IPCS Discussion

West Asia, Iran Nuclear Deal, and Islamic State: Review of IPCS Forecasts

13 Feb, 2015    ·   4832

Stephen Westcott reports on the proceedings of the discussion

On 9 February 2015, the IPCS, in collaboration with the India International Centre, reviewed and released three papers published as part of the Institute’s Forecast 2015 Series. The papers covered issues on West Asia (by Amb Ranjit Gupta), the Islamic State (by Rajeshwari Krishnamurthy) and the prospects of the negotiations over Iran’s nuclear capacities (by Ruhee Neog). These papers were put before an expert panel (comprising Amb Ishrat Aziz and Prof Anwar Alam, and Chaired by Mr Rana Banerji), who presented their views as follows:

Amb Ishrat Aziz
Former Indian Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, UAE and Tunisia 

Amb Gupta’s paper was clear and comprehensive in predicting specific events in West Asia. It is too easy to be vague in making forecasts but it is better to have concrete predictions on whether or not they will turn out right. The prediction on Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah’s death was an easy one given his age and health but it was interesting to see that the tradition of succession by seniority was largely ignored by the Allegiance Council, which itself is a relatively new entity. Most surprising was King Abdullah’s youngest brother’s – Deputy Crown Prince and now Crown Prince – rise to prominence. This is a reflection of the shift away from the declining power of the Sudairi princes who were always very close and tended to take all important political positions, with the exception of the Royal Guard. The problem will not be with the accession of the next prince but with the next generation, given the number of sons each of the princes has. It is partly to address this problem that the Allegiance Council was founded so as to retain the stability of the House of Saud. Yet, the stability of the House of Saud is not the stability of Saudi Arabia and there are many problems in the country that are yet to be resolved.

With regard to the US-Iran agreement, the problem is not really a bilateral issue – both sides seem keen to reach an agreement – but from regional powers, namely Saudi Arabia and Israel. Indeed, Israel seems to be keen to play a spoiler with Netanyahu voicing opposition to any deal that is detrimental to the vague term of ‘Israel’s security’. Given the sway that pro-Israel lobbies have over the US domestic politicians and that Netanyahu is due to speak to the US Congress in the coming months, the success of negotiation could really depend on how much he is able to sway the number of Congressmen to his position.

The Islamic State (IS) is not really a militarily threat to a determined army; as a military force, they are relatively weak but their strength comes from the ideological movement they represent and the dissatisfaction with many of the local regimes – that attracts support. As such, they will not be defeated unless some external country is willing to commit troops, because an aerial attack campaign is not sufficient to destroy the group.

There are many problems in the region including Syria and Iraq but the more recent troubling situation would be in Yemen. While it is uncertain what to call the conflict but Saudi Arabia would consider it a security problem. Saudi Arabia would likely respond to the Yemen issue via ‘check book diplomacy’, i.e. funding Saudi friendly forces/factions or simply buying support. However, off late – from the Arab Spring to the Syrian civil war – there has been a lot of demand on the Saudi’s ‘check book’ so the extent to which the strategy would continue is uncertain. Oil prices would begin to rise by the end of 2015 due to Saudi manipulations, and events in the region. However, it is unlikely that the ‘fragmented though not fractured’ countries of Iraq, Syria and Yemen were unlikely to ever become cohesive again.

Prof Anwar Alam
Professor, Department of International Relations, Zirve University, Gazi Antep, Turkey

The global consensus is that the IS is likely to be tamed and lose territory in the coming year but the region as a whole will remain unstable. Yet, not enough emphasis is given to the nature of IS here or elsewhere in the commentary. The IS should be viewed more as a resistance movement and potential governing force akin to the Taliban and representing that form of Islamist government that many view as being corrupted by the local regimes. Indeed, the IS has gained a lot of support within the region. Many wounded fighters are often smuggled across the border into Turkey for treatment and many states tacitly supported if not supplied them with resources, so long as these groups were the fighting local tyrannies. It was when the IS declared itself a state and tried to govern in its own right that it started losing support.

A lot of the atrocities the IS commits – from the curtailing of rights to various brutal punishments and executions it conducts – are actually relatively common practices in the region. Indeed the Syrian regime has been known to destroy and slaughter whole towns that have rebelled and countries such as Saudi Arabia and Iran have conducted amputations and/or execution by beheading in the past, and even as recently as last month. The only real difference between these regimes and the IS is that the latter is considered an illegal entity and has had its atrocities receive significant publicity in the media. If one is considered a legal entity by the international community, then one is assumed to have legitimate rights to carry out such actions but if one isn’t, then they are subjected to strong criticism by the international community.

In the bigger picture, since the start of the Arab Spring, Iran has emerged as one of the most stable polities in the region and has therefore gained influence with several other countries looking to copy to some extent its Islamist/Mullah model of government. Nonetheless, too much emphasis should not be put on what the various regimes are doing but instead there needs to be a focus on other factors and actors; while the actions of states are somewhat more visible, they are not the only actors nor the most important factors necessarily.

For example, the Turkish Kurdish forces of the PKK and the Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga were the only force involved in any serious fighting against the IS for a long time and have been largely successful in holding their ground. Also, many analysts erroneously assume that the Shia community is a monolithic one that owes some loyalty to Iran whereas in fact it is as diverse as the Sunni community and does not necessarily lean towards Iran. These nuances are often overlooked when regime-focused analysts look at the region.


•I agrees with much of what the panellists said, especially Prof Alam’s observation that too many people focus on just regime-level politics. Based on current trends, should the nuclear negotiations with Iran fail, there is a possibility of further regional instability – that would result in Iraq being divided into three parts: a poor Sunni enclave, a relatively oil-rich Shia enclave and the Kurdish lands. 

•The issue of the Israel and wider regional influences upon the US-Iranian nuclear negotiations was left out in the paper as it would have changed the tone of the article. The potential military use of Iran’s nuclear program and the number of centrifuges that Iran would be allowed to maintain are a significant factor in deciding whether the deal will be finalised. 

•The IS is likely to be contained, not tamed in the coming year. Contained does not automatically mean weakened. The IS must be weakened from within and its ideology, discredited. If the IS defeated militarily alone, then the group would simply scatter and regroup elsewhere, maybe under a different banner. The supporters’ notion that the IS is a ‘pure’ institution produces an interesting contradiction given that its major funders and business partners have been ‘impure’ regimes – this should be explored further.  

•While Egypt is social and cultural power in the region, it has been geopolitically marginalised since it negotiated a peace deal with Israel. The recent events are unlikely to change this situation and Egypt will remain ‘outside’ of the Arab world. 

•India is unlikely to be directly affected by events in West Asia as Indian Muslims have proven relatively impervious to the forms of radicalism that come from this area. Radicalism tends to be based on local causes and focused on local actors. Also, Saudi Arabia has not been a major funder of the Pakistan Army or even the Pakistani state despite some assertions. It is in fact China that funds Pakistan heavily.

Rapporteured by Stephen Westcott, Research Intern, IPCS