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Palestinian Myths: Building a National History (A)

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The Palestinians demand the entire territory of Palestine, “from the Sea to the River.” They have never abandoned their claim, and they are not ready to get any compromise and to reach to any agreement that gives them less than the entire territory.

One of the important strategies is their claim that they are an ancient and indigenous people in the territory of the Land or the Land of Israel. However, the claim is a total fabrication, and fails to stand up with any historic scientific scrutiny. Before the British Mandate, during the 400 years of the Ottoman Empire rule, this territory was an administrative one, divided into several Sanjaks (sub-provinces) under the Vilayet (province) of al-Sham (Damascus) that has neither a political unit nor a national entity.

All scientific and governmental German and British data and surveys clearly show an underdeveloped deserted land composed mainly of primitive hamlets. These including French historian Constantine Volney (Travels through Syria and Egypt, 1798); the mid-19th-century writings of Alphonse de Lamartine (Recollections of the East, 1835); Mark Twain (Innocents Abroad, 1867); reports from the British Consul in Jerusalem (1857), and many others.

The Ottoman’s census of 1882 recorded only 141,000 Muslims in all the historic Land of Israel, although the real number is probably double, since many hid to avoid taxes. The British census in 1922 reported 650,000 Muslims. Family names of many inhabitants attest to their origins: Elmisri, Misr, Masarweh (Egyptian), Chalabi, Horani (Syrian), Mughrabi (North Africa), Ajami (Persian), Halabi (Aleppan), Kurdi (Kurdish), and many more. Yet, the most comprised of Bedouin tribes from Jordan and Sinai.

The multifarious origins of these “Palestinians” involve family, tribal, and sectarian rivalries. They were attracted to the relative economic prosperity brought about by the Zionist Movement and the British. In 1934 alone, 30,000 Syrian Arabs from the Hauran region moved across the northern frontier into Mandatory Palestine. They even dubbed Haifa Um el-Amal (‘the city of work’). As for Nablus, based on the number of buildings in photos taken from Mount Gerizim, the population in 1909 could not have been greater than 2,000 residents.

‘Palestine’ has never been a territorial-cultural and political unit. The same refers for “Palestinians”. There were no people or a nation in history called by that name. The word “Palestine” was born only in the 20th century by the British. The land was officially named “Palestine” in English, “Filastin” in Arabic, and “Palestina (E.I.: the Land of Israel)” in Hebrew. The British could have chosen the name “The Holy Land” or other name, or even the Land of Israel, or other name with no historic relevance. In that case, there could have been no “Palestine” and no “Palestinian People.”

Consider the possibility the British have chosen the name “Jupiter.” In that case one would have hearing of a Jupiterian people fighting to liberate its Jupiterian land from the Jews, which have a four thousand documented written and proven history.

The fact is that all over the Mandatory period, Arab inhabitants avoided using the Arabic name Filastin, but the name “Arabs.” They considered themselves as Syrians, and the land was for them Southern Syria, part of the Syrian country. Only the Christian elite did make formal use of the name “Palestine.” This was the case almost till the middle of the 40ies of the 20th Century.  

Even the Palestinians themselves, leaders and the common people, had not considered themselves “Palestinians,” and had not referred to the territory as “Palestine,” and did not dream to establish a Palestinian State. The fictitious Palestinian people consists of an aggregation of clans and tribes drawn from the far-flung areas of the Middle East and North Africa.

An important episode is understanding the origin of the Arabic word “Nakbah,” disaster. The Palestinians refer to the name, after the book written by Constantine Zureiq, Ma’na al-Nakbah, as related to their disaster in the 1948 war. However, the original use of “Nakbah” was in 1920, the San-Remo Conference that confirmed the Mandatory system and the division of “Palestine” from “Greater Syria” (Antonius, the Emergence of Arab Nationalism). That is the Nakbah, disaster, of what was later on recognized as Palestinians was not the establishment of the State of Israel, but the partition of the territory known as Southern Syria (Suriya al-Janubiyah) taken out from its country origin, Syria, to become a separate territory by the British and French (Meinerzhagen, Middle East Diary).    

