Security Concerns Are Encouraging Proliferation in the Middle East Region
After Remarkable Progress, the Arab-Israeli Peace Process Turns to Israeli-Syrian Negotiations
The Islamic Revival Is A Gowing Challenge to Regional Regimes
Regional Governments Face Challenges to Their Continuance in Office
Regional Fragmentation Makes the Establishment of a Stable Security Framework Unlikely
These and related currents present fresh challenges for governments in the region, as well as for the U.S. and the West. Population pressures, reduced export revenues, urban environmental problems, and growing economic and social needs are taxing government capacities. Where the challenge is not met, messianic religious movements that espouse anti-secular and anti-Western themes are gaining popular favor and threaten to become a destabilizing force. Islamic revivalism is the most pronounced of these, but extremist movements also include Arab nationalists and Hindu revivalists in India. In Turkey, Iraq, and some of the newly established states of the former Soviet Union, ethnic separatism has emerged to threaten the foundations of the nation-state. Even more portentous have been decisions by some governments in the region to acquire weapons of mass destruction (WMD); particularly worrisome is the situation in South Asia, where the nuclear forces of India and Pakistan have developed effective delivery systems.
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Weapons of Mass Destruction. In the post-Cold War Greater Middle East, the decline of regional deterrence previously provided by superpower security guarantees has caused many nations to turn toward doctrines of greater self-reliance in security. The 1991 Gulf War may have deepened, rather than ameliorated, regional security concerns, and the result has been an increase in regional defense budgets and arms purchases. The Middle East has, of course, seen arms races before, but what is new and disturbing in the current rearmament cycle is the escalatory danger of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) acquisition. States that depended on security guarantees by superpower allies and are now compelled to rely on themselves are likely to regard WMD acquisition as an urgent priority.
Increasingly, Middle Eastern political and defense elites are coming to see WMD as uniquely suited to filling the emerging security vacuum.
WMD acquisition in the Middle East has been encouraged by many factors:
In virtually every case where WMD programs have been initiated, the financial burdens have been greater than anticipated. Some governments, particularly Iraq's, have made the investment eagerly, even though this has involved sacrificing their populations' standard of living to some extent.
In the final analysis, the acquisition of an indigenous capability is not likely to bring long-term savings over reliance on sophisticated conventional arms, since building and sustaining the necessary infrastructure is expensive. On the other hand, acquiring biological, chemical, and even nuclear arms and their delivery systems from outside suppliers may indeed be regarded as a bargain by states looking for a relatively inexpensive force multiplier.
While nuclear weapons acquisition has been a clear priority for some Middle East states, other countries have pursued chemical and biological weapons development with as much fervor as nuclear weapons. While little officially confirmed data exists on production or possession of chemical weapons outside of the U.S., Russia, and Iraq, at least eight governments in the region are suspected of pursuing chemical weapons--Syria, Libya, Iran, Egypt, Israel, Saudi Arabia, India, and Pakistan. Chemical weapons have been used by both Iraq and Iran during the Iran-Iraq war, and by Iraq against its own population.
Despite initial optimistic assessments of damage to Iraq's WMD infrastructure (particularly the nuclear component), it now seems clear that little of that capability was destroyed during the Gulf War. In addition, efforts to locate and destroy mobile missiles were wholly unsuccessful, and relatively little of the deeply buried bunker system that houses Iraq's weapons and their command-and-control support was found or targeted. This was a function of both poor tactical intelligence and the unavailability of munitions for deep penetration strikes.
Iran's WMD ambitions are the subject of wide speculation. Economists point to the fragile state of the Iranian economy and question whether sufficient resources can be committed to a nuclear program, as distinct from a chemical weapons program. On the other hand, given a tight resource constraint, Iran might find the pursuit of nuclear weapons to be an attractive alternative to a higher cost acquisition of large numbers of modern conventional weapons.
Missile Proliferation. Surface-to-surface missiles (SSMs) have already been employed in several regional conflicts, notably by both parties during the Iran-Iraq war, by Iraq during the 1991 Gulf War, and during the Yemen civil war. SSMs are the platform of choice for WMD weapons, as they can carry nuclear, biological, or chemical payloads with minor modification to the missile's configuration. Longer-range ballistic missiles, like the Chinese CSS II purchased by Saudi Arabia, are likely to prove most attractive. India, Pakistan, and Israel already have longer-range systems under development. But even shorter-range and generally less-sophisticated missiles such as Soviet-built SCUDs are valued as deterrents in the Middle East because distances between urban centers are relatively short. Missiles such as SCUDs can also be effective weapons of terror against an opponent who lacks a retaliatory capability or is politically constrained. Iraq's use of SCUDs against Israel during the Gulf War is an example.
