along the southern shore of the Mediterranean from Morocco in the west to the Levant and the Fertile Crescent, extending to the Gulf countries and Iran in the east. It is predominantly Muslim. The old Christian communities in Iraq and Syria have mostly been destroyed or dispersed over the past 15 years, but bigger groups remain, especially in Lebanon. Most of the Muslims are Sunni, but the Shia dominate in Iran, are in the majority In Iraq and have a large following in Yemen and Lebanon. The Alawites in Syria are also close to the Shia. Islam’s main holy sites are Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia.
Except for Morocco, Iran and parts of the Arabian Peninsula, the Ottoman Empire ruled the region for centuries. In the 19th century, the North African countries (except Morocco) were occupied by France, Italy and Britain. After the collapse of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I, the Middle East was arbitrarily divided between Britain and France. That shortsighted partition remains the root cause of the constant tension and conflicts in the area.
The contrast between the richly endowed oil-and-gas economies and the resource-poor countries is an important factor in the region. Its sensitive strategic location between the East and West, along with its energy wealth, make the area vulnerable to the divergent policies and interests of global and regional powers. The interests of the U.S., Europe and Russia all clash there, as do the pursuits of Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Israel and Egypt. Such interventions tend to exacerbate local conflicts and civil wars, which then escalate into proxy wars between foreign powers.
Starting last November, Iranians have been taking to the streets to voice their dissatisfaction with the country’s leadership. Over the past decade, several such movements have sprung up, only to ultimately be stamped out. Achieving regime change, or even significant reform, would entail depriving powerful, privileged groups of tremendous benefits. Any attempt to do so will meet stiff resistance.
With the recent focus on Iran-West tensions, it is worth considering who exactly the decision makers are in Iran’s highly complex structure of power and whom the current system benefits. While Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei holds tremendous sway, he is not all-powerful. Understanding the roles of the various players can offer a clearer picture of where the regime stands and how strong its hold on the country really is.
When he came to power, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi initially set his country on a relatively liberal path. After several years, however, he had to change tack to fight radical Islamism. Despite being ostracized by the West, he has made major strides, especially in improving his country’s economy. To continue this progress, he will have to introduce more reforms that could be unpopular. Support from the West would help, but seems unlikely to come soon.
After over a decade of Western involvement in Syria and Iraq, the region remains unstable and vulnerable to Iranian interference. In Syria, the Kurdish conflict seems set to endure now that the U.S. military has been largely withdrawn from the area. Iraq is facing a wide-scale insurgency against its ruling class and, in the aftermath of the Soleimani assassination, the U.S. is unlikely to be able to play a role in eventual foreign-led negotiations.