Iran and its neighbors - Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Central Asia, the Caucasus, and Turkey - made most of the Middle East's history in 1992. While the more northerly of these countries played in the shadows of the Soviet collapse, the southerly ones contended with the aftermath of Operation Desert Storm.
Everywhere, violence and war characterized the year. Iran forcefully expelled residents of several Persian Gulf islets. Fighting continued in Iraq's Kurdish north and Shi'ite south, fracturing the country into three. The Najibullah regime in Kabul collapsed, exacerbating Afghanistan's civil war. Civil war in Tajikistan broke out in March. Fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan took thousands of lives.
This turmoil spurred few responses from Washington. An increasingly passive Bush Administration relegated most foreign policy to the working level, while the policy makers (especially President Bush and Secretary of State Baker) devoted their attention to domestic issues and the presidential campaign. As a result, myriad Middle Eastern problems - oil supply and pricing, terrorism, drugs, refugees, arms proliferation - await the new administration. The hours intended for devising a new health care system just may instead go for Iran and its neighbors.
The Growing Iranian Threat
With Iraq weakened and under international sanctions, the principal threat to U.S. interests in the Persian Gulf region may in the future come from Iran.
In 1992, Iranians sent mixed signals about their intentions. Some signs suggest Tehran is prepared to drop the terrorism and belligerent rhetoric which have so isolated it. The most important indication of a moderating trend was the outcome of the elections in the spring of 1992 for the Majlis (parliament). Less than a quarter of the candidates endorsed by the radical Islamic Clergy Association won; losers included leading hardliners such as Majlis speaker Mehdi Karrubi, 'Ali Akbar Mohtashemi (who in 1983 organized the bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Lebanon), and Mousavi Khoeniha (a ringleader in the seizure of the U.S. embassy). President 'Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani apparently has a mandate to bury revolutionary rhetoric and quietly to improve relations with Iran's neighbors and the West.
The deepening of economic reform provided a second sign of increased moderation. Rafsanjani, the dominant figure in Iranian politics, abandoned the radicals' concept of Islamic economics, which consisted of such policies as income redistribution, state direction of the economy along Soviet or Indian lines, and limitation of consumption (as opposed to wealth creation). The goal of self-sufficiency in all products gave way to the pursuit of Iran's comparative advantage in oil; production rose from 2.5 million barrels per day in 1988 to 3.2 million in 1992 and may reach 4.5 million within a few years. Rafsanjani had Iran resume co-operation with the International Monetary Fund, borrow from the World Bank, and implement the economic reforms recommended by those organizations. He steeply cut the budget deficit and greatly reduced government control over imports. One rate of exchange for the rial, set by the market, is to replace the several unrealistic rates of old.
These steps led to a 20 percent increase in per capita real income during the first three years of Rafsanjani's presidency (1989-92); imports in that period rose from $11 billion a year to $25 billion. But three considerations mar this otherwise impressive achievement. First, this growth is relatively modest compared to the 40 percent drop in Iranian in income from the shah's time to today. Second, it depended on an unsustainable pace of foreign borrowing, which reached $6 billion in 1991-92 alone. Iran went quickly from a good credit risk to a potential problem debtor; as a possible portent of things to come, it failed to meet its debts schedule in July and August. Third, Rafsanjani is repeating the shah's economic errors by borrowing heavily abroad and spending some $10 billion on inappropriate state-run heavy industry such as large steel mills and automobile assembly plants. Tehran pours huge sums into power generation facilities even as electricity rates remain at less than half of cost.
While the elections and the economic reform program suggested increased moderation at home, Tehran's foreign policy remained bellicose. Iranian moderates advocate an aggressive brand of Persian nationalism which is likely to cause troubles in the years ahead. Looking at the world through the combined filters of fundamentalist Islam and a resurgent Persian nationalism, they aspire to a sphere of influence which includes Iraq, the Transcaucasus, Central Asia, Afghanistan, and the Persian Gulf.
Tehran demonstrated its hostility to the West in five main ways during 1992. First, support for terrorism remained in place. The June Fifth Foundation increased the bounty on novelist Salman Rushdie's head in November, still seeking his death for having written The Satanic Verses. Iranian citizens, if not their government, apparently bombed the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires in April. Iranian agents continued to assassinate Iranian dissidents abroad, killing four Kurdish leaders in Berlin in September.
