The Middle East and North Africa in the 21st Century



Democracy and Authoritarianism in the Middle East

Only two Middle Eastern countries are considered democratic and five others as partial democracies, while the rest are categorized as authoritarian regimes. All states in the region face serious human rights challenges.

Learning Objectives

Compare democratic and authoritarian countries in the Middle East

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • According to the measure of the level of democracy in nations throughout the world published by Freedom House, the Middle Eastern countries with the highest scores are Israel, Tunisia, Turkey, Lebanon, Morocco, Kuwait, and Jordan. The remaining countries of the Middle East are categorized as authoritarian regimes, though some have  certain democratic aspects.
  • Freedom House categorizes Israel and Tunisia as the only “free” countries of the region. Tunisia is a representative democracy and a republic with a president serving as head of state, prime minister as head of government, a unicameral parliament, and a civil law court system. Israel operates under a parliamentary system as a democratic republic with universal suffrage. Some organizations and states, however, see the Israeli treatment of Palestinians as a serious blemish on Israel’s democratic system.
  • Lebanon, Turkey, Kuwait, Morocco, and Jordan are all categorized as “partly free.” All of these countries are to some extent representative democracies. Despite its “partly free” status, Lebanon is still considered one of the most democratic states in the region while Kuwait is among the Middle East’s freest countries in terms of civil liberties and political rights. Jordan was upgraded from “not free” to “partly free” only in 2017 and while it is a constitutional monarchy, the king holds wide executive and legislative powers.
  • None of the Middle Eastern countries received the “free” status from the Freedom House in their 2016 Freedom of the Press report, which measures specifically the level of freedom and editorial independence enjoyed by the press. Israel, Lebanon, Turkey, and Kuwait were determined “partly free” while all the other countries in the region received the “not free” status.
  • All the remaining Middle Eastern states are currently determined to be “not free” (including Western Sahara, which is controlled by Morocco). In some cases, what may seem a democratic model does not stand the test of scrutiny (e.g., elections in Syria, Egypt, or Iran). Absolute monarchy  is common in the Middle East. Authoritarian regimes (not necessarily monarchies) evolving around a powerful individual holding power has long been the critical feature of the Middle Eastern politics. There are diverse theories on why the Middle East remains essentially undemocratic.
  • Nearly all the Middle Eastern states, including those categorized as democratic, violate some human rights according to international legal standards. Some of the gravest violations include the application of capital punishment and lack of legal protection for women and children.

Key Terms

  • Freedom House: A U.S.-based and U.S.-government funded non-governmental organization that conducts research and advocacy on democracy, political freedom, and human rights. It was founded in October 1941. Wendell Willkie and Eleanor Roosevelt served as its first honorary chairpersons. It describes itself as a “clear voice for democracy and freedom around the world.”
  • confessionalism: A system of government where high-ranking offices are reserved for members of specific religious groups. It is usually applied to prevent sectarian conflicts.
  • Freedom of the Press report: A yearly report by U.S.-based non-governmental organization Freedom House, measuring the level of freedom and editorial independence enjoyed by the press in nations and significant disputed territories around the world.

Democratic Status of Middle Eastern Nations

According to the measure of the level of democracy in nations throughout the world published by Freedom House, a U.S. Government funded non-governmental organization that conducts research and advocacy on democracy, political freedom, and human rights, the Middle Eastern countries with the highest scores are Israel, Tunisia, Turkey, Lebanon, Morocco, Kuwait, and Jordan. The remaining countries of the Middle East are categorized as authoritarian regimes, though some have certain democratic aspects. The lowest scores are held by Saudi Arabia and Yemen.

Freedom House (data from the 2017 report) categorizes Israel and Tunisia as the only “free” countries of the region. Tunisia is a representative democracy and a republic with a president serving as head of state, prime minister as head of government, a unicameral parliament, and a civil law court system. The number of legalized political parties in Tunisia has grown considerably since the beginning of the democratic reforms. Rare for the Arab world, women hold a significant share of seats in the constituent assembly (between 24% and 31%). Israel operates under a parliamentary system as a democratic republic with universal suffrage. It has no official religion, but the definition of the state as “Jewish and democratic” creates a strong connection with Judaism as well as a conflict between state law and religious law. Interaction between the political parties keeps the balance between state and religion. Some organizations and states, however, see the Israeli treatment of Palestinians as a serious blemish on Israel’s democratic system.

Lebanon, Turkey, Kuwait, Morocco, and Jordan are all categorized as “partly free.” Until 1975, Freedom House considered Lebanon to be one of only two (together with Israel) politically free countries in the Middle East and North Africa region. The country lost this status with the outbreak of the Civil War and has not regained it since. Even though Lebanon, a parliamentary democracy that includes confessionalism (high-ranking offices are reserved for members of specific religious groups to prevent sectarian conflicts), is now rated “partly free,” the United States still considers Lebanon one of the most democratic nations in the Arab world. Turkey is a parliamentary representative democracy but recent developments, particularly the efforts to expand the prerogatives of president, cracking down on opposition, and silencing media and individuals who criticize the government, have caused serious concerns that it is taking an anti-democratic turn. Kuwait is a constitutional emirate with a semi-democratic political system. The emir is the head of state and the hybrid political system is divided between an elected parliament and appointed government. Kuwait is among the Middle East’s freest countries in terms of civil liberties and political rights. Morocco is a parliamentary constitutional monarchy. The Prime Minister is the head of government and a multi-party system is growing. Jordan, which in 2017 was upgraded from “not free” to “partly free,” is a constitutional monarchy where the King holds wide executive and legislative powers.

None of the Middle Eastern countries received the “free” status from the Freedom House in their 2016 Freedom of the Press report, which measures specifically the level of freedom and editorial independence enjoyed by the press. Israel, Lebanon, Turkey, and Kuwait were determined to be “partly free” while all the other countries in the region received the “not free” status.

Authoritarianism

Apart from the seven states discussed above,  all the remaining Middle Eastern states are currently determined to be “not free” (including Western Sahara, which is controlled by Morocco). In some cases, what may seem a democratic model does not stand the test of scrutiny. For example, a number of presidential republics embracing Arab socialism, such as Syria and Egypt, regularly hold elections. However, critics assert that these are not full multi-party systems since they do not allow citizens to choose between many different candidates for presidency election. Moreover, the constitution of modern Egypt has given the president a virtual monopoly over the decision-making process, devoting 30 articles (15 percent of the whole constitution) to presidential prerogatives. Another example is Iran, where the Iranian Revolution of 1979 resulted in an electoral system (an Islamic Republic with a constitution), but the system has a limited democracy in practice. One of the main problems of Iran’s system is the consolidation of too much power in the hands of the Supreme Leader who is elected by Assembly of Experts for life (unless the Assembly of Experts decides to remove him which has never happened). Another main problem is the closed loop in the electoral system; the elected Assembly of Experts elects the Supreme Leader of Iran, who appoints the members of the Guardian Council, who in turn vets the candidates for all elections including those for Assembly of Experts. However some elections in Iran, such as those for city councils, satisfies free and democratic election criteria to some extent.

Absolute monarchy is common in the Middle East. Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and United Arab Emirates are all absolute monarchies. Authoritarian regimes (not necessarily monarchies) evolving around a powerful individual holding power has long been the critical feature of the Middle Eastern politics. For example, in the past, Saddam Hussein of Iraq or Muammar Gaddafi of Libya were among the most influential figures of the region. Today, Bashar al-Assad, who refused to resign from the presidency of Syria, which is one cause behind the brutal civil war that has been waged since 2011, serves as a symbol of the authoritarian rejection of democratic changes in the region.

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Iraqi police show of their ink-stained index fingers – proof that they visited the polls to cast their ballot in Iraq’s historic parliamentary elections in 2005, photo by Jim Goodwin.

According to Transparency International, Iraq’s is the most corrupt government in the Middle East and is described as a “hybrid regime” (between a “flawed democracy” and an “authoritarian regime”).

Theoretical Considerations

The endurance of authoritarian regimes in the Middle East is notable in comparison to the rest of the world. While such regimes have fallen throughout Eastern Europe or sub-Saharan Africa, for example, they have persisted in the Middle East. At the same time, Middle Eastern history includes significant episodes of conflict between rulers and proponents of change.

Theories on why the Middle East remains essentially undemocratic are diverse. Revisionist theories argue that democracy is slightly incompatible with Middle Eastern values. On the other hand, post-colonial theories propose a number  of explanations for the relative absence of liberal democracy in the Middle East, including the long history of imperial rule by the Ottoman Empire, Britain, and France and the contemporary political and military intervention by the United States, all of which have been blamed for preferring authoritarian regimes because they simplify the business environment while enriching the governing elite and the companies of the imperial countries.

Albrecht Schnabel argues that a strong civil society is required to produce leaders and mobilize the public around democratic duties, but for such a civil society to flourish, a democratic environment and process allowing freedom of expression and order is required in the first place. This theory therefore supports the intervention of outside countries, such as the United States, in establishing democracy. Other analysts, however, disagree. Some researchers suggest that independent nongovernmental associations help foster a participatory form of governance. They cite the lack of voluntary associations as a reason for the persistence of authoritarianism in the region. Others believe that the lack of a market-driven economy in many Middle Eastern countries undermines the capacity to build the kind of individual autonomy and power that helps promote democracy. Therefore, the relationship of the state to civil society is one of the most important indicators of the chances of democracy evolving in a particular country. Poverty, inequality, and low literacy rates also compromise people’s commitment to democratic reforms since survival becomes a higher priority.

