Lorenzo Kamel is an associate professor of history of the modern and contemporary Middle East and North Africa at the University of Turin, and the director of the Istituto Affari Internazionali’s research studies. He is the author of several books, including most recently The Middle East from Empire to Sealed Identities (Edinburgh University Press, 2019), as well as Imperial Perceptions of Palestine: British Influence and Power in Late Ottoman Times (I.B. Tauris, 2015), which won the Palestine Book Award for 2016. Diwan interviewed him in early February to get his perspective on the nature of foreign intervention in the Middle East, at a time when the non-Arab countries of the region are showing a greater willingness to affirm their power than previously.
Michael Young: You recently wrote a short essay titled “Soleimani and the Weight of History,” in which you argued that “the life of [Qassem] Soleimani is firmly rooted in the history of his land and region. It is the product of some wrong decisions, but also, if not especially, of a century of oppression, external interferences, and a long-standing quest for justice and dignity.” Can you elaborate.
Lorenzo Kamel: I tried to show that discussing complex issues, such as the life of Qassem Soleimani, without providing context wouldn’t help us much to understand what we have witnessed in recent weeks since his assassination, or to address the future.
My essay started by focusing on six main interrelated historical junctures: First, the Tobacco Revolt of 1891–1892 in Iran, which triggered the conditions for “the emergence of Shi‘ism as an insurrectionary movement against colonialism.” Second, the dynamics that prompted Britain to foster the rise of Reza Shah in 1921, as the penultimate monarch of Persia and the founder of the Pahlavi dynasty. Third, the coup d’état of 1953 against then-prime minister Mohammed Mossadegh, which ended Iran’s drive to assert sovereign control over its own resources. Fourth, the 1979 Islamic Revolution, whose causes and implications are still very much visible in the lacerations affecting the Middle East. Fifth, the roots and consequences of the Iraq-Iran war of 1980–1988. And sixth, the “war on terror” that the George W. Bush administration launched in 2001 in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, attacks, which in many ways helped Iran to spread its influence. Without addressing each of these historical junctures it is hardly possible to approach Qassem Soleimani and assess his rise to power.
The bottom line in my essay is that Iranians have witnessed the nefarious consequences of Western strategies in the region, and, at the same time they want to shape a different Iran. It is an Iran that, in the words of a statement published by students of Amir Kabir University on January 12, “will not rush into the arms of imperialism due to its fear of despotism, and one that in the name of resistance and fighting against imperialism will not legitimize despotism.”
MY: Unlike the situation last century, when the people of the Middle East argued that their ambitions were thwarted mainly by Western powers, today we are seeing a situation in which the Arab world is dominated primarily by regional states on its periphery, namely Iran, Turkey, and Israel. What does this tell us about the Arab world, and about these peripheral states?
LK: The “Arab world” is highly divided, but I don’t see it as dominated primarily by Turkey and Israel, which both have limited outreach. As for Iran, it is a more complex issue. The single biggest enabler of Iranian power projection abroad has been the United States and its policies in the region. According to U.S. State Department data, between 2001 and 2014, incidents of terrorism increased 3,800 percent—from 355 in 2001 to 13,500 in 2014. Between 2001 and 2014, deaths from terrorist attacks increased six-fold, half of them occurring in Afghanistan and Iraq. The latter had historically played the role of bulwark against the spread of Persian and then Iranian influence in the region. The collapse of Saddam Hussein’s regime enabled Iran’s projection of power and the proliferation of Iranian-backed militias throughout the Middle East. In other words, some of the players that created the main structural conditions for Iran’s regional resurgence are demanding today that the international community act to stem Tehran’s power.
Yet, Iran alone explains little about the “Arab world” and who dominates what. The historical phase that we have been witnessing in these last few years passes through two competing regional and international agendas, both underpinned by uncompromising ideologies. The first aims at maintaining and strengthening an intra-regional geopolitical line that stretches from Tehran to Baghdad, Damascus, and Beirut. The second aims at retaining or imposing a new, largely Western-led, order in the region.
