Middle East Mischief[: Real Conspiracies]
by Daniel Pipes
Monstrous fears feed on monstrous realities.
The Middle East has a well-deserved reputation for conspiracy theories and rabble-rousing hyperbole. But the reputation does not exist in a vacuum: the region does host a remarkable number of real plots and schemes. Time and again in the past two centuries, Western governments have relied on covert collusion or devious operations to influence Middle East politics; Israelis have resorted to clandestine methods; and Arab politicians have made regular use of surreptitious means. This legacy of secrecy and trickery has severely degraded public life in the Middle East.
We begin with a survey of plotting in the Middle East during the last two centuries, with an emphasis on the post-World War I era; then explain why foreigners and locals alike are so inclined to intrigue; and conclude with some observations about the lasting significance of this phenomenon.
"European Diplomacy and Oriental Intrigue"
All sides plot regularly-foreign states with ambitions in the Middle East, local politicians extending their power, and locals bending Western powers to their will.
Plotting by Westerners and Israelis. The Napoleonic invasion of Egypt in 1798 marked the beginning of sustained European intervention in the Middle East. Since then, the British, French, Russians, and Americans have constantly maneuvered behind the scenes to outflank their rivals. While the whole of the Middle East, from North Africa to India, served as their playing field, they took special interest in the Levant and the Persian Gulf.
London occasionally played with the idea of sponsoring a Jewish Palestine, seeing in this an indirect means to boost British power. As early as 1840, Foreign Minister Lord Palmerston quietly proposed that "The Jewish people, if returning [to Palestine] under the sanction and protection of the [Ottoman] Sultan, would be a check on any future evil designs of Mehemet Ali [the ruler of Egypt] or his successor." In this spirit, Palmerston offered protection to stateless Jews living in Palestine, a practice the British government continued for the next half century.
Zionist leaders reciprocated with veiled efforts to make their movement attractive to the powers, with some success. Theodor Herzl lobbied Colonial Secretary Joseph Chamberlain at the turn of the century, persuading him that a Jewish colony in the Sinai peninsula would help extend British influence to Palestine. In Herzl's words, were the Zionists resident "in El Arish under the Union Jack, then our Palestine would fall in the British sphere of influence." Herzl's successors took up this theme and pitched it to the French, German, and Russian governments. For example, on 3 October 1917, just a month before the Balfour Declaration, Chaim Weizmann proposed (in a statement that apparently influenced British decisionmaking) that "a reconstructed Palestine will become a very great asset to the British Empire." The Middle Eastern view of Israel as a Western colony becomes more intelligible against this background.
The British often conspired in Iran. After signing a treaty in 1814, the British negotiator privately held that, to assure India's security, "it would be better policy to leave Persia in her present state of weakness and barbarism, than pursue an opposite plan." In 1834, when Fath 'Ali Shah died, the British assured his son Muhammad of the throne against his two uncles; and when Muhammad himself died fourteen years later, the British and Russians helped Nasir ad-Din ascend to power. In 1845, they intervened to protect a leader of the emerging Baha'i religion.
Also about that time, the British provided a conduit for Indian money to reach Shi'i shrines in Iraq, thus making the mullahs beholden to them. On one occasion, for example, the prayer-leader of Tehran wrote Dalhousie, the British governor-general of India, asking that he use his influence to protect the Shi'a community in India. British support helped the Constitutional Revolution of 1906; the next year, the Anglo-Russian Agreement divided the country into two spheres of influence. General Edmund Ironside, commander of Allied troops in northern Iran, privately assisted Reza Khan to become commander of the Cossack Division and encouraged him to execute the coup d'état of February 1921, leading to the overthrow of the Qajar dynasty and its replacement by the Pahlavis.
The Russians also connived in Iran, helping to undo the Constitutional Revolution in 1908. In 1912, seeking to show off their might, an agent provocateur stole into Meshhad's shrine of Imam Reza and got safely out before Russian forces bombed the shrine.
The Sykes-Picot Agreement of May 1916 -- a secret deal between London, Paris, and Petrograd to divide up the Middle East-remains the archetype of European perfidy. Though long defunct, it yet comes up as a principal cause of the Middle East's border problems, and is still vividly remembered and resented. For example, a Syrian Ba'th Party official in May 1978 denounced "the false borders established by the Sykes-Picot agreement" and deemed them "no longer acceptable." Likewise, a Damascus newspaper in 1981 declared it intolerable that "the Sykes-Picot logic of 1916 regain the upper hand and redivide the region." Building on Sykes-Picot, T. E. Lawrence, a British agent, had a direct hand in inspiring the Arab Revolt of June 1916, thereby rendering that entire episode suspect in many Middle Eastern eyes.
During the interwar period, the great powers shamelessly manipulated Middle East politics by such furtive tactics as paying off politicians and intellectuals, sponsoring publications and organizations, and propping up minority communities. Leading figures (including Shakib Arslan and George Antonius) accepted clandestine money from interested parties in Europe.
As World War II approached, the powers became even more assertive in pursuit of their interests and these pressures increased. Radio Berlin spread rumors in October 1939 that the British consul in Damascus was distributing swastika armlets and badges, aiming thereby to provoke trouble between the British and French. Nazi Germany won impressive influence in Iraq during 1937-40 under the guidance of the formidable Fritz Grobba, who specialized in fomenting anti-British sentiments.
The exigencies of war prompted Europeans to pull strings more overtly. British troops ringed the royal palace in Cairo, compelling King Faruq to change government. In Iran, the British and Soviets jointly decided that Reza Shah's continued rule had become inconvenient, so they deposed him in favor of his son, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi. Their influence remained powerful, though nearly invisible. No one could quite tell who controlled what. Marvin Zonis comments: "The British, the Soviets, and the ruling dynasty were involved, in the eyes of many Iranians, in a folie à trois, each needing the other, each suspect."
