‘History does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme.’
This famous line is often attributed to Mark Twain, despite their being no actual evidence that he was the one who first said it. It’s one of those lines that you can produce in conversation if you wish to appear more knowledgeable without offering any actual comment on a subject. It causes people to take pause and consider that the solution to many of our current problems can be found in analysis of past events, and one of our current problems is the unsustainable situation in the Middle East.
The international situation in the region has been balanced on a knife’s edge since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. The borders imposed on the region by France and Britain have failed catastrophically, and there are many who would argue that the –literally- drunken division of the Middle East is the main cause for the problems it experiences today. The situation is precarious, unsustainable and eventually it will snap. In order to understand how such a cataclysm would unfold, we must look once more to the past – to the most prominent historical example of total regional collapse, World War One.
A quick forewarning before we begin – the causes of WW1 are vast, and the debate over them is far too extensive to be properly understood, even in one lifetime. This will be a very shallow comparison, and it should be noted that on top of many of the similarities, there are many differences.
A GCSE student presented with a question about WW1 will likely leap first to one obvious cause – the alliance system. Like that bright, young thing we shall also be starting with those complex, diplomatic arrangements. The Triple Entente (France, Britain and Russia) was pitted against the Triple Alliance (Italy, Austria-Hungary and Germany). From the outset, the odds seemed stacked in favour of the Entente as not only did they completely encircle the central powers, but also Italy switched sides halfway through. Despite this minor setback, the two teams were fairly evenly matched.
So how does this equate to the Middle East in 2016? On one side we have Saudi Arabia and friends. Relations between Saudi Arabia and Egypt have been steadily improving, with Egypt handing Saudi Arabia two islands in the Red Sea –Tiran and Sanafir-, on top of the announcement of a bridge to connect the two countries. Egypt has one of the region’s largest armies, and an alliance between the two would be formidable. But Egypt isn’t Saudi’s only friend. Saudi Arabia has the support of almost all of the Arab League –excluding Lebanon and Syria- in action against Iran. This was seen when the Arab League supported Saudi Arabia in its dispute with Iran over the execution of a prominent Shia cleric. We can say pretty confidently that the Arab League will continue to fall in line behind Saudi Arabia should Iran once more present a threat.
Returning to the negotiations between Saudi Arabia and Egypt, there is an unlikely state, which may choose to through in its lot with its former enemies. Israel was privy to those secret negotiations, and chose not to reopen its peace agreement with Egypt that would normally prevent Egypt transferring any territory to another state. Though this is nothing like a formal alliance, it shows the historically rocky relations between Israel and it’s neighbours seem to be mending. Faced with the far more menacing threat of Iran and it’s Palestinian allies, Israel may see an agreement with Saudi Arabia and it’s ‘western oriented’ neighbours to be the logical next step.
But what about Iran? Iran has a number of allies in the region, namely Lebanon, Syria and Palestinian groups such as Hamas and the PA. This is where we see the balance shift more towards the ‘Entente’ side of the conflict. Syria is currently in a state of total ruin, Lebanon has never been a particularly relevant state and the Palestinians seem more of a liability than a reliable ally. When Syria remerges from civil war, Iran may become more confident in defying the Entente.
Though important, the alliance systems were not the only cause of war in 1914. Long-term rivalries combined with growing militarism and paranoia also played an important part in increasing tensions. In 1914, there were two major rivalries: Germany and Britain, and Germany and France. When examined, these rivalries share eerie similarities to the rivalries between Iran and Saudi Arabia and Iran and Israel.
The Anglo-German rivalry is defined by the Anglo-German naval race (an arms race surrounding the creation of newer and more heavily armed dreadnoughts). Whilst Iran’s defence spending has remained relatively low, Saudi Arabia’s has skyrocketed – reaching 10.4% of it’s GDP in 2014. Iran already has one of the most powerful armies in the region, wielding double the number active personnel and tanks as it’s rival. Saudi Arabia seems determined to create an army to match this, importing a range of vehicles and equipment from all over the world. Though Iran has done little in response to this rapid build-up, it is not unimaginable for them to begin spending more on their military, as that of Saudi Arabia begins to grow. It is also not unimaginable to assume that this increase in Saudi spending has been driven in part by fear of Iranian expansion in the wake of the removal of trade sanctions.
The Franco-German rivalry was defined by territorial disputes and ideological differences. Germany had seized the French province of Alsace-Lorraine in 1871, and the pair viewed themselves as natural rivals. This is not dissimilar to the rivalry between Iran and Israel. Israel has seized territory from two of Iran’s allies: They continue to deny Golan Heights from Syria, and they continue to expand into Palestinian land. These territorial grievances have lead to ideological disputes between the two, with Iranian Supreme Leader Khamenei saying: ‘We are on a collision course with the occupiers of Palestine, and the occupiers of Palestine are the Zionist regime.’ during a sermon in Tehran. Iran makes no secret of it’s dislike for Israel, and should Israel choose to ally with the Arabs, the potential for a large scale conflict only seems to grow.
It would be naïve to assume that the powerful states of the Middle East do not have detailed plans to murder each other, and they are certainly prepared to do so. We just have to look to the dispute between Saudi Arabia and Iran over the execution of a Saudi Shia cleric to see that the pair are not scared to take each other on. If the Israel-Saudi Entente forms, conflict with Iran seems inevitable.
All that we need now is a Franz Ferdinand, a flashpoint. This could be anything, from the execution of a second cleric to a third Intifada. It doesn’t matter which future event causes events to escalate, any number of things could spark a major conflict. Who would come out on top is almost impossible to predict, but from where we stand things do not look good for Iran. Despite this, the relative equality of the two sides seems to indicate that we may be facing an extended war of attrition.
We in Europe also need to be preparing for this eventuality. A cataclysmic conflict on this scale in the Middle East would make our current refugee crisis seem almost fun. Any conflict in the region could spell doom for the future of our union.
On a slightly cheerier note, it is important to bear in mind that this has been a very shallow look into the politics of the Middle East, and as with all predictions it is important to remember that they are just that – speculation.