At the moment, this second “agenda” would seem to have a higher chance of success, as confirmed by the United States’ sanctions against Iran and a number of strategic moves that have occurred in recent years. Think, for instance, of the decision through which Mohammed bin Salman was made first in line to the Saudi throne, which the United States accepted and backed on condition that Saudi Arabia comply with United States’ and Israel’s goals in the region. Or think of the dynamics leading to the blockade of Qatar, or, more recently, the strategic implications of the Trump administration’s “Deal of the Century” for Palestinians and Israelis.
MY: There is another state that has been more active in the region, namely Russia. How would you interpret Russian behavior?
LK: Russia is an increasingly powerful and relevant actor both in the Middle East and beyond it. Yet, the ambiguity of most of Russia’s policies is quite evident. Crimea, whose indigenous Muslim Tatar majority was deported by Tsar Alexander in 1856 and by the Stalin regime in 1944, is a powerful case in point. President Vladimir Putin does not miss an opportunity to remind us that Russia “respects the Crimean people’s wishes.” What is missing is that Russia has fully disregarded those very same wishes in relation to millions of people in Chechnya and Tatarstan, through brutal and repressive means. All this is the embodiment of double standards, that all too often we have witnessed also in relation to Russia’s approach to Syria and other countries in the region in recent years.
MY: The history of foreign intervention in the Middle East during the 20th century is very sobering about the inability of outsiders to effect profound change in the region. You are someone who teaches the history of the region, so do you consider it a mistake to look back at that time and interpret it solely through a lens of imperialism or neoimperialism?
LK: I believe that “outsiders” did indeed succeed in effecting profound change in the region. For instance, Great Britain and France defined local realities and dissent as expressions of primitive religious cleavages. In other words, communal and judicial structures envisioned and implemented in the second decade of the last century succeeded in legally enshrining religious differences—a long-lasting outcome of the “Sykes-Picot” worldview.
And yet, I agree that there is much more than this and your question calls to my mind Hamid Dabashi’s words regarding the fact that the “post-colonial did not overcome the colonial; it exacerbated it by negation.” This statement fits very well the history of large parts of the Middle East and the role of imperialism and neoimperialism in it. In order to overcome colonialism, imperialism, or neoimperialism, or all three, we need to bring back the region and its proactive inhabitants—including their protests—to center stage and show how the Middle East shaped the history of Western countries. And history, ancient and contemporary alike, is indeed a good starting point for this. To cite Ellen Meiksins Wood’s words, “[I]t is even more artificial to detach ancient Greece from, say, Egypt or Persia, as if the Greeks were always ‘European,’ living a separate history, and not part of a larger Mediterranean and ‘Eastern’ world.”
MY: To what extent is the true problem of the region the absence of democracy and functioning states, as opposed to outside intervention? In other words once you have states that can fulfill the aspirations of their people, doesn’t foreign involvement become much more difficult?
LK: The lack of accountability lies at the heart of many of the problems that affect the region. When accountability is very low, services do not meet the needs of citizens, and this is particularly true in relation to the poorest segments of the local populations. Weak governance and corruption are two other major problems and contribute much to the absence of democracy and functioning states in the Middle East.
Yet, a major role is also played by external actors. Russia as well as a number of Western countries once again today consider oppressive regimes as part of the solution and not the problem. As one former Israeli general said in 2015 to Michael Oren, his country’s former ambassador to the United States, “Why won’t Americans face the truth? To defend Western freedom they must preserve Middle Eastern tyranny.”
Local “tyrannies” for their part are ready to pay a high price to guarantee their survival. This also explains why over the last eight years Saudi Arabia has invested an enormous amount of resources in opposing the rise of any government or party in the Arab world that could have represented a credible alternative to the “Saudi model.” It also sheds light on Riyadh’s decision to support Egypt’s military in the 2013 coup against former Islamist president Mohammed Morsi.
In the short term, ruling families and regimes will gain much from these strategies. The long-term scenario, however, is far less promising. The region is considerably different than it was decades ago, particularly since 2011. Grab-and-go “solutions” and ideologies used in the past to divert the attention of the region’s peoples—such as pan-Arabism, pan-Islamism, and so on—will have much less appeal in the near future. This further confirms that the strategy of fostering and counting on local regimes, so central for the Trump administration and its allies, has a high chance of backfiring. It will in fact lead to a Middle East even more dependent on the outside, and to the increasing Balkanization of a large part of the region. Given such a looming scenario, there is and will continue to be little space for democracy and functioning states.