In recent years I have worked deeply on quiet conflict management interventions from Afghanistan to Iran, but mostly in Syria. I have watched the unnecessary suffering of countless people, the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of Syrians, the greatest civilian displacement in Middle Eastern history, and I have watched it up close through the lives of my students and friends.
As an analyst my job is to study, inquire and reflect. Everything we conflict analysts, peace builders and trainers-Western, Muslim, Arab, Christian and Jewish-are learning from experience in the field, and from our students and friends all over the Middle East, is that we are caught in a deepening maelstrom of violent disasters due to the perpetual state of war between two states with radical philosophies that have been at loggerheads since 1979, Saudi Arabia and Iran. Since 1979, the expansionist threat of the right wing in Iran has been met with a ruthless, massively funded Sunni jihadism on the part of Saudi Arabia and Qatar, aided paradoxically by the mostly Christian West, that made states across the world into battle zones. But it began earlier than even 1979, and it is important to understand this in order to see the way out. The West views one of these states as an ally and one as an inveterate enemy. Neither is categorically true. Both states present dangers and opportunities for those who want to see the truth with dispassion and without corruption. Seeing states in this way is the essence of effective national defense but also true peace building.
One of the greatest disasters to ever hit the Islamic world was the discovery of oil beneath the Middle East Gulf region, which in turn became dominated by a radical way of life unfamiliar to most of the billion Muslims around the world. Islam is a religion that is alternately very liberal and very conservative depending on which adherents you study or meet; it is like all other religions in that regard. But when unlimited oil is given to a most reactionary sect, and as is common in religions, the conservatives take hold of the wealth, then things get strange. When that began to unfold in the 20th century, and the great powers greedily raced in for their oil, many countries began to deteriorate away from nascent modernization, and democratic leanings, and toward both secular dictatorships on the one side of the Middle East and, on the other, extremist religious dictatorships.
The great powers and Cold War competitors devastated the region by preferring and empowering the worst actors, some of them fascist/secular and some of them religious. This pattern has continued, and now as the secular dictatorships are on the wane (except perhaps in Egypt) religious extremism has become a central feature of both defense and expansion of local states and empires, to the detriment of the entire Arab and Muslim world, and, of course, to Christians and minorities wherever they may be.
The long-term solution is the democratization of empowerment across the Muslim and Arab world, and liberation from the tyrannical use of religion for either military defense purposes or offense purposes. But this will not happen without global economic powers that choose to stop their complicity in this abuse, and therein lays the rub.
There are some time-tested ways to manage the situation that lessen violence across the entire globe. Every day millions of us are heroically engaged in this. There are tried and true methods of violence reduction, such as education, jobs, legal reform, human rights education and advocacy, women's empowerment in particular, and progressive programs of empathic engagement between minorities and majorities, secular and religious. These all have been proven to work in history and in other regions of the globe today, the evidence grows every day.
It is important for the Western powers and intellectuals to truly understand that these methods also have strong advocates in every single Middle Eastern country and in every ethnic group. The problem is that these forces for good are overwhelmed in the Middle East by the distorting unprecedented financial power of extremist politics, the masking of expansionist and imperial state interests behind religious piety, and the complicity of outside great powers in this abusive reality.
Westerners tend to hold the Middle East and this radicalism in contempt, as if A. they are not implicated by who they have supported as business partners, and B. as if Western culture did not go through the exact same struggles of tyranny and the abuse of religion as a tool of conquest and defense in European history.
This contempt of others is both short-sighted and ill timed. Now is the time for empathy and solidarity with innocents everywhere in the Muslim world, and kindness toward those religious and secular Middle Eastern citizens who are struggling for a better society. It is also self-defeating for Westerners to go on sucking at the breast of oil, and then ridiculing the source.
Americans responded to Middle Eastern extremism at their doorstep since 9/11 with crazy military adventures that utterly failed. Europeans have responded to extremism at their doorstep by banning circumcision, for heaven's sake! Imagine what they would say if the Organization of Islamic Countries responded to the hundreds of thousands of Muslims dead in Iraq by a Christian American army with the banning of crosses across their 57 states? We are all sectarians at our worst, and enlightened citizens of the planet at our best, but with every one of our political actions we are making that choice.
