by Stefano Casertano
The events of the last two years in the Middle East are a reminder of what happened in the same region some 40 years ago. Then, as monarchies were toppled one after the other, new leftist leaders assumed office through coups, popular revolts, or simply by taking over the constitutional structures of countries. The immersion of various forms of post-socialist military Arabism (as in the case of Gaddafi or the first incarnation of ba'athism) was hailed by the USSR and by parts of the European Left as the dawn of a new era for the Middle East. In the end, their hopes were unfounded.
Of course, the contemporary turmoil is an expression of popular discontent rather than the result of the lucky bet by power-hungry military leaders. There is reason to believe in the genuine desire for democracy by most of the people who took to the streets from Tehran to Cairo. Yet, as in the case of the Arabism surge in the 1960s and 1970s, hopes of real systemic change are increasingly giving room to big power pragmatism and the pursuit of vested interests.
It is not by chance that the Iranian nuclear question has heated up in the last months; and it is also not by chance that big powers decided to be more active in Somalia and Pakistan. As far back as the Eisenhower administration, a muscular U.S. foreign policy aimed at securing those borders to the "Greater Middle East." The region has turned into a hotbed of geopolitics: The rebellions do not just represent a moment of political change within single countries but are considered by the U.S., China, Russia and some European countries as an opportunity to reshape their presence in the region.
The most evident episode played out in Libya. The French-American leadership in toppling Gaddafi had the result of (almost completely) ousting the "Eurasian" coalition from the country: Italy and Russia, who had traditionally been buyers of Libyan oil, will have little to say in the Libyan reconstruction business.
Russia (together with China) had even endorsed the "no fly" zone and now feels to "have been tricked into it." The Libyan events also influenced Russia's position on Syria. Damascus is at the "middle of Middle-East interests." As Henry Kissinger once said, there cannot be war without Egypt, and there cannot be peace without Syria. It is the connection belt between Iran (the largest Shiite country in the region) and the Shiite population of Lebanon. Above all, Syria hosts the only Russian naval base in the Mediterranean, in Tartus -- a happy heritage of Soviet times, and now a strategic investment for Moscow.
Russia is strenuously refusing to accept any sanctions on Bashar al-Assad's regime. The Arab League (which is mostly an emanation of Sunni interests) would like to see Assad step down to the vice-presidency with the plan to call for new elections in the next months. But Moscow is aware of the fact that such move would hamper its grip on the country: Elections are likely to be won by the Sunni majority of the country. Assad belongs to a Shiite minority confession, the "Alawites." If he stays in power, he would ensure that Russia retains not only a foot in the warm waters of "Mare Nostrum," but also a role in the Middle East.
In particular, Syria is the conveyor belt between Iran and Lebanon: Damascus oversees shipments of weaponry and cash from Tehran to Hezbollah fighters. Therefore, Syria is an influential player in the Arab-Israeli peace process. If Assad stays, Russia will retain a role in the negotiations as well. That is why Moscow's favorite solution is that "the Syrians decide by themselves," as declared by Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. Translated from Russian diplomatic speak into plain English, this means that he would like to see Assad crush the rebellion.
Iran, on the other hand, cannot just wait and see. The 2009 "Green Wave" prompted a pivotal change in the political equilibrium of the country. Before the uprising, the country was classified as a "theocracy," with rising influence of the presidential role -- in our case, charming Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Yet in 2009, the Revolutionary Guards and their satellite groups emerged as the only forces capable of containing the revolts (through violent and despicable means), thus ensuring the permanence of the Iranian dictatorial presidency.
Russia and China both support Iran and its nuclear ambitions. As for Russia, the interest has already been stated: retaining a role in the Middle East, exploiting the "Shiite belt" that unnerves the Sunnis and the Americans. China mainly enjoys Iran's oil: Beijing is the largest importer of Iranian oil. Over half a million barrels per day flow from the shores of Iran to Chinese ports. The regime in Beijing would not like to give up the trade. Already, China feels that it had to pay a high price for the Arab revolts, as its economic and commercial expansion plans in North Africa have slowed to a standstill.
The influence of large powers was among the factors that 40 years ago fueled the "Arabian dawn" of new political leaders. The USSR and the US tempted old and new dictators with promises of weaponry and financial aid, leveraging the grammar of "Arabism" to achieve regional influence. Today's grammar may be that of militarized Islamism, which already constitutes a full-fledged form of politics in Iran, and a developing one in Egypt. As cynical as it may sound, Moscow, Washington and Beijing know very well that a military regime can be controlled better than a factional democracy. And if the military also satisfies religious needs, they may even be able to win internal support. The way to democracy for the Middle East is all but certain - and certainly not the most likely one.