In 1945, the renowned Arab historian Philip Hitti vehemently claimed before the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry that no Palestine had ever existed in history and there were no such Palestinian people. This was also the official position of the Palestinian and Arab representatives themselves to all international committees in the 1940’s. During the 1950’s, in all international conventions and the Arab leaders’ declarations, there was no “Palestinian people” nor “Palestinian refugees” problem but “Arab refugees.” Even as late as the UN Resolution 242 of November 1967, it mentions only “Arab refugees,” not “Palestinian refugees,” or a “Palestinian people.” One has also to recall that the Partition Plan of November 1947, mentions on an Arab state.

Indeed, contrary to the Palestinian’s propaganda and the “peace activists” lies in Europe, the small amount of people gathered from many places of the area around and consisted mainly by Bedouins never had a state and have never comprised a nation. Therefore, the later-on called Palestinians never “gave up in 1948 of 78% of Western Palestine, and they are ready to accept only 22% of the land,” as they claim in their fraud propaganda. This is sheer fabrication.

The later-on called Palestinians were not a political player in 1948; they were in a status of refugees under the control of Jordan and Egypt, until 1967, and they continued demanding the entire territory, and they have never given up the demand on every inch of it. They have never recognized the Jewish rights and they continue to demand Israel’s annihilation. It is only on them to prove, whether they are willing to reach a compromise. Since they discovered that they cannot achieve this by war, they work to implement the political course and are assisted by Europe to obliterate Israel from within (the “right of return” of the refugees) and by de-legitimization of Israel by the image and precedent of South-Africa (“Israel is an apartheid state”; “Israel is a racist state”).    

The Palestinian Authority propagation provides fabricated answers to the questions of national identity; historical roots of the Palestinians; and the nationality of the country called Palestine. If there is no Palestinian historical record to satisfy that need, myths and lies are concocted, and the education system is to serve as the most effective tool to mold and to shape the new generations and to create out of nothing a Palestinian history over the territory called Palestine.

This is the information the Palestinians get by propagation by all the social media:

a) To the question, who the Palestinians are? The answer is: the Palestinians are descended of the seven peoples of Cana’an. The educational and the communication media praise the Cana’anite origins. Palestinian academics explain in total fraud and twisted historical facts that even Israeli archaeological finds bolster the claim of the Palestinian-Cana’anites origin in the land, without any reliable sources.

Contrary to the numerous references in the Qur’an of the history of Banu Isra’il, the Children of Israel, the righteous side, and their victories over their Cana’anite enemies, the evil side. It also contradicts Allah’s Covenant with Jews, being the chosen people, the only people who deserve to inherit the land (5:21; 7:137; 17:104), to be known al-Ard al-Mubarakah (the blessed land); al-Ard al-Muqaddasah (the Holy Land); Ard Bani Isra’il (the Land of Israel).

b) To the question concerning the historical rights of the Arabs over Palestine, the answer is that they are ever since the dawn of history, and it is totally only theirs. They reiterate the following, in the educational system and the media: “Palestine is our country… through Jihad our country shall be liberated… Jihad and sacrifice become a personal duty on all the Palestinians… Draw your sword and let us gather for war with blazing fire for slaughter. go forward crying: Allahu Akbar.”

c) To the question concerning Jerusalem, the answer is that it is an ancient Arab city, built by the Jebusite Arabs before Islam. It is thousands of years old, its most ancient name, Jebus, is derived from the ancient Arabs, the Jebusites. Muslims must wage a Jihad war to liberate al-Aqsa Mosque from the Zionist conquest.

This ideological propaganda is accompanied by a sophisticated strategy in Western public opinion. The Palestinians initiated a highly successful campaign to assimilate into the European consciousness that Israel is the last remnant of colonialism implanted in the Middle East by European imperialism, so as to intensify the European guilt remorse: a) Israel occupies the land belonging solely to the Palestinians; b) Israel has uprooted the Palestinians as a nation, and scattered them out of their land; c) Israel continues to liquidating the Palestinians’ national and social heritage, by implanting a phony foreign culture.

The repeated stress of the Palestinian educational system on the ancient Arab identity of the land is obviously geared to posit Palestinian antiquity, absolutely imagined and fabricated without any need to produce scientific historical evidence to sustain the claim, is the main of Arab cultures. They need no proofs. However, these lies succeed internationally out of ignorance and lack of scientific historical knowledge.

