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Seven Pillars of Fiction

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The modern Middle East was born when the European powers exploited the declining Ottoman Empire’s entry into World War I to gobble up its lands.

They did so by duping naive Arab nationalists to rise against their Ottoman suzerain and then cheated the Arabs of the fruits of their uprising.
So goes the popular narrative about the origins of the region’s troubles. It’s an emotionally gripping tale, but it’s also the inverse of truth. It wasn’t British officials but a Meccan potentate, Sharif Hussein ibn Ali of the Hashemite family, who in the summer of 1915 hatched the idea of overthrowing the Ottoman Empire. Impressed by Hussein’s promises to raise the Ottomans’ Arab subjects in revolt, Sir Arthur Henry McMahon, the British high commissioner in Egypt, tentatively accepted Hussein’s vision of an Arab successor empire and facilitated the revolt that began in June 1916.
Hussein never came close to fulfilling his end of the bargain. Most of the Arabic-speaking population remained loyal to the Turks until the bitter end, viewing the Hashemite insurrection with disdain. Even in his hometown of Mecca the sharif didn’t command absolute loyalty. Had he not been armed and fed by Britain (and, to a lesser extent, France) and provided with troops, military guidance and lavish shipments of gold to buy Bedouin loyalty, Hussein would have never been able to launch his uprising, let alone sustain it.
This act of insubordination in a secondary theater of the Great War played a negligible part in the fall of the Ottoman Empire. Yet it was instantly immortalized as the “Great Arab Revolt,” winning the Hashemites territories several times the size of the British Isles after the war: The emirate of Transjordan (later to be known as the Kingdom of Jordan) was established in 1921 to satisfy the ambitions of Hussein’s second son, Abdullah, while in the same year the modern state of Iraq was created at the instigation of Abdullah’s younger brother Faisal. Hussein himself became king of the Hijaz, Islam’s birthplace, only to be evicted a few years later by Abdul Aziz ibn Saud, the founding father of Saudi Arabia.
It was a young British participant, Thomas Edward Lawrence (1888-1935), who single-handedly produced this extraordinary feat of historical deception. Though aware that the revolt was but “a sideshow of a sideshow,” as he wrote in his cleverly titled 1922 memoir, “Seven Pillars of Wisdom: A Triumph,” Lawrence had no qualms about mythologizing it in grand style. In the process he catapulted himself to fame as “Lawrence of Arabia” and became perhaps the first mega-celebrity of modern times. His legend was amplified by generations of acolytes, including Lowell Thomas, whose “The Last Crusade” lectures about Lawrence played to full houses in New York and London in 1919; the British director David Lean, who gave us the Oscar-winning 1962 epic “Lawrence of Arabia”; and a lengthy string of fawning biographers.
The illegitimate son of a disgraced Anglo-Irish aristocrat and his children’s governess, Lawrence studied archaeology at Oxford and spent the prewar years working on digs in Syria and Palestine. When the Ottomans made their catastrophic decision to enter World War I on the side of the Triple Alliance in November 1914, Lawrence was recruited to a new intelligence unit in Cairo, the headquarters of Britain’s war effort in the Middle East. Two years later, in October 1916, he accompanied a senior British official to the Hijaz to inspect the state of the Hashemite insurrection that had begun a few months earlier. Staying behind to report on the situation, he endeared himself to Faisal, and the road from there to his creation of the myth of the revolt was short.
How did an archaeologist with no military education successfully brand himself a world authority on guerrilla warfare with considerable impact on the future shape of the Middle East? The answer offered by Scott Anderson’s beautifully crafted but ultimately flawed account of the desert revolt is that “Lawrence was able to become ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ because no one was paying much attention.” As Lawrence’s superiors saw it, the author says, permitting a daring young operator to lead the Arabs in distracting the Turks from the much bloodier and consequential European front was a low-cost, high-return investment.
The problem with this theory is that London did actually commit massive resources and serious efforts to the Middle East during the war. These ranged from the disastrous 1915 Gallipoli landing, to the tortuous but successful Mesopotamian campaign (1915-16), to the conquest of the Levant (1917-18) by the Egyptian Expeditionary Force headed by Gen. Edmund Allenby. By the time fighting came to an end in 1918, no fewer than one million British and Commonwealth troops had been deployed in the region—hardly a reflection of “the low regard with which British war strategists viewed events in the Middle East,” as Mr. Anderson claims.
