[Note: This is the second of two articles on the history of the Middle East. It covers the 19th Century and the 20th Century and Beyond and includes the bibliography. The first Middle East, history of theentry covers the following topics: Ancient History, Arab Ascendancy, and Turkish Ascendancy.]
In 1798 the first decisive European involvement in the Middle East itself took place with the Egyptian expedition of Napoléon Bonaparte (later Napoleon I). In France's war against England, Bonaparte planned to deliver a blow to Britain's Indian empire by conquering Egypt. The French army that landed in Alexandria easily defeated the Mameluke cavalry, which the Ottomans had permitted to continue to serve as Egypt's military force. The British sent their navy to the eastern Mediterranean, however, and destroyed the French fleet. Only by concluding a treaty with Turkey, restoring Egypt to its control, were the French able to repatriate their army.
The French expedition to Egypt had several important consequences. It focused European attention on the Middle East and the weakness of the Turks in that area. It thus turned the Middle East into another theater for imperial expansion. In 1805 the Ottomans recognized Muhammad Ali as governor of Egypt; he was an Albanian or Turkish military commander who had succeeded in driving out the Ottoman governor of that province. In 1811, Muhammad Ali had the remaining Mamelukes massacred. This gave him absolute control of Egypt. He built up a powerful army and a strong naval force, took over most of the land, organized state monopolies of trade, and introduced the cultivation of cotton and hemp. He also conquered the Sudan. In a war with the Ottomans, he gained control of Syria, southern Anatolia, and Arabia. The intervention of the European powers, which were alarmed by his growing power, ended the second war between Muhammad Ali and the sultan in 1839–41. Egypt lost control of Crete and Syria, but Muhammad Ali and his family's hereditary rule were recognized in Egypt.
Under a son of Muhammad Ali, Muhammad Said (r. 1854–63), Egypt was opened to greater foreign economic involvement with the granting of the Suez Canal concession to France. This involvement grew even stronger under Ismail Pasha (r. 1863–79). The canal was opened in 1869. Within a few years, Ismail had to sell his shares in the Suez Canal Company to the British because of his financial problems. The tremendous debts incurred by Ismail as he borrowed at usurious rates to finance public works designed to modernize Egypt led to ever greater European control. By 1878 an Englishman was appointed minister of finance and a Frenchman minister of public works. In 1879 it was declared that they could not be removed from office without the consent of Britain and France. Egyptian officers led an uprising that was suppressed during 1882, when Egypt was placed under direct British control.
Attempts at reform in the Ottoman Empire followed the continued loss of territories due to nationalist uprisings in the Balkans that were encouraged by various European powers. Russian demands to be able to intervene on behalf of all Orthodox subjects led to the Crimean War (1853–56) and the growing dependence of the Turks on Britain and France. Insurrection in Syria in 1860–61 and conflict between the Druzesand Christian Maronites in Lebanon led to French intervention; Lebanon was then granted special status to protect its Christian population. Efforts at liberalization of the Ottoman regime proceeded until shortly after the accession of Sultan Abd al-Hamid II (r. 1876–1909). He initially accepted promulgation of a constitution; the constitution was soon suspended, however. Parliament was dismissed, and the sultan devoted himself to the reestablishment of his absolute power. The empire was now the "Sick Man of Europe." All that kept it from division among the European powers was their own inability to agree on joint action and their intense rivalries.
The revolution of the Young Turk movement in 1908 forced Sultan Abd al-Hamid to restore the constitution of 1876. The growth of Turkish nationalism, however, caused the gradual disillusionment of minority nationalities—such as the Armenians—with the promises of the revolution. Abd al-Hamid was deposed in 1909. The constitutional monarchy then instituted lasted until a coup overthrew it in 1913.
In Persia the rise of the new Qajar dynasty (1794–1925) led to increasing European involvement. This eventually brought the country to a state of economic submission to Russian and British interests. In 1905 a Persian revolution broke out. It was directed at the elimination of foreign interests and control and against the shah's chief minister, who was held responsible. Muhammad Ali Shah (r. 1907–09) was hostile to the revolutionary movement. He tried to fight it, at first on his own and later with Russian assistance. In 1907 the Anglo-Russian Entente was concluded. Under it, Britain and Russia divided Persia into spheres of influence—the northern half Russian and the southern British. Internal conflict within Persia led to growing Russian domination of the country until World War I.
Thus, by 1914 and the outbreak of war in Europe, Persia, the Ottoman Empire, and Egypt were all subject to varying degrees of European involvement and pressure. Moreover, in 1914 the Ottoman Empire signed a secret treaty of alliance with Germany. Within months of that treaty Russia declared war on the Ottoman state. The Middle East thus became one of the battlefields of World War I.
The impact of World War I on the Middle East was, in the long run, as profound as it was on Europe. The war destroyed the old order. It also set into motion various trends and movements that have still not run their course. The multinational empire of the Ottomans was the first and most obvious victim of the war. The alignment of the Ottomans with the Germans and the Austrians against the British, the French, the Russians, and, ultimately, the Americans was a decisive factor in the empire's collapse. Even during the war the British and the French developed plans for the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire. Essentially, they divided it between themselves. An even more important role in shaping the region's future was played by the forces of modern nationalism, which had been developing among various groups in the area.
Modern nationalism was a foreign concept imported into the Middle East during the 19th century. It reached the Middle East via students who had been sent abroad to study and foreign missionaries and educators who had established institutions in the Middle East. To pious Muslims, the concept seemed to run against the basic ideas of the faith. Nevertheless, ample precedent existed in the Islamic world for ideas like nationalism. The old cleavages had been first and foremost between Muslim and non-Muslim, then between Shiite and Sunni, then between Turk and non-Turk. The last division became the entering wedge of nationalism in the mid-19th century. During that period an Egyptian nationalism developed. It was encouraged by the ruling family in their desire to be recognized as independent and legitimate rulers of a sovereign state.