All the educational system and the PA media, mainly TV, use these daily repeated variety of claims by showing a map of the Middle East in which Israel does not exist and is replaced in its entirety by a country called Palestine. Under the words “our country Palestine”, the map replaces all Israel, which does not exist at all. The entire territory is Palestine. A map entitled “Map of Palestine before and after the war of 1967” defines the area of the State of Israel as the Arab lands conquered before 1967, while the West Bank and the Gaza Strip are defined as the Arab lands conquered in 1967. Maps of the Middle East in which Israel does not exist and its area is marked as “Palestine”, appear in all textbooks.

A map which accompanies the lesson which is compulsory to all pupils: “Palestine is our Homeland”, encompasses the entire State of Israel and specifies Israeli cities and villages as Arab even though most of them date from biblical times: Safed, Acre, Haifa, Tiberias, Nazareth, Beit She’an, Jaffa, Jerusalem and Beersheba, and other Israeli cities. A drawing shows a woman waving the Palestinian flag while in the background is the map of Palestine in the place of all Israel. All the geography books mark the entire territory of Israel as Palestine.

The Palestinian Television shows the same map, many times on a daily basis, at the beginning and the end of every news report. This substitution of Palestine for anything Israeli, and official Palestinian media even mark all Israeli technological scientific achievements as Palestinian origin.

These passages, and there is a huge amount of material, point to the tenacity in which the PA instill into the minds of its children, from the early ages of childhood the necessity and inevitability of a prolonged Jihad to liberate all Palestine. The insistent demand that the children should be prepared to fight and die in the service of this dream. Rejection of Israel, Zionists and Jews, which is based on moral, political, nationalistic as well as religious considerations, is absolute and total.

This whole historical structure that has been invented and fabricated by the Palestinians exposes the real traits of Arab-Islamic culture, and they instill it into the minds of children as an irrefutable truth, without any evidence or scientific sources. In so doing, they omit, refute and deny other’s heritage and existence. There is no mentioning of the Jews and acceptance of their historical claims. Unfortunately, because Western ignorance is so pervasive and there is also the human Western belief that in every issue there is truth, the Free World yields to these atrocious hideous blames of Israel.

The Zionist ideology which nurtures the Jewish State is the paradigm of racism, apartheid, imperialism and ethnic cleansing, and doomed to failure. Jewish qualitative characters are notorious, for they are treacherous, disloyal, and corrupt. They are plagued with racist beliefs and racial discrimination like Nazism, and the construct of Satan. Israel is brutal, fascist and genocidal. The best is Arieh Stav, Peace – Arab Cartoon, Shaarei-Tiqva, Ariel Center for policy research, 1999. From that time on, one can fill many huge volumes of this material.

The scientific and political truth is that there has never been a Palestinian history; never been a historical Palestinian country and sovereignty; never been a historical Palestinian nationalism, let alone an independent nation; never been a Palestinian ethnicity, a Palestinian language, and a Palestinian societal groupings and institutions. There was no Palestinian archaeology, no Palestinian population or settlements, and nobody knew historically and accepted politically a Palestinian state and a nation. What we see now is a new creation of a distinct Palestinian national identity only from the last seventy years. The Palestinian identity has been emerged and created because of the Israeli creation as a state in 1948, and the Israeli military victory in the 1967 war.

Palestinian nationalism is an entity negatively defined, by its opposition to Zionism, and not by its national aspirations due to historical and political facts. What unites Palestinians has been their opposition to the Jewish state and the desire to destroy it.

Along all the first half of the 20th century, the local inhabitants consisted of diverse individuals, several tribes and clans, some prominent families in cities, mainly a nomadic tribes, and new migrants from Syria, Egypt and Trans-Jordan and other places. The important issue is that they certainly did not consider themselves as a nation, and they were not considered by anyone as such, and their focus of identity was parochial – tribal and Hanulah, city dwellers, Ottoman subjects and later on Syrian residents.

They lived in the geographic area that historically belonged to Syria, and politically called under the British Mandate as “Palestine” in English. However, the concept of a ‘stateless Palestinian people’ is a fabrication, the big lie of the Middle East contemporary politics. The Palestinians have received billions of dollars from the international community tunneled directly to terrorism and corruption.