Human Rights Violations

Nearly all the Middle Eastern states, including those categorized as democratic, violate some of what according to international legal standards falls under the category of human rights. In regard to capital punishment, the countries of the region can be separated into two categories. Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, and Israel are considered abolitionist in practice. Aside from Israel, all of the above countries maintain the death penalty for serious crimes although no executions have been carried out in a long time. All other countries in the Middle East execute prisoners for crimes. In the de facto autonomous Rojava federation in Syria, formed during the Syrian Civil War, capital punishment has been abolished.

No country in the region (with the sole exception of the Rojava federation) offers specific protections against spousal rape or domestic violence. There is a lack of official protection of rights within the home and a lack of government accountability. Domestic violence is typically covered up and kept within the family as many women in the region feel they cannot discuss their abuse without damaging their own and their family’s reputation and honor.
Women have varying degrees of difficulty moving freely in Middle Eastern countries. Some nations prohibit women from ever traveling alone, while in others women can travel freely but experience a greater risk of sexual harassment or assault than they would in Western countries. Women have the right to drive in all Middle Eastern countries except Saudi Arabia.

All the states in the Middle East have ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). Following the ratification of the CRC, Middle Eastern countries have enacted or proposed laws to protect children from violence, abuse, neglect, or exploitation. A number of countries have comprehensive laws that bring together legal provisions for protection of the child. However, child labor, violence against girls and women, gender gaps within education, and socioeconomic conditions continue to be identified areas of concern. Both external and internal conflict, ongoing political instability, and the Syrian refugee crisis remain grave dangers for children. The escalating armed conflict in Iraq has placed more children in peril. Human rights organizations document grave violations against children, particularly in conflict-ridden and politically unstable areas, focusing specifically on discrimination issues, sectarian violence, and abuse of women and girls.

Israel, the most democratic state in the Middle East, faces significant human rights problems regarding institutional discrimination of Arab citizens of Israel (many of whom self-identify as Palestinian), Ethiopian Israelis and women, and the treatment of refugees and irregular migrants. Other human rights problems include institutional discrimination against non-Orthodox Jews and intermarried families and labor rights abuses against foreign workers. In the last several states, Tunisia, the second most democratic states of the region, has made significant progress by enacting sweeping legislation to protect the rights of many previously vulnerable groups, including women, children, and the disabled. Human rights organizations note the country is currently at the stage of transition and they continue to observe whether the legislation is put in practice.
One group that has not benefited noticeably from the Tunisian turn to democratic reforms is the LGBTQ community.

The Rise of Islamism

The rise of radical Islamism is a result of many complex factors, including Western colonialism in Muslim-dominated regions, state-sponsored aggressive popularization of ultra-orthodox interpretations of Islam, Western and pro-Western Muslim support for Islamist groups during the Cold War, and victories of Islamist groups over pro-Western politicians and factions in the Middle East.

Learning Objectives

Connect the rise of Islamism with outside intervention in the Middle East

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The concept of Islamism has been debated in both public and academic contexts. The term can refer to diverse forms of social and political activism advocating that public and political life should be guided by Islamic principles, or more specifically to movements that call for full implementation of sharia. In Western media, the term tends to refer to groups that aim to establish a sharia-based Islamic state, often with connotations of political extremism and implications of violent tactics and human rights violations.
  • Islamism is not a united movement. Rather, it takes different forms and spans a wide range of strategies and tactics. Moderate and reformist Islamists accept and work within the democratic process. Islamist groups like Hezbollah and Hamas participate in the democratic and political process and carry out armed attacks. Radical Islamist groups entirely reject democracy and call for violent/offensive jihad or urge and conduct attacks on a religious basis.
  • Western colonialism of the Muslim world, beginning in the 19th century, greatly contributed to equating the secular West with the enemy of Islam, thus fueling the development of increasingly radical Islamism. Beginning in the 1970s, Western and pro-Western governments often supported fledgling Islamists and Islamist groups that later came to be seen as dangerous enemies. For Islamists, the primary threat of the West is cultural rather than political or economic.
  • In the late 20th century, an Islamic revival developed in the Muslim world. It was manifested in greater religious piety and a growing adoption of Islamic culture. Two of the most important events that fueled the resurgence were the Arab oil embargo and subsequent quadrupling of the price of oil in the mid-1970s and the 1979 Iranian Revolution, which established an Islamic republic in Iran under Ayatollah Khomeini. Although religious extremism and attacks on civilians and military targets represent only a small part of the movement, the revival has seen a proliferation of Islamic extremist groups.
  • The number of militant Islamic movements calling for “an Islamic state and the end of Western influence” is relatively small. According to polls taken in 2008 and 2010 by Pew and Gallop, pluralities of the population in Muslim-majority countries are undecided as to what extent religion should influence public life, politics, and the legal system.
  • Saudi Arabia and Qatar have devotec considerable energies to spreading Salafism and to gaining influence in the countries that benefited from their financial support. Such developments as the Iranian Revolution and the Soviet -Afghan War convinced many that the Westernization of the Muslim world was avoidable and fueled radical Islamism. As a result, groups like al-Quaeda, Taliban, and Islamic State gained popularity and tangible military and political power across the Middle East and other regions of the world.

Key Terms

  • al-Qaeda: A militant Sunni Islamist multi-national organization founded in 1988 by Osama bin Laden, Abdullah Azzam, and several other Arab volunteers who fought against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s. It has been widely designated as a terrorist group.
  • Salafism: An ultra-conservative reform branch or movement within Sunni Islam that developed in Arabia in the first half of the 18th century against a background of European colonialism. It advocated a return to the traditions of the “devout ancestors” (the salaf).
  • Taliban: A Sunni Islamic fundamentalist political movement in Afghanistan currently waging war (an insurgency, or jihad) within that country. The group has used terrorism as a specific tactic to further their ideological and political goals.
  • Islamic State: A Salafi jihadist extremist militant group led by and mainly composed of Sunni Arabs from Syria and Iraq. In 2014, the group proclaimed itself a caliphate, with religious, political, and military authority over all Muslims worldwide. As of March 2015, it had control over territory occupied by ten million people in Syria and Iraq, and has nominal control over small areas of Libya, Nigeria, and Afghanistan. It also operates or has affiliates in other parts of the world, including North Africa and South Asia.
  • Hezbollah: A Shia Islamist militant group and political party based in Lebanon. Its status as a legitimate political party, terrorist group, resistance movement, or some combination thereof is a contentious issue.
  • Hamas: A Palestinian Sunni-Islamic fundamentalist that has been the governing authority of the Gaza Strip since 2007. It is a point of debate in political and academic circles over whether or not to classify it as a terrorist group.
  • sharia: The religious law forming part of the Islamic tradition. It is derived from the religious precepts of Islam, particularly the Quran and the Hadith. In Arabic, the term refers to God’s divine law and is contrasted with fiqh, which refers to its scholarly interpretations. The manner of its application in modern times has been a subject of dispute between Muslim traditionalists and reformists.
  • jihad: An Arabic word that literally means striving or struggling, especially with a praiseworthy aim. It can have many shades of meaning in an Islamic context, such as struggle against one’s evil inclinations or efforts toward the moral betterment of society. In classical Islamic law, the term refers to armed struggle against unbelievers, while modernist Islamic scholars generally equate it with defensive warfare. The term has gained additional attention in recent decades through its use by terrorist groups.
  • Islamism: A term that can refer to diverse forms of social and political activism advocating that public and political life should be guided by Islamic principles, or more specifically to movements that call for full implementation of sharia. It is commonly used interchangeably with the terms political Islam or Islamic fundamentalism.
    Its meaning has been debated in both public and academic contexts.
  • Muslim Brotherhood: A transnational Sunni Islamist organization founded in Egypt by Islamic scholar and schoolteacher Hassan al-Banna in 1928. The organization has combined political activism with charity work as its model of functioning, gaining supporters throughout the Arab world and influencing other Islamist groups. As of 2015, it is considered a terrorist organization by the governments of five Arab countries and Russia, but claims to be a peaceful, democratic organization that condemns violence.

What Is Islamism?

Islamism is a concept whose meaning has been debated in both public and academic contexts. The term can refer to diverse forms of social and political activism advocating that public and political life should be guided by Islamic principles, or more specifically to movements that call for full implementation of sharia. Sharia is the religious law forming part of the Islamic tradition, derived from the religious precepts of Islam, particularly the Quran and the hadith (various reports describing the words, actions, or habits of the Islamic prophet Muhammad ). Islamism is commonly used interchangeably with the terms political Islam or Islamic fundamentalism. In Western media, the term tends to refer to groups who aim to establish a sharia-based Islamic state, often with connotations of political extremism and implications of violent tactics and human rights violations.

Different currents of Islamist thought have advocated a revolutionary strategy of Islamizing society through exercise of state power or a reformist strategy of re-Islamizing society through grassroots social and political activism. Islamists may emphasize the implementation of sharia (Islamic law), pan-Islamic political unity and an Islamic state, or selective removal of non-Muslim influences, particularly Western military, economic, political, social, or cultural influences, from the Muslim world.

Islamism is not a united movement, but takes different forms and spans a wide range of strategies and tactics. Moderate and reformist Islamists who accept and work within the democratic process include parties like the Tunisian Ennahda Movement. Jamaat-e-Islami of Pakistan is basically a sociopolitical and democratic vanguard party, but has also gained political influence through military coup d’états. Islamist groups like Hezbollah and Hamas participate in the democratic and political process as well as in armed attacks. Hezbollah is a Shia Islamist militant group and political party based in Lebanon. Hezbollah’s status as a legitimate political party, terrorist group, resistance movement, or some combination thereof is a contentious issue. Similarly, Hamas is a Palestinian Sunni -Islamic fundamentalist that has been the governing authority of the Gaza Strip since 2007. It is a point of debate in political and academic circles over whether or not to classify Hamas as a terrorist group. Radical Islamist groups like al-Qaeda or the Taliban entirely reject democracy and call for violent/offensive jihad or urge and conduct attacks on a religious basis.