Second, the regime appears still to support Islamic revolutionaries in their efforts to destabilize Western allies. The governments of Jordan, Egypt, and Algeria all pointed a finger at Iran, seeing it as the mainstay of radical Islamic elements seeking their violent overthrow. In particular, the Egyptian government claims to have solid evidence that attacks against foreign tourists were carried out by agents trained by Iranian revolutionary guards in Sudan.
Third, Tehran reacted furiously to the Arab-Israeli peace process. Its budget formally allots $20 million for Palestinian rejectionists and Hamas, the fundamentalist Palestinian group, has opened an "embassy" in Tehran. Iran's spiritual leader, 'Ali Khamene'i, promised Hamas: "As Muslims we... will not let slip any opportunity to support the Islamic revolt of the Palestinian people." Hamas received new weapons from Iran for attacking Israel and within a week Katyushas went off from Lebanon, threatening to disrupt the peace negotiations.
Fourth, in 1992, Iranians acted with calculated aggression in the Persian Gulf - which in Iranian nationalist eyes should indeed be Persian. They demanded $78 million from Kuwait as "parking fees" for Kuwait Air airliners flown to Iran by Iraqi pilots during the Gulf conflict. They initiated a $1.7 billion development on the Iranian side of an oil and gas field that is predominantly under Qatari waters. In April, Iran expelled several hundred United Arab Emirates residents from Abu Musa, the largest of three disputed islands in the Persian Gulf that Iran had administered jointly with the U.A.E.; in September Iran delcared sovereignty oer the territories. Located near the Strait of Hormuz, the islands have strategic importance because oil tankers must pass within ten miles of either the islands or the Iranian mainland. Iranian troops deployed on the islands stand just fifty miles from population centers of the U.A.E., with obvious intimidating effects.
Fifth, Iran's rearmament program picked up in 1992 as Tehran went shopping for arms in the ex-Soviet bloc. It ordered three submarines and large quantities of MiG-29s, Sukhoi-24s, Su-22s, missiles, tanks, armored personnel carriers, and artillery. (Only small numbers of weapons have actually been delivered to date.) The Iranian five year plan for 1989-93 allocates $10 billion for arms. Of course, Iran does have legitimate security concerns, particularly with Iraq, and it did end the Iraqi war with worn-out weaponry. But Tehran has ordered equipment designed for denying others access to the seas. Why does it need three Kirov-class submarines? And why the long-range Soviet planes designed to attack aircraft carriers?
More alarming yet, Iran appears to have launched a program to acquire nuclear weapons. Nothing else explains 1992's single-minded pursuit of nuclear power plants (two ordered from China and Russia) in a country short in the capital required to build such plants and rich in natural gas which can fire power plants cheaply. Credible reports point to collaboration on nuclear technology with Pakistan, whose authorities acknowledge possessing all the elements for a bomb.
Pragmatism on domestic and economic issues, in short, does not translate into cooperation with neighbors or the West. Quite the contrary, Tehran may be on a collision path with its neighbors, and so with the United States as well. Rafsanjani might threaten the West's vital interests more directly and with greater effect than did Khomeini. Under Khomeini, Tehran promoted terrorism against individuals, quixotic efforts to overturn governments, and concentrated on events like the pilgrimage to Mecca. Under Rafsanjani, it does all this and more, building up Iranian military power and exerting influence over a huge contiguous region.
The various trend lines in Iran could result in an explosive mix. Consider: Iran's government will soon be heavily armed, it claims regional domination, and it neighbors the world's richest mini-states, yet it cannot deliver the promised prosperity. As Saddam proved, this volatile mix might explode with little warning and in unexpected ways.
Washington must prepare for the possibility that Iran intends to challenge vital U.S. interests in its region. As with the Soviet opponent in decades past, Washington has two basic policy options: détente and containment. Détente means working with Rafsanjani and the Iranian moderates in hopes of modifying Iran's anti-Western behavior. Containment means laying down clear markers, avoiding military confrontation, and hoping that internal problems will eventually cause the regime to implode.