Too many Westerners at high levels and on the street are panicking and blaming Islam for what are in fact the classic sins of states that steal religion for armor (remember the Protestant/Catholic wars? Crusades?), criminal gangs that use religion (Mafia? KKK? White supremacists?) , and a few criminal families that don the mantle of secularism who have in fact killed far more innocents than anyone else (in Syria and Iraq, among others). Westerners would be as wrong in that blame game as permanently blaming German culture, or Catholicism, for Hitler, for example. Religion was used in Iran to hijack a legitimate youth movement for democracy, same with much of the Arab Spring. The results have been terrible for everyone in the region, whereas extremist versions of religion have been used to poison the minds of millions of Sunni youth in a poor attempt to defend royal families (masquerading as Caliphate) that should be defending themselves in 2015 with jobs and education. Complicit in this abuse of religion by a few oil-soaked funders, the West has undermined the millions of Middle Eastern democrats, both secular ones and religious ones, who we should be encouraging not burying with poor alliances with one side of a vicious set of proxy wars.
The only move that is constructive in this confusing situation is to identify key achievable goals of violence reduction through negotiations, with metrics. Then identify key actors that could forward those goals, and identify a process of coaxing those actors to pursue those goals.
The central method of achieving these goals is through a clear détente and eventual peace process between the Gulf countries, in particular Saudi Arabia and Iran, but must include Qatar as another expansionist state wreaking havoc from Egypt to Syria. Secondarily, there must be a place for inclusion of other key states that have been damaged or destroyed by their proxy warfare, such as Bahrain, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Lebanon, Iraq, and Syria. The last one is the most immediate human catastrophe because it has been cursed with the worst dictator family in the region.
This process of détente and peace is not being pursued or even suggested at the present time because all of these implicated states are the backbone of the American/Western military industrial complex. The West has billions upon billions of dollars of military contracts with one side of this Middle Eastern conflict, and it is that spigot that cannot allow this war to be turned off or even toned down. Follow the money. It is the contracts, but we civilians are the ones paying the real price. This is not some evil conspiracy, it is just a very effective set of Middle Eastern lobbies for one side of a conflict, combined with the tangled web of institutionalized economic benefits and structures across the West, but mostly in the USA.
History suggests clearly that most groups and nations at war change and evolve through de-escalation/détente/peace processes, whereas exclusion of one entire side of severe conflict, in this case Iran, is irrational, but mostly it is political pandering to lobbies, foreign and domestic, and the corruption of contracts. To engage all parties is to change all parties. All groups change, splinter, and evolve with engagement, but they solidify, when excluded, and subject to all-out warfare. Therefore everyone should be engaged. Anyone who suggests isolation, such as for Iran, has another agenda of regime change, conquest, and the theft of extraction rights, but we the people, the civilians, the majority of war's victims, are the one's to suffer from such foolishness.
Third parties who seek peace must be aware of the exact challenge with each party, and also aware of their own biases that they bring to the table. The greatest danger for Westerners is from their public denial of problems with their own allies, trading partners and military clients, in this case in the Gulf and central Asia (many in Washington have told me that this business dependency is the essential reason why American foreign policy cannot be reformed). At the same time there is Western, particularly American, convenient demonization of enemies that prevents engagement, which is also a business tactic that their allies have demanded. If you really care for the victims of jihadism, if you really care for the victims of Iran's foreign policy and alliances, then you must get these major powers of the region to the table. It is the only way to stop the bloodshed.
Both Saudi Arabia and Iran have legitimate security needs and fears of each other and of other enemies, and at the same time they display unreasonable violent behavior through terrible proxies that has reached global proportions. The 1979 revolution in Iran was founded upon legitimate grievances and needs, but it did have or was taken over by an expansionist and adversarial agenda. But from the beginning what the United States and Saudi Arabia did to counter this revolution and to counter the Soviet role in Afghanistan has massively destroyed Sunni culture across the globe.
Both trends must be reversed. Iran must withdraw its outrageously destructive role in Syria, Iraq, Gaza, and Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and the USA must forever foreswear the militarization of radical Islam as a tactic of conquest, and the Europeans must condition their Gulf business on guarantees that their business partners and citizens are not funding genocidal violence against Westerners.
Iran and Saudi Arabia, who have had nonviolent relations in the past, are formidable and dangerous now, especially because they can and do embody a long standing Sunni/Shi'ite rivalry, also a Persian/Arab rivalry, that ignites when it is stimulated. Both have been wounded by the other, and both deserve safety and security for their citizens, but they are pursuing those goals through an unjust abuse and destruction of proxies. One has unlimited financial power to radicalize majority Sunni Muslims the world over, and the other has an indomitable capacity for defense and offense in the region, with a highly resilient educated population that supports many of its foreign policy objectives, at least in terms of legitimate defense. My sense is that Iran is more easily managed because their goals are more objective and rational, in terms of defense and power in the classic ways of ambitious states, but Khamenei is extremely difficult and gives license to a darker side of foreign policy.