The lack of precision guidance on most of the earlier generation of weapons that comprise the bulk of current Middle Eastern missile inventories makes these missiles relatively ineffective for use against dispersed targets, such as military units. However, they are effective against concentrated targets, such as air bases, port facilities, above-ground command-control facilities, and headquarters.
The acquisition of SSMs by a number of Middle Eastern states attests to the diffusion of low as well as high technology weapons throughout the region. The regional arms race casts doubt on the efficacy of supply-based strategies of denial pursued by the Western industrialized powers. Indeed, some Western countries continue to supply dual use technologies to the Middle East, while SSMs are sold by Russia, China, and North Korea.
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Three events--the October 1991 Madrid peace conference, the September 13, 1993, signing of the Declaration of Principles between the PLO and Israel, and the July 1994 Jordanian-Israeli accord--may mark the beginning of the end of the Arab-Israeli confrontation. Progress has also been made in the multilateral talks, which involve the industrial states and a number of Middle East states, though not Syria or Lebanon. Several proposals, including for confidence-building measures, are being discussed in the Arms Control and Regional Security (ACRS) talks.
In the bilateral talks, attention has now turned to Syria, but it is by no means clear if a Syrian-Israeli peace accord can be reached before the June 1996 deadline for the next Israeli election. On the Syrian side, the most common interpretation is that President Hafez al-Asad is genuinely interested in a deal but is proceeding cautiously. He wants to recover the Golan, but as a member of the small Alawite minority, Asad must be sensitive to charges from Syria's Sunni majority that he has sold out the Muslim cause in Palestine.
Any Israeli-Syrian agreement will require compromises that each side will be reluctant to make. Both sides regard the Golan Heights as militarily valuable territory, which provides an intelligence listening post, dominates Israeli territory 600 feet below, and provides easy access to Damascus, which is only thirty miles away. Most analysts expect an Israeli-Syrian agreement patterned on the Camp David accord: Israeli withdrawal and full diplomatic relations between Syria and Israel, with both phased in over a period of years. This would be accompanied by a multinational peace force separating the two sides.
On the Palestinian-Israeli and Jordanian-Israeli fronts, the key issue in the peace process will be implementation of the September 13, 1993, accord and the May 4, 1994, Cairo Agreement. The transition from fighting to governing is proving difficult for the PLO and for the activists in the Israeli-occupied territories. Life in the Palestinian-administered zone is not improving as quickly as the population hoped, in part because aid flows have been delayed by ongoing disagreement between donors and the PLO. The new authority will face continuing challenges in negotiations over the extension of its zone to the rest of the West Bank and over the territories' final status.
Security policy is a politically charged issue. Some Palestinians are determined to continue attacks on Israelis, while some Israeli settlers are determined to stop the Palestinians from exerting authority over the West Bank. Palestinians and Israelis will be watching each other closely to determine how vigorously such lawbreakers are pursued by the other side. The Palestinian security forces, most of which are drawn from the ranks of the PLO, will be under pressure to perform police tasks for which many members are not trained. The Palestinian leaders are under domestic political pressure not to pursue too vigorously terrorists from Hamas, which at least in Gaza has strong popular support. On the Israeli side, public opinion about the peace process will be strongly affected by terrorist episodes, and the government could come under pressure to suspend negotiations with the PLO in the event of more terrorist episodes like the October 1994 Jerusalem shootings and the death of a soldier.
The expectation of 1993-94 that the improvement in Israeli-Arab relations would transform the region into a zone of prosperity has given way to more realistic expectations. Mistrust will not disappear overnight. Nor will protectionist governments in the region quickly agree to open up their economies. Ten years after Camp David removed all formal barriers to Israeli-Egyptian trade, Israel sells less than $10 million a year in the Egyptian market. There will of course be some economic benefits from the peace--for example, investors will be more willing to risk their funds in the region now that it is seen as less volatile--but the benefits are unlikely to have a discernable short-term effect on most national economies. The Palestinians are an exception. They are well positioned to serve as a bridge between Israel and the Arab world, and their economy is already highly dependent on trade.
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Following the overthrow of the Iranian shah in 1979, a politically oriented Islamic revival has gained strength in Iran, Egypt, Sudan, Algeria, and Lebanon. This revival rejects most Western models of modernization and secularism, seeks to establish governments based on traditional Islamic law, and in its most militant form works for the overthrow of governments tied to Western interests. Such movements are increasing in influence, intensity, and reach.