Turkish nationalism differed from the Egyptian version. The Turks emphasized their linguistic and religious identity; the Egyptians, however—during this period—stressed the glories of Egypt going back to Pharaonic times. In theory, at least, this Egyptian nationalism was all-inclusive. Christians and Jews as well as Muslims who lived in Egypt shared in the ancient and glorious history of the land. Turkish nationalism, on the other hand, was closely tied to Islam. The Young Turk movement for a time tried to develop ties with Armenians, Greeks, and Jews, but it failed in this effort. Although its emphasis on Islam should have allied Turkish nationalism with the two non-Turkish Muslim elements of the empire—the Arabic-speaking peoples and the Kurds—the growing emphasis on the linguistic and racial superiority of the Turks only alienated both of those groups. Islamic brotherhood and loyalty to the Ottoman dynasty had come to be identified with the caliphate. They might have prevented the development of a separate nationalism among Arabs and Kurds—among the latter it came very late indeed —except for the existence of a Christian Arab group in Lebanon among whom the idea of a separate nationalism struck a sympathetic note. The anti-Christian riots and massacres of the 1840s and '60s made many Christians in Lebanon and Syria move slowly in the direction of a Syrian and then a pan-Arab nationalism.
World War I helped to foster and realize these new nationalist ideas. This was especially true when the British-inspired revolt of the Arabs, led by Husayn ibn Ali, occurred in Arabia. This revolt made the collapse of Ottoman arms on the southern front a reality. The British promised Husayn that an Arab state would be established south of the 36th parallel. It was to include Syria, Iraq, and Arabia but leave the coastal areas of Lebanon and Palestine to future determination. At the same time, the government of India—a separate part of the British administration—promised Ibn Saud that he could have control of all of Arabia; he was the leader of the puritanical Muslim sect of the Wahhabis and ruler of central Arabia. The British also promised the Jews support in establishing a national home in Palestine. The Greeks were promised control of western Anatolia, the Italians southern Anatolia, and the Armenians an independent state in the eastern regions of Anatolia.
The idea of a return to Zion, the ancient Jewish homeland of Palestine, had existed ever since the Roman conquest of the land and the imperial decrees that forbade Jews from settling in Jerusalem or its vicinity. But Jewish nationalism, known as Zionism, was a modern, European-inspired political movement. Small numbers of Jews had returned and settled in the land at various times and with increasing momentum during the 19th century. The Zionist colonization, however, did not begin until about 1880. Efforts to obtain Ottoman agreement to large-scale settlement failed. Nevertheless, more than 150,000 Jews lived in Palestine by World War I.
At the end of the war, the British received League of Nations mandates over Palestine (including the area soon to be called Transjordan) and Iraq. The French received mandates over Syria and Lebanon. By this time the foundations of a stronger Arab nationalism were laid. This nationalism, once the preserve largely of Christians, now spread among Muslims as well; they saw in imperialism and Zionism (one could also say, in Christians and in Jews) the barriers to the achievement of their national aspirations. The struggle for independence from European rule and against Jewish immigration to Palestine became the central themes in the development of Arab nationalism between the wars.
The Ottoman sultan Mehmed VI (r. 1918–22) was presented with the Allied plan for the dismemberment of the empire and the division of Anatolia itself into Greek, Italian, and Armenian zones. Although his government eventually accepted the terms of the settlement, a nationalist party set up a provisional government at Ankara with Mustafa Kemal (later Kemal Atatürk) as president (1920–38). The nationalists, with help from Soviet Russia, succeeded in driving the Greeks and Italians out of Anatolia and in defeating the Armenians. The sultanate was abolished in 1922; the Republic of Turkey was proclaimed the following year. In 1924 the caliphate was abolished as well. A series of reforms was then undertaken to make Turkey a secular, modern state.
With the expulsion of most of the Greek population of Anatolia and the flight of Armenians in the early part of the century, the new Turkish Republic had a largely Turkish population. Kurdish revolts were suppressed in 1925 and 1930, but the assimilation of the the Kurds proved difficult. After a controversial year-long experiment with Islamic-led government ended in 1997, Turkey's more than 70-year tradition of secular rule was restored. The government's efforts to suppress Kurdish separatists seeking autonomy in southeastern Turkey led to several Turkish military incursions into Iraq; they also led to the massing of Turkish troops along the border with Syria in 1998. In 1999, after Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan was captured and sentenced to death, the Kurdish rebel movement in Turkey said that it would end its armed struggle to create a Kurdish homeland. In August 1999 a devastating earthquake measuring 7.4 on the Richter scale struck industrialized northwestern Turkey; the quake killed thousands of people and caused widespread destruction from Istanbul southeast to the port of Golcuk. The Islamist-based government that came to power in 2002 pledged to uphold the secular state. Among its goals was making Turkey the first Muslim member of the European Union (EU).
Persia was the scene of British and Russian (both Bolshevik and anti-Bolshevik) efforts to regain control of the country at the end of World War I. The confused situation resulted in a coup led by an army officer, Reza Khan, in 1921. He soon assumed dictatorial control of the state. In 1925 he took the throne as Reza Shah Pahlavi. A Persian nationalism based on identification with the glories of pre-Islamic Persia was fostered. At the same time, moves were taken to modernize the state. In 1925 the name of the country was officially changed to the ancient native name, Iran. When World War II broke out, the British and Soviets sought Iran's cooperation in using the territory as a means of supplying the USSR. Reza Shah was forced to abdicate in 1941, and his son, Muhammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, succeeded him.