In fact, the so-called patriotism of indigenous Arabs has flourished only when non-Muslim entities (the Crusaders, the British, and the Jews) have taken control of the area called the Land of Israel. Not amazingly, when political control returns to the Arab-Muslim hands, this ardent patriotism magically wanes and the territory went into a political oblivion. This is the historical proven fact for 1400 years.

Arab representative government has never been established in Palestine, either in 1948 or during the next 19 years of Arab rule until 1967. Because other Arabs co-opted the Palestinian cause as a rallying point that would advance their political interests. The real change came only after 1967, with the inspiration of Arafat, the creator of the Palestinian people and identity and the establisher of its political center.

He who really wishes to get good reliable knowledge about the Palestinian situation, it is highly recommended to separate the sophisticated propaganda from the real issues and situations.

It is highly important to compare the Palestinians’ socio-economic and political situation and at least 80 countries from the third world, including some Arab states. At the same time one has to recall that this relatively high Palestinians standard of living is out of international money donation and not their work. They received money much higher than the monies given to recover Europe after WW2 with “Marshall Plan.”

It is no less important to have good knowledge how that is the Palestinians have received billions and billions of dollars, while taking perhaps the lion’s share of world humanitarian support, putting aside and neglecting at least one billion people around the world who get nothing and are literally dying.

It is easy to have pictures of the Palestinians cities and villages to really understand the relatively high standard of living as compare to the Third World countries, including Arabs, and again to recall they were all out of the international generosity that stops there and very scant poor donation given to other peoples.

When one gets the reliable information and discard the propaganda, he understands that the continuation of the conflict with Israel is a must for the Palestinians. This is a highly profitable industry they don’t want to stop. Without it they will have to get up tomorrow and start working for their living.    

Professor Fuad Ajami, of John’s Hopkins University (NYT, June 19, 2007) sees this as sheer fantasy. An accommodation with Israel is imperative, but the Palestinian leaders still demanding to have it all “from the River to the Sea.” The Arab states have compounded the Palestinian radicalism, granted them everything and nothing at the same time, and there was thus no need for the Palestinians to moderation and realism. The Palestinians should know better, Ajami continues, no Arabs wait for Palestine anymore, and aside from a handful of the most romantic messianic Israelis, there is a recognition that the Palestinians must come to term with reason and live in peace with Israel, or to drop off the history.

Today, As Israel celebrates 68 years of independence, new publications appear by the Palestinian Authority that actively disseminates its ideology that denies Israel’s fundamental right to exist in any borders. The PA regularly proclaims and actively teaches Palestinian children that all of Israel is an illegitimate “occupation,” and that all Israeli territory is occupied. Palestinians are regularly and intensively taught to anticipate a future without Israel when all of its territory will be part of the “State of Palestine.” These are also Abu Mazen’s declarations, for example on October 28, 2015, and March 11, 2016, in the official PA TV.

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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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Ignoring the Middle East at one’s peril: Turkey plays games in NATO

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Image source: NATO

Amid speculation about a reduced US military commitment to security in the Middle East, Turkey has spotlighted the region’s ability to act as a disruptive force if its interests are neglected.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan set off alarm bells this week, declaring that he was not “positive” about possible Finnish and Swedish applications for membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

NATO membership is contingent on a unanimous vote in favour by the organisation’s 30 members. Turkey has NATO’s second-largest standing army. 

The vast majority of NATO members appear to endorse Finnish and Swedish membership. NATO members hope to approve the applications at a summit next month.

A potential Turkish veto would complicate efforts to maintain trans-Atlantic unity in the face of the Russian invasion.

Mr. Erdogan’s pressure tactics mirror the maneuvers of his fellow strongman, Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban. Mr. Orban threatens European Union unity by resisting a bloc-wide boycott of Russian energy.

Earlier, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia rejected US requests to raise oil production in an effort to lower prices and help Europe reduce its dependence on Russian energy.

The two Gulf states appear to have since sought to quietly backtrack on their refusal.

In late April, France’s TotalEnergies chartered a tanker to load Abu Dhabi crude in early May for Europe, the first such shipment in two years.