Détente has attractions, especially if the Western allies can reach a consensus on the carrots and sticks to be applied to Iran. But the effort to moderate Iranian radicalism may fail, much as did earlier efforts with Saddam Husayn. Foreign governments have very limited influence on Iran, as the Iran/contra debacle showed. Further, years of U.S.-Iranian venom render so nuanced a policy emotionally impossible on both sides. The U.S. government cannot credibly offer Iran much on trade and Congress is not likely to rescind its Iran-Iraq Non-Proliferation Act of 1992, which applies the most stringent export restrictions to Iran (as well as Iraq). For its part, Tehran accuses the U.S. of moving the goalposts; what benefits did it get for securing the release of Western hostages in Lebanon?
The Europeans and Japanese agree with much of Tehran's criticism; they therefore dismiss American proposals that aid to moderates be delayed until Iran meets certain tests. In effect, most U.S. allies have gone the détente route on their own, providing Iran with billions each year in government-backed loans and access to advanced technology, some even with military applications.
Alternatively, the U.S. government can proceed on its own with a policy of containment. Iranian economic weakness increases the chances for its success, as does as the growing disillusionment of the Iranian people. Indeed, it is by no means clear that the Islamic Revolution will last into a second generation. Iranians seem more interested in the reversal of the decline in living standards than in the continuation of Islamic rule. Economic dissatisfaction and anger with rampant corruption led to rioting in four cities in mid-1992, including large, organized, openly anti-regime disturbances lasting several days in Meshhed.
Containment will not be easy to sustain. It takes years or even decades to work, and so requires a broad consensus of support within the United States. It means foregoing the commercial opportunities offered by Iran's return as a major oil producer.. Further, Americans cannot by themselves make containment work; Iran secures financing and technology from Europe and Japan, as is now_ the case, it can blunt U.S. efforts. Therefore, the key to an Iran policy lies in convincing reluctant allies in London, Paris, Bonn, and Tokyo. Ironically, it may be simpler to secure their cooperation if Washington takes a principled stance in favor of containing Iran, rather than a nuanced carrot-and-stick policy for rewarding moderate behavior.
The Iraqi Nemesis
In 1991, Iraq meant victory at war for the United States. In 1992, it meant disaster averted. However dull and unsatisfying, the absence of catastrophe was a considerable achievement. The Iraqi population did not die in massive numbers from starvation, plagues, or civil unrest. Saddam Husayn did not sell large amounts of oil or rebuild his arsenal. Neither Iran nor Syria invaded Iraq. Oil prices stayed steady.
In fact, it could be argued that circumstances improved in 1992 from the U.S. perspective. The ruling circles in Baghdad began to fall out among themselves. The Ba'th Party proved an ever-less efficacious instrument of power. The Iraqi arsenal degraded under the impact of the embargo and the continued work of U.N. inspection teams. Saddam Husayn did not contest the prohibition of Iraqi aircraft from southern Iraq (the "no-fly zone") in August 1992; this both prevented his assault on the Shi'a of the south and further narrowed his writ.
But Americans, their expectations raised by Operation Desert Storm, did not appreciate these subtle successes. Instead, they saw Saddam Husayn still in power and felt intense frustration. Confrontations in parking lots symbolized a sense of powerlessness. Bumper stickers with "Saddam still has a job, do you?" summed up the sour mood. Then Congressional probes into the Bush administration ties to Iraq prior to August 1990 ("Iraqgate"), revealed a policy at best myopic, at worst criminal. Together, discontent about 1992 and scorn for 1989 undid George Bush's 1991 reputation as the architect of victory. More than any other foreign policy issue, ironically, Iraq-related developments contributed to the president's defeat at the polls by Bill Clinton.
Looking to the future, the new administration has but limited options vis-à-vis Iraq. While it can make human rights issues and the spreading of democracy a more central focus of American policy toward Baghdad, major deviations from the Bush approach - steady pressure on Saddam but minimal involvement in Iraqi politics - seem unlikely.