The imperial powers gave up their formal controls over the Middle East in the aftermath of World War II, but not without a fight, and not without continued intrigue. A memo of conversation has Secretary of State John Foster Dulles telling the British foreign secretary in 1955 that "Unpleasant events which we might instigate should have the appearance of happening naturally." The Suez War of 1956 (known in Arabic as the "Tripartite Aggression") saw the British and French governments working secretly with Israel to control Egyptian territory, reinforcing Middle East phobias for years to come. On 24 October 1956, just days before the Suez campaign began, the three governments signed the Sèvres Protocol in which they spelled out in detail the series of steps each of the parties would execute. At the same time, they categorically denied the existence of such an agreement. This episode confirmed the conspiracy theorist's worst fears about imperialist plotting. About the same time, the British considered assassinating Gamal Abdel Nasser and set up a transmitter in southern France which called him a "minion of Zionism"
The British continued to manipulate Middle East politics from behind the scenes. In 1970, for example, a stringer for the Reuters news agency heard that Sultan Said Bin Taimur of Oman had been deposed, so she took her report to the Cable and Wireless office in Muscat. The Englishman in charge there read the dispatch and, the story goes, handed it back to her, remarking "You're a bit early. Tomorrow, not today." Of course, he was right; a day later the sultan was hustled on to a British plane and taken into exile.
As for the United States, the two best-remembered actual conspiracies both concerned Iran. Operation Ajax helped overthrow Prime Minister Mohammed Mosaddeq of Iran in 1953 and did much to foster the anti-Americanism that culminated in the 1978-79 revolution. Secret American arms sales to Iran in 1985-86 won the freedom of several American hostages in Lebanon. That President Reagan could overtly pursue one policy (no deals with hostage-takers) and covertly another (deals with hostage-takers) confirmed U.S. government deceptiveness. The Bible, key, and (kosher) cake brought by American emissaries to Tehran all heightened the element of mystery surrounding the transactions.
U.S. intrigue in Iran went well beyond these two major incidents. For instance, when Arthur Millspaugh, an American, was hired to reorganize the Finance Ministry in 1942, a senior American diplomat privately informed his superiors that this meant "We shall soon be in the position of actually 'running' Iran." In the late 1940s, American intelligence operatives forged the memoirs of Abu'l-Qasem Lahuti, a pro-Soviet Iranian leader, in which he explicitly described Kremlin plans to annex the north of Iran. Shredded documents found in the U.S. embassy in 1979 and pieced together by the Iranian occupiers established that several of Khomeini's aides maintained contact with the U.S. government. Others showed that American and Soviet diplomats in Tehran met regularly to discuss developments in Iran and that in October 1978 the Soviet told the American that "the U.S. was not doing enough to help the Shah." No wonder Khomeinists often saw U.S.-Soviet enmity as a ruse.
Iraq was another important target. Some Iraqis claim that the vehemently anti-American Ba'th Party came to power in Iraq in 1963 "on an American train." In the early 1970s, the U.S. government joined with Iran and Israel in arming Kurds to weaken the Iraqi regime. Twenty years later, Washington printed false Iraqi dinar notes to undermine Saddam Husayn's regime.
The U.S. government reportedly engaged in conspiracies against other states too, including a feasibility study in 1957 for diverting the Nile River to the Red Sea, thereby leaving Abdel Nasser's Egypt dry; and repeated efforts to oust Qadhdhafi from power in Libya.
Israelis have often resorted to clandestine operations. In 1954, they arranged for Egyptian Jews to place bombs in several sensitive locations, including the premises of the U.S. Information Service, to frame Gamal Abdel Nasser's government and disrupt Egyptian relations with the West. Known as the Lavon Affair (after the Israeli defense minister who approved the scheme), this plot created an abiding Arab fear of Israeli agents acting close to home. A year later, Israeli officials acknowledged to American diplomats their intent to overthrow the Abdel Nasser regime. Eli Cohen, the Mossad agent who penetrated the highest reaches of Syrian society in the early 1960s (befriending even the head of intelligence and the president of the republic), helped perpetuate this heritage of paranoia. Israeli intelligence employed Jonathan Pollard, an American Jew employed by the U.S. Navy, to pass on classified American documents until his arrest in 1985. A year later, Mossad abducted Mordechai Vananu, the renegade nuclear technician who had revealed Israel's bomb-making capacity to The Sunday Times, by having a blonde lure him into the arms of its agents. And these were only the most renowned of the Israelis' plots. Others included: cooperation with the Maronites of Lebanon; aid for Palestinian fundamentalist Muslims to weaken the PLO; and a very wide web of unacknowledged relations with Arab states. The most important and extensive of these concerned the Hashimi kingdom of Jordan, but others involved Saudi Arabia, the Sudan, and Morocco.
Plotting among Middle Easterners. Conspiration plays an equally prominent role among Middle Easterners themselves. Secret societies intrigued before World War I, culminating in the overthrow of Sultan Abdülhamit II in 1909. The Committee of Union and Progress (the "Young Turks") promoted a conspiracy mentality which had wide influence on the Ottoman successor states. Thereafter, clandestine nationalist groups plotted with and against the foreign rulers. Whether intending to institute democracy or rule despotically, they invariably relied on conspiratorial means.
Military cliques regularly plotted to overturn Arab regimes, with notable success during the 1950s and 1960s. They included Abdel Nasser's "Free Officers" in Egypt and 'Abd al-Karim Qasim's group in Iraq. In Syria, ten military coups d'état took place in the space of seventeen years. Jordan from 1951 to 1957 was a "swirl of rumor, intrigue, and conspiracy" where the king prevailed over his opponents because he was a professional conspirator and they but amateurs. Communists and pro-Soviet figures sought to unseat Anwar as-Sadat in Egypt and Ja'far an-Numayri of the Sudan in 1970 and 1971. When Benazir Bhutto won the prime ministership of Pakistan the first time, she never fully controlled her government; eventually the president threw her out of office on dubious charges.