The Hashemite uprising was indeed a minor sideshow in the grand order of things, yet it was never the free-ranging operation suggested by the author. Rather it was an integral part of the Anglo-French war effort—Paris sent a military mission to the revolt commanded by a colonel—that was led by a string of seasoned officers, such as Col. Cyril Wilson and Lt. Col. Pierce Joyce, but never by Lawrence. As Lawrence himself put it, “I never had any office among the Arabs: was never in charge of the British mission with them. Wilson, Joyce, Newcombe, Dawnay and Davenport were all over my head.”
Mr. Anderson recounts Lawrence’s life in chronological fashion, drawing on some contemporary sources, official correspondence and the like. Yet he is too willing to take his subject at his word, even as he acknowledges that “earlier than most, Lawrence seemed to embrace the modern concept that history was malleable, that truth was what people were willing to believe.”
To substantiate Lawrence’s largely fictionalized version of his exploits, Mr. Anderson juxtaposes them with those of three contemporaries, freelancers who the author thinks lived parallel lives to Lawrence’s. Throughout the book, the stories of these other men are interwoven with the central narrative concerning Lawrence: William Yale, a young oil man “who, as the only American field intelligence officer in the Middle East during World War I, would strongly influence his nation’s postwar policy in the region”; Curt Prüfer, a German antiquities scholar “who, donning the camouflage of Arab robes, would seek to foment an Islamic jihad against the Western colonial powers”; and Aaron Aaronsohn, “a Jewish scientist who, under the cover of working for the Ottoman government, would establish an elaborate anti-Ottoman spy ring and play a crucial role in creating a Jewish homeland in Palestine.”
Putting a human face on historical events is an appealing technique that makes “Lawrence in Arabia” a gripping read. Yet eloquence and color can’t authenticate a flawed historical argument. Prüfer is little more than a curiosity, notable only for his future Nazi sympathies. Yale was in no position to affect the outcome of a war that his country joined at the 12th hour and even then took no part in the Middle Eastern fighting. Yale’s minor advisory role at the postwar Paris conference made no difference whatsoever and, as Mr. Anderson writes, he “resigned from the American peace delegation in disgust and sailed back to New York.” As for Aaronsohn, he did indeed provide vital intelligence that facilitated Allenby’s rout of the Ottoman armies in Palestine, but he played no “crucial role” in the creation of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. If anything, the exposure of his spy ring in autumn 1917 triggered a draconian Turkish retribution, with the Levant’s Ottoman master, Djemal Pasha, warning Zionist leaders that should the Turks be driven out of Palestine, there would be no surviving Jews to welcome the British forces.
Lawrence did indeed have a considerable impact on the creation of the modern Middle East, but this had nothing to do with his real war record. The revolt had been a complete fiasco. For all the British and French efforts, the Bedouins remained hopelessly immune to any concept of orderly warfare. They would break for coffee in the middle of the fighting and drop off occasionally to see their families; often a whole clan would tire of fighting and take a rest. They would attack small and lightly armed Turkish garrisons but would disperse in panic when confronted with a significant force, or even upon hearing artillery. Small wonder that they failed to vanquish the debilitated Ottoman forces in the Hijaz, with the strategic (and holy) city of Medina holding out to the end of the war. It was only in July 1917, more than a year after the start of the revolt, that the rebels managed to overcome the meager Ottoman resistance and capture the small port town of Aqaba, in the extreme northwest of the Arabian Peninsula. Their subsequent advances, which would carry them to Damascus at the war’s end, were but a corollary of Allenby’s Palestine offensive, and even these were achieved by the semiregular forces built by the British from among the prisoners of war shipped to Arabia.
How Lawrence managed to pass off this sordid power-grab by a local potentate as a heroic national revolt against an imperial oppressor Mr. Anderson doesn’t tell. He describes Lawrence as a “painfully shy” and “supremely private and hidden man” with a “craving for anonymity.” But painfully shy men, especially in the lowest rungs of strict, disciplinarian hierarchies like the military, don’t treat their superiors as equal or engage in high-level political machinations, let alone make their inner feelings known to the entire world via international best sellers—egomaniacs and compulsive attention-seekers do.
Lawrence was an exceptionally gifted charlatan with a keen eye to networking and self-promotion, who successfully cast his spell on far more senior and accomplished contemporaries, such as Allenby and Winston Churchill, who in his capacity as colonial secretary put the final touches to the post-Ottoman state system. As Lawrence admitted, tongue in cheek, in a rare moment of candor in “Seven Pillars”: “My proper share was a minor one, but because of a fluent pen, a free speech, and a certain adroitness of brain, I took upon myself, as I describe it, a mock primacy.”

