Thursday, November 10, 2016

3 Deaths Will Rock The Middle East

"You see? Death comes for us all."

Allegedly whispered to King Edward by Princess Isabella, such ancient ideas are actually right on target today.

US policy is often dominated by the here-and-now, but what happens when dominant figures for good or bad are suddenly no longer on the scene? That’s probably going to be a challenge that will confront the next administration and throw long-held policy assumptions into doubt.

Here are three figures to whom Washington has geared policy for years that likely will not survive the next administration:

  • Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei
  • Khamenei has served as Iran’s supreme leader (and, as far as the Iranian regime is concerned, the deputy of the Messiah on earth) since 1989, but the 77-year-old ayatollah has recently battled cancer and is reputed to be in ill-health. That he allowed himself to be photographed in the hospital signaled Iranians that they should be prepared for a transition and that his health crisis was not merely something that could be swept under the rug. What comes next? In theory, the 86-member Assembly of Experts picks the new supreme leader but, in reality, they are little more than a coffee klatch that rubber stamps a decision made by influential powerbrokers and faction heads. So who might come next? Council on Foreign Relations scholar Ray Takeyh has suggested it could be Ibrahim Raisi, a hardliner. Other scholars might argue that Khamenei’s successor would likely be a weaker, more run-of-the-mill ayatollah since no one else would get buy-in from all factions. Takeyh is probably right, however, in the notion that the new Supreme Leader will trend far more hardline than even Khamenei did after his selection. The difference between now and 1989 is that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps is far better resourced and powerful (thanks, Secretary Kerry!). They will never subordinate themselves to someone who they see as weak and too flexible.
Is the West prepared for an even more radical and ideological supreme leader? Of course, there’s another possibility: Nothing requires the leadership to be an individual; it’s always possible that absent a consensus, a council of leadership will emerge with multiple ayatollahs representing the major factions. 

This might create an entirely new dynamic but again one not favorable to the West as, when the factional competition gets too fierce, bad things happen as hardliners seize hostages and sponsor terrorism in order to prove their dominance and purity.
  • Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani
  • As corrosive as Khamenei has been to international peace and the reputation of Shi’ism globally, Sistani has been the opposite. In every crisis, Sistani has worked to repair crises and calm passions rather than inflame them. He has regularly reached across the sectarian divide and condemned terrorism. When Sunni terrorists blew up the al-‘Askari shrine in Samarra in 2006, Sistani forbade any reprisals but when the Islamic State seized the overwhelmingly Sunni city of Mosul, he called for volunteers to help the city; hundreds of Shi’ites willingly gave their lives in answer to him. But what happens when Sistani passes away? It’s a subject of conversation in Najaf and Karbala. Few locals believe the other three resident Grand Ayatollahs will rise to the stature of Sistani, though. In 1994, when Grand Ayatollah Araki passed away, Khamenei tried to suggest that he would now be the sole ‘source of emulation,’ but was basically laughed off the stage as his religious credentials barely qualify him to be an ayatollah. Khamenei has been maneuvering to impose the 68-year-old former Iranian Judiciary Chief Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi upon Najaf. Iraqis say local Shi’ites wouldn’t accept Shahroudi and would likely favor one of Sistani’s prominent students but what might a fight mean? Again, nothing requires a single source of emulation—historically, there have been many–but if there is a crisis, would any successor have the stature to restore calm and promote peace as Sistani has done?
One thing is clear: Any Palestinian aspirant would likely only consolidate his power upon the corpses of his rivals.
  • Mahmoud Abbas
  • The 81-year-old Palestinian Authority president is currently serving the 12th year of his four-year presidential term. Unlike Yasser Arafat before him, Abbas refuses to appoint a successor. So what happens when he dies? Muhammad Dahlan, the former head of Arafat’s and Abbas’ Fatah political party in Gaza, is a name often floated, but he wouldn’t be a shoo-in or unopposed. Nasser al-Kidwa, Arafat’s nephew, is another possibility. The United States and Europe like Salam Fayyad, the former finance minister. Marwan Barghouti, a Palestinian politician serving time in an Israeli prison for terrorism and murder, is popular among many Palestinians but it is unlikely Israel would release a man serving five life sentences. One thing is clear: Any Palestinian aspirant would likely only consolidate his power upon the corpses of his rivals. Palestine is already a failed entity, with Hamas controlling the Gaza Strip. If the West Bank collapses, that would change fundamental assumptions which have been enough to keep what little peace process there is on life support. It also might provide an opening for Hamas or other radical groups (think the Islamic State) to make inroads.