Arab rulers regularly involved themselves in the internal politics of other countries through terrorism, sabotage, ostracism, propaganda campaigns, military invasions, and outright annexation. Recent decades witnessed many externally-sponsored coup attempts; several Arab states had a role in the first military coup d'état of modern times, Iraq's of 1936. When Arab politics were most in flux during the 1950s, every other military officer seemed to be on a neighbor's payroll. Successful coups often depended on outside aid.
The oil boom of the 1970s provided Middle East rulers with resources to lavish on causes abroad. Qadhdhafi of Libya funneled large sums to undermine the shah of Iran, King al-Husayn of Jordan, and Sadat of Egypt. At times, Middle Eastern money traveled very far from home. Fearing an electoral victory by Jimmy Carter, the shah reportedly made large financial contributions to Gerald Ford's 1976 presidential campaign. As documented by Steven Emerson, the Saudis spawned a whole phalanx of political and corporate hangers-on in Washington prepared to spread Saudi influence.
On occasion, Arab leaders did in fact have the outré idea of allying with Israel against their fellow Arabs. In mid-1949, for example, two Arab rivals simultaneously tried to recruit Israelis against the other. Plotting to extend his rule to Syria, King 'Abdullah of Jordan had his emissary inquire of the Israelis whether they would repaint their aircraft "with the colors and markings of Transjordan," and help his effort. At about the same moment, the military dictator of Syria, Husni Za'im, instructed one of his top officers to approach an Israeli counterpart during the two countries' armistice negotiations and offer to assassinate Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion. He hoped thereby to bring the Israeli military to power in Jerusalem so the two military governments could proceed to "obtain control of the Middle East."
It was widely understood in mid-1982 that the Israelis were ready to attack the PLO but needed an excuse; the Iraqis obligingly had an agent attack the Israeli ambassador in London, hoping this would divert Syrian attention (and maybe even win a cease-fire with Iran). Two days later, Jerusalem responded by launching Operation Peace for Galilee. The PLO for many years deposited money in Israeli banks for practical reasons (to facilitate the transfer of funds to Palestinians living under Israeli control) but to some it looked like collusion. The PLO itself acknowledged that Israeli intelligence agents had it riddled with agents. Abu Nidal had journalists on his payroll write articles in Lebanese newspapers critical of himself.
Assassinations are common fare in the Middle East, and virtually every one is part of a conspiracy. The list of prominent victims is a long one: Kamal Jumbalat, Bashir Jumayyil, Rashid Karama, René Mu'awwad, King 'Abdullah, Wasfi at-Tall, Anwar as-Sadat. Many Palestinian figures lost their lives violently, including 'Isam Sirtawi, Khalil al-Wazir, and Salah Khalaf. The 1979 assassination in Cannes of Zuhayr Muhsin, head of a Syrian-backed Palestinian group, was variously ascribed to the Egyptian, Iraqi, Israeli, and even Syrian intelligence agencies. 'Abd ar-Rahman Qasemlu, leader of the a Kurdish Democratic Party, agreed to meet with Iranian officials in 1989 in Vienna and was rewarded with an ambush and assassination. Musa as-Sadr, leader of the Lebanese Shi'a, vanished in 1978 during an official visit to Libya, probably murdered.
Middle East authorities alter texts. Hafiz al-Asad joined other Arab leaders in issuing an anti-Iranian resolution in September 1982, then had his media delete mention of the resolution. King al-Husayn of Jordan took the trouble to deny to an American interviewer rumors to the effect that he had had advance knowledge of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. But when Egyptian newspapers reported on this interview the next day, all of them had the king admitting his advance knowledge of the invasion.
States constantly plot with and against Palestinians. Rightly, the PLO did not believe King al-Husayn of Jordan when he accepted the PLO as the "sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people" in 1974 or renounced his claim to the West Bank in 1988. In both cases, he clearly hoped in time to undo both these acts. A Cairo magazine published the purported secret minutes of a 1986 meeting between 'Abd as-Salam Jallud of Libya and the chiefs of the anti-'Arafat Palestinian groups based in Damascus. The transcript quotes Jallud giving instructions to the Palestinians: "play your part in liquidating the 'Arafat group in the camps [of Lebanon] because Syria cannot do that itself. . . . We are prepared to give you all the necessary aid, arms, and ammunition, and so are the brothers in Syria."
Several governments-Tunisian, Egyptian, and Jordanian, -- have encouraged fundamentalist Muslims to gain strength as a way of containing the left.
Plotting against Westerners. Middle Easterners conspire against Westerners, sometimes pulling fast ones on them. Sa'd Zaghlul, the populist Egyptian leader, tricked Lord Milner, his British interlocutor, after the two of them reached an agreement in 1920. Zaghlul insisted that the Egyptian people endorse the agreement and promised to urge their support. In fact, he sent messages back which demanded more than the agreement gave, thereby undercutting it. A year later, the ex-Ottoman war leader Enver Pasha agreed to go to Central Asia on behalf of the Bolsheviks and put down a rebellion; once there, he joined the rebellion in an attempt to set up his own Pan-Turkic empire.
Two more recent episodes involved Saddam Husayn. The Iraqi attack on the U.S.S. Stark in May 1987 appears to have been purposeful. The memoirs of an alleged bodyguard to Saddam ascribes the attack to the Iraqi ruler's desire for vengeance; others interpret the incident as an attempt to have Iran blamed for the deaths, thereby bringing U.S. forces into the war on the Iraqi side. Second, shortly after British authorities arrested Iraqi agents for trying to export nuclear triggers in early 1990, the Iraqi embassy announced that it had received 28 devices in the mail from an unknown source, in a package marked "nuclear triggers." Portraying this shipment as pretext for an attack on Iraqi territory, the embassy then ostentatiously handed the devices over to the British Foreign Office. Tests showed these to be ordinary electronic components, commonly used in household appliances and widely available in hardware stores.
