Nader Hashemi is the director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Denver’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies.
U.S. President Donald Trump’s open support for authoritarianism in the Middle East is well known. He is particularly close to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu, Emirati Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, and he famously stated that Egyptian General Abdel Fattah el-Sissi was his “favourite dictator,” implying a list of other worthy candidates.
Mr. Trump’s foreign policy has also contributed to Middle East authoritarianism in more subtle and unrecognized ways. Events following the assassination of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani provide a perfect illustration of this phenomenon. Mr. Trump is continuing a long American tradition of shortsighted policies that have deeply destabilized this region while indirectly contributing to the spread of religious extremism.
Consider the focus of politics in the Arab-Islamic world prior to the hit on Gen. Soleimani. Starting roughly a year ago, in Sudan and Algeria and then spreading to Lebanon, Iraq and Iran, a series of mostly non-violent protests rocked the foundations of autocratic rule. A long-standing dictator was toppled in Khartoum and several heads of government were forced to step down in Algiers, Beirut and Baghdad. Even in Iran, Hassan Rouhani was facing pressure to resign.
While each country has its own unique story, the broad themes that unite these protests are widespread economic despair, a repudiation of ruling elites, massive youth participation and a strong desire for structural political change. While none of these protests has produced a full democratic transition, they broadly echo the grievances and demands for dignity of the 2009-11 Arab Spring and Iranian Green Movement protests.
The case of Iran is noteworthy. After a sudden fuel price increase in November, nationwide protests erupted against the ruling clerical establishment. The exact number of protesters killed before Iranian security forces could regain control is unknown, but reports range from 300 to 1,500 people.
The scale of this violence deeply traumatized society. The regime had to backtrack on its official narrative that blamed a foreign conspiracy. It was forced to acknowledge the death of innocent lives and offer bereaving families financial compensation. To date, the Iranian government has refused to release an official death toll.
The chasm between state and society had been exposed in Iran, once again. A week before the killing of Gen. Soleimani, Iranian authorities were in full panic mode. The 40th day after the November massacres was fast approaching. In the Islamic tradition, this is a day of public mourning. Fearing a reigniting of protests, security forces flooded public spaces, especially cemeteries. The family members of a prominent slain protester, Pouya Bakhtiari, were arrested en masse after they refused to cancel their memorial. Commenting on these events, Shirin Ebadi, the prominent Iranian human rights lawyer and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, observed: this “latest wave of protests is a prelude to the collapse of the regime.”
And then Qassem Soleimani was assassinated.
His targeted killing rocked the Middle East. The political and moral context of the region quickly changed. Its effects were most immediately felt in Iran and Iraq, where the focus of politics shifted – from protesters demanding their rights to the theme of U.S. foreign policy. This development was a huge political and ideological gift to Iranian hardliners and their regional allies who were the target of many of these regional protests, especially in Iran, Iraq and Lebanon.
Within Iran, the regime cynically manipulated the powerful themes of patriotism and anti-imperialism to create a rare moment of national unity. A state-sanctioned mass mobilization took place to honor Gen. Soleimani, who was inaccurately portrayed as a war hero who protected Iran from the Islamic State. Forgotten now were the regime’s massive economic corruption, growing state repression and the legacy of November killings.
Mr. Trump’s tough talk emboldened Iranian hardliners, especially the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). His promise to bomb cultural sites against the backdrop of punitive economic sanctions and the decapitation of senior leaders provided a perfect “I told you so” moment. Internal debates over rights and democracy do not matter, clerical forces have long maintained. National security and external threats must be prioritized. Mr. Trump’s Iran policy seemed to prove them right.
In Iraq, the focus of politics is now on an American troop withdrawal. It has been forgotten that during the Soleimani strike a senior member of Popular Mobilizations Forces, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, was also killed. This political group holds the second-largest bloc in parliament. A week earlier, a U.S. air strike on several of their bases killed 25 of their members leading to the attack on the American embassy. They have publicly stated that their revenge on the United States will be fierce and forthcoming.
If war breaks out in the Middle East, these shifts in the politics of the region will consume other countries as well. On Wednesday night, after the strike on Iraqi military bases used by U.S. troops, the IRGC threatened to hit Dubai and Haifa if the United States retaliated. Were this to happen, the democratic oxygen would be sucked out of the regional protests movements and a broader Middle East war involving Israel, the UAE and Saudi Arabia would be guaranteed. Demands for political reform and democratic accountability would be the last item on anyone’s agenda, as governments and societies would mobilize for the coming war.
Democratic transitions demand political stability. Threats of war and violence, the assassination of political leaders and broad-based economic sanctions that impoverish millions, typically embolden the most reactionary and authoritarian elements in society while undermining the work of pro-democracy and human-rights groups.
Looking back over the past 50 years, all of the wars in the Middle East have undermined the prospects for democratic change. From the various Arab-Israeli wars, the Lebanese Civil War, the Iran-Iraq War, the 1990 Gulf War, the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, the Syrian Civil War, up to the War in Yemen. The biggest beneficiaries consistently have been the forces of radical extremism and political authoritarianism.
Now, both Tehran and Washington have stepped back from the brink of war. This pause in hostilities, however, is very tenuous and fragile. Let us be clear: The U.S. and Iran remain on a collision course.
Aeschylus, the ancient Greek dramatist, famously said, “In war, truth is the first casualty.” As the storm clouds gather once again over the Middle East, I want to adapt his iconic phrase: When war comes to the Middle East, the prospects for democratic change is the first casualty and authoritarianism the big winner.
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