Islamism and the West

In the 19th century, European encroachment on the Muslim world came with the retreat of the Ottoman Empire, the French conquest of Algeria (1830), the disappearance of the Moghul Empire in India (1857), and the Russian incursions into the Caucasus and Central Asia. The first Muslim reaction to European encroachment was of rural and working class and not urban origin. Charismatic leaders launched the call for jihad and formed tribal coalitions. Sharia in defiance of local common law was imposed to unify tribes. All these movements eventually failed, despite some successes over the colonizing armies.

Under later Western colonialism, nostalgia for the days of successful Islamic empire simmered. This played a major role in the Islamist political ideal of Islamic state, a state in which Islamic law is preeminent. The Islamist political program is generally accomplished by reshaping the governments of existing Muslim nation-states. Today, however, the means of doing this varies greatly across movements and circumstances. Many Islamist movements, such as the Jamaat-e-Islami and Muslim Brotherhood, have used the democratic process and focus on votes and coalition-building with other political parties. Radical movements such as Taliban and al-Qaeda embrace militant Islamic ideology.

Beginning in the 1970s, Western and pro-Western governments often supported fledgling Islamists and Islamist groups that later came to be seen as dangerous enemies. Islamists were considered by Western governments bulwarks against what were thought ore dangerous leftist/communist/nationalist insurgents, which Islamists were correctly seen as opposing. The U.S. spent billions of dollars to aid the
Muslim Afghan enemies of the Soviet Union during the Soviet-Afghan War. Similarly, although Hamas is a strong opponent of Israel’s existence, it traces its origins to institutions and clerics supported by Israel in the 1970s and 1980s. Israel tolerated and supported Islamist movements in Gaza as it perceived them preferable to the secular and then more powerful al-Fatah. Egyptian pro-Western, anti-Soviet, and pro-Israeli President Anwar Sadat released Islamists from prison and welcomed home exiles in tacit exchange for political support in his struggle against leftists. Sadat was later assassinated and a formidable insurgency was formed in Egypt in the 1990s.

For Islamists, the primary threat of the West is cultural rather than political or economic. Islamists assume that cultural dependency robs one of faith and identity and thus destroys Islam and the Islamic community far more effectively than political rule. Furthermore, the end of the Cold War and Soviet occupation of Afghanistan has eliminated the common atheist Communist enemy uniting some religious Muslims and the capitalist west.

Islamic Revivalism

In the late 20th century an Islamic revival or Islamic awakening developed in the Muslim world,  manifested in greater religious piety and growing adoption of Islamic culture. Two of the most important events that fueled or inspired the resurgence were the Arab oil embargo and subsequent quadrupling of the price of oil in the mid-1970s and the 1979 Iranian Revolution, which established an Islamic republic in Iran under Ayatollah Khomeini. The first created a flow of many billions of dollars from Saudi Arabia to fund Islamic books, scholarships, fellowships, and mosques around the world. The second undermined the assumption that Westernization strengthened Muslim countries and was the irreversible trend of the future.

The revival is a reversal of the Westernization approach common among Arab and Asian governments earlier in the 20th century. Although  religious extremism and attacks on civilians and military targets represent only a small part of the movement, the revival has seen a proliferation of Islamic extremist groups in the Middle East and elsewhere in the Muslim world. They have voiced their anger at perceived exploitation as well as materialism, Westernization, democracy, and modernity, which are most commonly associated with accepting Western secular beliefs and values.

Rise of Radical Islamism

The number of militant Islamic movements calling for “an Islamic state and the end of Western influence” is relatively small. According to polls taken in 2008 and 2010 by Pew and Gallop, pluralities of the population in Muslim-majority countries are undecided as to what extent religion (and certain interpretations of) should influence public life, politics, and the legal system.

Starting in the mid-1970s, the Islamic resurgence was funded by an abundance of money from Saudi Arabian oil exports. The tens of billions of dollars obtained from the recently heightened price of oil funded most of the expenses associated with the resurgence. Throughout the Muslim world, religious institutions for people both young and old received Saudi funding along with training for the preachers and teachers who went on to teach and work at the emerging universities, schools, and mosques. The funding was also used to reward journalists and academics who followed the Saudis’ strict interpretation of Islam known as Salafism (sometimes referred to as Wahhabism, but Salafists consider the term derogatory). In its harshest form, it preaches that Muslims should not only “always oppose” infidels “in every way,” but “hate them for their religion… for Allah’s sake,” that democracy “is responsible for all the horrible wars of the 20th century,” and that Muslims not ascribing to this strict interpretation were infidels. While this effort has by no means converted all or even most, it has done much to undermine more moderate local interpretations.

The strength of the Islamist movement was manifest in an event that might have seemed sure to turn Muslim public opinion against fundamentalism, but did just the opposite. In 1979, the Grand Mosque in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, was seized by an armed fundamentalist group and held for over a week. Scores were killed, including many pilgrim bystanders in a gross violation of one of the most holy sites in Islam, where arms and violence are strictly forbidden. Instead of prompting a backlash, Saudi Arabia, already very conservative, responded by shoring up its fundamentalist credentials with even more Islamic restrictions. Crackdowns followed on everything, including shopkeepers who did not close for prayer and newspapers that published pictures of women. In other Muslim countries, blame for and wrath against the seizure was directed not against fundamentalists, but against Islamic fundamentalism’s foremost geopolitical enemy – the United States.

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Saudi soldiers fighting their way into the Qaboo Underground beneath the Grand Mosque of Mecca, 1979

The seizure of Islam’s holiest site, the taking of hostages from among the worshipers, and the deaths of hundreds of militants, security forces, and hostages caught in crossfire in the ensuing battles for control of the site, all shocked the Islamic world. Following the attack, the Saudi state implemented a stricter enforcement of Islamic code.

Just like Saudi Arabia, Qatar has devolved considerable energies to spreading Salafism and gaining influence in the countries that benefited from its support. Over the past two decades, the country has exerted a semi-formal patronage for the international movement of the Muslim Brotherhood. Qatar is known to have backed Islamist factions in Egypt, Libya, Syria, and Yemen. Hamas has also been among the primary beneficiaries of Qatar’s financial support.

The first modern Islamist state was established among the Shia of Iran. In a major shock to the rest of the world, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini led the Iranian Revolution of 1979 in order to overthrow the oil-rich, well-armed, Westernized, and pro-American secular monarchy ruled by Shah Muhammad Reza Pahlavi. Khomeini believed that complete imitation of the Prophet Mohammad and his successors was essential to Islam, that many secular, Westernizing Muslims were actually agents of the West, and that acts such as the plundering of Muslim lands were part of a long-term conspiracy against Islam by Western governments. The Islamic Republic has also maintained its hold on power in Iran in spite of U.S. economic sanctions and has created or assisted like-minded Shia terrorist groups in Iraq, Egypt, Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon (Hezbollah).

In 1979, the Soviet Union deployed its army into Afghanistan, attempting to suppress an Islamic rebellion against an allied Marxist regime in the Afghan Civil War. The conflict, pitting indigenous impoverished Muslims against an anti-religious superpower, galvanized thousands of Muslims around the world to send aid and sometimes to go themselves to fight for their faith. When the Soviet Union abandoned the Marxist Najibullah regime and withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989 (the regime finally fell in 1992), many Muslims saw the victory as the triumph of Islamic faith over superior military power and technology that could be duplicated elsewhere. The veterans of the war returning home to Algeria, Egypt, and other countries were often eager to continue armed jihad.

Another factor in the early 1990s that worked to radicalize the Islamist movement was the Gulf War, which brought several hundred thousand U.S. and allied non-Muslim military personnel to Saudi Arabian soil to put an end to Saddam Hussein’s occupation of Kuwait. Prior to 1990, Saudi Arabia played an important role in restraining the many Islamist groups that received its aid. But when Saddam, secularist and Ba’athist dictator of neighboring Iraq, attacked Saudi Arabia (his enemy in the war), western troops came to protect the Saudi monarchy. Islamists accused the Saudi regime of being a puppet of the west.

These attacks resonated with conservative Muslims and the problem did not go away with Saddam’s defeat, since American troops remained stationed in the kingdom. Saudi Arabia attempted to compensate for its loss of prestige among the conservative groups by repressing those domestic Islamists who attacked it (bin Laden being a prime example) and increasing aid to Islamic groups that did not (including some violent groups), but its pre-war influence on behalf of moderation was greatly reduced. One result of this was a campaign of attacks on government officials and tourists in Egypt, a bloody civil war in Algeria, and Osama bin Laden ‘s terror campaign climaxing in the 9/11 attack.

In 1992, the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan ruled by communist forces collapsed and democratic Islamist elements founded the Islamic State of Afghanistan. In 1996, a more conservative and anti-democratic Islamist movement known as the Taliban rose to power, defeated most of the warlords, and took over roughly 80% of Afghanistan. The Taliban differed from other Islamist movements to the point where they might be more properly described as Islamic fundamentalist or neofundamentalist, interested in spreading “an idealized and systematized version of conservative tribal village customs” under the label of Sharia to an entire country. Their ideology was also described as influenced by Wahhabism and the extremist jihadism of their guest Osama bin Laden. The Taliban considered politics to be against sharia and thus did not hold elections. The Taliban’s hosting of Osama bin Laden led to an American-organized attack that drove them from power following the 9/11 attacks. Taliban are still very much alive and fighting a vigorous insurgency with suicide bombings and armed attacks launched against NATO and Afghan government targets.

The Islamic State, formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, is a Salafi jihadist extremist militant group led by and mainly composed of Sunni Arabs from Syria and Iraq. In 2014, the group proclaimed itself a caliphate, with religious, political, and military authority over all Muslims worldwide. As of March 2015, it had control over territory occupied by ten million people in Syria and Iraq, and has nominal control over small areas of Libya, Nigeria, and Afghanistan. ISIL (commonly referred to ISIS) also operates or has affiliates in other parts of the world, including North Africa and South Asia.