After World War II the USSR initially supported separatist movements in the Azerbaijan and Kurdistan areas of Iran. This support was withdrawn under pressure from the United States and Britain. A long struggle for nationalization of the British-controlled Anglo-Iranian Oil Company in 1952–54 led to the establishment of a nationalist government led by Premier Muhammad Mosaddeq. Mosaddeq was given dictatorial powers. A conflict between Mosaddeq and the shah in 1953 ended in victory for the shah. The shah's repression and pressure to modernize Iran, however, united leftist groups and Shiite religious elements against the government. Unrest culminated in the ouster (1979) of the shah and the establishment of an Islamic republic under the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
The new regime manifested marked hostility toward the United States, a longtime supporter of the shah. From November 1979 to January 1981, U.S. embassy personnel in Tehran were held hostage. Terrorists linked to Iran also seized hostages in Lebanon. The regime's efforts to consolidate its power were hampered by the prolonged Iran-Iraq War (1980–88). In 1990, Iraq acceded to Iran's peace terms. Diplomatic ties between the two nations were then restored. Iran remained neutral in the Persian Gulf War. After the war it moved to establish ties with the new Muslim republics of the former USSR. Moderate cleric Mohammad Khatami, who in 1997 won Iran's first free presidential elections since the 1979 revolution, continued the efforts to improve Iran's relations with the Western nations begun by his predecessor, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. In August 1999, students demanding political reforms staged the largest demonstrations in Iran since the 1979 revolution. This provoked counterdemonstrations and repression from hard-line elements. Although Khatami was overwhelmingly reelected in 2001, his reformist program met with strong conservative opposition. Voters grew disillusioned. All government institutions eventually came into the hands of the hardliners, who worked to enlarge Iran's regional influence.
The emergence of the Jewish state of Israel in Palestine is undoubtedly the most dramatic development in the modern Middle East; it is also the one causing the greatest continuing unrest in the region. Despite the obligations undertaken in the Balfour Declaration of 1917 to aid in the establishment of a Jewish homeland, the British did all in their power to frustrate Zionist aims in the interwar years. At the same time, they did not fulfill all their commitments to various Arab leaders. Jewish settlement in Palestine and the creation of quasi-governmental institutions by the Jewish community between 1920 and 1948 came into conflict with newly emerging Arab nationalism; with the concept of a Greater Syria held by many Arab Christians in the area; and with Islamic ideas about the inviolability of Islamic territory. It was in 1948 that the British relinquished their mandate over Palestine under growing pressure from both Jews and Arabs. Palestine, as the Holy Land of Judaism and Christianity and also a sacred area to Islam, was therefore a center of religious and nationalist conflict.
Sporadic Arab riots against Jewish settlement broke out in Palestine in 1921 and 1929. They flared up into a protracted period of almost open warfare in 1936. The conflict continued until World War II put a temporary end to it. British proposals to settle the question mostly called for a curtailment of Jewish immigration—at a time when Nazi persecution of European Jews meant that a haven was desperately needed.
After the war the virtual closing of Palestine to Jewish immigration began a struggle between the British and various underground Jewish military groups. Some of these groups (such as Irgun Zvai Leumi and the Stern Gang) resorted to terrorism. In 1947 the British announced their intention to withdraw. They threw the question of the future of Palestine into the hands of the United Nations (UN). That newly formed organization voted to partition Palestine into two states, a Jewish and an Arab one; the city of Jerusalem was to have international status. Although reluctantly accepted by the Jews, the partition plan was rejected by the Arabs. When Britain left Palestine in May 1948 and the Jews proclaimed the new state of Israel, seven Arab states invaded Palestine. The first Arab-Israeli War had begun. The outcome of that war—and of subsequent Arab-Israeli conflicts in 1956, 1967, 1973, and 1982—was the enlargement of Israel's territory at the expense of its neighbors. The Arab-Israeli wars also created a large body of Arab refugees from Palestine. Most of them (and their descendants) have remained in camps since being displaced by the two major conflicts (1948, 1967).
In the years after Israel's creation in 1948, it developed as a dynamic democratic society. It experienced rapid economic growth despite limited resources. This growth resulted largely from the emphasis on modern technology. It involved considerable investment by Jewish communities in other parts of the world. From 1948—when it had a Jewish population of about 750,000—to 1989, Israel absorbed some 2 million Jewish refugees from European and Arab countries. A massive wave of immigration by Soviet Jews began late in 1989. By 1996, immigrants from the former USSR constituted 11% of Israel's population; they had become the largest single Jewish group. Arabs accounted for nearly 20% of Israel's population in 1999, excluding the West Bank and Gaza Strip. By 2000 these areas were home to more than 3.1 Palestinian Arab inhabitants (and nearly 350,000 Jewish settlers). The Palestinian uprising (intifada) in the occupied territories that began in December 1987 and the subsequent severing (1988) of Jordanian administrative and legal ties to the West Bank highlighted the need to resolve the Palestinian question. So did the growing rivalry between the secular Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and Islamic groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Despite the signing of numerous agreements beginning in 1993, the violence continued. A new anti-Israel uprising that broke out on Sept. 28, 2000, reflected broad Palestinian Arab dissatisfaction with the peace process itself.
A striking development of the late 1950s that became important after the 1967 war was the growth of a Palestinian national movement as part of the general movement of Arab nationalism. Compared with other Middle Eastern nationalism—Turkish, Iranian, Jewish, even Kurdish and Armenian—Arab nationalism has had the most difficult task of defining its identity and aims. In the earliest days of Islam and during the Umayyad period there was a clear distinction between Arab and non-Arab. The conversion of vast numbers of Aramaic, Coptic, and other Middle Eastern Christians, as well as Jews, to Islam led to the creation of the widespread Arabic-speaking population that stretches from the Iranian border to the Atlantic Ocean. The consciousness of constituting an Arab nation came to this group rather late. It was in constant conflict with local nationalisms—especially Syrian, Lebanese, and Egyptian. Only with the rise to power in Egypt of Gamal Abdel Nasser (president, 1954–70) was the Arab nationalist movement able to rally around a charismatic leader. Attempts to form a United Arab Republic linking Egypt and Syria in 1958 collapsed in 1961, however. The Arab world remains divided over whether the ultimate goal of Arab nationalism should be a single political entity. In recent times, such an entity has been increasingly conceived in religious rather than secular terms.