One must be careful, however, to distinguish extremists who practice violence from mainstream revival movements and parties that work openly for the gradual Islamization of their societies. In much of the Middle East, mainstream Muslim movements that work openly for gradual Islamization have put down deep roots and are unlikely to be easily displaced. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood operates a network of grassroots institutions--including schools, clinics, banks, and charitable foundations--that constitutes a semi-alternative government. Mainstream Islamic parties, when allowed to run in open elections, do well but usually do not have a majority. In Jordan's 1993 election, Islamic candidates secured one fifth of parliament's seats, down from forty percent in 1989; in Pakistan, the same year, they got four percent, down from eight percent in 1990.
Nor are revival movements in the Greater Middle East limited to Islamic populations. The Bharativa Janata Party (BJP) has arisen in India to challenge India's tradition of secular rule. Israel has both religious parties that seek to make Israeli government and society conform to religious law, and outlawed extremist movements such as Kach. But Islamic movements, because of their breadth and intensity, present the greatest challenge to U.S. security interests in the region.
While the Islamic revival does not constitute a region-wide, monolithic movement, cross-border cooperation among individuals and groups--particularly among extremist organizations such as the Sunni Hamas in the West Bank and Gaza and the Shi'ite Hizballah in Lebanon--is growing. Increasingly important factors in providing linkage among extremist factions are the return to their homelands of Muslims who fought against the USSR in Afghanistan and the training and support given to extremist groups by Iran and Sudan.
However, Islamic movements exhibit several weaknesses that inhibit their effectiveness. First, movements have displayed a tendency to splinter. The mainstream Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, with a membership estimated at two million, has produced numerous extremist offshoots, such as the Jihad, which assassinated Sadat, and the Gama'at, which is currently conducting a guerilla war against the government. Algeria's Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) has virtually disintegrated into numerous, highly localized groups. Islamic movements lack a unifying, charismatic leader to give them coherence and direction. As a result, they are unlikely to forge a coordinated region-wide threat to Western interests.
Second, Islamic groups that have taken power have been unable to create stable governing institutions. After fifteen years of rule in Iran, the clergy have neither overcome divisions in their own ranks nor adequately addressed social and economic problems. In Sudan, a bitter civil war continues as the north tries to press Islamic law on the non-Islamic south.
Despite these disabilities, violence-prone Islamic movements in a number of countries still have the capacity to destabilize regimes and to raise the political and economic costs of containing them.
Most threatening in the short term are militant extremists who pursue their aims through violence and terrorism. Such groups have increased in size, militancy, and sustainability in recent years. The increased reach and sophistication of Islamic terrorist groups are illustrated by the bombings of the World Trade Center in New York and of Jewish targets in Buenos Aires and London.
While extremist movements will probably increase their activities, they are unlikely to unseat any regimes in the near term, except possibly in Algeria. Should the Algerian government fall, reverberations would be felt throughout the region. Extremist movements will continue to challenge the legitimacy of existing governments, draining support from mainstream movements, which have been put on the defensive lately by growing extremism in their own ranks and increased repression from governments. In Tunisia, for example, all Islamic activists are in jail or have been exiled; in Egypt, the government has begun cracking down on the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as the radical extremists, but violence continues. In Gaza, radical militants in Hamas threaten the peace process.
However, demographic pressures, failed economic programs, and disillusionment with the quality of governance in many Middle Eastern states ensure that pressure for political change will continue to build. Where governments are reluctant to recognize moderate Islamic groups, domestic politics is likely to become increasingly polarized, to the detriment of existing secular regimes and the benefit of extremists.
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In addition to the Islamic revival, governments confront mounting challenges to the status quo in a number of key states. Many regimes, under pressure for poor past performance, face rising expectations and declining resources. A better-informed public and burgeoning civic groups are demanding greater participation in government and less authoritarian rule. Leadership changes in several countries may hasten the process of transition. Challenges to existing regimes are likely to keep the area volatile and unpredictable.
A New Generation of Leadership is Inevitable in Many States. Many political systems in the region face challenges to their continuity from leadership succession. There are few well-established mechanisms for leadership change, and even where such processes exist, it is not clear that they will work well.
A number of the monarchies and one-party states on which the West relies for support have aging or ill leaders, some of whom are likely to be replaced within the next five years. King Hussein of Jordan is 59 and has recently been hospitalized for cancer; King Fahd of Saudi Arabia is 73; King Hassan II of Morocco is 65; and President Asad of Syria is 64 and suffers from heart trouble. In some cases (Jordan, Saudi Arabia), the lines of succession have been delineated. In others (Egypt, Syria), change could produce a struggle for power that may weaken the regime. The demise of King Hussein could adversely affect the peace process. King Fahd's successor might be less accommodating to the U.S. In almost all cases, leadership is likely to be assumed by a younger generation, often educated at home and with less exposure to the West. This could lead to greater independence in foreign policy and more reluctance to cooperate with the West.