Originating in 1999, ISIL pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda in 2004, participated in the Iraqi insurgency that followed the invasion of Iraq by Western coalition forces in 2003, joined the fight in the Syrian Civil War beginning in 2011, and was expelled from al-Qaeda in early 2014. It gained prominence after it drove Iraqi government forces out of key cities in western Iraq in June 2014. The group is adept at social media, posting Internet videos of beheadings of soldiers, civilians, journalists, and aid workers and is known for its destruction of cultural heritage sites. The United Nations (UN) has held ISIL responsible for human rights abuses and war crimes and Amnesty International has reported ethnic cleansing on a “historic scale” by the group. The group has been designated a terrorist organization by the UN, the European Union (EU) and member states, the United States, India, Indonesia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and other countries.

The Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan

The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq failed to stabilize the political situation in the Middle East and contributed to ongoing civil conflicts, with counterterrorism experts arguing that they created circumstances beneficial to the escalation of radical Islamism.

Learning Objectives

Evaluate the consequences of American military efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The U.S. invasion of Afghanistan occurred after the September 11 attacks in late 2001. U.S. President George W. Bush demanded that the Taliban hand over Osama bin Laden and expel al-Qaeda from Afghanistan. The Taliban government refused unless it provided evidence of his involvement in the 9/11 attacks. The request was dismissed by the United States as a meaningless delaying tactic and on October 7, 2001, it launched Operation Enduring Freedom with the United Kingdom. The two were later joined by other forces.
  • Although outgunned and outnumbered, insurgents from the Taliban and other radical groups have waged asymmetric warfare with guerrilla raids and ambushes in the countryside, suicide attacks against urban targets, and turncoat killings against coalition forces. From 2006, the Taliban made significant gains and showed an increased willingness to commit atrocities against civilians. Violence sharply escalated from 2007 to 2009.
  • On May 2, 2011, U.S. Navy SEALs killed Osama bin Laden in Abbotabad, Pakistan. A year later, NATO leaders endorsed an exit strategy for withdrawing their forces. UN-backed peace talks have since taken place between the Afghan government and the Taliban. Although there was a formal end to combat operations, as of 2017 American forces continue to conduct airstrikes and special operations raids, while Afghan forces are losing ground to Taliban forces in some regions. War crimes by have been committed both sides.
  • The Iraq War began on March 20, 2003, with the United States, joined by the United Kingdom and several coalition allies, launching a “shock and awe” bombing campaign. The invasion led to the collapse of the Ba’athist government. President Saddam Hussein was captured in 2003 and executed by a military court three years later. However, the power vacuum following Saddam’s demise and the mismanagement of the occupation led to widespread sectarian violence and insurgency against U.S. and coalition forces.
  • The Bush administration based its rationale for the war principally on the assertion that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction, but no substantial evidence for this claim was found. President Barack Obama formally withdrew all combat troops from Iraq by December 2011, but Iraqi insurgency surged in the aftermath of the U.S. withdrawal. In 2014, ISIS took over the cities of Mosul and Tikrit and stated it was ready to march on Baghdad. In the summer of 2014, President Obama announced the return of U.S. forces to Iraq in an effort to halt the advance of ISIS forces, render humanitarian aid to stranded refugees, and stabilize the political situation.
  • The war resulted in a humanitarian crisis, including child malnutrition, the psychological scarring of Iraqi children, a scarcity of safe drinking water (resulting in a cholera outbreak), the outflow of half of Iraqi doctors, birth defects caused by the use of depleted uranium and white phosphorus by the U.S. military, 4.4 million internally displaced persons, and the dramatic decline of the population of Iraqi Christians. Throughout the entire war, there have been human rights abuses on all sides of the conflict. Arguably the most controversial incident was a series of human rights violations against detainees in the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.

Key Terms

  • Taliban: A Sunni Islamic fundamentalist political movement in Afghanistan currently waging war (an insurgency, or jihad) within that country. The group has used terrorism as a specific tactic to further their ideological and political goals.
  • Operation Enduring Freedom: A code name used to officially describe the War in Afghanistan, from the period between October 2001 and December 2014. Continued operations in Afghanistan by the United States’ military forces, both non-combat and combat, now occur under the name Operation Freedom’s Sentinel.
  • Islamic State: A Salafi jihadist extremist militant group led by and mainly composed of Sunni Arabs from Syria and Iraq. In 2014, the group proclaimed itself a caliphate, with religious, political, and military authority over all Muslims worldwide. As of March 2015, it has control over territory occupied by ten million people in Syria and Iraq and nominal control over small areas of Libya, Nigeria, and Afghanistan. It also operates or has affiliates in other parts of the world, including North Africa and South Asia.
  • al-Qaeda: A militant Sunni Islamist multi-national organization founded in 1988 by Osama bin Laden, Abdullah Azzam, and several other Arab volunteers who fought against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s. It has been widely designated as a terrorist group.
  • War in Afghanistan: A war that followed the 2001 United States invasion of Afghanistan, supported initially by the United Kingdom and joined by the rest of NATO in 2003. Its public aims were to dismantle al-Qaeda and deny it a safe base of operations in Afghanistan by removing the Taliban from power.
  • Iraq War: A protracted armed conflict that began in 2003 with the invasion of Iraq by a United States-led coalition that toppled the government of Saddam Hussein. The conflict continued for much of the next decade as an insurgency emerged to oppose the occupying forces and the post-invasion Iraqi government.

War in Afghanistan

The United States invasion of Afghanistan occurred after the September 11 attacks in late 2001. U.S. President George W. Bush demanded that the Taliban hand over Osama bin Laden and expel al-Qaeda from Afghanistan. The Taliban government refused to extradite him (or others sought by the U.S.) without evidence of his involvement in the 9/11 attacks. The request was dismissed by the U.S. as a meaningless delaying tactic and on October 7, 2001, it launched Operation Enduring Freedom with the United Kingdom. The two were later joined by other forces, including the Afghan Northern Alliance that had been fighting the Taliban in the ongoing civil war since 1996. In December 2001, the United Nations Security Council established the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) to assist the Afghan interim authorities with securing Kabul. At the Bonn Conference the same month, Hamid Karzai was selected to head the Afghan interim administration, which after a 2002 loya jirga (Pashto for “grand assembly”)
in Kabul became the Afghan transitional administration. In the popular elections of 2004, Karzai was elected president of the country, now named the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan.

NATO became involved in ISAF in 2003 and later that year assumed leadership of its troops from 43 countries. NATO members provided the core of the force. One portion of U.S. forces in Afghanistan operated under NATO command. The rest remained under direct U.S. command. The Taliban was reorganized by its leader Mullah Omar and in 2003, launched an insurgency against the government and ISAF. Although outgunned and outnumbered, insurgents from the Taliban and other radical groups have waged asymmetric warfare with guerrilla raids and ambushes in the countryside, suicide attacks against urban targets, and turncoat killings against coalition forces. The Taliban exploited weaknesses in the Afghan government, among the most corrupt in the world, to reassert influence across rural areas of southern and eastern Afghanistan. In the initial years, there was little fighting but from 2006 the Taliban made significant gains and showed an increased willingness to commit atrocities against civilians. Violence sharply escalated from 2007 to 2009. While ISAF continued to battle the Taliban insurgency, fighting crossed into neighboring northwestern Pakistan.

On May 2, 2011, United States Navy SEALs killed Osama bin Laden in Abbotabad, Pakistan. A year later, NATO leaders endorsed an exit strategy for withdrawing their forces. UN-backed peace talks have since taken place between the Afghan government and the Taliban. In May 2014, the United States announced that its major combat operations would end in December and that it would leave a residual force in the country. In October 2014, British forces handed over the last bases in Helmand to the Afghan military, officially ending their combat operations in the war. In December 2014, NATO formally ended combat operations in Afghanistan and transferred full security responsibility to the Afghan government.

Aftermath and Consequences

Although there was a formal end to combat operations, partially because of improved relations between the United States and the new President Ashraf Ghani, American forces increased raids against Islamic militants and terrorists, justified by a broad interpretation of protecting American forces. In March 2015, it was announced that the United States would maintain almost ten thousand service members in Afghanistan until at least the end of 2015, a change from planned reductions. In October 2015, the Obama administration announced that U.S. troops would remain in Afghanistan past the original planned withdrawal date of December 31, 2016. As of 2017, American forces continue to conduct airstrikes and special operations raids, while Afghan forces are losing ground to Taliban forces in some regions.

War casualty estimates vary significantly. According to a UN report, the Taliban were responsible for 76% of civilian casualties in Afghanistan in 2009. In 2011, a record over three thousand civilians were killed, the fifth successive annual rise. According to a UN report, in 2013 there were nearly three thousand civilian deaths, with 74% blamed on anti-government forces. A report titled Body Count put together by Physicians for Social Responsibility, Physicians for Global Survival, and the Nobel Peace Prize-winning International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW) concluded that 106,000–170,000 civilians have been killed as a result of the fighting in Afghanistan at the hands of all parties to the conflict. According to the Watson Institute for International Studies Costs of War Project, 21,000 civilians have been killed as a result of the war.

An estimated 96% of Afghans have been affected either personally by or from the wider consequences of the war. Since 2001, more than 5.7 million former refugees have returned to Afghanistan but 2.2 million others remained refugees in 2013. In 2013, the UN estimated that 547,550 were internally displaced persons, a 25% increase over the 2012 estimates.

A large crowd gathers around the bodies of the victims.

