In the face of recent unrest, many Middle Eastern governments have focused their energies inward to satisfy or, more frequently, deter protesters who are demanding reform. Not Iran, which stands to benefit from the shifting balance of power in the region. Last week, Iran sent two warships through the Suez Canal for the first time in three decades, prompting one U.S. government adviser to tell The New York Times that, among the current turmoil, “Iran is the big winner.” Need to Know spoke with former U.N. ambassador Dr. Mohammad Mahallati this week about the protests and Iran’s new role in a region that Mahallati feels is, even today, trying to shed the burdens imposed by the United States’ “Cold War mentality.”
Mahallati served as the Iranian ambassador to the United Nations from 1987 to 1989, when he worked on U.N. Security Council Resolution 598 to end the violence between Iran and Iraq that began with the Iran-Iraq War in September 1980. For 10 years before that, Mahallati served as director-general for international affairs during one of the country’s most formative periods. Since his time in the U.N., Mahallati has taught politics at Columbia, Princeton and Georgetown, and is currently a presidential scholar of Islam at Oberlin College in Oberlin, Ohio. Mahallati is currently working to have Congress declare April 8 International Friendship Day.
John Light: What historical background is necessary to understand the current situation in the Middle East?
Mohammad Mahallati: To begin with, the very beginning of Arab nationalism in the Middle East has been artificial – artificial borders were created [by European colonialism] and therefore it doesn’t surprise me that now the whole Arab-Muslim world is so connected. So that background explains why events in Tunisia were so permeable to other borders and other countries.
The second thing is that, since then — since the divided borders were created — Muslim people in these areas were in search of identity, independence and freedom. And they have been trying all sorts of political “isms,” like Marxism, socialism, pan-Arabism, nationalism and so forth. And, of course, none of them worked. Saddam Hussein was the last person who felt that he represented Arab nationalism, or fighting for the cause of all Arabs together. Now all of these isms are passe.
So seeds of problems were there. But what was also a determining element was U.S. policy in the last few decades that has been heavily obsessed with the Cold War mentality — still thinking in Cold War terms, and therefore cares more for stability rather than democracy — or, worse, stability at the cost of democracy. By focusing too much on stability [the United States] ended up helping lots of despots and tyrants as heads of state in these countries.
One other element was of course the [Iranian] Islamic revolution in 1979 that gave ideas to good parts of the Muslim world that were in search of independence from world powers. They had aspirations, and they had a model in front of them, so there was a possibility.
The final element that was needed was connection. Even though these countries were of the same culture, language and religion, the intellectual connection between them was not as robust and definitive as it is now, thanks to Facebook. So Facebook and Twitter removed all these artificial borders and connected the new generation of the Muslim-Arab world. As a result, any event that happened in Tunisia inspired people in Yemen or Bahrain the next day. And this information revolution is the final needed element.
I’ve counted about 10 or 12 countries that have been impressed now by this phenomenon, and I guess it will be even more. The movement has gone much farther than the Middle East and North Africa and has reached countries like Albania and China.
Light: Last week, Iran sent two warships through the Suez Canal. The New York Times quoted one American government official as stating “Iran is the big winner here” in this power vacuum. How accurate an assessment is this?
Mahallati: I think one of the reasons Iran sent warships to pass through the Suez Canal is exactly because of the focus of Iran on independence. They wanted to test how much the new Egyptian government is independent or can decide independently to let Iranian warships pass. My guess it that Iran thought, if the new Egyptian government is totally run by, for example, American influence, then [the Egyptian government] will not give [the warships] permission. [The Iranians will] then say, “OK, a real revolution has not yet manifested at the level of political administration.
So this was a test and, because [the Egyptians] let them pass, [the Iranians] think, “OK, so there is some kind of independence in Egypt,” and therefore they identify more with the Egyptian new government, and probably they will try to establish diplomatic relations that they haven’t had since 1979.
One other element that plays into the mystical perspective of the Middle Eastern mind, so to speak, is that the day of victory of the Egyptian revolution was exactly February 11, which is the commemoration of the Iranian revolution – the same day. The same-dayness metaphorically, psychologically plays a big part in the psyche of both sides to connect and identify with each other.
So, there are many elements — there is oil, there is history, there is mysticism, there is Facebook. These are the ingredients of what is happening. And of course free flow of information and transparency: Wikipedia, WikiLeaks — all of this has suddenly come to play a significant role in world politics, world religion. We are, therefore, witnessing a major paradigm shift in political relations between countries in the region, and between the region and the other parts of the world. We are witnessing a major paradigm shift that has implications for many walks of life.
Light: What does the shift in power mean for supporters of Israel?
Mahallati: I would suggest, if I were a diplomat in the United Nations and I had some audience, I would say, “OK, everybody, forget about history. Or if you don’t want to forget, forgive that part of history. Sit down. Think anew. Work together for the economic improvement of the region.” I agree with a political philosophy that holds, “Revenge is the end of politics and justice is its beginning.” To fight for the past, with a view of corrective and punitive justice, has proved to fail. To rely on military power and foreign assistance has proved to fail as well. We really are in need of a paradigm shift in inter-regional and intra-regional politics. Europeans who invented nationalism and fought dearly for it for a few centuries are leaving it. Why should the region still fight for an outdated idea whose inventors have abandoned it?
If Egypt would experience real democracy with a national focus on economic development, she does not need American military assistance anymore. Egypt would not need to spend a good part of its resources on its military. Why military? The way I see the situation is that the United States has assisted Egyptian military and Israeli military in order to check each other. And what is the point? I don’t understand it. To arm both of the belligerent sides is a perpetual machine which creates more hostility. It’s far better that the American taxpayer money goes for economic development on both sides. So balance of power still is the biggest obsession of American foreign policy. Cold War was based on power balance. And still this outdated political ideology is consuming American taxpayer money to pay for tanks in Egypt and in Israel. Is this really wise? Has it really worked? Why, after decades of pumping arms and money, does nobody feel more secure in the region?
I think because change in the Muslim/Arab world has been monumental, policy shifts should be monumental. Not incremental.
Light: The theme running through this seems to be countries’ views of their own independence. And when you talk about that, you’re not just talking about independence from the West, but also from other powers in the region?
Mahallati: That is true. They want to feel that they are not dependent on this or that foreign assistance, that economically and politically they are standing on their own feet. They want to see that they have their fate in their hands, and express their individual and collective conscience without fear … But what we have witnessed in these countries is not only the collective expression of aspirations. It is more than that. By nonviolent demonstrations, and peaceful push for change, the new Muslim generations from Tunisia to Yemen have already contributed to the socio-cultural and political grounds necessary for the paradigm shift that I talked about.
I think they have shown that they do not have a power-centered mentality. All these sweeping revolutions are not for shift of power from one regime or entity to another. Rather, the emerging collective conscience is formed around cooperation and friendship, and friendship not only as a sentimental virtue but as a worldview. This is a universal space of friendship in which every individual feels he or she is a member of the entire humanity. Therefore, a pain in Libya today is almost instantly felt in Iran or Indonesia. The world is even more flat than what [New York Times columnist and author] Tom Friedman thought before.