Instead, the real options belong to Saddam Husayn. He might see Bush's loss of power as an opportunity to mend relations with the U.S. government. Indeed, the very first press reaction to Clinton's victory (Iraq "will reciprocate in kind to balanced policies") hinted at this possibility. Replicating his actions of a decade earlier, Saddam could eliminate bellicose rhetoric against foreigners and reduce his brutality at home. He could also comply with some of the terms of United Nations resolutions, for example by cooperating with the U.N. inspection teams. In return, he presumably would demand the end of economic sanctions and the acceptance of his rule. Such an initiative would present the Clinton team with a dilemma: Give Saddam another chance or not?
They could, for the new president has not so far made Saddam Husayn's overthrow an American objective. But they should not. Saddam deserves absolutely no more chances. We know who he is and what he has done and will do. Giving Saddam no more chances, however, does not imply working actively to overthrow the Iraqi regime. The U.S. government does not have the means to accomplish that end. Furthermore turmoil or a power vacuum in Iraq could create severe complications. Eliminating Saddam would leave a power vacuum that would require a U.S. government presence for months or years. After establishing order, the occupying authorities would have to establish new institutions in the American image. Not plausible even during the euphoria of February 1991, this scenario appears nearly incredible at this moment of American introversion. American interests may well be served best by restraint.
Where does this leave American policy? Where is it today - calling for full implementation of Security Council Resolutions 687 on the ceasefire and 688 on the Kurds. Clinton has called for as much: "Whether Republicans or Democrats are in power," he says, "Saddam Husayn must understand that Washington will insist with the same determination that he respect the U.N. resolutions." These resolutions require Iraq to settle its boundary dispute with Kuwait; acquiesce in the destruction of all chemical, biological, and nuclear facilities and weapons; close down the terrorist apparatus; permanently renounce the acquisition of non-conventional arms; return all Kuwaiti property and pay compensation for damage; and respect the human rights of the Kurdish and Shi'i minorities. Only when Saddam complies with all these terms might the Security Council lift the sanctions. To this, the U.S. government should add that Iraq remains ostracized so long as those with a long record of violating international law rule that country.
Persian Gulf Insecurities
The oil kingdoms face many economic and political problems which belie their image as rich and contented. Neither Kuwait nor Saudi Arabia made much progress in 1992 addressing vital issues. The ruling dynasties in both countries continue to depend on family rule and the distribution of largesse. But cash cannot indefinitely buy political support: demands on the public purse continue to increase while income does not; and the increasingly educated and more middle-class population wants a voice in public life.
In Kuwait, war and then reconstruction reduced the government's estimated pre-war assets of $100 billion to about $15 billion (after netting out the borrowing). Poor financial management also contributed to this drop: high-profile investments in Spain lost up to $5 billion, and the post-war rescue of Kuwait banks cost several billion dollars more than necessary. For Kuwait to regain financial balance requires exporting its pre-war level of two million barrels per day, a goal which depends more on OPEC decisionmaking and world markets than on Kuwaiti oilfield capacity. Kuwait's fields have been largely rebuilt; production is up to 1.5 million barrels per day.
In Saudi Arabia, official assets amounted to something like $225 billion in 1981; now the foreign assets of about $50 billion are balanced by the national debt - most of it held internally - of about $60 billion. Huge subsidies deplete the treasury while the tax base remains miniscule. The $8 billion 1992 budget deficit is about 8 percent of GDP, or twice the share of the U.S. deficit in its GDP. The Saudis have taken steps to curtail their deficits, reducing spending from $83 billion in 1982 to $48 billion in 1992, but if current trends persist, Saudi Arabia will soon become a major debtor state. Riyadh may yet retain the reputation of a financial giant, but this giant has feet of clay.
Indeed, virtually all members states of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries need money urgently to maintain standards of living. OPEC's ability to produce at record levels while maintaining prices higher than pre-Kuwait invasion depend on phenomena that may not persist, in particular, Iraq's absence from the market and the collapse of production in the ex-Soviet Union. However, over the next three to five years, OPEC members may compete rather than cooperate if the market becomes soft. Four factors would most weaken prices: Iraq's return to the market, the ex-Soviet republics re-establishing previous production levels, a sluggish world economy, and higher taxes on oil in the industrial countries (whether out of environmental concerns or for fiscal reasons).