Victims of the Narang night raid that killed at least 10 Afghan civilians, December 2009

The Narang night raid was a raid on a household in the village of Ghazi Khan in the early morning hours of December 27, 2009. The operation was authorized by NATO and resulted in the death of ten Afghan civilians, most of whom were students and some of whom were children. The status of the deceased was initially in dispute, with NATO officials claiming the dead were Taliban members found with weapons and bomb-making materials, while some Afghan government officials and local tribal authorities asserted they were civilians.

From 1996 to 1999, the Taliban controlled 96% of Afghanistan’s poppy fields and made opium its largest source of revenue. Taxes on opium exports became one of the mainstays of Taliban income. By 2000, Afghanistan accounted for an estimated 75% of the world’s opium supply. The Taliban leader Mullah Omar then banned opium cultivation and production dropped. Some observers argue that the ban was issued only to raise opium prices and increase profit from the sale of large existing stockpiles. The trafficking of accumulated stocks continued in 2000 and 2001. Soon after the invasion, opium production increased markedly. By 2005, Afghanistan was producing 90% of the world’s opium, most of which was processed into heroin and sold in Europe and Russia. In 2009, the BBC reported that “UN findings say an opium market worth $65bn funds global terrorism, caters to 15 million addicts, and kills 100,000 people every year.”

War crimes have been committed by both sides and include civilian massacres, bombings of civilian targets, terrorism, use of torture, and the murder of prisoners of war. Additional common crimes include theft, arson, and the destruction of property not warranted by military necessity. The Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIGRC) called the Taliban’s terrorism against the Afghan civilian population a war crime. According to Amnesty International, the Taliban commit war crimes by targeting civilians, including killing teachers, abducting aid workers, and burning school buildings. The organization reported that up to 756 civilians were killed in 2006 by bombs, mostly on roads or carried by suicide attackers belonging to the Taliban. NATO has also alleged that the Taliban has used civilians as human shields.

In 2009, the U.S. confirmed that Western military forces in Afghanistan use white phosphorus,   condemned by human rights organizations as cruel and inhumane because it causes severe burns,   to illuminate targets or as an incendiary to destroy bunkers and enemy equipment. U.S. forces used white phosphorus to screen a retreat in the Battle of Ganjgal when regular smoke munitions were not available. White phosphorus burns on the bodies of civilians wounded in clashes near Bagram were confirmed. The U.S. claims at least 44 instances in which militants have used white phosphorus in weapons or attacks.

Iraq War

The Iraq War began on March 20, 2003, with the United States, joined by the United Kingdom and several coalition allies, launching a “shock and awe” bombing campaign. Iraqi forces were quickly overwhelmed as U.S. forces swept through the country. The invasion led to the collapse of the Ba’athist government (under the rule of the Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party’s). President Saddam Hussein was captured during Operation Red Dawn in December 2003 and executed by a military court three years later. However, the power vacuum following Saddam’s demise and the mismanagement of the occupation led to widespread sectarian violence between Shias and Sunnis as well as a lengthy insurgency against U.S. and coalition forces. The United States responded with a troop surge in 2007. The winding down of U.S. involvement in Iraq accelerated under President Barack Obama and the U.S. formally withdrew all combat troops from Iraq by December 2011,  but left private security contractors in its place to continue the war.

The Bush administration based its rationale for the war principally on the assertion that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) and that the Iraqi government posed an immediate threat to the United States and its coalition allies. Select U.S. officials accused Hussein of harboring and supporting al-Qaeda, while others cited the desire to end the repressive dictatorship and bring democracy to the people of Iraq. After the invasion, no substantial evidence was found to verify the initial claims about WMDs. The rationale and misrepresentation of pre-war intelligence faced heavy criticism within the U.S. and internationally.

In the aftermath of the invasion, Iraq held multi-party elections in 2005. Nouri al-Maliki became Prime Minister in 2006 and remained in office until 2014. The al-Maliki government enacted policies that were widely seen as having the effect of alienating the country’s Sunni minority and worsening sectarian tensions.

Aftermath of 2011 Withdrawal

The invasion and occupation led to sectarian violence, which caused widespread displacement among Iraqi civilians. The Iraqi Red Crescent organization estimated the total internal displacement was around 2.3 million in 2008, and as many as 2 million Iraqis left the country. The invasion preserved the autonomy of the Kurdish region and because the Kurdish region is historically the most democratic area of Iraq, many Iraqi refugees from other territories fled into the Kurdish land.
Poverty led many Iraqi women to turn to prostitution to support themselves and their families, attracting sex tourists from regional lands.

Iraqi insurgency surged in the aftermath of the U.S. withdrawal. Terror campaigns involving Iraqi  (primarily radical Sunni) anti-government insurgent groups and various factions within Iraq escalated. The events of post U.S. withdrawal have showed patterns raising concerns that the surging violence might slide into another civil war. By mid-2014, the country was in chaos with a new government yet to be formed following national elections and the insurgency reaching new heights. In early June 2014, the ISIL (ISIS) took over the cities of Mosul and Tikrit and stated it was ready to march on Baghdad, while Iraqi Kurdish forces took control of key military installations in the major oil city of Kirkuk. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki asked his parliament to declare a state of emergency that would give him increased powers, but the lawmakers refused.

In the summer of 2014 President Obama announced the return of U.S. forces to Iraq, but only in the form of aerial support, in an effort to halt the advance of ISIS forces, render humanitarian aid to stranded refugees, and stabilize the political situation. In August 2014, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki succumbed to pressure at home and abroad to step down. This paved the way for Haidar al-Abadi to take over. In what was claimed to be revenge for the aerial bombing ordered by President Obama, ISIS, which by this time had changed its name to the Islamic State, beheaded an American journalist, James Foley, who had been kidnapped two years earlier. Despite U.S. bombings and breakthroughs on the political front, Iraq remained in chaos with the Islamic State consolidating its gains and sectarian violence continuing unabated.

Consequences

Various scientific surveys of Iraqi deaths resulting from the first four years of the Iraq War estimated that between 151,000 and over one million Iraqis died as a result of the conflict during this time. A later study, published in 2011, estimated that approximately 500,000 Iraqis had died as a result of the conflict since the invasion. For troops in the U.S.-led multinational coalition, the death toll is carefully tracked and updated daily. A total of 4,491 U.S. service members were killed in Iraq between 2003 and 2014. Regarding the Iraqis, however, information on both military and civilian casualties is both less precise and less consistent.

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A city street in Ramadi heavily damaged by the fighting in 2006

The Iraq War caused hundreds of thousands of civilian and thousands of military casualties. The majority of casualties occurred as a result of the insurgency and civil conflicts between 2004 and 2007. The war destroyed the country and resulted in the humanitarian crisis.

The war also resulted in a humanitarian crisis. The child malnutrition rate rose to 28%. Some 60–70% of Iraqi children were reported to be suffering from psychological problems in 2007. Most Iraqis had no access to safe drinking water. A cholera outbreak in northern Iraq was thought to be the result of poor water quality. As many as half of Iraqi doctors left the country between 2003 and 2006. The use of depleted uranium and white phosphorus by the U.S. military has been blamed for birth defects and cancers in the Iraqi city of Fallujah. By the end of 2015, according to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, 4.4 million Iraqis had been internally displaced. The population of Iraqi Christians dropped dramatically during the war, from 1.5 million in 2003 to perhaps only 275,000 in 2016. The Foreign Policy Association reported that “the most perplexing component of the Iraq refugee crisis” was that the U.S. has accepted only around 84,000 Iraqi refugees.

Throughout the entire Iraq war, there have been human rights abuses on all sides of the conflict. Arguably the most controversial incident was a series of human rights violations against detainees in the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. These violations included physical and sexual abuse, torture, rape, sodomy, and murder. The abuses came to widespread public attention with the publication of photographs of the abuse by CBS News in April 2004. The incidents received widespread condemnation both within the United States and abroad, although the soldiers received support from some conservative media within the United States. The administration of George W. Bush attempted to portray the abuses as isolated incidents, not indicative of general U.S. policy. This was contradicted by humanitarian organizations such as the Red Cross, Amnesty International, and Human Rights Watch. After multiple investigations, these organizations stated that the abuses at Abu Ghraib were not isolated incidents, but were part of a wider pattern of torture and brutal treatment at American overseas detention centers, including those in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Guantanamo Bay. Several scholars stated that the abuses constituted state-sanctioned crimes.

Iraq War and Terrorism

Although explicitly stating that Iraq had “nothing” to do with 9/11, President George W. Bush consistently referred to the Iraq war as “the central front in the war on terror” and argued that if the United States pulled out of Iraq, “terrorists will follow us here.” While other proponents of the war regularly echoed this assertion, as the conflict dragged on, members of the U.S. Congress, the U.S. public, and even U.S. troops questioned the connection between Iraq and the fight against anti-U.S. terrorism. In particular, a consensus developed among intelligence experts that the Iraq war actually increased terrorism. Counterterrorism expert Rohan Gunaratna frequently referred to the invasion of Iraq as a “fatal mistake.”

London’s International Institute for Strategic Studies concluded in 2004 that the occupation of Iraq had become “a potent global recruitment pretext” for radical Muslim fighters and that the invasion “galvanized” al-Qaeda and “perversely inspired insurgent violence.” The U.S. National Intelligence Council concluded in a 2005 report that the war in Iraq had become a breeding ground for a new generation of terrorists. David Low, the national intelligence officer for transnational threats, indicated that the report concluded that the war in Iraq provided terrorists with “a training ground, a recruitment ground, the opportunity for enhancing technical skills… There is even, under the best scenario, over time, the likelihood that some of the jihadists who are not killed there will, in a sense, go home, wherever home is, and will therefore disperse to various other countries.” The Council’s chairman Robert Hutchings noted, “At the moment, Iraq is a magnet for international terrorist activity.” The 2006 National Intelligence Estimate, which outlined the considered judgment of all 16 U.S. intelligence agencies, concluded that “the Iraq conflict has become the ’cause célèbre’ for jihadists, breeding a deep resentment of U.S. involvement in the Muslim world and cultivating supporters for the global jihadist movement.”