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Middle East

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s heady days

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These are heady days for Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

With King Salman home after a week in hospital during which he had a colonoscopy, rumours are rife that succession in the kingdom may not be far off.

Speculation is not limited to a possible succession. Media reports suggest that US President Joe Biden may visit Saudi Arabia next month for a first meeting with the crown prince.

Mr. Biden called Saudi Arabia a pariah state during his presidential election campaign. He has since effectively boycotted Mr. Bin Salman because of the crown prince’s alleged involvement in the 2018 killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

Mr. Bin Salman has denied any involvement but said he accepted responsibility for the killing as Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler.

Mr. Bin Salman waited for his 86-year-old father to return from the hospital before travelling to Abu Dhabi to offer his condolences for the death of United Arab Emirates President Khaled bin Zayed and congratulations to his successor, Mohamed bin Zayed, the crown prince’s one-time mentor.

Mr. Bin Salman used the composition of his delegation to underline his grip on Saudi Arabia’s ruling family. In doing so, he was messaging the international community at large, and particularly Mr. Biden, that he is in control of the kingdom no matter what happens.

The delegation was made up of representatives of different branches of the ruling Al Saud family, including Prince Abdulaziz bin Ahmed, the eldest son of Prince Ahmed bin Abdulaziz, the detained brother of King Salman.

Even though he holds no official post, Mr. Abdulaziz’s name topped the Saudi state media’s list of delegates accompanying Mr. Bin Salman.

His father, Mr. Ahmed, was one of three members of the Allegiance Council not to support Mr. Bin Salman’s appointment as crown prince in 2017. The 34-member Council, populated by parts of the Al-Saud family, was established by King Abdullah in 2009 to determine succession to the throne in Saudi Arabia.

Mr. Bin Salman has detained Mr. Ahmed as well as Prince Mohamed Bin Nayef, the two men he considers his foremost rivals, partly because they are popular among US officials.

Mr. Ahmed was detained in 2020 but never charged, while Mr. Bin Nayef stands accused of corruption. Mr. Ahmed returned to the kingdomn in 2018 from London, where he told protesters against the war in Yemen to address those responsible, the king and the crown prince.

Mr. Abdulaziz’s inclusion in the Abu Dhabi delegation fits a pattern of Mr. Bin Salman appointing to office younger relatives of people detained since his rise in 2015. Many were arrested in a mass anti-corruption campaign that often seemed to camouflage a power grab that replaced consultative government among members of the ruling family with one-man rule.

Mr. Bin Salman likely takes pleasure in driving the point home as Mr. Biden mulls a pilgrimage to Riyadh to persuade the crown prince to drop his opposition to increasing the kingdom’s oil production and convince him that the United States remains committed to regional security.