Within this problematic region two specific areas caused major unrest in the post-World War II era. One was the effort of the PLO, founded in 1964 primarily within the refugee community, to use neighboring countries as a base of terrorist operations against Israel. Because the number of Palestinians within Jordan is so large, the PLO was once almost in control of the country. In September 1970, King Hussein of Jordan broke the hold of the PLO on his nation. This caused the organization to move its center of operations to Lebanon, the country with the second-largest concentration of Palestinians outside of historic Palestine.
Since about the 11th century Lebanon had been the home of two disparate religious groups. One are the Maronites, a once-heretical Christian group that became part of the Roman Catholic church; the other are Druzes, an offshoot of Shiite Islam. Later other Christian and Muslim groups settled there. Modern Lebanon thus became a mosaic of most of the Christian and Muslim groups found in the Middle East.
When Lebanon became independent after World War II, a "gentleman's agreement" divided all government positions among the various Christian and Muslim sects according to a numerical formula. However, steady Muslim population growth and equally steady Christian emigration to the West upset the balance between the two communities. The rise of Arab nationalist sentiment among part of the population clashed with the local Lebanese patriotism of the Maronites. This led to civil war in 1958 and again in 1975–76. Sporadic violence continued. The situation was complicated by Syrian intervention; by the seizure of foreign hostages by Iranian-backed terrorist groups, such as Hezbollah; and by the PLO's efforts to mount raids against Israel from southern Lebanon. These efforts led to a confrontation between the PLO and the government. They also provoked an Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982. In 1990, constitutional amendments established political equality between Muslims and Christians. The country's rival armies were later disarmed under a Syrian-brokered peace accord, and Lebanon began to rebuild. In May 2000, Israel withdrew its forces from the zone it had occupied in southern Lebanon; Lebanon's internal problems were still complicated by conflicting outside interests, however.
After World War II and the withdrawal of the British and French from the area, the USSR and the United States became deeply involved in the Middle East. Many of the events prior to 1990 must be seen in the context of big-power competition. Further adding to the political complexities of the present-day Middle East has been the great importance of oil. Dramatic oil-price rises in the 1970s by members of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) had a profound impact on the world economy. So did the cutting off of oil supplies to the West by Arab oil producers during the 1973 Arab-Israeli War. The Iran-Iraq War (1980–88) and the 1991 Persian Gulf War reemphasized the fragility of the critical oil supply line. Since that time, the growing demand for oil in rapidly industrializing China and India, renewed violence between Israel and Palestinian Arabs, and the rise of international terrorism have refocused global attention on the importance of Middle Eastern oil.
In most Middle Eastern countries the reformist-modernist movements of the late 19th and early 20th century have given way to more-radical ideologies. Both Islamists and secular leftist radicals generally reject the West and its cultural influence. Those wishing change within the framework of Islam tend to view the changes of the past 50 to 100 years as non-Muslim in form and content; they wish to restore clerical control of the state. Iran generally failed to export its version of theocracy. More recently, however, it has played a role in the spread of a new but more militant version of the Islamic duty of jihad (literally, "struggle"). One important factor in the spread of such militancy was the fact that many Arabs journeyed from the Middle East to Afghanistan to fight in a holy war to end that country's occupation by the Soviet Union (1979–89). Subsequently such groups as Egyptian Islamic Jihad and the Al Qaeda (al-Qaida) terrorist network founded by Saudi dissident Osama bin Laden called for the use of terrorism to end all Western influence in Muslim lands. They taught that the overthrow of Muslim rulers who had been declared infidels because they had abandoned the pure teachings of Islam was religiously justified. These beliefs were spread among Sunni Muslims primarily through Islamist religious schools largely funded by Saudi Arabia. Shiites were encouraged to participate in this struggle by non-Arab Iran.
The 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait provoked almost universal condemnation and shattered the myth of Arab unity. A new set of alliances emerged. Egypt, Syria, and the Gulf sheikhdoms joined the U.S.-led coalition against Iraq. Iran and Israel remained on the sidelines. The PLO uneasily backed Iraq. An estimated 5 million people were temporarily or permanently displaced by the crisis. After the war, Saddam Hussein still ruled Iraq. Most of the economic sanctions imposed on his country by the UN remained in place, however, despite a mounting demand that they be lifted because of their impact on Iraqi civilians. The war sparked renewed efforts to reach a negotiated Arab-Israeli settlement that would help bring peace to the Middle East.
On Sept. 13, 1993, this impetus toward a negotiated end to the Arab-Israeli conflict led to the signing of the historic Oslo accords between Israel and the PLO; the accords established Palestinian self-rule in the Gaza Strip and Jericho. (For this achievement, Israeli leaders Yitzhak Peres and PLO leader Yasir Arafat shared the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize.) Additional accords in 1994 and 1995, the 1994 Jordanian-Israeli peace treaty, and other Arab moves toward accommodation with Israel raised hopes for a comprehensive peace, although many controversial issues remained unresolved. After January 1996 elections, Arafat assumed the presidency of a new Palestinian self-rule authority. By the fifth anniversary of the signing of the 1993 accord, the Gaza Strip and all major cities in the West Bank were under control of an elected Palestinian National Authority(PNA); Israel had gained general acceptance in the Arab world. Terrorist activities continued, however, and the two sides remained far apart on many issues, including the final status of Jerusalem.
The peace process faltered following a Likud victory in Israel's May 1996 elections. Violence on both sides was fueled by a resumption of Israeli settlement in the West Bank and by the failure of the peace accords to generate economic dividends. The U.S.-brokered Wye River accord signed in October 1998 provided for a scheduled but long-delayed and highly controversial Israeli withdrawal from 13% of the West Bank in exchange for a detailed Palestinian pledge to fight terrorism. The accord was to place 40% of the West Bank and 98% of its Palestinian population under Palestinian control. Faced with hard-line opposition, Israel carried out only the first phase of the withdrawals. On May 4, 1999, the end of the transitional phase specified in the Oslo accords passed without the declaration of a Palestinian state.