The Bank of Credit and Commerce International amounted to a gigantic financial conspiracy against the West. As the bank prospered and quickly expanded, its Pakistani leadership conjured up grand dreams of buying up the West while undermining its moral fiber. As an step in this direction, it bought the favors of a former American president and a former British prime minister.
Why so many genuine conspiracies in the Middle East? Those originating outside the region have different explanations from those fomented by locals, so we deal with the two categories separately.
Causes of Foreign Intrigue
What L. Carl Brown calls the Eastern Question system accounts for many of the West's plots in the Middle East. This unique and enduring requires some explanation:
Since 1798, the Middle East stands out by virtue of not having fallen under the control of any one state, either external or internal. Instead, its territories have through the two centuries been the locus of intense competition. India fell to Great Britain, North Africa to France, and Latin America to Spain; but no single power dominated the Middle East. Russians, Prussians, Austrians, French, and British all took part in the nineteenth-century tug-of-war over the Ottoman Empire. Both the French and British colonized Egypt. German ambitions in Morocco provoked crises in 1905-06 and 1911. British and Russians faced off in Iran (over control of the country), as did British and Americans (over control of the oil resources). The Italians had aspirations to large stretches of territory, including parts of Anatolia, though they ended up only with Libya. At the same time, proximity to Europe meant that some regions-Ceuta, Melilla, Algeria, the Caucasus, Central Asia-were not just colonized but actually incorporated into the mother country.
World War I changed the tune but not the theme; intense and competitive involvement by outsiders remained the rule. The knottiest questions at the 1919 Paris Peace Conference concerned the Middle East; a peculiar institution called the mandate emerged to regulate relations between European authorities and local residents. As the British gave up control of Palestine in 1948, the United Nations for a brief but important moment bestowed a real voice in Middle Eastern affairs on such distant countries as Guatemala, Peru, and Uruguay; in 1990, Colombia and Malaysia had a critical voice in the U.N. Security Council decision to approve the use of force against Iraq.
Continuities are striking. The Eastern Question spawned a tradition of the weak manipulating the strong. What the Ottomans learned about playing off the powers Abdel Nasser applied a century later. Even minor players learned the art; in a brilliant move, the Kuwaitis invited both Soviets and Americans in 1987 to help protect their oil tankers. Middle Easterners developed or used in novel ways some of the weak state's classic instruments of power, including state-sponsored terrorism, protracted hostage seizures, an oil embargo, and chemical weapons.
For two hundred years, Western governments have held to notions that another foreign power manipulated ostensibly independent Middle Eastern states and thereby became puppeteer of the Middle East. In the nineteenth century, each European state perceived its rivals as having more say in the Ottoman capital at Istanbul than was in fact the case. The British (wrongly) saw the Russian-Ottoman Treaty of Hunkar Iskelesi of 1833 as signifying Russian dominion over the empire. The Russians (wrongly) saw the British ambassador in Istanbul, Stratford de Redcliffe, as the real power behind the Ottoman throne. In the late twentieth century, virtually every American president after Truman asserted at one time or another that the Soviets were "meddling," "inflaming," or "inspiring insurrection" in the Middle East. During the Suez crisis, Anthony Eden sent a telegram to Dwight Eisenhower, announcing that "There is no doubt that Nasser, whether he likes it or not, is now effectively in Russian hands, just as Mussolini was in Hitler's." Soviet leaders responded by pointing to arrangements from the Baghdad Pact to "strategic consensus" as proof that American leaders directed Middle East politics. Implicit to this is the notion that Westerners dispose of all power and Middle Easterners are but their playthings.
The Middle East had about as prominent a role in international diplomacy in the 1830s and 1900s as it did in the 1970s. Nineteenth-century Russophobia foreshadowed twentieth-century anti-communism, while anti-British attitudes turned into anti-American ones. In personal terms, "Muhammad Ali and Nasser, Palmerston and Dulles, Tsar Nicholas and Brezhnev have been playing the same game." In military terms, the tradition of German military missions to the Ottoman Empire and the French ones to Egypt were carried on by Russian and American advisors. In diplomatic terms, the Vienna Note of 1853 resembles U.N. Resolution 242. More broadly, what the Eastern Question was in the nineteenth century, the Arab-Israeli conflict is in the twentieth-the longest running and most complex diplomatic issue of the age; and the non-Western issue most likely to lead the Western powers to war. What colonial rivalries were in one century, arms sales, foreign aid, and troop commitments were in the next. Understand the one and you understand something about the other too.
Seeing the Middle East as a paramount strategic concern, Western politicians in both centuries embraced it so closely, the rhythms of Western diplomacy came to dominate. Politically, the region was turned virtually an adjunct of Western politics. It was the arena where U.S.-Soviet partnership was seen as most likely, as well as the region which prompted the 1973 nuclear alert and the death-blow to the Nixon-Brezhnev détente. The region has been what Brown calls "the most penetrated international relations sub-system," meaning that it has been in the most "continuous confrontation with a dominant outside political system."
The Eastern Question system encourages intrigue in four ways. First, rivalry inspires underhand tricks to gain the smallest advantage. Subterfuge multiplies, while local actors find opportunities to manipulate rivals and powers alike. Locals sometimes strike a local enemy with an eye to winning help from the powers; thus did Muhammad 'Ali attack Syria in the 1830s and Anwar as-Sadat fight Israel in 1973. Or they can sue the powers for protection from a local enemy, as the Ottoman king responded to Muhammad 'Ali in 1833, Abdel Nasser to Israeli raids in 1970, and the Saudis to Iraqi threats in 1990.