The crown prince not only rejected US requests to help lower oil prices and assist Europe in reducing its dependency on Russian oil as part of the campaign to force Moscow to end its invasion of Ukraine but also refused to take a phone call from Mr. Biden.

Asked a month later whether Mr. Biden may have misunderstood him, Mr. Bin Salman told an interviewer: “Simply, I do not care.”

Striking a less belligerent tone, Mohammed Khalid Alyahya, a Hudson Institute visiting fellow and former editor-in-chief of Saudi-owned Al Arabiya English, noted this month that “Saudi Arabia laments what it sees as America’s wilful dismantling of an international order that it established and led for the better part of a century.”

Mr. Alyahya quoted a senior Saudi official as saying: “A strong, dependable America is the greatest friend Saudi Arabia can have. It stands to reason, then, that US weakness and confusion is a grave threat not just to America, but to us as well.”

The United States has signalled that it is shifting its focus away from the Middle East to Asia even though it has not rolled back its significant military presence.

Nonetheless, Middle Eastern states read a reduced US commitment to their security into a US failure to respond robustly to attacks by Iran and Iranian-backed Arab militias against targets in Saudi Arabia and the UAE and the Biden administration’s efforts to revive a moribund 2015 international nuclear agreement with Iran.

Several senior US officials, including National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and CIA director Bill Burns, met with the crown prince during trips to the kingdom last year. Separately, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin called the crown prince.

In one instance, Mr. Bin Salman reportedly shouted at Mr. Sullivan after he raised Mr. Khashoggi’s killing. The crown prince was said to have told the US official that he never wanted to discuss the matter again and that the US could forget about its request to boost Saudi oil production.

Even so, leverage in the US-Saudi relationship goes both ways.

Mr. Biden may need Saudi Arabia’s oil to break Russia’s economic back. By the same token, Saudi Arabia, despite massive weapon acquisitions from the United States and Europe as well as arms from China that the United States is reluctant to sell, needs the US as its security guarantor.

Mr. Bin Salman knows that he has nowhere else to go. Russia has written itself out of the equation, and China is neither capable nor willing to step into the United States’ shoes any time soon.

Critics of Mr. Biden’s apparent willingness to bury the hatchet with Mr. Bin Salman argue that in the battle with Russia and China over a new 21st-century world order, the United States needs to talk the principled talk and walk the principled walk.

In an editorial, The Washington Post, for whom Mr. Khashoggi was a columnist, noted that “the contrast between professed US principles and US policy would be stark and undeniable” if Mr. Biden reengages with Saudi Arabia.

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Saudi religious moderation: the world’s foremost publisher of Qur’ans has yet to get the message

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When the religious affairs minister of Guinea-Conakry visited Jeddah last week, his Saudi counterpart gifted him 50,000 Qur’ans.

Saudi Islamic affairs minister Abdullatif Bin Abdulaziz Al-Sheikh offered the holy books as part of his ministry’s efforts to print and distribute them and spread their teachings.

The Qur’ans were produced by the King Fahd Complex for the Printing of the Holy Qur’an, which annually distributes millions of copies. Scholar Nora Derbal asserts that the Qur’ans “perpetuate a distinct Wahhabi reading of the scripture.”

Similarly, Saudi Arabia distributed in Afghanistan in the last years of the US-backed government of President Ashraf Ghani thousands of Qur’ans produced by the printing complex, according to Mr. Ghani’s former education minister, Mirwais Balkhi. Mr. Balkhi indicated that the Qur’ans were identical to those distributed by the kingdom for decades.

Mr. Ghani and Mr. Balkhi fled Afghanistan last year as US troops withdrew from the country and the Taliban took over.

Human Rights Watch and Impact-se, an education-focused Israeli research group, reported last year that Saudi Arabia, pressured for some two decades post-9/11 by the United States and others to remove supremacist references to Jews, Christian, and Shiites in its schoolbooks, had recently made significant progress in doing so.

