Conversation with professor Ibrahim Al-Marashi

Conversation conducted by: Harun Karčić

Ibrahim al-Marashi is an associate professor at California State University, San Marcos, researching modern Iraqi history. He holds a doctor of philosophy in history from Oxford University (2004), where his thesis was on the Iraqi Invasion of Kuwait; a master’s degree in political science from Georgetown University, which he had received in 1997; and a bachelor’s degree in history and Near Eastern studies from the University of California Los Angeles.

Ibrahim al-Marashi

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the 1919 Paris peace conference when European Allies made arrays of wartime agreements among themselves concerning the Ottoman domains in order to divide the projected spoils of victory. Would you agree that the results of these divisions of territory continue to impact the Middle East today? 

Blaming the European partition plans after 1919 only provides a partial explanation as to the instability affecting the region. Post-war politics among the victors during the Conference, particularly the UK and France, may have created the structure of the post-Ottoman era and the Middle East state system, but conflicts in the region also have to bear in mind causal factors such authoritarian regimes that emerged within these states and the poor policy choices made by the elites of each state that led to cronyism, stagnant economies, or in some cases, ceaseless wars.

A century ago, there were three main components of the Middle East: The Ottoman Empire, Persia and Arabia. What they had in common was that they were all nearly crumbling and occupied by European powers. Would you agree that their modern day heirs – Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia – are the major players in the Middle East and to what extent are they sovereign in their decision making?

They are the major players, but for different reasons. Turkey and Iran have large populations, and thus larger militaries, and have geographical depth that allows them to project power in the region. Saudi Arabia does have a central location in the Peninsula, but not a large population, nor military, but it does have an advantages compared to the other two – the financial largesse to impact the region, as well as unwavering support from the Trump administration, which brings us to their sovereignty in the present. These three actors’ sovereignty is always compromised by calculating their foreign policy decisions, and the American reaction to them.  Washington’s response serve as a constraint to all of the actors’ behavior. 

The first Middle East cold war in the 1960s was, according to Malcolm H. Kerr, partly an extension of the global Cold War with its own distinct characteristics. Has the Middle East entered a new Cold war in the wake of the Arab Spring?

Yes, there is a regional cold war, with the bipolarity centered on the Iranian-Saudi rivalry, as Tehran and Riyadh have fought each other by arming incumbent governments or rebel groups.  The term “sectarian cold war” has also caught on with analysts and the media to explain this crisis in the Middle East, however this is misleading. It just so happens that most of Saudi Arabia’s national allies and proxies are Sunni, while Iran’s are Shi’a.  However, it would be misleading to see sectarian rationales alone as the basis for this conflict. The Saudi-Iranian rivalry has been part of the regional order since 1979, and that rivalry has not been an enduring conflict based on primordial identities since the battle of Karbala in 680. Furthermore, there is no “Sunni” bloc during this cold war. Turkey and Saudi Arabia, the two regional heavyweights, are both Sunni, yet have disagreed over matters ranging from whom to support in the Syrian civil war to Riyadh’s blockade imposed on its neighbor Qatar in 2017.  During the latter crisis, Sunni Turkey and Shi’a Iran came to Sunni Qatar’s aid.  There is a regional cold war, but it is not theological in its origins.

According to some historians, the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran marked the beginning of the second Middle East cold war. Saudi Arabia and Iran, along with their allies, have been engaged in confrontation ever since. Looking back at the Islamic revolution from today’s perspective, how would you assess Iran on its 40th anniversary?

The Islamic Republic served as a model of Islamist power that threatened the legitimacy of Saudi Arabia’s monarchy, leading it to export a more militant form of Wahabism afterwards. Such ideology took root among the Afghan refugees in Pakistan, leading to the birth of the Taliban and its seizure of Afghanistan by the mid-nineties, providing a safe haven for Al-Qaida to plan the 9/11 attacks.  Forty years later, the Islamic Republic still challenges Saudi Arabia for the same reason. 

Forty years later the Islamic Republic consolidated the Revolution domestically, notwithstanding economic problems its face. It has also consolidated its regional presence, supporting the creation of Hizballah in Lebanon in 1982, propping up the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria after 2011, and supporting a network of Iraqi Shi’a militias to combat Daesh after 2014.

Since republics and monarchies cannot really be considered Islamic systems of governance per se, would you say that Iran has provided the only original Islamic alternative to the Westphalian state system? 

Iran is one of the few theocracies in the world, along with Vatican City, and Saudi Arabia. Thus its theocratic nature is not a rejection of the Westphalian system per se. Iran is also a republic, which makes it a conformist, rather than outlier in this system of states. The only two states I would say that challenged this system would be the Islamic emirate of the Taliban and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, but even the Taliban was recognized by Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE. The Islamic State was the only entity that was not recognized as part of the system, nor did the Islamic State strive to be part of the system, arguing it was a secular system based on man-made laws and borders. The Islamic State thought acted in the most un-Islamic way to its own inhabitants.  

The Middle East remains divided cross varying ideologies and at war – either driven by nationalism, pan-Islamism, sectarianism or ethnicity. What will it take for Middle Eastern states to agree on their own Treaty of Westphalia and set common goals to work towards?

It would be a beneficial normative standard to aspire to, but will not be likely.  In a 2016 issue of Foreign Affairs, Michael Axworthy and Patrick Milton argued that the Westphalian framework, which concluded the Thirty Years’ War, could bring an end to these conflicts, “not as a blueprint . . . but rather as a guide and a toolbox” for peace in the Middle East. Selim Can Sazak disagreed, as the peace treaty, in and of itself, did not bring about peace, but rather four dynamics that enabled the peace treaty’s to work: “the secularization of politics, the homogenization of polities, the internalization of differences, and the externalization of rivalries.” None of these four are manifest in the region or will be in the near future.