My problem with the Saudi/American way is that the militarization of the Muslim masses is an irrational way to defend a state, with uncontrollable results, and it is a toxic method that has gotten far more Americans killed on 9/11 and since, than anything Iran has ever done. That being said, the state-based expansionist military agenda of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard has killed hundreds of thousands in Syria and Iraq and stimulated sectarian standoffs in Lebanon and elsewhere. Both sides have a lot of blood on their hands, and that is exactly why any responsible third party must help them come to a new way of dealing with the region.
Both nations need a balanced peace process that exposes their threats to each other and the stability of many states, but at the same time acknowledges and works to address their legitimate security needs and demands. For the West and its allies, at no point should there be anymore any notion of regime change anywhere. It guarantees conflict escalation to nuclear levels. We live in a world today where ultra-violent, antiquated forms of foreign policy, such as regime change, get hundreds of thousands of people killed and change nothing, as we have seen in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria.
Both parties of the Gulf conflict are highly motivated to engage in a peace process if the West is very insistent and offers serious guarantees of security and normalization at the table. Even the most conservative elements in Iran are tired of a constant state of siege and threat from neighbors near and far, and especially from the United States and Israel. The Saudi Kingdom, having created its own monsters, such as Al Qaeda and ISIS, as well a series of proxy wars with Iran, is not in a great position to guarantee its own longevity unless there is more peace, and in my opinion would welcome the stabilization of the region.
A serious peace process must have as its goal full normalization of relations, an end to all proxy wars, and a return of Iranian and Saudi interests in other states to the realm of A. legitimate nonviolent defense of vulnerable populations, B. business investment, and C. a complete and enforced withdrawal from the worst offenders-ISIS, Al Qaeda, the Assad family-and a taming of other allies such as Hezbollah and Hamas.
In the Syrian case, the evidence from the ground, based on our experience, is that if the Gulf state interests, both Arab and non-Arab, are modified and tamed, the secular and religious populations have great potential to achieve a post-Assad Syria that will neither be extremist, genocidal, or status quo ante. Even if Syria must be divided, the constructive role of Iran and Saudi Arabia in that process will be the best guarantee of success.
There should be achievable goals set for a peace process and a step-by-step de-escalation of tensions on a number of fronts, from Syria to Yemen. Both sides will have to demonstrate, in a way that is clear to intelligence agencies, that they are steadily reducing their support for violence through proxies in the region. Iranian complicity in the horror on the ground in Syria is well known and has been a major stimulus for Sunni jihadi recruitment, and the same with militias in Iraq. By contrast the relationship between the ultra-violent forces of Sunni jihadism and Saudi funding is very clear and traceable to any researcher whose institution allows him to research it. If I were an Iranian rational actor, I would want clear evidence of a new era of Sunni/Shi'ite cooperation from Lebanon to Iraq to Bahrain, as the basis for concessions and commitments. The Saudis will come with their demands in turn. Both will commit to step-by-step evidence of de-escalation.
There are those in the West who have never been terribly upset when rivals in resource-rich regions are at each other's throats. At the most crass level it is good for business, and good for election cycles. But it is quite clear that this is in fact an antiquated, barbaric way of thinking and doing business. A highly interconnected world can no longer afford it. Nor should Arab and Muslim elites tolerate the continuation of a permanent state of proxy wars between the most powerful Muslim Gulf countries. This has held back so much progress for average people and has been such a major embarrassment for decades.
The logic of this direction of peace process is incontrovertible, but it is time for the United Nations, for the major moral authorities of the world, for the people of the world, to demand a push for this peace process from their governments and elites. We face a unique situation where Iranian, Saudi, and Qatari citizens have not yet been directly killing each other on a battlefield, so that the populations could easily be brought into a peace process. The urgency, however, is not just for their sake, but rather for the sake of the tens of millions of victims of the proxy wars who these major Gulf powers have used and abused, for the sake of the Syrians in particular whose civilization has been utterly destroyed. The world needs to get busy with vigorous diplomacy to make this happen, so that the bloodletting can finally cease, so that the children can rest and live once again.