Second, the Eastern Question system encourages preemptive actions designed to create new circumstances that cannot easily be reversed. What Brown calls "fait-accompli politics" remains the same across two centuries: strike quickly and change the terms before the powers can respond. King 'Abdullah moved into the West Bank, Anglo-French-Israeli forces attacked Suez, the Israelis entered Lebanon, Saddam Husayn invaded Iran and Kuwait, and Hafiz al-Asad seized Beirut.
Third, the system meant that the powers ruled most of the Middle East indirectly, at arms' length. Examples include the French in Morocco, the mandatory system in the Levant and Iraq, and Soviet-Syrian ties. Indirect rule spawned competing centers of power and bred scheming. Ostensibly independent countries experienced even more manipulation than those firmly under imperial control. The British could not order about the king of Iraq, but they dearly wanted to, so they did the next best thing and intrigued against him. The French practice of politique minoritaire, favoring non-Sunni minorities at the expense of Sunni Muslims (who were expected to be most antagonistic to French rule), left behind an ugly legacy of suspicion both between ethnic groups and against foreigners. It lives on, too: a mysterious visitor to Secretary of State Cyrus Vance in January 1980 reported that "the Iranians believe the documents found in the [American] embassy [in Tehran] prove that the U.S. is working with minorities and other groups to replace the regime."
Fourth, capitulations (the economic and judicial privileges granted foreign merchants in the Ottoman Empire between the sixteenth and twentieth centuries) contributed to the atmosphere of mistrust. By emphasizing the power of the foreigner and the utility of having foreign protection (better yet: foreign nationality), capitulations spread a mentality of agency throughout the Middle East, a mentality that continues to infect the region's politics long after the disappearance of formal capitulations. Peter Avery explains with regard to Iran:
Foreign patronage was found extremely tempting: it was easy to overcome rivals and to mislead timid compatriots with the air of being "in the know," knowing what the British or the Russians wanted and being able to hint darkly at the consequences of their wants going unsatisfied. The scope foreign contracts afforded local intriguers was an important feature of Iran's entanglement with the Great Powers.
Not surprisingly, Western diplomats and intelligence agents still receive more offers of assistance than they knew what to do with.
Causes of Local Intrigue
As for scheming by Arabs and Iranians, three factors have the greatest importance: the legacy of Jamal ad-Din al-Afghani, the dream of unity, and the personalistic quality of Middle East politics.
The Afghani syndrome. Jamal ad-Din al-Afghani (1839-97), dubbed by his biographer a "confirmed doer, fertile in expedients and stratagems" and an "adroit lifetime conspirator," served as a model and an inspiration for Muslim activists. Afghani roamed the Muslim world, taking up residence in Tunisia, Egypt, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, and India; he also spent periods in England, France, and Russia. Everywhere he propagated his vision of modernizing Islam to save it from the rapacious West; he also took money from interested parties, plotted, and (almost everywhere) made himself unwelcome. Afghani joined a Freemason lodge, left it and established his own organization; he organized secret societies of thuggish atheists and was possibly connected to the Babi movement. He led the Tobacco Boycott which shook the Iranian throne in 1890. He planned the assassination of the Khedive Isma'il of Egypt in the late 1870's; in 1896, a disciple of his murdered the shah of Iran, crying out as he pressed the trigger, according to some witnesses, "For Shaykh Jamal ad-Din."
Afghani was personally duplicitous, habitually making up adventures (imaginary trips to Algeria and America) and organizations (Urwa al-Wuthqa apparently existed only in his head). He collected subscriptions for a journal that had suspended publication. Among Shi'a, he presented himself as Shi'i; among Sunnis as a Sunni. When visiting Afghanistan he claimed to be from Istanbul, when in Istanbul he passed as an Afghan; on occasion, he claimed to be Arab; and in London he presented himself as an Iranian (which, in fact, he was). Afghani would spend the day in his library, then disguise himself to roam incognito through the city at night. While posing as the savior of Islam, he espoused some radically anti-religious sentiments, at times even doubting the Prophet Muhammad's authenticity. So integral was scheming to Afghani's persona, his life ended in a plot: the formal cause of his death was cancer of the mouth, but it came on so quickly many witnesses suspected that the Ottoman authorities, fed up with his conspiring, had poisoned him.
Immersed in the psychology of conspiracy, Afghani reveled in his successes. Writing to his collaborator Muhammad 'Abduh, he explained from Tunis: "Here they believe that we have great wealth and that an unknown force assures our living. What pleases me is these beliefs, more than the wealth itself." A maxim revealed both Afghani's deviousness and his intent to undercut religious sensibilities: "Do not cut the head of religion but with the sword of religion." Afghani worked with the enemy, taking funds from the Russian imperial government and opportunistically currying favor with the British authorities (praising them on one occasion for "everywhere serving humanity's interests"). One high Ottoman figure told the Paris police, "This man has never been a Muslim!" and there is reason indeed to believe that his image as a Muslim hid skeptical, not to say atheistic attitudes.
Of course, Afghani also propagated conspiracy theories. To insure continued rule over India, he held that the British sought to destroy Islam by converting Muslims to Christianity and plotting to undermine Muslim solidarity. This goal allegedly prompted London to place its own candidate in Mecca as caliph, and to conquer Egypt in 1882.
Though mainly today remembered as a thinker, Afghani's greater impact may have been in the area of political style. He created a Middle Eastern prototype much admired and imitated in the century after his death: the conspirator as hero. An idealized image of Afghani's frenetic activities remains a model for all those who would spur change in the Muslim world; and his high personal reputation imbues these with a prestige not available in other cultures. Such diverse rulers as Sultan Abdülhamit II, Gamal Abdel Nasser, and Saddam Husayn have all followed his example.
