Posted tagged ‘Iran’

Why Understanding the Middle East is Hard for Westerners; Demystifying Critical Elements

August 18, 2015

The political tensions in the Middle East have always been difficult for me to understand. The cultural and religious nuances and customs are unfamiliar. The names, political parties and language are removed from my own native tongue making my usual memory techniques difficult to use. Sometimes it honestly just becomes a swirled mush and I am not sure where to start since most news is event or crisis driven. For me it helps to return to basics and unwind some of the geographic, ethnic, religious and government elements before applying them to tensions within the Middle East.

I think back to lessons in early geography where I struggled to understand the differences between countries and nations.

  • A country is defined through political geography
  • A nation is defined through ethnic boundaries

This makes a country rather simple to understand since most maps are denoted this way. It is easy to pick out where the United States, Britian, France, Russia, Australia, Japan, etc. are located and clearly defined. Generally, these are established and internationally agreed upon. There are exceptions: the Kashmir region between Pakistan and India is an example of territory disputed between two countries.

A nation though can be a bit fuzzier. The classic example in American classrooms is some of the Native American Indian tribes. For example the Cherokee Nation exists within the political geographic boundaries of the United States and maintains its own government. The Cherokee Nation practices self-determination, is governmentally separate from the United States and is comprised of those who are ethnically Cherokee. The seat of government is located in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, the National’s territory geographically falls within the state Oklahoma and there is a representative office in Washington DC. (http://geodata.cherokee.org/CherokeeNation/)

Another example of a nation would be Tibet. While deemed an autonomous region by China and within its political borders this is not universally accepted within the international community. Additionally, the political boundaries asserted by China are disputed by India which also claims part of Tibet. This tension is seen when foreign heads of government receive the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of the Tibetan people, for state visits to the protests of the Chinese government. It should be noted the Tibetan people are not afforded the same freedoms and autonomy as the Cherokee Nation. This notes the important point that being identified as part of a nation does not guarantee political rights or freedoms.

There is another important combination to mention here; when both a nation and a country coincide, this is called a nation-state. While there is not full scholarly agreement, loosely the defining threshold is approximately 95% of the population is of the same ethnicity. Japan and Iceland would be examples of nation-state countries familiar to Western readers while the Jewish population within Israel (75%) does not rise to this threshold. While there are not explicit legal implications or rights for being a nation-state, it is conceptually useful in understanding a country, its people and its interaction with its neighbors.

Applying these understandings of countries and nations, conflicts seems likely to occur where political lines (countries) unnaturally split ethnic groups such that rival groups can exert unchecked political control or power and dominate another ethnic group. In my mind this helps explains the conflicts citizens of western nations commonly misunderstand, for example Bosnia-Herzegovina (fighting between ethnic Albanians and Serbians) and conflicts in the Middle East. At a glance it appears that ethnic allegiance (nationalism) seems to trump political allegiance to a country when the two are in conflict.

Below are some excellent maps from Dr. Izady and the Gulf/2000 project which show the ethnic composition of the Middle East:

http://gulf2000.columbia.edu/images/maps/Mid_East_Ethnic_sm.png

http://gulf2000.columbia.edu/images/maps/Mid_East_Ethnic_lg.png

(note: the large map, which permits zooming, will not always load from the project’s host for reasons unknown)

While educating, the maps do not seem to fully explain the explosive tensions in the region. Some of the countries are relatively homogeneous, for example much of the Arabic peninsula including Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Yemen. Others are more ethnically diverse such as Iran, Afghanistan and Turkey. Visually seeing Iraq and Syria ethnic minorities split by political boundaries from larger populations in Turkey helps me understand the tensions. A single ethnic people being treated differently across the political boundaries, especially if treated harshly by the ethnic majority in a country, would very reasonably draw strong emotional reactions. This helps me but does not fully satisfy why there is such intense, consistent fighting within this part of the world.