The Arab Spring

The Arab Spring was a revolutionary wave of both violent and non-violent protests in North Africa and the Middle East that began in 2010, triggered by authoritarianism, human rights violations, political corruption, economic decline, unemployment, extreme poverty, and some demographic structural factors. This resulted in limited pro-democratic changes, with Tunisia emerging as the only democratic country in the Arab world.

Learning Objectives

Discuss whether the Arab Spring was a success

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The Arab Spring was a revolutionary wave of both violent and non-violent demonstrations, protests, riots, coups, and civil wars in North Africa and the Middle East that began in 2010 with the Tunisian Revolution. Analysts have pointed to a number of complex factors behind the movement, including authoritarianism, human rights violations, political corruption, economic decline, unemployment, extreme poverty, and a demographic structural factors such as a large percentage of educated but dissatisfied youth.
  • In the wake of the Arab Spring protests, a considerable amount of attention has been focused on the role of social media and digital technologies in allowing citizens to circumvent state-operated media channels. The influence of social media on political activism during the Arab Spring has been much debated. While social networks were a critical instrument for rebels in the countries with high Internet usage rates, mainstream electronic media devices and word of mouth remained important means of communication.
  • Prior to the Arab Spring, social unrest had been escalating in the Arab world. Tunisia experienced a series of conflicts. In Egypt, the labor movement had been strong for years and provided an important venue for organizing protests and collective action. In Algeria, discontent had been building for years over a number of social issues. In Western Sahara, a group of young Sahrawis demonstrated against labor discrimination, unemployment, looting of resources, and human rights abuses.
  • The catalyst for the escalation of protests was the self-immolation of Tunisian Mohamed Bouazizi. Unable to find work and selling fruit at a roadside stand, Bouazizi had his wares confiscated by a municipal inspector in December 2010. An hour later he doused himself with gasoline and set himself afire. His death on January 4, 2011, brought together various groups dissatisfied with the existing system, including many unemployed individuals, political and human rights activists, labor, trade unionists, students, professors, lawyers, and others, to begin the Tunisian Revolution.
  • The demonstrations, triggered directly by Bouazizi’s death, brought to the forefront such issues as high unemployment, food inflation, corruption, lack of political freedoms, and poor living conditions. With the success of the protests in Tunisia, a wave of unrest sparked in Algeria, Jordan, Egypt, and Yemen and then spread to other countries. By the end of February 2012, rulers had been forced from power and protests occurred across the region. Several leaders announced their intentions to step down at the end of their current terms.
  • In the aftermath of the Arab Spring in various countries, there was a wave of violence and instability known as the Arab Winter. It was characterized by extensive civil wars, general regional instability, economic and demographic decline, and religious wars between Sunni and Shia Muslims. Although the long-term effects of the Arab Spring have yet to be shown, its short-term consequences varied greatly across the Middle East and North Africa. As of 2017, Tunisia is considered the only full democracy in the Arab World.

Key Terms

  • Tunisian Revolution: An intensive campaign of civil resistance that took place in Tunisia and led to the ousting of longtime president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011. It eventually led to a thorough democratization of the country and to free and democratic elections.
  • Arab Spring: A revolutionary wave of both violent and non-violent demonstrations, protests, riots, coups, and civil wars in North Africa and the Middle East that began in December 2010 in Tunisia with the Tunisian Revolution.
  • Egyptian Revolution: Social unrest that began in January 2011 and took place across all of Egypt. It consisted of demonstrations, marches, occupations of plazas, non-violent civil resistance, acts of civil disobedience, and strikes. Millions of protesters from a range of socioeconomic and religious backgrounds demanded the overthrow of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
  • Arab Winter: A term for the rise of authoritarianism and Islamic extremism evolving in the aftermath of the Arab Spring protests in Arab, Kurdish, and Berber countries. The process is characterized by the emergence of multiple regional civil wars, mounting regional instability, economic and demographic decline of Arab countries, and ethno-religious sectarian strife. According to a study by the American University of Beirut, as of summer 2014, it resulted in nearly a quarter of a million deaths and millions of refugees.

The Arab Spring was a revolutionary wave of both violent and non-violent demonstrations, protests, riots, coups, and civil wars in North Africa and the Middle East that began in 2010 with the Tunisian Revolution. The Tunisian Revolution effect spread strongly to five other countries: Libya, Egypt, Yemen, Syria, and Iraq, where either the regime was toppled or major uprisings and social violence occurred, including civil wars or insurgencies. Sustained street demonstrations took place in Morocco, Bahrain, Algeria, Iran, Lebanon, Jordan, Kuwait, Oman, and Sudan. Minor protests occurred in Djibouti, Mauritania, the Palestinian territories, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, and the Moroccan-controlled Western Sahara. A major slogan of the demonstrators in the Arab world was “the people want to bring down the regime.”

Analysts have pointed to a number of complex factors behind the movement, including issues such as authoritarianism, human rights violations, political corruption (at the time, explicitly revealed to the public by Wikileaks diplomatic cables), economic decline, unemployment, extreme poverty, and a number of demographic structural factors, such as a large percentage of educated but dissatisfied youth. Catalysts for the revolts in all Northern African and Persian Gulf countries included the concentration of wealth in the hands of autocrats in power for decades, insufficient transparency of its redistribution, corruption, and especially the refusal of the youth to accept the status quo. Some protesters looked to the Turkish model, with contested but peaceful elections, fast-growing but liberal economy, and secular constitution but Islamist government, as an ideal.

Role of Media

In the wake of the Arab Spring protests, a considerable amount of attention has been focused on the role of social media and digital technologies in allowing citizens to circumvent state-operated media channels. The influence of social media on political activism during the Arab Spring has been much debated. Protests took place both in states with a very high level of Internet usage (such as Bahrain with 88% of its population online in 2011) and in states with one of the lowest Internet use rates (Yemen and Libya).

Facebook, Twitter, and other major social media played a key role in the movement of Egyptian and Tunisian activists in particular. Nine out of ten Egyptians and Tunisians responded to a poll that they used Facebook to organize protests and spread awareness. In Egypt, young men referred to themselves as “the Facebook generation.” Furthermore, 28% of Egyptians and 29% of Tunisians from the same poll said that blocking Facebook greatly hindered and/or disrupted communication. During the protests, people created pages on Facebook to raise awareness about alleged crimes against humanity, such as police brutality in the Egyptian Revolution. The use of social media platforms more than doubled in Arab countries during the protests, with the exception of Libya.

Social networks were not the only instrument for rebels to coordinate their efforts and communicate. In the countries with the lowest Internet penetration and the limited role of social networks, such as Yemen and Libya, the role of mainstream electronic media devices such as cell phones, emails, and video clips was very important to cast light on the situation in the country and spread the word about the protests in the outside world. In Egypt, in Cairo particularly, mosques were one of the main platforms to coordinate the protest actions and raise awareness to the masses. Jared Keller, a journalist for The Atlantic, noted differences between the Arab countries where protests emerged. For example, in Egypt, most activists and protesters used Facebook (among other social media) to organize while in Iran, “good old-fashioned word of mouth” was the main means of communication.

Social Unrest in the Arab World

Tunisia experienced a series of conflicts during the three years leading up to the Arab Spring, most notably in the mining area of Gafsa in 2008 where protests continued for many months. These included rallies, sit-ins, and strikes. In Egypt, the labor movement had been strong for years, with more than 3,000 labor actions since 2004, and provided an important venue for organizing protests and collective action. One important demonstration was an attempted workers’ strike in 2008 at the state-run textile factories of al-Mahalla al-Kubra, outside Cairo. The idea for this type of demonstration spread throughout the country, promoted by computer-literate working class youths and their supporters among middle-class college students. A Facebook page to promote the strike attracted tens of thousands of followers and provided the platform for sustained political action in pursuit of the “long revolution.” The government mobilized to break the strike through infiltration and riot police, and while the regime was somewhat successful in forestalling a strike, dissidents formed a committee of youths and labor activists that became one of the major forces calling for the anti-Mubarak demonstration.

In Algeria, discontent had been building for years over a number of issues. Some estimates suggest that during 2010 there were as many as 9,700 protests throughout the country. Many events focused on issues such as education and health care, while others cited rampant corruption. In Western Sahara, the Gdeim Izik protest camp was erected 12 kilometres (7.5 mi) south-east of El Aaiún by a group of young Sahrawis (an ethnic groups living in western part of the Sahara desert) in 2010. Their intention was to demonstrate against labor discrimination, unemployment, looting of resources, and human rights abuses. The camp contained between 12,000 and 20,000 inhabitants, but it was destroyed and its inhabitants evicted by Moroccan security forces. The security forces faced strong opposition from some young Sahrawi civilians and rioting soon spread to El Aaiún and other towns within the territory, resulting in an unknown number of injuries and deaths. Violence against Sahrawis in the aftermath of the protests was cited as a reason for renewed protests months later, after the start of the Arab Spring.

Catalyst of Arab Spring

The catalyst for the escalation of protests was the self-immolation of Tunisian Mohamed Bouazizi. Unable to find work and selling fruit at a roadside stand, Bouazizi had his wares confiscated by a municipal inspector in December 2010. An hour later he doused himself with gasoline and set himself afire. His death on January 4, 2011, brought together various groups dissatisfied with the existing system, including many unemployed individuals, political and human rights activists, labor, trade unionists, students, professors, lawyers, and others, to begin the Tunisian Revolution. The demonstrations, triggered directly by Bouazizi’s death, brought to the forefront such issues as high unemployment, food inflation, corruption, lack of political freedoms, and poor living conditions.

