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Professor Sohrabi on Egypt, Arab Springs and Iran’s Nuclear Program

Published: September 28, 2012
Section: News

Iran’s nuclear program is one of the most polarizing issues in the world today. While American and European officials believe Tehran is planning to build nuclear weapons, Iran’s leadership says its goal in developing a nuclear program is to generate electricity without dipping into the oil supply that it prefers to sell abroad, and to provide fuel for medical reactors.

Iran and the West have been at odds over its nuclear program for years, however, the controversy has accelerated since November 2011, with new findings by international inspectors, tougher sanctions by the United States and Europe against Iran’s oil exports, threats by Iran to shut the Strait of Hormuz and threats from Israel signaling an increasing readiness to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities.

Professor Naghmeh Sohrabi (HIST), Associate Director for Research at the Crown Center for Middle East Studies, analyzed the different aspects of each of the regional issues and offered different perspectives on Israeli-Iranian tensions.

“Nobody knows the answer to the question of whether Iran is trying to obtain nuclear power for energy resources or militaristic purposes,” Sohrabi said. “There are indications that Iran may be developing weapons, but I personally cannot say if they are. What it [Iran’s nuclear development] has done until now is upped the tension in a region that is already tense, between Iran and the Gulf states, and particularly between Iran and Israel. At the very least, what is going on is that the tension in the Middle East has been dramatically increased,” she said.

The unrest is not limited to the nuclear and oil fields. Civil war in the region has created ground for political conflict not just inside the countries but also abroad.

The wave of Arab unrest that began with the Tunisian revolution reached Syria on March 15 last year, when residents of a small southern city took to the streets in order to protest the torture of students who had put up anti-government graffiti. The government, headed by President Bashar al-Assad, responded with unprecedented force and demonstrations that quickly spread across much of the country. By the summer of 2012, the country was in civil war. More than 21,000 people, mostly civilians, are thought to have died and tens of thousands of others have been arrested. Conflict has spilled over borders into Lebanon, Iraq, Turkey and Jordan, and inhabitants are worried that fighting might flare up in their countries and that they will have to take in more Syrian refugees than possible.

“People who say that, yes, the United States should militarily support the rebels who are trying to overthrow Assad’s regime, believe that as long as there is an imbalance of power, as long as Assad has the upper hand, the massacres will continue,” Sohrabi stated. “If the United States boosts the opposition, though, that might ‘tip the scale,’ and the rebellion will have a better chance of succeeding. That option is always very attractive, because people feel the need to do something, and see U.S. support as the only option they have left. Others, however, think that if the moral purpose of supporting the rebels is to decrease the amount of bloodshed in Syria and to end the fighting, then arming the opposition is not the way to go—it will only lead to more confrontation than currently exists.”

Another critical issue in the Middle East is the situation in Egypt. Egypt is the most populous country in the Arab world, and its revolution in February 2011 was the capstone event of the Arab Spring, inspiring demonstrators in Libya, Syria and elsewhere. In June 2012, however, after ousting former dictator Hosni Mubarak, the radical Islamist group the Muslim Brotherhood, headed by Mohamed Morsi, took power, causing American officials to raise concerns about the role an Islamist Egypt might play in the region.

In September, outrage in the Egyptian media over an anti-Islamic film boiled over when an angry crowd breached the fortified walls of the American Embassy in Cairo. While the attack did not lead to American deaths, as in Libya, Mr. Morsi waited 24 hours before issuing an only mild rebuke of the rioters, while on Facebook the Muslim Brotherhood called for more protests and riots.

On Sept. 21, an Islamist militant group based in Egypt’s Sinai peninsula claimed responsibility for a cross-border attack in which an Israeli soldier was killed. U.S. President Barack Obama then warned Mr. Morsi that relations between Egypt and the United States would be jeopardized if Egyptian authorities failed to protect American diplomats and stand more firmly against anti-American attacks. This series of events begs the question of how the Egyptian government will respond in the future: Will it take a firm hand against the militant groups operating inside the country, or will it distance itself from the politics of the United States?

“To what degree is the Egyptian government making decisions that are ideological, or making decisions that are continuing policy from before, is a very interesting question,” Sohrabi said. “When it comes to Egypt’s foreign relations, one wonders how much is there going to be continuity with the past, and since Egypt receives a huge amount of money in aid from America, how much can it afford to antagonize the U.S. in terms of its national interests. The Egyptian government has to walk a fine line between its own ideological concerns that they had before it was elected into office, and the practicality of its governing.”