So I look to religion, of which Islam is the dominate religious in this geography. In the Middle East governments generally intertwine religion and politics. A secular government is non-religious while a non-secular government is religious based. The later may have laws or its governing hierarchy directly pulled from religious texts. For those familiar with the rule of law common in many secular governments (e.g. the United States) a government who’s leader claims to be the Almighty’s representation on earth and having absolute authority may feel uncomfortable with this. Further it becomes more complicated when within that one country you have two or conflicting religions and the rights of the minority may or may not be protected. Islam, like Christianity, has several branches, with the main ones being Sunni Islam (~85%) and Shia Islam (~15%). While the point of this piece is not to elicit the finer differences or place judgement, sufficient to say there are meaningful theological and spiritual differences between the two.

The following excellent maps, again from Dr. Izady and the Gulf/2000 project, show the religious composition of the Middle East:

http://gulf2000.columbia.edu/images/maps/Mid_East_Religion_sm.png

http://gulf2000.columbia.edu/images/maps/Mid_East_Religion_lg.png

The dark green areas denote Shia concentrations while the lighter green areas denote Sunni concentrations.

This startles me. Iran is a non-secular (religious) government based in Shia Islam while most of its non-secular neighbors are followers of Sunni Islam. To what extent the violence we see today is directly attributable to these differences, I do not know. However when the ethnic and religious maps are overlaid, it clearly shows friction points in the middle east today: northern Iraq, Yeman, northern Syria, Afghanistan.

Where this torques my perspective is my context and experience is that the various branches of Christianity, in modern times, do not engage in brutal sectarian violence. Lutherans, Baptists, Episcopalians and Protestants—if members of each can explain the differences between—do not seem to engage in violence due to these differences. I do not see Catholics murdering Episcopalians because the later permits female priests and priests with non-heterosexual sexual preferences to openly hold those beliefs.**

It is possible that politically motivated actions are cloaked in religious trappings. Possibly it is the actions of a very small number of extremists that, due to the foreignness and propensity of humans to overly generalize things not well understood, is inaccurately extrapolated to the entire religion or area. This intent of this article is to articulate some of the conceptual drivers to start the conversation on these themes

  • Countries, Nations, and Nation-states
  • Ethnic diversity and concentrations
  • Religious diversity and concentrations
  • The impact of secular and non-secular governments

and how these interact.

 

**Note: I acknowledge this does dismiss the Catholic Church endorsed military campaigns, the Crusades, during the Middle Ages; however, this piece aims to focus on the current day tensions and conflicts within the Middle East.

Observations of Saudi Arabia’s Price War on Oil Producing and Consuming Counties and the Repeating of History

December 17, 2014

In the tangled web of globalization and politics there is a striking convergence of several topics: the falling price of oil, the Russians in Ukraine, the Syrian Civil War, and military dimensions of uranium production in Iran. While dangerous and naïve to presume that these complexities and nuances can be simplified to short explanations and answers, there are themes that can be distilled.

The Saudis (and others in the Arab world) would like to see the fall of both the Bashar Hafez al-Assad regime in Syria and the containment, reduction of Iranian influence in the Middle East. From an international perspective the Iranian, Syrian and Russian governments share a complex solidarity. Intriguingly three of these economies are heavily based upon oil production. The Saudi’s are seemingly conducting economic war to intentionally enact a multi-faceted strategy focused on domestic security and economic prosperity by creating favorable regional stability.

By maintaining excess oil supply the Saudis are overtly working to force the price below the fixed costs of the shale oil producers. The overt end objective is to either (1) degrade the global shale oil production capacity by making shale oil uneconomical or (2) force firms into insolvency thus eliminating this competing sub-industry. Further for conventional oil producers–such as OPEC members and Russia–it is also forcing the price of oil to unprofitable levels for. This is an excellent example of Darwinian principals applied to commerce; this is economic war.

The question is whether both segments, the conventional oil producers and the shale oil producers, will be caught in the economic purgatory of negligible profit and/or an unrelenting (subsidized) contest of wills as parties produce below their variable costs. My sense is governments with economies dependent on oil production will capitulate or fail before commercial interests.