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Protesters on Avenue Habib Bourguiba, downtown Tunis on January 14, 2011, a few hours before president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled the country, VOA Photo/L. Bryant.

Tunisia is the only country where the Arab Spring resulted in the consistent democratization of the state. It is now a representative democracy and a republic with a president serving as head of state, prime minister as head of government, a unicameral parliament, and a civil law court system. In October 2014, Tunisia held its first elections under the new constitution following the Arab Spring. The number of legalized political parties in Tunisia has grown considerably since the revolution.

With the success of the protests in Tunisia, a wave of unrest sparked in Algeria, Jordan, Egypt, and Yemen and then spread to other countries. By the end of February 2012, rulers had been forced from power in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen. Civil uprisings had erupted in Bahrain and Syria. Major protests had broken out in Algeria, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, and Sudan. Minor protests had occurred in Mauritania, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Djibouti, Western Sahara, and Palestine. Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia in January 2011. In Egypt, President Hosni Mubarak resigned in February 2011 after 18 days of massive protests, ending his 30-year presidency. The Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi was overthrown in August 2011 and killed in October 2011. Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh signed the power-transfer deal in which a presidential election was held, resulting in his successor Abd al-Rab Mansur al-Hadi formally replacing him as the president of Yemen in February 2012, in exchange for immunity from prosecution. Weapons and Tuareg (a large Berber ethnic confederation) fighters returning from the Libyan Civil War stoked a simmering conflict in Mali, which has been described as a fallout from the Arab Spring in North Africa.

During this period of regional unrest, several leaders announced their intentions to step down at the end of their current terms. Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir announced that he would not seek re-election in 2015, as did Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, whose term was ending in 2014, although there were violent demonstrations demanding his immediate resignation in 2011. Protests in Jordan also caused the sacking of four successive governments by King Abdullah. The popular unrest in Kuwait resulted in resignation of Prime Minister Nasser Mohammed Al-Ahmed Al-Sabah cabinet.

Aftermath: Arab Winter

In the aftermath of the Arab Spring in various countries, there was a wave of violence and instability commonly known as the Arab Winter or Islamist Winter. The Arab Winter was characterized by extensive civil wars, general regional instability, economic and demographic decline, and religious wars between Sunni and Shia Muslims. According to a study by the American University of Beirut, as of summer 2014, the Arab Winter resulted in nearly a quarter of a million deaths and millions of refugees.

Although the long-term effects of the Arab Spring are not yet evident, its short-term consequences varied greatly across the Middle East and North Africa. In Tunisia and Egypt, where the existing regimes were ousted and replaced through a process of free and fair election, the revolutions were considered short-term successes. This interpretation is, however, undermined by the subsequent political turmoil that emerged, particularly in Egypt. Elsewhere, most notably in the monarchies of Morocco and the Persian Gulf, existing regimes co-opted the Arab Spring movement and managed to maintain order without significant social change. In other countries, particularly Syria and Libya, the apparent result of Arab Spring protests was a complete collapse of social order. As of 2017, Tunisia is considered the only full democracy in the Arab World, despite many challenges the country still faces. Since the end of the revolution, Egypt has gone through political turmoil, with democratically elected President Mohamed Morsi attempting to pass an extremist Islamist constitution that would grant him unparalleled powers, just to be ousted in 2013 by a military coup. Despite some democratic gestures (e.g., secular constitution and elections), international organizations currently consider Egypt to be an authoritarian regime.

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Celebrations in Tahrir Square after Omar Suleiman’s statement concerning Hosni Mubarak’s resignation, photo by Jonathan Rashad.

While it initially seemed that Egypt might be as successful in introducing democratic reforms as Tunisia, the country remains an autocratic regime where political opposition is repressed and grave human rights violations constitute the major issue.

Social scientists have endeavored to understand the circumstances that led to this variation in outcome. A variety of causal factors have been highlighted, most of which hinge on the relationship between the strength of the state and the strength of civil society. Countries with stronger civil society networks in various forms saw more successful reforms during the Arab Spring. One of the primary influences highlighted in the analysis of the Arab Spring is the relative strength or weakness of a society’s formal and informal institutions prior to the revolts. When the Arab Spring began, Tunisia had an established infrastructure and a lower level of petty corruption than did other states such as Libya. This meant that following the overthrow of the existing regime, there was less work to be done in reforming Tunisian institutions than elsewhere and consequently it was less difficult to transition to and consolidate a democratic system of government.

Also crucial was the degree of state censorship over print, broadcast, and social media in different countries. Television coverage by channels like Al Jazeera and BBC News provided worldwide exposure and prevented mass violence by the Egyptian government in Tahrir Square. In other countries, such as Libya, Bahrain, and Syria, such international press coverage was not present to the same degree and the governments were able to act more freely in suppressing the protests. Strong authoritarian regimes with high degrees of censorship in their national broadcast media were able to block communication and prevent the domestic spread of information necessary for successful protests. Morocco is a case in point, as its broadcast media at the time of the revolts was owned and operated almost exclusively by political elites with ties to the monarchy. Countries with greater access to social media, such as Tunisia and Egypt, proved more effective in mobilizing large groups of people and appear to have been more successful overall than those with greater state control over media.

The support, even if tacit, of national military forces during protests has also been correlated to the success of the Arab Spring movement in different countries. In Egypt and Tunisia, the military actively participated in ousting the incumbent regime and in facilitating the transition to democratic elections. Countries like Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, exhibited a strong mobilization of military force against protesters, effectively ending the revolts in their territories. Others, including Libya and Syria, failed to stop the protests entirely and instead ended up in civil war. The support of the military in Arab Spring protests has also been linked to the degree of ethnic homogeneity in different societies. In Saudi Arabia and Syria, where the ruling elite was closely linked with ethnic or religious subdivisions of society, the military sided with the existing regime and took on the ostensible role of protector to minority populations.

Scholars Quinn Mecham and Tarek Osman have identified some trends in political Islam resulting from the Arab Spring. These include repression of the Muslim Brotherhood (transnational organization that claims to be pro-democratic although many Middle Eastern commentators questions its commitment to democracy); rise of Islamist state-building, most prominently in Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen, as Islamists have found it easier than competing non-Islamists to fill the void of state failure by securing external funding, weaponry, and fighters; increasing sectarianism (primarily Sunni-Shia); increased caution and political learning in countries such as Algeria and Jordan where Islamists have chosen not to lead a major challenge against their governments; and in countries where Islamists did chose to lead a major challenge and did not succeed in transforming society (particularly Egypt), a disinterest in finding the answer as to what went wrong in favor of antagonism, anger, and a thirst for revenge.

The Syrian Civil War

The Syrian Civil War is an ongoing armed conflict that grew out of discontent with the authoritarian government of President Bashar al-Assad and escalated into a brutal war fought by a complex network of factions, including the Syrian government and its allies, many fractured anti-government rebel groups, and radical Islamist organizations that aim to establish an Islamic state.

Learning Objectives

Outline the events that led to the Syrian Civil War

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Since 1949, Syrian has been under authoritarian rule, with numerous coups shifting the center of power.  In 1971, Hafez al-Assad declared himself President. Immediately after his death in 2000, the Parliament amended the constitution, reducing the mandatory minimum age of the President from 40 to 34, which allowed his son, Bashar al-Assad, to become legally eligible for nomination by the ruling Ba’ath party. Bashar inspired hopes for reform and a Damascus Spring of intense political and social debate took place from mid-2000 to mid-2001. However, the movement was suppressed.
  • Following the Arab Spring trends across the Arab world, in March 2011, protesters marched in the capital of Damascus, demanding democratic reforms and the release of political prisoners. Security forces retaliated by opening fire on the protesters. Initially, the protesters demanded mostly democratic reforms, but by April, the emphasis in demonstration slogans began shifting toward a call to overthrow the Assad regime. Protests spread widely to other cities.
  • In July 2011, seven defecting Syrian Armed Forces officers formed the Free Syrian Army (FSA), aiming to overthrow the Assad government with united opposition forces. In August, a coalition of anti-government groups called the Syrian National Council was formed. The council, based in Turkey, attempted to organize the opposition. The opposition, however, including the FSA, remained a fractious collection of different groups. By September 2011, Syrian rebels were engaged in an active insurgency campaign in many parts of Syria.
  • The war is currently being fought by a complex network of factions: the Syrian government and its allies, a loose alliance of Sunni
    Arab rebel groups (including the Free Syrian Army), the majority-Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces, Salafi jihadist groups (including al-Nusra Front) who sometimes cooperate with the Sunni rebel groups, and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant  (ISIL). Hezbollah, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Russia support the pro-Assad forces while a number of countries, including many NATO members, participate in the Combined Joint Task Force, chiefly to fight ISIL and support rebel groups perceived as moderate and friendly to Western nations.
  • Estimates of deaths in the  Syrian Civil War, per opposition activist groups, vary between 321,358 and 470,000. The use of chemical weapons attacks has been confirmed by UN investigations. Formerly rare infectious diseases have spread in rebel-held areas, brought on by poor sanitation and deteriorating living conditions. The violence has caused millions to flee their homes. As of March 2017, the UNHCR reports 6.3 million Syrians are internally displaced and nearly five million registered as Syrian refugees (outside of Syria).
  • According to various human rights organizations and the United Nations, human rights violations have been committed by both the government and the rebels, with the “vast majority of the abuses having been committed by the Syrian government.” The war has also led to the massive destruction of Syrian heritage sites.