Saudi Arabia has quietly used its regional pricing mechanisms to redirect from Asia to Europe Arab “medium,” the Saudi crude that is the closest substitute for the main Russian export blend, Urals, for which European refineries are configured.

Mr. Erdogan linked his NATO objection to alleged Finnish and Swedish support for the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), which has been designated a terrorist organisation by Turkey, the United States, and the EU.

The PKK has waged a decades-long insurgency in southeast Turkey in support of Kurds’ national, ethnic, and cultural rights. Kurds account for up to 20 per cent of the country’s 84 million population.

Turkey has recently pounded PKK positions in northern Iraq in a military operation named Operation Claw Lock

Turkey is at odds with the United States over American support for Syrian Kurds in the fight against the Islamic State. Turkey asserts that America’s Syrian Kurdish allies are aligned with the PKK.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu warned that Turkey opposes a US decision this week to exempt from sanctions against Syria regions controlled by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).

“This is a selective and discriminatory move,” Mr. Cavusoglu said, noting that the exemption did not include Kurdish areas of Syria controlled by Turkey and its Syrian proxies.

Referring to the NATO membership applications, Mr. Erdogan charged that “Scandinavian countries are like some kind of guest house for terrorist organisations. They’re even in parliament.”

Mr. Erdogan’s objections relate primarily to Sweden, with Finland risking becoming collateral damage.

Sweden is home to a significant Kurdish community and hosts Europe’s top Kurdish soccer team that empathises with the PKK and Turkish Kurdish aspirations. In addition, six Swedish members of parliament are ethnic Kurds.

Turkey scholar Howard Eissenstat suggested that Turkey’s NATO objection may be a turning point. “Much of Turkey’s strategic flexibility has come from the fact that its priorities are seen as peripheral issues for its most important Western allies. Finnish and Swedish entry into NATO, in the current context, absolutely not peripheral,” Mr. Eissenstat tweeted.

The Turkish objection demonstrates the Middle East’s potential to derail US and European policy in other parts of the world.

Middle Eastern states walk a fine line when using their potential to disrupt to achieve political goals of their own. The cautious backtracking on Ukraine-related oil supplies demonstrates the limits and/or risks of Middle Eastern brinkmanship.

So does the fact that Ukraine has moved NATO’s center of gravity to northern Europe and away from its southern flank, which Turkey anchors.

Moreover, Turkey risks endangering significant improvements in its long-strained relations with the United States.

Turkish mediation in the Ukraine crisis and military support for Ukraine prompted US President Joe Biden to move ahead with plans to upgrade Turkey’s fleet of F-16 fighter planes and discuss selling it newer, advanced  F-16 models even though Turkey has neither condemned Russia nor imposed sanctions.

Some analysts suggest Turkey may use its objection to regain access to the United States’ F-35 fighter jet program. The US cancelled in 2019 a sale of the jet to Turkey after the NATO member acquired Russia’s S-400 anti-missile defence system.

Mr. Erdogan has “done this kind of tactic before. He will use it as leverage to get a good deal for Turkey,” said retired US Navy Admiral James Foggo, dean of the Center for Maritime Strategy.

A top aide to Mr. Erdogan, Ibrahim Kalin, appeared to confirm Mr. Foggo’s analysis.

“We are not closing the door. But we are basically raising this issue as a matter of national security for Turkey,” Mr. Kalin said, referring to the Turkish leader’s NATO remarks. “Of course, we want to have a discussion, a negotiation with Swedish counterparts.”

Spelling out Turkish demands, Mr. Kalin went on to say that “what needs to be done is clear: they have to stop allowing PKK outlets, activities, organisations, individuals and other types of presence to…exist in those countries.”

Mr. Erdogan’s brinkmanship may have its limits, but it illustrates that one ignores the Middle East at one’s peril.

However, engaging Middle Eastern autocrats does not necessarily mean ignoring their rampant violations of human rights and repression of freedoms.

For the United States and Europe, the trick will be developing a policy that balances accommodating autocrats’, at times, disruptive demands, often aimed at ensuring regime survival, with the need to remain loyal to democratic values amid a struggle over whose values will underwrite a 21st-century world order.

However, that would require a degree of creative policymaking and diplomacy that seems to be a rare commodity.

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