The legacy of non-governmental activism is even more distinctive. Hajj Amin al-Husayni, Yasir 'Arafat and the other Palestinian leaders worked without the benefit of official power, as did Khomeini before he reached power and Hasan at-Turabi of the Sudan more recently. But Musa as-Sadr, Lebanon's outstanding Shi'i leader in the decade before his death in 1978, most clearly fit Afghani's mould. Like Afghani, Sadr was an ambitious intellectual with (as Fouad Ajami, his biographer, puts it) "the air of conspiracy." On the one hand, Sadr forwarded conspiracy theories; suspecting an Arab-Israeli plot to settle Palestinians in Lebanon, for example, he moved to south Lebanon to help foil this scheme. Denouncing the shah as an agent of the imperialists, he helped the Khomeini movement.
He also acted conspiratorially. No one knew Sadr's ultimate purpose or the identity of his patron. Pro-shah Iranians painted him as a long-term agent of Ayatollah Khomeini. Anti-shah Iranians claimed that the shah paid as much as $1 million to ensure Sadr's rise to the top of Lebanon's Shi'i hierarchy, or even that he was sent to Lebanon to bring that country under Iranian control. The PLO called him an agent of the CIA or the Lebanese government. The Libyans accused him of building up Shi'a power on Israel's behalf. The Muslim Brethren emphasized Sadr's "deep connections" to Syrian president Hafiz al-Asad. Others tied him to the Iraqi regime. Italian police suspected him of training members of the extreme left-wing organization Prima Linea.
As with Afghani, Sadr's end is a source of enduring mystery. Actually, he went one better than the nineteenth-century figure by not dying but (in classic Shi'i style) disappearing. He accepted an invitation from Mu'ammar al-Qadhdhafi and visited Libya in August 1978. The Libyans claimed he then left the country by airplane for Italy but multiple inquiries make it clear that Sadr never left Libya. Why? Many hypotheses have been forwarded; the most likely is that Qadhdhafi accused Sadr of conspiring against Arab unity, Sadr responded with anger, and Qadhdhafi had him executed.
The dream of unity. Reluctant to accept the borders bequeathed them by the colonial powers, Middle Easterners relentlessly pursue expansionist political agendas as they search for larger and more meaningful polities. Their goals include unions of Arabic-speakers, Turkic-speakers, and Muslims. Notions of a Greater Syria, a Fertile Crescent, and a Greater Iran also resonate. More than not, politicians have used clandestine means to achieve these larger states.
The drive for Arab unity has spawned the unique Arab state system. The widely-accepted sense that all Arabic-speaking peoples constitute a single nation makes them parts of a larger, mythical whole in which twenty or so governments and the PLO interact as something less than fully sovereign states. A strange brotherhood at once fraternal and fratricidal drives much of Arab politics. On the one hand, Arab rulers meet each other every year or two at summit meetings; on the other, six Arab states fought each other in the Lebanese civil war. While almost all the states pitch in against Israel, they so work at cross purposes that Israel wins every war.
Between 1956 and 1967, Gamal Abdel Nasser compiled a unique record of appealing over the heads of his fellow rulers to inspire Arab populations to agitate for union with Egypt. At the same time, he frequently resorted to clandestine means in pursuing unity ventures with Syria, Iraq, Yemen, the Sudan, and Libya. Mu'ammar al-Qadhdhafi, who provided the farce to Abdel Nasser's tragedy, sought at various times to unify with Mauritania, the Western Sahara, Morocco, Tunisia, Malta, Egypt, Syria, the Sudan, and Chad.
Pan-Turkic nationalism has had nothing like Pan-Arab nationalism's impact, but even here, clandestine operations have had a role. Enver Pasha, the Ottoman dictator during World War I, wandered off to Central Asia in 1921 where he tried to carve out an independent anti-Soviet Turcophone state. Pan-Turkic nationalists met with Adolf Hitler in late 1941.
Harking back to the ancient dream of a single Muslim polity ruled by a single righteous leader, the Muslim Brethren, Ayatollah Khomeini, and radical fundamentalists in Lebanon have sought to create the cooperative basis that might one day lead to the establishment of a latter-day caliphate. They too have frequently plotted across borders in the effort to bring their own kind to power.
Pan-Syrian nationalism, which seeks to create a Greater Syria out of the existing states of Syria, Lebanon, Israel, and Jordan, is far less well-known than Pan-Arab nationalism, but it dominated Levantine politics in the 1930s and 1940s, and has been again important since 1974. Its adherents mostly used conspiratorial means. Thus, King 'Abdullah of Transjordan furthered his goal of a throne for himself in Damascus by paying Syrians to agitate on his behalf whenever he had adequate funds to spare. Over the years, 'Abdullah gathered these from his royal relations in Iraq, from the Jewish Agency, smuggling activities, and even from betting on horses in Cairo. The Syrian Social Nationalist Party, founded in 1932, also engaged in plots to achieve Greater Syria. It had connections to all three of the Syrian military officers who seized power in 1949. It attempted to overthrow the Lebanese government in 1949 and 1961. In recent years, Hafiz al-Asad of Syria has been the key proponent of Greater Syria and much of his foreign subversion, especially that directed against Lebanese, Palestinians, and Jordanians, is intended to further this scheme.
Nor should the temptation of the Fertile Crescent be forgotten. This idea, which would add Iraq to a Greater Syria, gets espoused in Baghdad when strong rulers there look to expand westwards. It has also inspired plots. Here are two: In 1954, as some Iraqi politicians publicly pursued a federal union with Syria and Jordan, the Iraqi army covertly formulated plans for an invasion of Syria. In 1956, 'Abd al-Illah, the Iraqi regent, contacted the Syrian Social Nationalist Party and established the Free Syrian Movement which planned an invasion of Syria. (Both plots were foiled, however, before they could be put into effect).