However, the two groups noted that Saudi Arabia had kept in place fundamental concepts of an ultra-conservative, anti-pluralistic, and intolerant interpretation of Islam.

The same appears true for the world’s largest printer and distributor of Qur’ans, the King Fahd Complex.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has, since his rise in 2015, been primarily focussed on social and economic rather than religious reform.

Mr. Bin Salman significantly enhanced professional and personal opportunities for women, including lifting the ban on women’s driving and loosening gender segregation and enabled the emergence of a Western-style entertainment sector in the once austere kingdom.

Nevertheless, Saudi Islam scholar Besnik Sinani suggests that “state pressure on Salafism in Saudi Arabia will primarily focus on social aspects of Salafi teaching, while doctrinal aspects will probably receive less attention.”

The continued production and distribution of Qur’ans that included unaltered ultra-conservative interpretations sits uneasily with Mr. Bin Salman’s effort to emphasize nationalism rather than religion as the core of Saudi identity and project a more moderate and tolerant image of the kingdom’s Islam.

The Saudi spin is not in the Arabic text of the Qur’an that is identical irrespective of who prints it, but in parenthetical additions, primarily in translated versions, that modify the meaning of specific Qur’anic passages.

Commenting in 2005 on the King Fahd Complex’s English translation, the most widely disseminated Qur’an in the English-speaking world, the late Islam scholar Khaleel Mohammed asserted that it “reads more like a supremacist Muslim, anti-Semitic, anti-Christian polemic than a rendition of the Islamic scripture.”

Religion scholar Peter Mandaville noted in a recently published book on decades of Saudi export of ultra-conservative Islam that “it is the kingdom’s outsized role in the printing and distribution of the Qur’an as rendered in other languages that becomes relevant in the present context.”

Ms. Derbal, Mr. Sinani and this author contributed chapters to Mr. Mandaville’s edited volume.

The King Fahd Complex said that it had produced 18 million copies of its various publications in 2017/18 in multiple languages in its most recent production figures. Earlier it reported that it had printed and distributed 127 million copies of the Qur’an in the 22 years between 1985 and 2007. The Complex did not respond to emailed queries on whether parenthetical texts have been recently changed.

The apparent absence of revisions of parenthetical texts reinforces suggestions that Mr. Bin Salman is more concerned about socio-political considerations, regime survival, and the projection of the kingdom as countering extremism and jihadism than he is about reforming Saudi Islam.

It also spotlights the tension between the role Saudi Arabia envisions as the custodian of Islam’s holiest cities, Mecca and Medina, and the needs of a modern state that wants to attract foreign investment to help ween its economy off dependency on oil exports.

Finally, the continued distribution of Qur’ans with seemingly unaltered commentary speaks to the balance Mr. Bin Salman may still need to strike with the country’s once-powerful religious establishment despite subjugating the clergy to his will.

The continued global distribution of unaltered Qur’an commentary calls into question the sincerity of the Saudi moderation campaign, particularly when juxtaposed with rival efforts by other major Muslim countries to project themselves as beacons of a moderate form of Islam.

Last week, Saudi Arabia’s Muslim World League convened some 100 Christian, Jewish, Hindu, and Buddhist religious leaders to “establish a set of values common to all major world religions and a vision for enhancing understanding, cooperation, and solidarity amongst world religions.”

Once a major Saudi vehicle for the global propagation of Saudi religious ultra-conservatism, the League has been turned into Mr. Bin Salman’s megaphone. It issues lofty statements and organises high-profile conferences that project Saudi Arabia as a leader of moderation and an example of tolerance.

The League, under the leadership of former justice minister Mohammed al-Issa, has emphasised its outreach to Jewish leaders and communities. Mr. Al-Issa led a delegation of Muslim religious leaders in 2020 on a ground-breaking visit to Auschwitz, the notorious Nazi extermination camp in Poland.