Turning to political issues, border disputes continued to fester in 1992, without producing major problems. Saudi Arabia and Qatar had a nasty exchange in the fall. Riyadh continues to be hostile to Yemen, due to age-old rivalries, bitterness over Yemen's pro-Saddam stance in 1990-91 and the subsequent expulsion of more than half a million Yemenis working in Saudi Arabia, as well as Saudi unhappiness at Yemen's multi-party elections.
While retaining power firmly in their hands, the ruling Persian Gulf families in 1992 took small steps to broaden political participation. The opposition did unexpectedly well in Kuwait's October elections, taking 31 of the 50 seats. Despite the opposition's victory, the emir appointed ruling family members to the key posts of defense, foreign affairs, and interior. The Omani and Bahraini rulers revitalized their consultative assemblies - one broadened membership, the other renewed a 1988 promise to reconvene an assembly dismissed in 1975. King Fahd of Saudi Arabia proclaimed an unprecedented "Basic Law of Government" as well as a host of other legislation on March 1st. Together, these could systematize and regularize procedures that in the past had been largely subject to the royal whim. They promise, for example, an independent judiciary, predictable budgetary regulations, and protection for private property. In addition, the king announced that he would finally convene the oft-promised Consultative Council, though he kept missing self-imposed deadlines.
As in other Muslim states (Jordan, Algeria), the broadening of political participation in Saudi Arabia may make the country more fundamentalist, thereby threatening political stability. Indeed, 107 religious leaders complained in a manifesto that Western cultural influences (television programs that "glorify decadent Western life styles") and Riyadh's alliance with the West (inviting "atheist" troops to defend the Kingdom and the failure to fight "the Jewish enemy"). Riyadh continues to be nervous about democracy in the region, as evidenced by its reaction to Yemen's parliamentary elections and the pressure on oil companies not to explore an area generally recognized as Yemen's side of a disputed border.
Americans ought to be very cautious about seeing Saudi Arabia as "an island of stability in one of the more troubled areas of the world," as President Carter so unwisely described Iran just a week before the Islamic Revolution began. Rather than making alliance with Riyadh the foundation for U.S. policy in the region, Washington needs to view Saudi Arabia as a temporary ally with whom many and profound differences remain, and to keep open other options.
Turkey, Island in a Storm
Turkey offers one of those options. It is the only country in the Middle East with which America has a formal treaty of alliance (through NATO) and, along with Israel, the only democracy in the region. It is also a country at great risk in the years ahead.
Risk is what Turkey has avoided during the past fifty years. From the sophisticated neutrality of World War II to the low profile vis-à-vis the Soviet Union to the avoidance of Middle East maelstroms, Ankara steered clear of avoidable problems. The Soviet collapse and Operation Desert Storm - however desirable from its point of view - have embroiled Turkey in perilous foreign affairs. The country so long at the margins of other people's dramas suddenly finds itself a fulcrum of unrest. Turkey is now beset by wars on three fronts: Kurdish rebels in its southeast (in Turkey and in Iraq), the Armenia-Azerbaijan war on its northeast, the slaughter of Muslims in the former Yugoslavia to its northwest - in addition to pressures for involvement in Central Asia and continuing problems with Cyprus and Greece.
Kurds number some 10 million in Turkey, 5 million in Iran, 4 million in Iraq, with smaller populations in Syria and the Caucasus republics of the former Soviet Union. Simplifying a complex situation, the Kurds of both Turkey and Iraq have rebelled against their own governments and allied with the other power. Baghdad (with help from Damascus and Tehran) works with the main organization of Turkish Kurds, the Worker's Party of Kurdistan (Partiya Karkerana Kurdistan, or PKK) against Turkey. The PKK had an awful record of violence in 1992, mostly against fellow Kurds, and now controls portions of southeastern Turkey.
To make matters worse, the Turkish army is conducting war on the PKK its own, aggressive way. Prime Minister Süleyman Demirel, whom military officers have already deposed twice (in 1970 and 1980), seems this time unwilling to face down his generals. Some call this situation, whereby the civilian government remains formally in charge but the army has wide and increasing powers, a "coup by memorandum." U.S. News & World Report suggests that "Civil war [in Turkey] is no longer unthinkable."