The covert—though transparent yet deniable—part of the strategy is to influence behavior changes for governments, specifically Iran and Russia. These economies are meaningfully dependent upon conventional oil production which is suffering the same economic losses as shale oil producers. By direct extension the national budgets are dependent on these ineffectively diversified economies. Sun Tzu in his legendary Art of War would describe this as attacking the opponent’s strategy (Iran and Syria) and disrupting his alliances (Russia and Iran) by causing attention to be focused on the domestic unrest and turbulence caused by the falling oil prices it helped orchestrate. As economic difficulties increase social unrest, authoritarian governments must increase focus and resources on the primarily objective of maintaining governmental and military control within its national borders. The reality of finite resources predictably accomplishes this at the expense of a country’s international initiatives. A reduction in Russian and Iran backing of President Bashar Hafez al-Assad in Syria would increase the probability of a Saudi-friendly government in that key Middle Eastern country. These actions combine to increased regional stability.

At this point, Saudi Arabia deems this level and method of destructive economic activities to be in its best interests. The gambit appears to be the short-term economic losses will be outweighed by both (1) increased security and (2) long-term profitability due to temporary or permanent reductions in global conventional and shale oil production capacity.

In their aims the Saudis’ find a willing ally: the United States. The Americans are willing to provide additional distractions by focusing on the Russian military incursion into Ukraine. The resulting economic sanctions are savaging the Russian economy, macro-economic policy and national budgets. The UN and EU backed economic sanctions on Iran and the resulting P5 +1 negotiations with Iran are choking off needed (and decreasing) oil revenues while creating inflation.  (The P5 +1 is comprised of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council—China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States—plus Germany.) Further by providing non-lethal aid to Syrian rebels this proxy effort both opens another vector. These efforts are in the strategic interests of both the United States and the Saudis as they seek the avenues to most effectively achieve the desired ends.

Mohamad Bazzi has an analysis on the Saudi’s game of blink here that opens the consequences of Saudi actions.

So what are the economic damages caused to the United States due to the falling oil prices? The Saudi’s creation of an uneconomical business environment for US shale oil producers may lead to consolidation or reduced output from this completing resource; however, the general trend is undeniable. As the finite supply of commercially-viable conventional oil continues to diminish, freemarket forces are increasingly incentivized to find alternatives as the recoverable conventional oil supply appears to exhaust itself over the next half century. The expansion into shale oil production is an inevitable result of these freemarket forces. These forces will take the form of new technology or methods for producing the same resource or will be an alternative product.

There is a noticeable void in the global conversation about the Saudi strategy and oil consumers: China.

China has the world’s second largest economy. During the current period of development and expansion, the economy is tremendously dependent on raw materials, energy, human labor, food, and capital. It has taken concrete steps to secure its economic future by aggressively asserting contested claims to territorial waters to secure needed resources.  Further it is forging closer economic with Brazil, Russia, India, Iran and Australia to avoid the resource starving the United Stated and the Allies applied to Japan in World War II. Additionally these claims help create a geographic buffer zone, also considered vital to China’s interests.  In the P5+1 negotiation with Iran China seeks regional stability and limiting Western encirclement of its borders.

For a country that values face and harmony, this creates a conundrum. The drop in the oil prices is creating favorable negotiating positions with its suppliers (e.g. Iran, Russian, India, other OPEC countries) and creating economic stability. However, a by-product is permitting the expansion and solidification of Western and American influence in the Middle East. Historically China, like Russia, views this as a destabilizing threat to Communist Party’s monopolistic governing power.

Current day proclamations by Russian President Vladimir Putin about the re-emergence of a Cold War may be far more true that initially realized. There are ramifications beyond heightened Western-Russian military tensions with purported NATO airspace incursions by Russian aircraft. While the scenarios are not identical, there are themes from 1989 (Germany and China) and 1991 (Soviet Union) that are echoing across today. The method and the venue have changed, but these deeper fissions and philosophical differences are being fought with no less fever today than over the last 100 years across the Middle East, Asia, the Atlantic and the Pacific.