However, there is little evidence, beyond Mr. Al-Issa’s gestures, statements, and engagement with Jewish leaders, that the League has joined in a practical way the fight against anti-Semitism that, like Islamophobia, is on the rise.

Similarly, Saudi moderation has not meant that the kingdom has lifted its ban on building non-Muslim houses of worship on its territory.

The Riyadh conference followed Nahdlatul Ulama’s footsteps, the world’s largest Muslim civil society movement with 90 million followers in the world’s largest Muslim majority country and most populous democracy. Nahdlatul Ulama leader Yahya Cholil Staquf spoke at the conference.

In recent years, the Indonesian group has forged alliances with Evangelical entities like the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA), Jewish organisations and religious leaders, and various Muslim groups across the globe. Nahdlatul Ulama sees the alliances as a way to establish common ground based on shared humanitarian values that would enable them to counter discrimination and religion-driven prejudice, bigotry, and violence.

Nahdlatul Ulama’s concept of Humanitarian Islam advocates reform of what it deems “obsolete” and “problematic” elements of Islamic law, including those that encourage segregation, discrimination, and/or violence towards anyone perceived to be a non-Muslim. It further accepts the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, unlike the Saudis, without reservations.

The unrestricted embrace of the UN declaration by Indonesia and its largest Muslim movement has meant that conversion, considered to be apostasy under Islamic law, is legal in the Southeast Asian nation. As a result, Indonesia, unlike Middle Eastern states where Christian communities have dwindled due to conflict, wars, and targeted attacks, has witnessed significant growth of its Christian communities.

Christians account for ten percent of Indonesia’s population. Researchers Duane Alexander Miller and Patrick Johnstone reported in 2015 that 6.5 million Indonesian had converted to Christianity since 1960.

That is not to say that Christians and other non-Muslim minorities have not endured attacks on churches, suicide bombings, and various forms of discrimination. The attacks have prompted Nahdlatul Ulama’s five million-strong militia to protect churches in vulnerable areas during holidays such as Christmas. The militia has also trained Christians to enable them to watch over their houses of worship.

Putting its money where its mouth is, a gathering of 20,000 Nahdlatul Ulama religious scholars issued in 2019 a fatwa or religious opinion eliminating the Muslim legal concept of the kafir or infidel.

Twelve years earlier, the group’s then spiritual leader and former Indonesian president Abdurahman Wahid, together with the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, organised a conference in the archipelago state to acknowledge the Holocaust and denounce denial of the Nazi genocide against the Jews. The meeting came on the heels of a gathering in Tehran convened by then Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that denied the existence of the Holocaust.

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Iran Gives Russia Two and a Half Cheers

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Photo: Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov meets with his Iranian counterpart Hossein Amir-Abdollahian in Moscow, March 15 2022. Credit: @Amirabdolahian via Twitter.

Iran’s rulers enthusiastically seek to destroy the liberal world order and therefore support Russia’s aggression. But they can’t manage full-throated support.

For Iran, the invasion of Ukraine is closely related to the very essence of the present world order. Much like Russia, Iran has been voicing its discontent at the way the international system has operated since the end of the Cold War. More broadly, Iran and Russia see the world through strikingly similar lenses. Both keenly anticipate the end of the multipolar world and the end of the West’s geopolitical preponderance.

Iran had its reasons to think this way. The US unipolar moment after 1991 provoked a deep fear of imminent encirclement, with American bases in Afghanistan and Iraq cited as evidence. Like Russia, the Islamic Republic views itself as a separate civilization that needs to be not only acknowledged by outside players, but also to be given ana suitable geopolitical space to project influence.

Both Russia and Iran are very clear about their respective spheres of influence. For Russia, it is the territories that once constituted the Soviet empire. For Iran, it is the contiguous states reaching from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean — Iraq, Syria, Lebanon — plus Yemen. When the two former imperial powers have overlapping strategic interests such as, for instance, in the South Caucasus and the Caspian Sea, they apply the concept of regionalism. This implies the blocking out of non-regional powers from exercising outsize economic and military influence, and mostly revolves around an order dominated by the powers which border on a region.