Under new Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak, Israeli troop withdrawals from additional areas in the West Bank took place in September 1999 and January 2000. Peace talks between Syria and Israel began in the United States in December 1999; they collapsed after Israel refused to agree upon full withdrawal from the Golan Heights as a precondition for further negotiations. In yet another effort to reach an agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Arabs before the September 13 deadline for a final accord, Barak, Arafat, and U.S. president Bill Clinton met in July at Camp David, Md. The 15-day summit ultimately collapsed over the issue of who would rule Jerusalem.
On Sept. 28, 2000, a new anti-Israel uprising broke out; it involved not only Palestinian Arab inhabitants of the West Bank and Gaza Strip but also Arab citizens of Israel. The second intifada was sparked by a controversial visit to a contested holy site in East Jerusalem by hard-line Israeli Likud leader Ariel Sharon. Despite his strenuous efforts, President Clinton was unable to broker an agreement before leaving office on Jan. 20, 2001. Barak was defeated by Sharon in the February 2001 Israeli elections. Sharon asserted that he would not be bound by any concessions offered by Barak's government and that negotiations would not resume until the violence stopped. He eventually launched an effort to unilaterally draw the boundaries of a defensible Jewish state. This effort was supported by U.S. president George W. Bush, who generally opposed an active U.S. role in the peace process.
U.S. pressure on both Israel and the Palestinian Arabs to end the violence intensified following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States. Evidence linked the attacks to militant Arab Muslims with ties to Osama bin Laden. Leaders throughout the world, including Arafat and all Middle Eastern heads of state except Iraq's Saddam Hussein, condemned the attack. Most Middle Eastern governments pledged to support the U.S.-led coalition against global terrorism. The United States insisted that this was a battle against terrorists, not against Muslims. Despite the fact that they generally condemned the subsequent military strikes against bin Laden and his Taliban hosts in Afghanistan (which swiftly led to the collapse of the Taliban regime), Bahrain and Jordan provided noncombat troops for this operation. Middle Eastern governments also insisted that an Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement was a critical part of the war against terrorism. Nevertheless, the deadly cycle of attack and counterattack continued.
The virulent anti-Americanism in the Middle East had escalated along with the death toll in the intifada. It was due not only to the U.S. backing of Israel but also to its support of authoritarian regimes—Egypt and Saudi Arabia, for example—and to the general failure of such Westernized regimes to improve the lives of their people. Tensions increased further following President Bush's 2002 State of the Union address, in which he accused Iran, Iraq, and North Korea of being an "axis of evil" deeply involved in the spread of international terrorism. (Cuba, Libya, and Syria were later included as well.) This strengthened the hand of conservatives in Iran and raised fears that Iraq might become the next target of the U.S.-led war on terrorism.
The Bush administration increasingly advocated a preemptive military strike against Iraq to oust Saddam Hussein before he could launch biological, chemical, or nuclear weapons. This placed huge strains on the often uneasy support in the region for the antiterrorism effort. The Arab governments unanimously called for diplomatic efforts to reinstate the UN weapons-inspection program. They resisted the idea of any U.S. military strike that was not backed by a UN resolution. Many Arab leaders expressed concern that Hussein's ouster would result in a chaotic power vacuum that would destabilize the entire region. Although Hussein met a December 8 UN deadline to issue a report on the status of any weapons of mass destruction (he denied having any), the U.S.-Iraqi standoff continued.
A majority of people in the Middle East still believed that terrorist attacks on civilians were a perversion of the teachings of Islam; a considerable number, however, exempted the Palestinian suicide bombers from their definition of terrorism. Haltingly, various Middle Eastern regimes moved to meet demands for democratic reforms in the post-September 11 world. Bahrain declared itself a constitutional monarchy in February 2002 and held its first legislative elections in 27 years in October of that year. Qatari voters approved a written constitution in April 2003 that provided for a mostly elected legislature. All Omani citizens over the age of 21 were allowed to vote in legislative elections for the first time in October 2003. Nevertheless, one of the great challenges facing the mostly autocratic governments of the Middle East was to institute reforms; these reforms were much needed so that Palestinian suicide bombers and radical Islamists such as bin Laden would no longer provide the only avenue for the expression of political dissent in much of the region.
On Mar. 13, 2002, the UN Security Council approved its first-ever resolution endorsing the idea of a Palestinian state existing side-by-side with Israel within secure borders. The resolution also called for an immediate Israeli-Palestinian cease-fire. Later that month, at an Arab League summit in Beirut, the Arab states for the first time agreed on a regional peace plan. It called for the normalization of relations between Israel and all Arab states in exchange for Israel's ceding all land captured in 1967 to Palestinian control. Israel rejected many key elements of the proposal; these included the right of return of Palestinian Arab refugees to Israel (which would make Israel no longer a Jewish state) and the designation of Jerusalem as the Palestinian capital. It said that the agreement would not provide Israel with defensible borders.
Anti-American sentiments in the region increased dramatically due to a U.S. foreign policy that Arabs believed encouraged both the suicide bombings (which they viewed as a consequence of the Israeli occupation) and the mounting suffering of Palestinian civilians. Even moderate pro-Western Arab leaders refused to become involved in any military attack on Iraq as long as the Palestinian issue remained unresolved. They insisted that the United States abandon its reluctance to take an active role in the peace process.
Some sort of outside pressure was clearly needed to end the violence that only reinforced old hatreds and made peace ever more elusive. It was unclear, however, whether the United States still possessed the kind of leverage that would persuade the Israelis to withdraw from Palestinian territories; the Palestinians to condemn terrorism; and the moderate Arab states to exert their own influence to restart the peace process. In June 2002, Bush called upon the Palestinians to elect new leaders untainted by terrorism if they wanted U.S. aid and assistance and backing for a provisional Palestinian state. In general, his stance further heightened anti-U.S. feelings in the region despite Arafat's growing unpopularity.
