Salon Ibn Rushd:
Iran and Israel are ‘state breaker’ countries, and clear enemies to the concept of state and stability in the Arab region

In Human Rights Dissemination Program, Salon Ibn Rushd by CIHRS

On Tuesday, 7 May 2024, the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS) held a seminar as part of the monthly activities of Salon Ibn Rushd, titled ‘What are the options for the Arab world amid belligerent Israeli-Iranian polarization?’ The seminar hosted Lebanese journalist and writer Hazem Saghieh, Syrian writer Yassin al-Haj Saleh, and research fellow at the Italian Institute of International Affairs, Dr. Robert Springborg, and was moderated by Tunisian human rights defender Messaoud Romdhani.

Robert Springborg began the discussion by addressing the similarities between Iran and Israel in their role in the Arab region, describing these countries as ‘state breakers’. Iran threatens the sovereignty of at least five Arab countries, including Palestine, by supporting Hamas. Israel is undermining and demolishing the Palestinian state by dominating the Palestinian authorities in Gaza and the West Bank, and fueling the conflict between Fatah and Hamas before 7 October 2023. According to Springborg, some parties in the Middle East may be looking forward to a conflict between Iran and Israel,  and may be ending with one enemy instead of continuing hostility with both of them. Springborg emphasized that ‘the enemy of my enemy is not my friend,’ and that both of countries have clear hostility to the concept of the state and stability in the Arab region. Springborg added that in the absence of cohesive states, it is impossible to protect human rights or safeguard democracy.

Yassin al-Haj Saleh addressed the hostility of both Israel and Iran towards Arab countries. Saleh pointed out that Arab parties benefit from the conflict and rivalry between both countries, but what is more dangerous is that the growing Iranian influence strengthens Israeli powers, and in turn highlights Arab weakness and contributes to the further destruction of the Arab countries. Saleh added that Iran is playing a disastrous role similar to the role of Israel. Saleh explained that Iran controls four Arab countries in different ways, and Iran acts as the engine of sectarian divisions in Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen, and Syria. Saleh continued that Iran is also the largest regional force supporting various militias, evident in Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen, and even Syria, which are considered as ‘militia states.’ Saleh added that the main driver of the conflict between Iran and Israel is the struggle over regional influence, which is fueled in some way by the weakness of the power systems in the countries of the region, and the erosion of the regional system in the Middle East in which the United Sates has the upper hand and Israel follows, in addition to the role of the largest regional actors Iran and Turkey.

According to Hazem Saghieh, this struggle for regional influence has been exacerbated for numerous reasons, resulting in the emergence of many nationalities in the Arab world, independent of each other and not concerned with each other. Saghieh said that the different nationalities in the Arab region appear cohesive from the outside while being in fact completely fragmented from the inside.  Saghieh added that perhaps the clearest example of this is the Arab reaction to what is currently happening in Gaza and Sudan. Saghieh continued that the major disaster is that these national groups are completely incapable of forming any influential and pressing national or regional positions. Saghieh explained that this has several causes, most notably the oppressive and tyrannical regimes ruling the region, the disruption of freedoms, the disruption of collective and individual initiatives, and the absence of a cultural component that deals with the idea of ‘homeland’ as a unity and a common value.

In addition to the issues explicated earlier, Saleh added that other significant issues include the fragmentation of Arab societies due to interactions between external interventions on the part of major regional and international actors. He also underscored the inherited power systems in the region, such Assad’s rule in Syria or Saddam Hussein’s rule in Iraq, the latter of which has not been overcome despite the passage of more than twenty years since the fall of the Saddam Hussein regime. Saleh further addressed the difficulty of stabilizing the region amid countries such as Iran, Israel, and Turkey in its current form, explaining that achieving any changes at the level of regional security require changes at the level of the major actors in the region, and at the level of global powers such as the United States and Russia. Saleh added that the main transformation must occur in the power systems in the Arab countries, describing them as ‘the dynamic source of disasters,’ including the bloody Assad regime and the Sisi regime. Saleh explained that the Sisi regime is a combination of tyranny, corruption, and failure to defend Egyptian national interest. Saleh added that the greatest defeat of the Arab revolutions is represented by the failure of the attempt to put the Arab countries on the right path to reform.

This, in turn, was confirmed by Springborg, noting that authoritarian states in the Arab region, including Egypt, Tunisia, Jordan, Morocco, and Algeria lack the ability to act independently. Springborg continued that this is as a result of their increasing dependence on financial support, especially from the UAE and Saudi Arabia, or because these authoritarian states are supported by global powers, whether they be Western countries, Russia, China, the International Monetary Fund, or the World Bank.

Springborg considered Israel to be an essential partner in the creation of this influence, considering that Israel is partially credited with the rise in the influence of the ruling families in these countries in the Arab region. Springborg focused on the role of these countries in supporting authoritarian regimes to weaken the remaining human rights in countries such as Tunisia, Egypt, Morocco and Jordan.

Iran’s position on the UAE and Saudi Arabia is related to the desire for control. Iran poses a real threat to all Gulf States, but avoids entering into a direct conflict with the Gulf States or Israel, rather it uses its agents to implement its aspirations. Iran and the Gulf States share similarities in that their primary interests revolve around maintaining the current authoritarian regimes in the Middle East. Both of them are not concerned with the freedoms of individuals in exchange for preserving authoritarian regimes or ruling militias.

Saleh concluded in response to the Salon’s question about the options of the Arab world amid the belligerent Israeli-Iranian polarization, that the priority is for the governance institution to develop within Arab countries, and for regimes to come to not treat human beings as permissible surplus, who are imprisoned, tortured, and killed. Saleh continued that the minimum protection for people’s lives, guaranteeing the minimum conditions and requirements for public debate, and providing room for different opinions and innovative solutions may make a difference. There is no way to progress unless the largest sector of people participate in discussion, action and change. ‘It is not just gunpowder and blood.’

Springborg acknowledged the difficulty of overcoming this state of polarization. He considered that the only option was to try to improve the lives of individuals in the Arab region, a cause for which the Arab peoples could continue to mobilize. He considered that it is a reason for optimism that these peoples, have attained higher educational levels, have a greater awareness of their rights, and have begun to demand them intensively. This energy for change only needs to be redirected and employed, and there is hope for that.

Saghieh hoped that he was wrong in his pessimistic view of the difficulty of reforming the current ruling regimes in the Arab world, or pushing the current Arab regimes to treat their people with humanity and respect. Despite his pessimism, he hoped that the Arab peoples would be successful in imposing their wills and rights on the tyrannical authorities amid the fragmentation of these Arab peoples from within, the growth of internal religious and ideological polarization, and most importantly the absence of stability in the region, which does not allow these peoples to confront authoritarianism at home.

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