By Thomas L.
July 29, 2015
I started my career as
a foreign correspondent in Beirut in 1979. I didn’t know it at the time, but
1979 turned out to be one of the great vintage years for foreign news —
particularly from the Middle East. It set in motion the most important dynamics
still shaping that region today. In fact, it’s been 1979 for 36 years. And the
big question about the Iran nuclear deal reached this month is, Will it ultimately
be a break from the history set in motion in 1979, and put the region on a new
path, or will it turbo-charge 1979 in ways that could shake the whole world?
What happened in 1979?
For starters, there was the takeover of the Grand Mosque in Mecca by Islamist
extremists who challenged the religious credentials of the Saudi ruling family,
accusing them of impiety. The al-Sauds responded by forging a new bargain with
their religious conservatives: Let us stay in power and we’ll give you a freer
hand in setting social norms, relations between the sexes and religious
education inside Saudi Arabia — and vast resources to spread the puritanical,
anti-women, anti-Shiite, anti-pluralistic Sunni Wahhabi fundamentalism to
mosques and schools around the world.
This Saudi lurch
backward coincided with Iran’s Islamic Revolution in 1979, which brought
Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to power. That revolution set up a global
competition between Shiite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia for leadership of the
Muslim world, and it also led to a big surge in oil prices that gave both
regimes more money than ever to export Shiite and Sunni fundamentalism. That is
why the Egyptian scholar Mamoun Fandy liked to say, “Islam lost its brakes in
That competition was
further fueled by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 — which spawned
the Sunni jihadist movement and eventually Al Qaeda — and by the Three Mile
Island nuclear accident, also in 1979, which basically ended all new building
of nuclear power plants in America, making us more dependent on fossil fuels.
Of course, the Islamic Revolution in Iran also led to a break in relations with
the U.S. — and shifted Iran from a tacit ally of Israel’s to a country wishing
“death to Israel.”
So the U.S.-Iran
nuclear deal marks a big change — but because it will lead to an end to
economic sanctions on Iran, it could turbo-charge 1979 as easily as end it.
That depends on a lot of factors: Will the nuclear deal empower the more
moderate/pragmatic majority inside Iran rather than the hard-line Revolutionary
Guards Corps? The reason to be worried is that the moderates don’t control
Iran’s nuclear program or its military/intelligence complex; the hard-line
minority does. The reason to be hopeful is the majority’s aspiration to
reintegrate with the world forced the hard-liners to grudgingly accept this
A lot will depend also
on Saudi Arabia moderating the anti-modernist trend it imposed on Sunni Islam.
On Tuesday the Middle East Media Research Institute released a translation of a
TV interview by the Saudi author Turki al-Hamad about the extremist discourse
prevalent in Saudi Arabia. “Who serves as fuel for ISIS?” he asked. “Our own
youth. What drives our youth to join ISIS? The prevailing culture, the culture
that is planted in people’s minds. It is our youth who carry out bombings. …
You can see (in ISIS videos) the volunteers in Syria ripping up their Saudi
That’s why another
factor determining if 2015 is a break with 1979 or a multiplier of it will be
the energy revolution in America — efficiency, renewables and fracking — and
whether it keeps putting downward pressure on oil prices. Give me five years of
$25-a-barrel oil and you’ll see reformers strengthened in Iran and Saudi
Arabia; they’ll both have to tap their people instead of oil.
But while that oil
price decline is necessary, it is not sufficient. Both regimes also have to
stop looking for dignity and legitimacy in combating the other — and Israel —
and find it, instead, in elevating their own people. Saudi Arabia’s attempt to
bomb Iranian influence out of Yemen is sheer madness; the Saudis are bombing
rubble into rubble. Will Iran spend its windfall from this nuclear deal trying
to dominate the Arab world? Maybe. But Iraq, Syria, Libya and Yemen today are
like a giant Superfund toxic cleanup site. Iran wants to own that? It will sap
more of its strength than strengthen it. We know.
On July 9, Agence
France-Presse reported that the International Monetary Fund estimated Saudi
Arabia, whose population tripled since 1975, would run a budget deficit this
year exceeding “$130 billion, the largest in the kingdom’s history,” and “to
finance spending Riyadh has already withdrawn $52.3 billion from its fiscal
reserves in the first five months of the year.” Iran’s population has doubled
since 1979, and 60 percent of its residents are under 30 and it has 20 percent
unemployment. Last April, Issa Kalantari, a former Iranian agriculture
minister, warned that because of dwindling water resources, and
over-exploitation, if Iran doesn’t radically change its water usage “50 million
people — 70 percent of Iranians — will have no choice but to leave the
country,” Al-Monitor reported.
Nukes are hardly the
only threats for this region. Both Iran and Saudi Arabia desperately need to
make 2015 the end of the 1979 era. It would be fanciful to predict that they
will — and utterly realistic to predict the destruction that will visit both if