In December 2002, in yet another effort to solve the region's most intractable problem, delegates from the United States, Russia, the European Union, and the UN had drafted a new comprehensive Middle East peace plan. It called for an immediate cease-fire, a commitment by both the Palestinian and the Israeli leadership to a two-state solution, and the restoration of the status quo that existed when the second intifada began. This was to be followed by the creation of an independent and democratic Palestinian state with provisional borders. A permanent resolution of the thorny issues of borders, Jerusalem, refugees, and settlements, which included the normalization of relations between the Arab states and Israel, was to be reached by the end of 2005. The "road map" peace plan was formally presented to the Palestinian and Israeli governments on Apr. 30, 2003. By September 28, however, with the death toll at 3,337 as the second Palestinian intifada marked its third anniversary, the new "road map" peace plan was in tatters.
Israel's bombing of an alleged Palestinian terrorist training camp in Syria in retaliation for an October 2003 Palestinian suicide bombing—its first direct attack on its northern neighbor since 1973—further increased Arab-Israeli tensions. So did Israel's construction of a security fence that Palestinians considered an effort to illegally annex land that should be part of a new Palestinian state. Sharon subsequently said that Israel would unilaterally draw the boundaries between itself and the Palestinian Arabs if peace talks remained deadlocked and the violence continued. It had long been assumed that tradeoffs concerning the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homelands and the possible Israeli annexation of large illegal settlements in the West Bank would need to be made as part of a peace deal. Nevertheless, Bush's April 2004 explicit endorsement of these facts was considered by the Palestinians and much of the Arab world as unacceptably tilting toward Israel.
The death of Arafat the following month, on Nov. 11, 2004, was considered a watershed in Middle East history. Former prime minister Mahmoud Abbas, the winner of the Jan. 9, 2005, Palestinian presidential elections, appeared to favor the resumption of peace talks. At a summit between Abbas and Sharon in Egypt on Feb. 8, 2005, the two sides declared an unofficial truce. As the tenuous Palestinian-Israeli cease-fire continued, Sharon's plan to unilaterally withdraw from the Gaza Strip and four small West Bank settlements was completed on Sept. 12, 2005, when the last Israeli troops were withdrawn from the Gaza Strip. Overall, it was a remarkably peaceful process.
Nevertheless, hard-liners on both sides remained a threat to a broader peace accord. This prompted Sharon to attempt to remake Israel's political map in November 2005 by quitting Likud and establishing a new centrist party, Kadima (Forward), to compete in March 2006 early elections. These elections were to take place on the heels of long-delayed Palestinian elections scheduled for January 2006. Sharon's absence from the Israeli political scene following a massive stroke on Jan. 4, 2006, was accompanied by an increasingly violent struggle for influence between Fatah and Hamas. It appeared less and less probable that postelection leaders on either side would have the influence or inclination to negotiate a lasting settlement.
The United States insisted that one of the primary goals of the Iraq War launched in March 2003 was to spark a wave of democratic change throughout the Middle East. Nevertheless, no Arab leader was willing to commit troops to the military campaign against Iraq. Several governments did allow the U.S.-led coalition forces to launch attacks on Iraq from their territory, however.
The United States declared the military combat phase of the Iraq War over on May 1, 2003. In early 2004 former senior U.S. weapons inspector David Kay testified that there were no significant stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq before the war, and no verifiable links between Hussein and Al Qaeda; the U.S. government for the first time acknowledged that its prewar intelligence on Iraq might have been flawed. (This conclusion was supported by two U.S. panels investigating the issue in mid-2004.) Meanwhile, the rebuilding of post-Saddam Iraq was not going well. Attacks on U.S. targets in Iraq continued; attacks on Iraqis cooperating with the occupation forces escalated; many foreign aid workers were withdrawn; and pledges of troops and aid from other nations for the rebuilding effort fell far short of the need. Iraqi resentment of foreign occupation and of the slow pace of restoration of law and order and basic services mounted. By Apr. 12, 2004, the total U.S. death toll in Iraq since the war began had reached 664—544 of these since the fall of Baghdad on Apr. 9, 2003.
Confidence in the United States' ability to restore normalcy without international cooperation was further shaken by a series of terrorist bombings that began in August and September; they included the bombing of the Jordanian embassy, the UN headquarters, and the Iraqi police academy in Baghdad and another bombing in the holy city of Najaf that killed a leading moderate Shiite cleric and dozens of his followers. Nevertheless, a new interim constitution was signed on Mar. 7, 2004. This document was the basic law under which the interim Iraqi government installed on June 28, 2004, ruled pending January 2005 national elections for a legislature that would write a permanent constitution. Legal custody of Saddam Hussein was transferred to Iraq's new sovereign government so that he could be tried by a special Iraqi war-crimes tribunal. Iraqi voters turned out in significant numbers in January 2005 to cast their votes for a constituent assembly, despite the threat of violence.
Militarily, the postwar decisions by Spain, Honduras, the Dominican Republic, Costa Rica, New Zealand, the Philippines, Nicaragua, Norway, Thailand, and Ukraine to withdraw their forces from Iraq were not very significant. The withdrawals were, however, seen as a damaging vote of no-confidence in U.S. policy in Iraq. More significant was the decision by Poland (the third-largest member of the coalition after the United States and the United Kingdom) to withdraw its forces from Iraq when their military commitment ended in 2005. The U.S. image abroad, particularly in the Muslim world, suffered an even more serious blow in May 2004 when photographs showing Iraqi prisoners being abused by U.S. soldiers in Hussein's most notorious prison, Abu Ghraib, were released.
The historic rift between Iraq's Kurdish, Shiite, and Sunni communities deepened during the drafting of the new constitution; this document was approved by voters in a referendum on Oct. 15, 2005. During the elections for a permanent Iraqi government under this constitution on Dec. 15, 2005, Sunnites participated in much larger numbers than they had in October. The main Shiite religious coalition won the largest number of seats, but not an absolute majority; differences between Shiites, Sunnites, and Kurds and between secularists and Islamic fundamentalists paralyzed efforts to form a new government. The mob violence that followed the bombing of a Shiite shrine in Samarra on Feb. 22, 2006, brought the nation closer to a civil war that was likely to spark ethnic cleansing within its borders. Although Iraq's new government took office on May 20, the average daily civilian death toll rose to 100 by mid-year. It was feared that escalating tensions in Iraq might well incite sectarian conflicts in neighboring countries and exacerbate the fault lines between Shiites and Sunnis throughout the Muslim world.
