Thinking Aloud: “Chaos: The Middle East and How We Got There”

Apr. 9, 2015 by Darius

Today I saw longtime Washington Post journalist Thomas Lippman talk about the Middle East, and, in particular, how the events of 1979 shaped the region today.

In January 1979, the Shah of Iran was toppled by popular protest.  Quickly, as Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini returned from exile, the Iranian Revolution took a hard Islamist turn.  Not only did this shape the future of Iran to the present day, it also threatened the position of the rulers of Saudi Arabia, who found themselves confronted with another regime claiming to be more Islamic than Saudi was. 

On February 14, 1979, the US ambassador to Afghanistan was kidnapped by unknown gunmen and killed in a resulting shootout with police.  According to Lippman, this was the first indication to Americans that trouble was brewing in Afghanistan.

On March 26, 1979, Egypt and Israel signed a peace treaty.  It was the culmination of years of diplomatic wrangling.  Although the treaty did end hostilities between Egypt and Israel, it left glaring holes, most notably about the future of the Palestinians.  Lippman pointed out that Likud’s party platform in 1977, when it became the first non-Labor government of Israel, was built around keeping the West Bank forever.  Lippman wasn’t sure why it later came as a surprise that Likud had no intention of giving up the West Bank.

The same day as the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel was signed, OPEC announced a 14.5% price increase on crude oil.  Another increase of 15% would follow in June.  The skyrocketing price of oil resulted in a “a massive transfer” of money from the US and Europe into the coffers of Middle Eastern countries, especially Saudi Arabia.

On April 3, 1979, the former prime minister of Pakistan, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, was hanged on the orders of the general who overthrew him, Mohammed Zia ul-Haq.  According to Lippman, Zia had no legitimacy or popularity of his own and simply saw Bhutto as his only rival.  However, in an attempt to gain legitimacy, Zia began a campaign to “Islamize” Pakistan.

On July 16, 1979, Saddam Hussein officially became president of Iraq.  He had been the real power in the country for years but abandoned all pretense of letting someone else have a say in running Iraq.  Hussein was a fairly known commodity by this point but nonetheless wasted little time in invading Iran, setting off nearly a decade of bloody warfare.

On October 22, US President Jimmy Carter, on the advice of Henry Kissinger and David Rockefeller and against the advice of the US embassy in Tehran, agreed to allow the deposed Shah into the US for medical treatment.  Two weeks later, an angry mob stormed the US embassy and held Americans there hostage for the next 444 days.  This also derailed any thoughts Carter had about resuming negotiations on behalf of the Palestinians.

On November 20, a band of well-armed extremists seized the Grand Mosque in Mecca.  The Saudi government and military displayed complete incompetence at dislodging the extremists, who denounced the Saudi rulers as degenerate infidels.  Jordanian help was refused.  Ultimately, the Saudis brought (non-Muslim) French soldiers into Mecca to break the siege.  The double whammy of Saudi incompetence and the perceived desecration of Mecca by non-Muslims resonated deeply with many Muslims in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere.  As a result, to shore up their Islamist creds, the Saudis (1) immediately halted and reversed their trend towards domestic liberalization and (2) began using their newfound oil wealth to promote the Saudi brand of Islam worldwide.  For example, the world’s largest printing complex was built near the city of Medina, where it churned out educational materials distributed across the Muslim world.  All, of course, reinforced Saudi notions of Islam and Saudi versions of history.

Within weeks after the attack on the Grand Mosque, a rumor quickly spread that the CIA was behind the Grand Mosque takeover.  Enraged mobs attacked US embassies in Pakistan (where two Americans died) and Libya.  As a result of the attack on its embassy, the US broke off diplomatic relations with Libya.  The two countries did not restore relations until the overthrow of Qaddafi during the Arab Spring.

Finally, on December 24, 1979, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan to help prop up the Communist-friendly government in power there.  Next door, Pakistani dictator Zia expanded his Islamization campaign in Pakistan and, with the encouragement of US National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, pointed it at Afghanistan, declaring a jihad against the godless Communists.  The Saudis were happy to bankroll the whole thing.  Afghanistan, of course, was the crucible for the entire modern terrorist movement, attracting religious zealots from across the Muslim world to the fight, including the so-called “Afghan Arabs,” one of whom was Osama bin Laden.

One hell of a year.

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