Where leadership changes intersect with imploding political and social forces, a change of leadership could have profound implications for a state's foreign and domestic policy. In Algeria, a regime change, should it occur, is likely to be accompanied by domestic upheaval with the potential for the disintegration of the state. In Iraq, Saddam's removal could occasion serious instability, renewed ethnic and sectarian violence, the flight of refugees, and political or military intervention by its neighbors. Iran could experience a replacement of its clerical leadership, unable to satisfy economic demands or overcome diplomatic isolation.
Some of these changes (Iran, Iraq) could be favorable to U.S. interests in the longer term. The regime in Iraq could be replaced by one that is less repressive and more willing to abide by international norms. A change in Iran might put an end to that nation's support for anti-Western policies and international terrorism. However, leadership changes in key regional states now supporting U.S. objectives--Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Pakistan--are a more worrisome prospect.
Resource Pressures. The greatest natural resource of the Middle East is its oil wealth. The region has about 75 percent of the world's oil reserves, and in 1994 produced about 25 percent of the world's oil. The economic fortunes of the region are closely linked to the state of the world oil market, which the oil-producing states are no longer able to influence to any great extent; OPEC's effects on markets are generally limited in size and in duration. The paradox is that the lower the price of oil, the more dependent the world becomes on Middle East oil, because it is by far the cheapest to produce. Therefore, low oil prices increase the importance of the Middle East to the economy of the U.S. and its allies.
Both the Middle East and South Asia face population pressures. In particular, finding employment for those joining the labor force is a serious problem in many countries at a time when unemployment is high and job creation is constrained by low economic growth. The most likely scenario is rising youth unemployment, which may translate into political unrest, and add to pressures on weak and ineffective governments. Recruits for Islamic movements are often drawn from this pool of unemployed youth.
Middle East economies have done poorly in the last decade. For the region as a whole, per capita GNP fell an average of 2.3 percent annually from 1980 through 1992, a cumulative 25 percent drop. Three factors explain this fall in income. First, 1994 oil prices, while fluctuating, average about a fifth of the 1980 level, when adjusted for inflation. Second, population has doubled since the 1973 oil price rise. Third, governments in most countries have fed unrealistic popular expectations about their ability to continue high expenditures and low taxation.
Economic problems are felt most keenly in the poorest countries of the region. Income disparities remain glaring: the most populous Arab country, Egypt, has a per capita income that is 3 percent that of the richest, the United Arab Emirates. On the other hand, the Western-oriented poor Arab states--Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Tunisia--have all had relatively good economic growth in 1993 and 1994, thanks to better economic policies and continuing debt relief.
The oil producing nations will not be able to achieve the level of per capita income that they enjoyed during the oil boom of 1973-1985. After postponing painful adjustment as long as possible while continuing with inappropriately large state-sector investments, Algeria and Iran have run into serious external debt problems. Both have been forced to cut spending, endangering social stability and, in Iran's case, curtailing military ambitions. Saudi Arabia is borrowing heavily abroad to finance budget deficits. It has taken some measures to reduce the deficit, including stretching out arms purchases from the U.S. However, continuing expenditure reductions and new taxes will be needed in order to avoid unsustainable foreign debt in the long run. In the meantime, Saudi Arabia has ample resources and borrowing capacity to continue its current policy path.
Israel provides a contrast to this trend. Israel's per capita GNP is about $12,000, 75 percent above the Saudi level. Furthermore, Israel's economy is growing at 3-4 percent per annum on a per capita basis. Much of the reason for this is that economic policies have helped correct the chronic budget deficits and overregulation that caused triple-digit inflation and stagnant output in the early 1980s. In addition, progress in the peace process is likely to give a boost to investment. After absorbing close to one million immigrants in 1989-94, Israel's unemployment rate has been brought below 7 percent. In short, Israel's economic lead over Arab states is likely to widen.
Allocation of scarce water resources, especially from rivers flowing across state boundaries, is a source of tension. The Middle East has the least water per capita in the world--1,070 cubic meters per capita per annum, compared to the world average of 7,700. At the same time, it has the highest water consumption per capita in the developing world, at 1,000 cubic meters per capita per annum--about twice the developing country average of 510. Frictions between states over water allocation, such as occurred among Turkey, Syria, and Iraq in the 1970s, can contribute to domestic as well as regional instability. Water scarcity contributes to increasing food imports, which puts additional pressure on scarce funds.