Meanwhile, it appeared that the U.S. military withdrawal from Saudi Arabia and the U.S. government's efforts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict had failed to achieve the Bush administration's goal of removing two major irritants in U.S.-Arab relations. New concerns were raised by terrorist bombings of soft targets outside Israel and Iraq. (These included coordinated attacks on foreign businesses and housing compounds in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in mid-May 2003; the August 2003 attack on a Marriott hotel in Jakarta, Indonesia; and a series of bombings in downtown Istanbul, Turkey, in November 2003. Radical Islamist-linked bombings of mass-transit facilities in Madrid, Spain, on Mar. 11, 2004, that killed 191 people were aimed at a government supporting the Iraq War; similar attacks took place in London on July 7, 2005.) Tensions also mounted between the United States and Iran, which the United States accused of supporting Al Qaeda, of working to develop nuclear weapons, and of encouraging Shiite Iraqis to challenge the U.S. military presence in their country.
Shirin Ebadi, the first Muslim woman and first Iranian to win the Nobel Peace Prize, was among those who believed that democracy and Islam were compatible. The 2005 presidential elections in her homeland, however, were won by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. This put all government institutions in Iran in the hands of the hard-liners, who moved forward with their once-secret nuclear program and supported the activities of radical Shiite groups throughout the region, particularly in Iraq and Lebanon. In 2006, Iran resumed its uranium-enrichment activities and ended inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency(IAEA). It was then reported to the UN Security Council for possible puntative action. UN sanctions were later imposed, but Iran remained defiant.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the leader of the Islamist-oriented Turkish government that had been elected in 2002, agreed with Ebadi. One of Erdogan's goals was the admission of NATO member Turkey to the European Union as its first Muslim nation. Admitting Muslim Turkey to the EU raised concerns in parts of Western Europe, despite Erdogan's pledge to prove that Islam and democracy could coexist. These concerns were believed to have contributed to the defeat of referenda on the new EU constitution in France and the Netherlands in 2005. In 2007, however, Turkey was embroiled in a conflict between its secularists and the ruling party as it attempted to choose a new president.
Some of the Arab nations of the Middle East, including Saudi Arabia, did appear to be making moves to open their political systems. Municipal elections had been successfully held in Saudi Arabia in early 2005; modest reforms appeared likely to continue under Abdullah, who became king upon the death of King Fahd on Aug. 1, 2005. Multiple candidates were allowed to compete in Egypt's September 2005 presidential elections for the first time since the military overthrew the monarchy in 1952. Low voter turnout seemed to demonstrate general apathy with the political process after decades of authoritarian rule. The polling was nevertheless a historic departure, establishing the principle of competition for Egypt's top post. In Lebanon the massive anti-Syrian demonstrations sparked by suspected Syrian involvement in the Feb. 14, 2005, assassination of popular former prime minister Rafiq Hariri eventually forced the withdrawal of the last Syrian forces from Lebanon on Apr. 26, 2005. In subsequent Lebanese elections, anti-Syrian candidates led by Hariri's son Saad won a majority of seats; this despite the fact that pro-Syrian Hezbollah remained an influential force. In another positive development, in May 2005 women in Kuwait were finally granted the right to vote. Concerns about that nation's future leadership were raised, however, by a power struggle between the two main branches of the royal family following the death of the longtime emir in January 2006. Some argued that the weakness of numerous Arab governments, corruption, and heavy-handed efforts to silence dissent might be sparking a series of minirevolutions by Arabs demanding reforms, providing them with an outlet other than Islamic militancy for their frustrations and forcing long-entrenched governments to make concessions.
This theory was strengthened by the stunning upset victory by Hamas in the long-delayed Palestinian legislative elections held on Jan. 25, 2006. Sharon's successor, Ehud Olmert, broke off all contacts with the Hamas-led Palestinian government on Apr. 9, 2006. Olmert said that he would establish new, permanent boundaries for Israel by 2010 with or without Palestinian agreement. His disengagement plan was expected to incorporate about 8% of the Israeli-occupied West Bank and most of East Jerusalem. Withdrawal suddenly took a back seat to military action after Hamas-linked militants in Gaza captured an Israeli soldier on June 25. Israeli troops again entered Gaza, and many Hamas legislators were imprisoned.
Iran's continuing defiance of UN demands that it halt its nuclear enrichment activities raised new concerns about that non-Arab nation's growing influence in the Middle East; this was true particularly in predominantly Shiite Iraq and southern Lebanon. Both Iran and Syria were accused of complicity in Hezbollah attacks on Israel (including the capture of two Israeli soldiers on July 12); these attacks led to the Israeli bombardment of Lebanon in the summer of 2006. During the conflict, some 1,200 Lebanese (mostly civilians) and about 160 Israelis (mostly soldiers) were killed; perhaps one-quarter of all Lebanese were driven from their homes. Much of Lebanon's infrastructure, which had been rebuilt since the end of the 1975–76 civil war, was again destroyed. Some believed that Iran had encouraged the attacks to divert international attention from its nuclear program. It had certainly provided many of the missiles that Hezbollah used to attack Israel. Although the Arab League condemned Hezbollah for initiating the conflict, it charged Israel with massive overreaction. As the destruction in Lebanon mounted, Hezbollah rocket attacks on Israel nevertheless continued. Opinion in the Arab street increasingly favored Hezbollah. This exacerbated fears that radical Sunnite groups such as Al Qaeda and Hamas would forge ties with Hezbollah and other radical Shiite groups. The fighting ended with a UN-brokered truce after 34 days. The last Israeli forces withdrew from Lebanon on October 1, after the arrival of international peacekeepers. Nevertheless, the Middle East remained tense. Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah had all been empowered by the war. Iran also continued its nuclear program. In addition, Jordan and the members of the Gulf Co-operation Council said that they were considering developing their own peaceful nuclear programs.