The issue of Turkish Kurds complicates U.S. policy towards Iraq. Turks fear that American encouragement of democratic forces in Iraq may spawn an autonomous Kurdish region - or even an independent state - in the far northern part of Iraq. Ankara fears this would inspire Turkish Kurds to try the same. Were they to succeed, the Turkish Kurds would have challenged the notion of Turkish nationalism, and thereby the very existence of the Turkish nation-state. Such high stakes explain the vigorous debate in Turkey over renewing permission for the U.S. military's relief effort for northern Iraq (variously known as Operation Provide Comfort II and Operation Poised Hammer). For its part, the PKK attacked supplies en route from Turkey to the Iraqi Kurds, obstructing relief efforts in northern Iraq. Turkish strikes into Iraq against the PKK have aroused Iranian concerns that the generals seek to take care of the Kurdish problem by annexing northern Iraq. Tensions are high, violence endemic, and a crisis probably near.
Further east, war between Azerbaijan and Armenia began in early 1988, when the Soviet Union still existed. Sensing the end of empire, the Armenian leadership launched an attempt to control Nagorno-Karabakh, an area of Armenian population lying within Azerbaijan. Azeris resisted, and the conflict escalated into a brutal struggle of siege, embargo, and massacre.
Turks feel a strong visceral sympathy for Azerbaijan. Turks and Azeris speak almost the same language and adhere to almost the same religion (Azeris are Shi'i). Turks also share with Azeris a history of conflict with Armenians. Azerbaijanis reciprocate these warm feelings. Accordingly, Ankara feels strong popular pressure to get directly involved against the Armenians. Within Turkey, for example, voices such as that of the nationalist Necati Özfatura advocate Turkey "play a deterrent role against Armenian adventurism by openly expressing its readiness to wage a war, if need be, against Armenia in defense of Azerbaijan."
Although the conflict pulls strongly on Turkish emotions, Ankara has good reason to keep decent relations with Armenia. It has kept out of the Caucasus war - though it admits to training Azeri officers and Azerbaijan admits to deliveries of fabric for its troops' field uniforms - because the Turkish leadership understands that siding with Azerbaijan could jeopardize Turkey's carefully nurtured relationship with the United States and Europe. When arguing for restraint, Prime Minister Demirel explicitly acknowledges the danger of "a conflict between Muslims and Christians that will last for years." By staying out of the conflict, Turkey not only avoids confrontation in the Caucasus but it might substantially improve its reputation in the West, currently under assault by diaspora Armenians.
For its part too, Armenia has compelling reasons to maintain good relations with Turkey, its primary access to the outside world. Also, having lost its historic Russian protector and nearly surrounded by Turkic Muslims, it needs to get along with the strongest of its neighbors. Indeed, in return for food shipments to Armenia, Yerevan has already asked its diaspora brethren ease up on their anti-Turkish campaign.
Bosnia-Herzegovina similarly tempted Turks to intervene in mid-1992. Bosnian authorities pleaded with Ankara to help them stave off Serbian depredations and prevent "ethnic cleansing." Demirel vowed not to stand idly by, yet he did. As in the Caucasus, foreign policy considerations prevented the Turks from interceding; as there, developments in Bosnia further raised the political temperature in Turkey. In particular, it confirmed a growing Turkish conviction about European hatred for Islam and Muslims.
Central Asia might also disturb the Turkish political equilibrium, though for other reasons. The unexpected independence of five predominantly Muslim (and four Turkic) republics on the far side of the Caspian Sea has inspired the excited notion of Turkey spearheading a seven-state Turkic bloc. This vision tempts some Turks to pretensions of grandeur. President Turgut ?zal announced that "Current historical circumstances permit Turkey to reverse the shrinking process that began at the walls of Vienna [in 1683]." Kamran Inan, a minister of state, declared that "Turkey is a candidate to be the strongest state in the West in the period following the year 2010." These delusions could cause mischief in the years ahead, prompting Turks to overestimate their strength and commit major mistakes abroad. At the same time, Turks do have a potentially constructive role in Central Asia, and should be encouraged to play it.