Dreams of unity alternately brings Middle Eastern leaders together and sets them against each other. As rulers look to incorporate their neighbors and fear incorporation by them, they imbue political life with a fluid quality that encourages intrigues and plots. In their more fevered moments, Iraqi pan-Arabists called one minute for the overthrow of the Egyptian and Syrian regimes, the next sought unification with these same polities. 'Abd al-Hamid Zaydani, a fundamentalist Muslim leader in Yemen, neatly summed up these twin tendencies: "Either we unite or we fight." Dreams of unity cause much of the volatility and aggressiveness in Middle East politics.
Personality, not ideology. Intrigue proliferates when fixed goals are absent and opportunism-the weaving and bobbing for short-term advantage-holds sway.
With rare exceptions, ideologies and ideals matter less to Middle Eastern leaders than the pursuit of power as an end in itself. Arguments are just words, and change with circumstance. The politician-Gamal Abdel Nasser and Yasir 'Arafat come right to mind-serves as a vessel for others' interests. He avoids taking a clear political position; why make enemies gratuitously? If the prototypic politician in the West takes a stand on the issues and lets the electorate judge him, his Middle East counterpart builds a network of allies, then shifts his stand on the issues as expediency demands.
Political parties represent the interests of those already possessing power, a powerful leader, or an ethnic grouping. They pretend to forward causes but really exist to advance personal ambitions. Parties typically lack a clear ideology cutting across ethnic and religious lines. Coups d'état bring new people to power, not new ideas; in the caustic words of Radio Tehran, Arab coups consist of "moving a handful of tanks at night, changing some faces, and raising new slogans." Even ideologues don't even take their own ideas that seriously. Samir Qatani explains:
Do you not see [Arab intellectuals] stir us in the mornings with their fiery articles against the alliance countries [versus Iraq] and the barbarity of the embargo, then appear in the evenings with their happy and joyful faces and perfumed clothes at the parties held by the embassies of the alliance countries where drinks are mixed with women, money, espionage, and buying consciences? Their tongues seem to be saying, "What is said in the morning is wiped out by the night," or, "Hear what we say but do not do what we do!"
Outside observers have frequently noted the insignificance of ideology. A British diplomatic report from Iraq noted in 1933 that politics "had ceased to be a question of parties or policy, and become entirely a matter of personalities." Shmu'el Schnitzer, an Israeli journalist, explains:
In the Middle East, neither the spoken nor the written word has the same meaning it does in the so-called Western, or civilized, or rational world. A man does not say what he thinks, or believes, or intends to do. He says what he deems desirable, right, or worthwhile at any given moment. In two days or two weeks, he will say the very opposite, not because his stand has changed in the meantime, but because his audience, or the public to which he had directed his observations or acts, has changed.
At its most vulgar, this takes the form of selling one's services to the highest bidder; a more refined version is to foreclose no options and stake out no irreversible positions, a mentality summed up by the Arab saying, "Kiss the hand you cannot bite."
'Abdullah, Transjordan's ruler between 1921 and 1951, simultaneously pursued conflicting activities throughout his long political career. Before World War I, he both served as vice-chairman of the Ottoman parliament in Istanbul and conspired with the British to rebel against the Ottomans. Once ruler of Transjordan, he sought both to attract the backing of his subjects and to make himself useful to his superiors in London. In 1948, he simultaneously cooperated with the Zionists and planned to destroy the nascent State of Israel. 'Abdullah's double-dealing was not just personal; it epitomized a style found throughout the Muslim Middle East.
Gamal Abdel Nasser differed from 'Abdullah in many ways, but not this one: he too lacked specific principles or goals, but was infinitely flexible in his quest for power. Nasserism sounds like an ideology but is neither a system or a movement, much less a coherent body of ideas. It refers, rather, to the charismatic leadership of Abdel Nasser himself. Abdel Nasser preferred to remain flexible; adopting an ideology would have restricted his freedom of action. What was Abdel Nasser's program of Arab socialism? Lucius Battle, an American ambassador to Egypt, characterized it as "whatever he wanted to do on any given day." Remarkably, Nasser held popular adulation without hiding his egoistical purposes. "What is most interesting about him," P. J. Vatikiotis observes, "is that he was able to retain his mass appeal while openly pursuing a total concentration of personal power."
Musa as-Sadr, the Lebanese Shi'i leader, was described as being known at different points in his career "to be friend and enemy of the [Lebanese] regime, the rightists, the leftists, and the Syrians, depending on which way the wind was blowing." Hafiz al-Asad and Saddam Husayn are exemplary strong men, ruling on behalf of themselves and their small communities, adopting whatever instruments further their power. Brimming with ideology and principle as their speeches are, these are but a cover for personal ends. While Qadhdhafi has gone a step further, and published his views in books, power for him is not a means to an end but an end in itself.
Yasir 'Arafat fit the same mold. He cooperated equally well with fundamentalist Muslims and Marxist-Leninists-without committing himself to either faith; internationally he wooed conservatives and liberals with the same effectiveness. As many Palestinians have observed, the chairmanship of the PLO counts more for 'Arafat than winning control of territory from Israel.
Even Ayatollah Khomeini, the Middle East's outstanding ideologue of the twentieth century, went on record giving the state precedence over Islamic law. Disregarding a fundamental Islamic notion that men must bend to God's laws, and not the reverse, Khomeini held in January 1988 that "for Islam, the requirements of government supersede every tenet, including even those of prayer, fasting and pilgrimage to Mecca." He went on to authorize the government to prevent any activity that posed a threat to its interests.