The outlook for India is more optimistic. Thanks to an opening of the economy to market forces, India's per capita GNP grew 3.1 percent per annum from 1980 to 1992. Western and southern India seem poised on the edge of an East-Asian-style economic miracle. The less educated north, however, is still bound by rigid statist policies and inadequate investment in education, and risks stagnation. The poor performance of the Hindu heartland could feed pressures from political-religious revival movements as well as tensions with the more prosperous regions. However, India's overall economic growth will make it increasingly attractive for U.S. investment and trade, although from an admittedly low base. (U.S. trade with India was $6 billion each year from 1989 through 1993, or less than one percent of total U.S. trade and about 15 percent of Indian trade). India's economic boom is not, however, likely in the 1990s to change the general U.S. perception that India is not central to U.S. interests.
Difficult Circumstances and Poor Governance May Produce Some Failed States. The most extreme manifestation of government collapse is the failed state, the regional exemplar of which is Lebanon, where a civil war allowed local militias and extended families to dominate politics while the governments of neighboring Syria and Israel extended their influence into the country. Such states provide a favorable environment for radical movements and terrorist activities.
There is a risk of additional failed states in the region. Extremist movements already seek to overthrow the existing governments in Algeria and, to a lesser extent, in Egypt. In Algeria, state disintegration colud occur. Elsewhere, dissident ethnic or sectarian groups desire secession from existing states. The Sudanese government faces continuing civil war with non-Muslims in the south. Both Turkey and Iraq face challenges from Kurds seeking to change the distribution of power within these states. (A U.S. military mission, Provide Comfort 2, is currently engaged in protecting the Iraqi Kurds in territory now under their control.) Tensions have increased between Sunnis and Shi'ites in Iraq, and between Berbers and Arabs in Algeria.
In Central Asia and the Caucasus, eight new states face the daunting task of creating nations from ethnically diverse populations. Of the five predominantly Sunni Muslim Central Asian states, four are headed by former senior officials of the Soviet Communist party, while one (Kyrgyzstan) is run by an individual who professes admiration for the democratic process. The anticipated collapse of these societies has not occurred in large part because of the continuing hold on central political authority by semi-rehabilitated Soviet officials, whose expertise in central management is valued by populations seeking to prevent the implosion of fragile economies and ethnically-divided societies. In addition, Soviet rule tended to have a strong secularizing effect, blunting the influence of religious forces. In the Caucasus region (Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan), only one of the original post-Soviet governments (in Yerevan) has remained in power. Georgia and Azerbaijan are torn by ethnic violence. In Georgia, Abkhazian and south Ossetian separatists refuse to acknowledge the authority of the Georgian government in Tblisi. In Azerbaijan, the continued fighting over the predominantly Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh has heightened tensions between Armenia and Azerbaijan. In the North Caucasus, Russia has intervened militarily against the breakaway government of Chechnya, which declared its independence from Russia in 1991.
The removal of Cold War constraints has encouraged the fragmentation of the Middle East into regional subgroups, a trend that will intensify. The Maghreb, the Levant, the Persian Gulf states, South Asia, the Caucasus, and Central Asia are each likely to follow separate paths.
The emerging regional blocs are primarily driven by economics, and cooperation within and among regional groups for security purposes is likely to be limited at best. Competition for scarce resources, the absence of a common security threat, domestic tensions, and pressure on the region's governments all serve to focus the attention of regional states on their own national interests, rather than security cooperation. The Arab Maghreb Union is unlikely to survive if Algeria collapses, while the eastern Mediterranean states still have tremendous problems to overcome in the Arab-Israeli peace process before security cooperation can become a reality. However, miltilateral peace talks are moving the region toward more cooperation. As a result, the Levant may become is one of the more promising areas for building future regional cooperation in economics, water control, arms control, and conflict resolution.
The collapse of the six-plus-two formula designed to unite Egypt and Syria with the GCC states as a deterrent mechanism in the Gulf is emblematic of the difficulties of establishing a stable framework for regional security cooperation. The region is returning to a checkerboard pattern of balancing power, while looking to the U.S. as the defense of the last resort. This may increase feelings of insecurity in the near term, particularly on the part of key U.S. partners. Turkey, rejected for membership in the EU and increasingly alienated from Europe over Bosnia, feels cut adrift. Pakistan faces a dramatic change in its relationship with the U.S. after the Afghanistan war, and remains bitter over the Pressler Amendment (which prohibits U.S. assistance to Pakistan, to punish Islamabad for its nuclear weapons program).