. All parties are suffering in one way or another from the current disorder, whether it is the Iranians, Syrians, Iraqis, Yemenis or Saudis. The current situation is unsustainable, and any idea that any sort of victory is possible is an illusion. On the other hand, all the countries around the Gulf, including Iran, have much to gain from a cessation of hostilities, economic cooperation and the settlement of disputes through negotiation.
The model of what the Europeans were able to achieve after the Second World War is a good one, and this time no Marshall Plan will be needed as the wealth and resources of the regional players are already enormous. Every country has something to gain. But there will be losers. They will be the autocratic dictators who currently stand in the way of such a general settlement.
A human rights and a democratic track will be essential parts of any such dialogue in order to ensure sustainability and continuity. This will require the Iranian regime and other authoritarian rulers to surrender power — perhaps not all of it right away — but over time, enough to give their citizens confidence in their own personal security and investment in the governance of their own countries and their neighbors. A good start would be a regional security dialogue and some confidence-building measures. This is where the Biden administration must begin its work.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.