Turning to American policy, the U.S. ability to respond to these issues has been limited by a persistent tendency to view Turkey as a southern European country like Portugal or Greece. The secular quality of Turkey's official culture, the use of the Latin alphabet, and the thoroughly pro-Western orientation of its top personalities induce Americans to miss the Muslim and Turkic dimensions of its political life. Thus, the State Department includes Turkey in the bureau which handles all of the ex-Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, Western Europe, and Canada. Military and intelligence officers see Turkey too much in terms of NATO, forgetting that Turkey also abuts Iran, Iraq, and Syria. Worries about tensions with Greece push aside those with Syria. The Senate concerns itself more with Armenian resolutions blaming Turks for genocide during 1915 than it does with ominous statements coming out of Tehran in 1992 portraying Turkey as Iran's potential strategic enemy.
The inclination to see Turkey as another European state makes American relations with Ankara unusually misconceived, for it is also a Middle Eastern country. Moving Turkey administratively into the Middle East would be a minor but significant step to begin the process of seeing the country in its proper context.
As regards issues of the moment, Washington should work closely with Ankara. This means coordinating policy on the Kurdish zone in northern Iraq; helping insure that the "howl of the Central Asian wolf" does not distract Turks into thinking they have become a great power; and strongly encouraging Turkey to stay out of the Caucasus imbroglio. By similar token, the U.S. government should make clear to Armenians, both at home and in Armenia, that it entirely rejects their self-portrayal as Christendom's front line to fend off Islam.
Central Asia on the Screen
Central Asia, historically very remote from the United States, now involves American interests in two respects: long-range nuclear weapons in Kazakhstan and unrest caused by fundamentalist Islamic movements throughout the region.
Kazakhstan has a mixed population reminiscent of Lebanon: 40 percent Kazakh, 36 percent Russian, plus substantial numbers of Ukrainians, Germans, Koreans, and others. President Nursultan Nazerbaev tries hard to maintain harmonious relations among ethnic groups, which means remaining close to Russia, almost to the point of abridging Kazakhstani independence. But this policy of accommodation disturbs Kazakh nationalists, who demand more assertive policies and Nazarbayev must acquiesce to them too. For example, to shift the ethnic balance, the authorities in Alma Ata encourage immigration by Kazakhs living outside Kazakhstan; they even offer passports to diaspora Kazakhs, without requiring them to emigrate. Many of Mongolia's 150,000 Kazakhs emigrated in 1992 and an unknown number of China's 900,000 Kazakhs may follow. If Kazakh nationalists get their way, a newly assertive Kazakhstan government might take steps harmful to the Russians in the country, provoking the Kremlin and leading to conflict of possibly epic proportions. Alternately, an ultra-nationalist government in Moscow may seek to enhance its standing through confrontation with Alma Ata.
This almost standard post-Soviet predicament concerns the United States because Kazakhstan hosts 104 SS-20 missiles and 40 nuclear-armed bombers. Today they are under CIS (in effect, Russian) command. In the event of confrontation with Russia, Kazakhstan would be hard-pressed to mount a credible conventional defense against Russian forces. It possesses few conventional arms, the officers in its nascent army are overwhelmingly ethnic Russian, and the largely Russian population in the north of the country would probably welcome Russian intervention. Therefore, Kazakhstan's best defense may lie in seizing full control over the nuclear weapons on its territory and threatening Moscow with mutual destruction. With this option in mind, Kazakhstan may stall on its commitment to go non-nuclear or demand a quid pro quo for this step, such as massive Western aid or security guarantees. Its current policy, that it must be fully involved in negotiations over the destruction of its nuclear weapons, provides ample opportunity for delay. And, in any case, the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty permits Kazakhstan to keep nuclear weapons until 1999. Washington will need to develop incentives as a means of influencing Kazakhstan's nuclear decisions.