The violence in Iraq sparked the largest movement of people in the Middle East since the Palestinian refugee crisis that followed the creation of Israel in 1948. By August 2007 more than 2.1 million Iraqis had fled their homeland; most went to Jordan and Syria. Another 2.4 million people within Iraq were homeless because of the conflict. This was just one of several unintended consequences of the Iraq War.
One of the responses to regional instability was a crackdown on dissidents in the conservative Sunnite-led Arab states. Another was the revival of a 2002 Saudi peace plan at an Arab League summit in Riyadh in March 2007. The plan called for the creation of a Palestinian state and the recognition of Israel by its neighbors if it withdrew from the land it had occupied in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War. It was formally presented to the Israeli government on July 25, 2007, just weeks after a short-lived Palestinian unity government collapsed with a Hamas military takeover of the Gaza Strip. The rivalry between Hamas and the long-dominant Fatah faction of the PLO thereby divided the West Bank and the Gaza Strip into two separate entities. The former was governed by Abbas and Fatah, the latter by Hamas.
Earlier in 2007 the Bush administration had increased the number of troops in Iraq as that country teetered on the brink of civil war. The UN estimated Iraqi deaths in 2006 at 34,000; more than 4,000 U.S. troops had died in Iraq between March 2003 and March 2008. In July 2007 alone, the number of civilian deaths was estimated at more than 1,650. The U.S. military presence in Iraq temporarily reached an all-time high of nearly 162,000 that August. As the "surge" improved the security situation, pressures on the Iraqi government to institute reforms that would promote national reconciliation increased. A law permitting former Baathist government officials to apply for pensions and reinstatement in their jobs was passed in early 2008.
Still, there was little progress on key issues such as how to divide oil revenues and responsibilities between the federal government and the region before the Iraqi legislature recessed in August 2008. It did later pass an election law that delayed dealing with the problem of Kirkuk. Holding provincial elections in October 2008 as planned had become impossible. The U.S. military presence by this time had returned to presurge levels. The Dec. 31, 2008, expiration of the UN Security Council authorization of the U.S. military presence in Iraq was resolved through a new Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) that allowed U.S. forces to remain in Iraq but gave the Iraqi government more control over their activities. It required U.S. combat forces to leave Iraqi cities by June 30, 2009. Elections were finally held in 14 of Iraq's 18 provinces on Jan. 31, 2009; polls were delayed until July 2009 in the three Kurdish provinces, and Kirkuk remained in dispute. Nevertheless, the result was a clear victory for Iraqi prime minister Nuri al-Maliki and others favoring a strong central government.
After retiring as British prime minister in 2007, Tony Blairhad accepted a position as Middle East peace envoy. His mandate was to create the conditions needed for a viable Palestinian state. While developments in Palestinian politics and Iraq may have jump-started Middle East diplomacy, they also clearly made Blair's job more difficult. Developments in the West Bank and Gaza delayed the creation of a Palestinian consensus needed for serious peace efforts. Some also worried that the Gaza Strip would become more fertile territory for recruitment by Al Qaeda, Hezbollah, and other terrorist groups targeting foreigners and pro-Western regimes, as had already happened in Iraq. (Hamas and Islamic Jihad have focused primarily on Israel and its occupation of what they consider Palestinian Arab land.) In any case, Hamas defied efforts to marginalize it. This upset the delicate balance of power in the region and made it likely that Hamas would have to be included in any future Palestinian political system. Israel and Hamas agreed to an Egyptian-mediated cease-fire in June 2008. Hamas did not, however, join the West Bank government in peace talks with Israel, and it unilaterally ended the cease-fire in December of that year. On December 27, as rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip into Israel increased, Israel launched a huge 23-day air and ground invasion. It ended with Hamas and Israel independently declaring cease-fires; the last Israeli forces were withdrawn on Jan. 19, 2009. The massive destruction in the Gaza Strip was both a push toward and a strike against any two-state solution. Despite the diplomatic efforts the new U.S. administration headed by Barak Obama and various Muslim nations, including Egypt and Turkey, the peace process remained stalled. The situation was complicated by the establishment of a right-wing coalition government headed by Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel following its Feb. 10, 2009, elections.
In one recent note of regional cooperation, the members of the Gulf Co-operation Council established a common market on Jan. 1, 2008. All trade duties between them were abolished. In addition, nationals of the six wealthy nations became able to work, purchase property and businesses, attend school, and receive medical care anywhere in the region. These provisions did not apply to the region's migrant laborers, most of whom came from South and East Asia.
As the 21st century progressed, traditional alliances were breaking down throughout the Middle East. Rival claimants represented the Palestinians. The United States and its allies were still pitted against Iran and Syria and their proxies. Nevertheless, new U.S. president Barak Obama, speaking in Cairo on June 4, 2009, issued a dramatic direct appeal to the Muslim world calling for a "new beginning" in its relations with the United States. Lebanon had neared civil war before finally installing a new government in mid-2008; it successfully held new legislative elections in 2009 in which a majority of voters rejected further Syrian meddling in internal Lebanese affairs. Secular and autocratic governments continued to face challenges from militant extremists as well as more-moderate prodemocracy forces. The dramatic drop in world oil prices that accompanied a global economic slowdown in late 2008 reverberated across the Middle East. By January 2009 the oil-rich Arab states had postponed or canceled an estimated 60% of development projects. With revenues dropping, the oil-rich nations of the Persian Gulf were less able to prop up fragile economies such as those of Egypt, Jordan, and Syria. Iran had less money to pursue its own regional agenda; it was also weakened by a disputed 2009 presidential election that sparked massive antigovernment demonstrations. Instability and clashes between militant extremists and Arab moderates therefore seemed likely to continue or even increase as the Middle East entered relatively uncharted political and social territory.William M. Brinner
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