The uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia are accountability revolutions. They present a real opportunity for reform, although they also might spawn an Alexander Kerensky or Mehdi Bazargan moment and usher in far more regressive movements, a scenario that becomes more likely if the White House decides not to use what little leverage it has to determine what comes next.
Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak's fall is the end of the beginning rather than the beginning of the end. During Iran's Islamic Revolution, there were over nine months between Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's return and the seizure of the American Embassy in Tehran. Those nine months were turbulent. Khomeini used a series of events, real and contrived to purge his broad-based revolutionary coalition of its most liberal and secular elements. Indeed, the seizure of the American Embassy had as much to do with internal Iranian politics as it did with animosity toward the United States.
The idea that Arab autocracies make the best American partners is false. Despite conventional wisdom, they never brought stability. During the Cold War, the region saw repeated war, revolution, and terrorism. While some today may lament Mubarak's fall, tying American security to octogenarian dictators should never be a long-term strategy.
The shock of Ben Ali and Mubarak's departure should lead American policymakers to be proactive in other transitions. Certainly the White House should demand real rather than rhetorical reform in the region's other authoritarian countries, and President Obama should certainly be proactive in contingency planning in countries led by other aging autocrats. Ensuring a smooth transfer of power in the Sultanate of Oman should be a priority. Strategically located on the Strait of Hormuz, Oman is led by the aging Sultan Qaboos who, because of his homosexuality, has produced no offspring. Should Oman switch its strategic orientation, it could fundamentally alter the American strategic footprint.
Iran presents another succession challenge especially should it possess nuclear weapons. A handpicked, elite and loyal unit of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) would likely maintain command-and-control over any Iranian nuclear arsenal. When political scientists say that deterring a nuclear Iran is possible, they base their opinion partly in an assumption that regimes mature when they recognize the responsibility inherent in being a nuclear power. Both Pakistan and India strengthened their command-and-control and doctrine for use of nuclear weapons following the 1998 Kargil crisis. In Iran, however, selection of a new Supreme Leader might lead to a cycle of radicalization rather than moderation. In theory, when the Supreme Leader dies, the 86-man Assembly of Experts chooses his successor. In reality, however, regime elites reach a consensus before submitting their choice to the clerical body for its rubberstamp.
If Iran has nuclear weapons, then it stands to reason that the radical and ideological Revolutionary Guards unit controlling that arsenal will have veto power over any successor. This creates a cycle of radicalization in which the Supreme Leader selects the most ideological pure Guardsmen who in turn select the new Supreme Leader.
As the United States considers the new Middle East, it must also recognize the proxy wars for influence currently underway. Hezbollah's triumph in Lebanon after Saudi Arabia abandoned its earlier support for the March 14 movement was a blow to American influence. Turkey and Iran now compete for mastery over in the Arab Middle East. That many American officials remain blind to Iranian and Turkish ambitions is worrisome and represents a willful refusal to recognize reality. For example, many Americans trumpet the Turkish model for Egypt to define an ideal post-Mubarak regime. They fail to recognize that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is simultaneously pursuing a Hezbollah model. Too often, Americans and their allies in Israel see Turkey's behavior as reactive. They are wrong. Turkey's actions are proactive. Hours before Erdoğan 'spontaneously' erupted at Nobel Laureate Shimon Peres and stormed off the stage at Davos, the Turkish government ordered the Istanbul metro to remain open until 4 a.m. that day only. The extended hours enabled Erdoğan supporters, alerted by text message, to reach the Istanbul airport to greet their leader at 3 a.m. for a pro-Palestinian rally.
As American policymaker maneuver in the new Middle East they must also be wary that they operate with diminished credibility. Both Presidents Bush and Obama drew and violated redlines linking Iranian behavior with specific actions on more than two dozen occasions. This creates a dangerous environment of overconfidence among American adversaries who increasingly believe that the United States is a paper tiger. While many people say wars in the Middle East are caused by oil, and trendy academics say water shortages cause conflict, the reality is that overconfidence causes most wars. In the aftermath of the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war, Hezbollah's secretary-general Hasan Nasrallah declared that if he had known how Israel was going to reach, he would never have launched his initial operation. Because he did not understand Israel's redlines, he sparked a war. The fact that Iran does not fully understand what America's real redlines are mean that we may find ourselves reacting to their violation in a way that will spark a war that neither side expects.
A Muslim Brotherhood-dominated regime in Egypt is perhaps the worst-case scenario the United States faces. But even if the uprisings bring liberal democracy, the American government should not assume that the result will be pro-American. Intellectual anti-Americanism has long dominated Middle Eastern liberalism. In Iran, for example, Jalal Al-e Ahmad's Gharbzadegi (Westoxification) dominated secularist circles for nearly two decades before Khomeini's Islamic Revolution. Nor should we expect a magical revival of the Middle Eastern economy. Social welfare dominates the discourse of both Arab and Persian politics. Seldom defined, this often reflects an assumption that the state should dominate the economy.
When the dust settles from the current upheaval, there will be time to consider lessons learned. Here, there is also danger. Many states may try to defuse anger with more proactive reforms. But it is possible that some regimes will learn the opposite lesson: That they need to crack down harder and more often. They may conclude that while Syria and Libya have both suffered protests, that it is the freer, more Western-oriented regimes which fell. The White House should certainly have contingencies to address any regional allies which conclude more autocracy is needed, not less.
When addressing these various trends, it is important that Obama use his bully pulpit in the Oval Office to lead discussions and take decisions, rather than just observe and react. Diplomacy is like a football match. Obama is on the field whether he likes it or not. Neutrality is not an option; it is akin to standing still and refusing to block opponents—be they Iran, Libya, Turkey, or the Muslim Brotherhood. American leverage may be limited, but if Obama tries to exert it, he may just find he has more than he realizes.