The coronavirus could profoundly change the Middle East

The coronavirus could profoundly change the Middle East
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In the Middle East, just as everywhere else, the coronavirus is changing the way of life, canceling prayers, festivals and pilgrimages and closing mosques, churches and Muslim shrines, as the Washington Post recently illustrated. But American foreign policy experts know that we cannot take our eyes off the region, especially with the almost certainty that havoc will reign in the aftermath of the COVID-19 outbreak.

While Iran and the Arab states turn inward to contain the fallout of the virus, the consequences and unprecedented challenges to American interests in the region that inevitably will follow must be anticipated. U.S. officials should begin thinking these through. When the crisis subsides, the virus likely will have devastated the stability of authoritarian Middle Eastern regimes, their populaces, and their dysfunctional economies. That will directly affect our national security interests.  

Before the outbreak, Iran, Lebanon and Syria already were on the brink of economic collapse. Turkey has millions of refugees in transient camps and millions more trying to get in from Syria. The stress of the public health emergency could cause economic collapse in any or all of these countries. This brings with it the risk of anarchy. Salafists could fill the vacuum and possibly challenge American forces and regional allies such as Israel.  

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According to the Institute for National Security Studies, “International actors will likely withdraw into themselves, isolationist policies will become stronger, and the willingness of the powers to help countries suffering from the virus will be very limited. Radical elements (such as extreme right-wing movements, terror organizations and autocratic regimes) can exploit such a situation to take action under cover of panic.” 

Popular uprisings and discontent are inevitable. That may sound promising if it leads to the fall of the Iranian regime, but the unintended and unpredictable consequences throughout the Muslim world will be hard to navigate — especially if our foreign policy strategists and military wait to plan and respond. According to Hillel Frisch of the Begin Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, “The economic devastation caused by the crisis will only increase the anxiety of the Iranian people toward the disease and stoke their anger” toward their government’s handling of things.

Even with the world preoccupied with the pandemic, there are indications that Iran still may be advancing its nuclear program. It should not be surprising that this revolutionary regime would divert resources from the pandemic toward its long-range goal of hegemony in the Muslim world. They have been doing this for a long time, at their people’s expense, and not believing that they will use the subterfuge of the pandemic to advance their nuclear program would be naïve at best. 

Of course, no one could foresee this pandemic. But it may hold lessons for foreign affairs experts. One lesson is that when someone says that something is guaranteed or never will happen, that is a sure sign that they likely lack humility and perspective. If they truly believe in absolutes, their advice should be taken with a large dose of skepticism. Foreign policy is about probabilities, not absolutes. If you believe something cannot happen, that means you don’t plan for contingencies in case the improbable does strike. 

Warnings of pandemics sometimes fall on deaf ears, especially if time passes with nothing happening. But now, perhaps, we’ll heed such warnings. And we’ve seen that we need leaders we can trust, who can explain why not to ignore warnings, however unlikely they may seem at the time. We also see that it’s imperative not to allow partisan battles to erupt.

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When the immediate public health crisis subsides, we can expect instability in poor countries in the Middle East and America must understand that radical Islamism likely will intensify during the next decade. Foreign policy challenges will return sooner than we think, and avoiding thinking about them during this crisis is short-sighted — even if the only topic people want to discuss at the moment. 

We must remain cognizant that, when dealing with the Middle East, we need to always protect our America’s security interests. That makes it somewhat easier to deal with the problems that inevitably arise. 

Dr. Eric R. Mandel is the director of MEPIN, the Middle East Political Information Network. He briefs members of Congress and their foreign policy aides on the geo-politics of the Middle East. Follow him on Twitter @MepinOrg.