This largely explains why Iran sees the Russian invasion of Ukraine as an opportunity that, if successful, could hasten the end of the liberal world order. This is why it has largely toed the Russian line and explained what it describes as legitimate motives behind the invasion. Thus the expansion of NATO into eastern Europe was cited as having provoked Russian moves. “The root of the crisis in Ukraine is the US policies that create the crisis, and Ukraine is one victim of these policies,” argued Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei following the invasion.

To a certain degree, Iran’s approach to Ukraine has been also influenced by mishaps in bilateral relations which largely began with the accidental downing of a Ukrainian passenger jet by Iranian surface-to-air missiles in January 2020, killing 176 people. The regime first denied responsibility, and later blamed human error.

Iran, like several other of Russia’s friends and defenders,  the ideal scenario would have been a quick war in which the Kremlin achieved its major goals.

Protracted war, however, sends a bad signal. It signals that the liberal order was not in such steep decline after all, and that Russia’s calls for a new era in international relations have been far from realistic. The unsuccessful war also shows Iran that the collective West still has very significant power and — despite well-aired differences — an ability to rapidly coalesce to defend the existing rules-based order. Worse, for these countries, the sanctions imposed on Russia go further; demonstrating the West’s ability to make significant economic sacrifices to make its anger felt. In other words, Russia’s failure in Ukraine actually strengthened the West and made it more united than at any point since the September 2001 terrorist attacks on the US.

A reinvigorated liberal order is the last thing that Iran wants, given its own troubled relations with the collective West. The continuing negotiations on a revived nuclear deal will be heavily impacted by how Russia’s war proceeds, and how the US and EU continue to respond to the aggression. Iran fears that a defeated Russia might be so angered as to use its critical position to endanger the talks, vital to the lifting of the West’s crippling sanctions.

And despite rhetorical support for Russia, Iran has been careful not to overestimate Russia’s power. It is now far from clear that the Kremlin has achieved its long-term goal of “safeguarding” its western frontier. Indeed, the Putin regime may have done the opposite now that it has driven Finland and Sweden into the NATO fold. Western sanctions on Russia are likely to remain for a long time, threatening long-term Russian economic (and possible regime) stability.

Moreover, Russia’s fostering of separatist entities (following the recognition of the so called Luhansk and Donetsk “people’s republics” and other breakaway entities in Georgia and Moldova) is a highly polarizing subject in Iran. True there has been a shift toward embracing Russia’s position over Ukraine, but Iran remains deeply committed to the “Westphalian principles” of non-intervention in the affairs of other states and territorial integrity. This is hardly surprising given its own struggles against potential separatism in the peripheries of the country.

Many Iranians also sympathize with Ukraine’s plight, which for some evokes Iran’s defeats in the early 19th century wars when Qajars had to cede the eastern part of the South Caucasus to Russia. This forms part of a historically deeply rooted, anti-imperialist sentiment in Iran.

Iran is therefore likely to largely abstain from endorsing Russia’s separatist ambitions in Eastern Ukraine. It will also eschew, where possible, support for Russia in international forums. Emblematic of this policy was the March 2 meeting in the United Nations General Assembly when Iran, rather than siding with Russia, abstained from the vote which condemned the invasion.

Russia’s poor military performance, and the West’s ability to act unanimously, serve as a warning for the Islamic Republic that it may one day have to soak up even more Western pressure if Europe, the US, and other democracies act in union.

In the meantime, like China, Iran will hope to benefit from the magnetic pull of the Ukraine war. With so much governmental, military and diplomatic attention demanded by the conflict, it will for the time being serve as a distraction from Iran’s ambitions elsewhere. 

Author’s note: first published in cepa

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