In foreign affairs, Arab leaders specialize in abrupt realignments. Damascus backed the PLO in 1975 and fought it in 1976. For twelve years after 1977, Asad relentlessly reviled the Egyptian authorities for making peace with Israel; then one fine day in 1989 he re-established relations with Cairo and all was sweetness and light. Jordan's King al-Husayn and 'Arafat made war in 1970; they cooperated in 1982; fell out in 1983; allied in 1985; broke relations in 1986; made up in 1988; and they may yet go to war again. These abrupt changes astonish anyone not conversant with Middle East political mores but they constitute an enduring pattern. Khalid al-Hasan of the PLO explained it: "Our Arab history is full of agreements and differences. When we differ and then grow tired of differing, we agree. When we grow tired of agreeing, we differ. . . . This is the Arab nature."
Conspiracies follow from all this pragmatism and opportunism. The typical politician finds plots more congenial than principled stands. "Nobody declares his ambition until certain of success," David Pryce-Jones explains, "because he risks exposure, antagonism, the mobilization of more powerful opponents against him, and perhaps murder. Instead, he intrigues, he influences as best he may, he conspires." In Egypt, for example, conspiracy is much preferred over open political activity. The latter, according to Vatikiotis, "requires a more public commitment to one's convictions," something entirely unwelcome. Conspiracies are a favored, routine means of achieving political goals.
The Kuwait Crisis exemplified out this pattern. Saddam Husayn seemingly moderated in the mid-1980s, pleasing his allies of the moment by making the sounds they wanted to hear, then reverting, when the opportunity presented itself, to the most bellicose radicalism. By similar token, he espoused secularism for decades, then adopted Islam at a moment of need. King al-Husayn of Jordan followed pro-Western policies for thirty-five years, then abandoned them during the Kuwait Crisis, only to readopt them after the storm passed.
This very partial record of plots and intrigues leads to two conclusions: while conspiracies rarely succeed, they have a terrible impact on politics in the Middle East.
Conspiracies rarely succeed. The majority of Western efforts to manipulate Arabs and Iranians collapsed under their own weight. For every coup plot that overturns a Middle Eastern government, many more get thwarted. In other words, most plots fail. It's not hard to see why. The conspirator must succeed in maintaining absolute secrecy. His timing must be unerring. He "must be an accomplished liar and a far-seeing planner" who, like a chess master, can see several steps ahead of his opponent. A single mistake and the whole enterprise fails, as John Dryden explained back in 1690:
O the curst fate of all conspiracies!
To the extent that intrigue succeeds, it does so precisely because it is little needed. Conspiracies are most likely to work every step of the way when they take place in a congenial environment-in which case, they may not be all that important. The Arab Revolt would probably have occurred without T. E. Lawrence. What with the populace and the military supporting American efforts, overthrowing Mossadeq was (in Barry Rubin's words) "like pushing on an already-opened door."
This pattern has two implications. First, Arabs and Iranians make their own history, not outsiders. However powerless Middle Easterners may feel, thinking they are surrounded by Western imperialism and hostility to Islam, they have determined their destiny since World War II. Cairo and Baghdad have far more influence over the course of events than London and Washington. Second, kings, presidents, and emirs conspire more than their opposition. To be sure, occasional efforts to overthrow governments do take place, but not that often. Official efforts at manipulation are many times more common. If Middle Eastern leaders recognized these realities, their public life might become far more rational and stable.
Harmful impact. While mischief has had only a modest impact on the actual course of events in the Middle East, it seriously pollutes the political atmosphere. The Sykes-Picot agreement left nearly all sides discontent. The Lavon Affair was an unmitigated disaster; in addition to the international embarrassment it caused, the scheme troubled Israeli politics for a decade and it soured relations with the U.S. government. The outraged response of President Dwight D. Eisenhower to Israel's Sinai campaign of 1956 was in large part cast by the Lavon Affair. More generally, the Suez War achieved none of its objectives for London, Paris, or Jerusalem. The Iran/contra episode won the release of two Americans but permanently wounded the presidency of Ronald Reagan.
The significance of conspiracies lies more often not in their success, but in the repercussions of their failure. They have a real impact not by changing the course of history but by poisoning people's minds; they affect psychology more than politics.
Consider: when local politicians and outside powers both regularly conspire against a rival, the rival naturally responds in kind. Not surprisingly, Middle East leaders are worried sick about the prospect of intrigue. In ways large and small, they try to protect themselves. They tolerate little dissent, repress the opposition, and rely heavily on secret police agencies. They also adapt their personal lives. When traveling abroad, Qadhdhafi reportedly takes four planes: one for himself, aides, and family; one for bodyguards; one for the families of those who might try to take power in his absence; and one with a large portion of the national treasury. Fearing treachery in his own ranks, 'Arafat does not inform companions on his private plane where they are headed until the craft is airborne.
More profoundly, schemes inspire conspiracy theories; the occasional real plot inspires the fear of plotting everywhere. Saddam Husayn kills high-ranking Iraqi officials in helicopter crashes, so is it not reasonable for him to suspect something amiss when an Egyptian helicopter crashes in March 1981, killing the commander-in-chief of the army and many top generals? If Pan-Arab nationalist leaders worked clandestinely with European sponsors, how can they see Zionism as a truly populist movement? If political parties in Syria nearly always have secret backers, how can Syrians not expect the same from parties elsewhere? If Egyptians unite with Syrians in the United Arab Republic one year and soon after are passionate enemies, must not the same hold for Soviets and Americans? If the Saudis buy influence in the United States, isn't it logical for them to suspect Americans of doing the same in the Middle East? If Ayatollah Khomeini is obsessed with schemes against Great Britain, is he not likely to expect reciprocal British obsession with Iran? In the end, actual conspiracies have less significance than the conspiracy mentality.
Plots and schemes have grievously harmed Middle Eastern political life, spurring both plots and the fear of plots. They contribute to the Middle East's oft-observed tendency to autocracy, volatility, and violence. More generally, they do much to foster what one Middle East critic calls the "serious sickness in the political systems of most Muslim countries." The region's profoundly unwholesome political climate probably will only recover when the intrigue lessens.
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