Fundamentalist Islamic movements in Central Asia, and especially in the heavily populated Ferghana Valley, present another issue of concern to Americans. Already growing for over a decade, the collapse of Soviet authority meant the ending of most restrictions to its further growth, with impressive results. To date, the resurgence of Islam has taken the form of primarily cultural, educational, and narrowly religious activities (such as teaching Arabic script and the Koran). But growingly powerful elements demand that governments promote Islamic customs and that the Shari'a be the sole basis of law. While the movements do espouse anti-Western views, they are indigenous and only secondarily assisted by foreign powers, especially Iran, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia.
In Tajikistan, ethnic Tajiks (the Persian-speaking ethnic group which makes up two-thirds of the republic's population) have been engaged in a civil war which began when Rakhmon Nabiyev, Brezhnev's Communist Party chief, got himself elected president in November 1991. Opposition forces, including some fifty private armies, rebelled against him March. In May, Nabiyev brokered the end of a 51-day rebellion, only to resign at gunpoint in September. Forces loyal to him captured Dushanbe October 26 but his replacement, Akhsbarshah Iskandrov, retained power for seven weeks thanks to the intervention of Russian troops.
These events prompted concern that Iranian-inspired fundamentalism could feed unrest. But Tajikistan's troubles result more from local ethnic, regional, and inter-elite conflict than from outside interference (as Uzbekistan's leaders forcefully allege) or the influence of fundamentalist Islam.
As in Tazikistan, civil strife could emerge elsewhere in Central Asia. Regional and ethnic splits have erupted into murderous violence, as have differences between the old communist elites and those who would challenge them. The challengers inevitably claim to support more rapid economic reforms, though their programs are vague, and to be democrats, though it is not clear what they understand by that term - indeed democracy receives lip service reminiscent of that formerly paid Marxism-Leninism.
Central Asia being so remote and so alien to Americans, the U.S. government is not likely to get directly involved in that region. This leaves Washington with just two basic options: encourage ties to Turkey or to Russia. President Bush adopted the former policy, calling Turkey a "model to others, especially those newly independent republics of Central Asia." But this approach has serious limitations, for Turkey is distant geographically, with no direct links to the area, and it is not much more advanced than Central Asia. After the first flush of enthusiasm (when they called Istanbul "the Mecca of Turks"), Central Asians have cooled down on the prospect of emulating Turkey or following its political lead.
Central Asia's connections to Moscow are profound and will likely remain so for years to come. Russian continues to be the lingua franca and rubles the currency. Russians command the military, while the old-guard politicians who still run nearly all of Central Asia still habitually look to the Kremlin for guidance. Russia has also taken on new roles in the recent past: Uzbek dissidents now publish in the Russian press and take refuge in Russia. More broadly, Russia leads the way in attempting to emerge from seven decades of communist rule. For all these reasons, American planners should encourage continued strong ties between Central Asia and Russia.
This is all the more urgent because Iran, not Turkey, is the real alternative to Russia. Iran has greater financial means, a more dynamic ideology, geographic continuity, and it offers realistic trade routes to the ocean (across relatively flat land to the excellent port at Bandar Abbas). U.S. oil companies and investment banks should commit their hundreds of millions of dollars to finance pipelines via Russia, not Iran. American interests call for Boris Yeltsin to survive, not Rafsanjani to gain new resources.
An Uncertain Future
When it comes to the Middle East, the lion's share of American attention - governmental, journalistic, scholarly, religious - habitually goes to the Arab-Israeli conflict. But the events of 1992 confirm a trend in place at least since the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait: the eastern half of the Middle East hosts problems of increasing importance to the United States. Indeed, the Turkish and Persian Gulf theaters by now quite clearly have greater weight, in both economic and security terms, than does the Arab-Israel one. Iraq and Iran are especially problematic - the tarbabies of American politics, snagging three presidents in a row. Jimmy Carter never recovered from the twin blows of the shah's fall and the U.S. embassy seizure. The Iran/contra scandal deeply wounded Ronald Reagan's presidency. "Iraqgate" and Saddam's remaining in power more than vitiated George Bush's benefits from Operation Desert Storm. What will Bill Clinton face?
Obviously, we cannot say. But the sooner he and other Americans shift their focus eastward, the better prepared they will be for the troubles ahead.