Key Terms

  • Arab Spring: A revolutionary wave of both violent and non-violent demonstrations, protests, riots, coups, and civil wars in North Africa and the Middle East that began in December 2010 in Tunisia with the Tunisian Revolution.
  • al-Nusra Front: A Sunni Islamist terrorist organization fighting against Syrian Government forces in the Syrian Civil War with the aim of establishing an Islamist state in the country. It was the official Syrian branch of al-Qaeda until July 2016, when it ostensibly split, now also operating in neighboring Lebanon. In early 2015, the group became one of the major components of the powerful jihadist joint operations room named the Army of Conquest, which took over large territories in Northwestern Syria.
  • Syrian Civil War: An armed conflict taking place in Syria. The unrest in Syria, part of a wider wave of 2011 Arab Spring protests, grew out of discontent with the authoritarian government of President Bashar al-Assad and escalated to an armed conflict after protests calling for his removal turned violent in response to the crackdown on dissent. The war is being fought by several factions: the Syrian government and its allies, a loose alliance of Sunni Arab rebel groups (including the Free Syrian Army), the majority-Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces, Salafi jihadist groups (including al-Nusra Front) who sometimes cooperate with the Sunni rebel groups, and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
  • shabiha: Mostly Alawite groups of armed militia in support of the Ba’ath Party government of Syria, led by the Al-Assad family. However, in the Aleppo Governorate, they were composed entirely of the local pro-Assad Sunni tribes. The Syrian opposition stated that they are a tool of the government for cracking down on dissent. Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has stated that some of the groups are mercenaries.
  • Free Syrian Army: A faction in the Syrian Civil War founded in July 2011 by officers who defected from the Syrian Armed Forces, with the stated goal to bring down the government of Bashar al-Assad.
  • Damascus Spring: A period of intense political and social debate in Syria, which started after the death of President Hafiz al-Assad in June 2000 and continued to some degree until fall 2001, when most of its activities were suppressed by the government.

Assad Regime

Syria became an independent republic in 1946, although democratic rule ended with a coup in 1949, followed by two more coups the same year. A popular uprising against military rule in 1954 saw the army transfer power to civilians. The secular Ba’ath Syrian Regional Branch government came to power through a successful coup d’état in 1963. For the next several years, Syria went through additional coups and changes in leadership. In 1971, Hafez al-Assad declared himself President, a position that he held until his death in 2000. Immediately following al-Assad’s death, the Parliament amended the constitution, reducing the mandatory minimum age of the President from 40 to 34, which allowed his son, Bashar al-Assad, to become legally eligible for nomination by the ruling Ba’ath party. In 2000, Bashar al-Assad was elected President by referendum, in which he ran unopposed, garnering the alleged 97.29% of the vote according to Syrian government statistics.

Bashar, who speaks French and English and has a British-born wife, inspired hopes for reform, and a Damascus Spring of intense political and social debate took place from mid-2000 to mid-2001. The period was characterized by the emergence of numerous political forums or salons where groups of like-minded people met in private houses to debate political and social issues. The phenomenon of salons spread rapidly in Damascus and to a lesser extent in other cities. The movement ended with the arrest and imprisonment of ten leading activists who had called for democratic elections and a campaign of civil disobedience.

Syria’s Social Profile

Syrian Arabs, together with some 600,000 Palestinian Arabs, make up roughly 74 percent of the population. Syrian Muslims are 74 percent Sunnis (including Sufis) and 13 percent Shias (including 8-12 percent Alawites), 3 percent are Druze, and the remaining 10 percent are Christians. Not all of the Sunnis are Arabs. The Assad family is mixed. Bashar is married to a Sunni with whom he has several children, but is affiliated with the minority Alawite sect. The majority of Syria’s Christians belonged to the Eastern Christian churches. Syrian Kurds, an ethnic minority making up approximately 9 percent of the population, have been angered by ethnic discrimination and the denial of their cultural and linguistic rights as well as the frequent denial of citizenship rights.

Socioeconomic inequality increased significantly after free market policies were initiated by Hafez al-Assad in his later years, and it accelerated after Bashar al-Assad came to power. With an emphasis on the service sector, these policies benefited a minority of the nation’s population, mostly people who had connections with the government and members of the Sunni merchant class of Damascus and Aleppo. This coincided with the most intense drought ever recorded in Syria, which lasted from 2007 to 2010 and resulted in widespread crop failure, an increase in food prices, and a mass migration of farming families to urban centers. The country also faced particularly high youth unemployment rates.

The human rights situation in Syria has long been the subject of harsh critique from global organizations. The rights of free expression, association, and assembly were strictly controlled. The country was under emergency rule from 1963 until 2011 and public gatherings of more than five people were banned. Security forces had sweeping powers of arrest and detention. Authorities have harassed and imprisoned human rights activists and other critics of the government, who were often detained indefinitely and tortured while under prison-like conditions. Women and ethnic minorities faced discrimination in the public sector. Thousands of Syrian Kurds were denied citizenship in 1962 and their descendants were labeled “foreigners.”

Breakout of Civil War

Following the Arab Spring trends across the Arab world, in March 2011 protesters marched in the capital of Damascus, demanding democratic reforms and the release of political prisoners. Security forces retaliated by opening fire on the protesters. The protest was triggered by the arrest of a boy and his friends for writing in graffiti “The people want the fall of the government” in the city of Daraa. The protesters burned down a Ba’ath Party headquarters and other buildings. The ensuing clashes claimed the lives of seven police officers and 15 protesters. Several days later in a speech, President Bashar al-Assad blamed “foreign conspirators” pushing “Israeli propaganda” for the protests.

Initially, the protesters demanded mostly democratic reforms, release of political prisoners, an increase in freedoms, abolition of the emergency law, and an end to corruption. Already by April, however, the emphasis in demonstration slogans shifted slowly towards a call to overthrow the Assad regime. Protests spread widely to other cities. By the end of May, 1,000 civilians and 150 soldiers and policemen had been killed and thousands detained. Among the arrested were many students, liberal activists, and human rights advocates.

In July 2011, seven defecting Syrian Armed Forces officers formed the Free Syrian Army (FSA), originally composed of defected Syrian military officers and soldiers aiming to overthrow the Assad government with united opposition forces. In August, a coalition of anti-government groups called the Syrian National Council was formed. The council, based in Turkey, attempted to organize the opposition. The opposition, however, including the FSA, remained a fractious collection of political groups, longtime exiles, grassroots organizers, and armed militants divided along ideological, ethnic and/or sectarian lines. Throughout August, government forces stormed major urban centers and outlying regions, and continued to attack protests. By September 2011, Syrian rebels were engaged in an active insurgency campaign in many parts of Syria. By October, the FSA started to receive active support from the Turkish government, which allowed the rebel army to operate its command and headquarters from the country’s southern Hatay Province close to the Syrian border and its field command from inside Syria.

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The scene of the October 2012 Aleppo bombings, for which al-Nusra Front claimed responsibility

The fighting has caused damage to entire cities, including both civilian quarters and numerous historic buildings. All six UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the country have been destroyed. Destructive effects of the conflict are caused by shelling, looting, and rebel occupation.

Fighting Factions

The war is currently being fought by a complex network of factions. A number of sources have emphasized that as of at least late 2015/early 2016, the Syrian government was dependent on a mix of volunteers and militias rather than the Syrian Armed Forces. The Syrian National Defense Force was formed out of pro-government militias. They act in an infantry role, directly fighting against rebels on the ground and running counter-insurgency operations in coordination with the army, who provides them with logistical and artillery support. The shabiha are unofficial pro-government militias drawn largely from Syria’s Alawite minority group. Since the uprising, the Syrian government has been accused of using shabiha to break up protests and enforce laws in restive neighborhoods.

The Christian militias in Syria and northern Iraq are largely made up of ethnic Assyrians, Syriac-Arameans, and Armenians. Sensing that they depend on the largely secular government, the militias of Syrian Christians fight both on the Syrian government’s side and with Kurdish forces. The Eastern Aramaic-speaking Assyrians in north eastern Syria and northern Iraq have formed various militias (including the Assyrian Defense Force, Dwekh Nawsha, and Sootoro) to defend their ancient towns, villages, and farmsteads from ISIS. They often but not always fight in conjunction with Kurdish and Armenian groups.

In February 2013, former secretary general of Hezbollah Sheikh Subhi al-Tufayli confirmed that Hezbollah was fighting for the Syrian Army. Iran, on the other hand, continues to officially deny the presence of its combat troops in Syria, maintaining that it provides military advice to Assad’s forces in their fight against terrorist groups. Since the civil uprising phase of the Syrian Civil War, Iran has provided the Syrian government with financial, technical, and military support, including training and some combat troops. The number of Afghans fighting in Syria on behalf of the Syrian government has been estimated at 10,000-12,000 while the number of Pakistanis is not known. In September 2015, Russia’s Federation Council unanimously granted the request by President of Russia Vladimir Putin to permit the use of the Russian Armed Forces in Syria.

The armed opposition consists of various groups that were either formed during the course of the conflict or joined from abroad. In the northwest of the country, the main opposition faction is the al-Qaeda -affiliated al-Nusra Front allied with numerous other smaller Islamist groups, some of which operate under the umbrella of the Free Syrian Army (FSA). The designation of the FSA by the West as a moderate opposition faction has allowed it to receive sophisticated weaponry and other military support from the U.S., Turkey, and some Gulf countries that effectively increases the total fighting capacity of the Islamist rebels. In the east, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, known more commonly as ISIS), a jihadist militant group originating from Iraq, made rapid military gains in both Syria and Iraq. ISIL eventually came into conflict with other rebels, especially with al-Nusra, leaders of which did not want to pledge allegiance to ISIL. As of 2015, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey were openly backing the Army of Conquest, an umbrella rebel group that reportedly includes an al-Qaeda linked al-Nusra Front and another Salafi coalition known as Ahrar ash-Sham and Faylaq Al-Sham, a coalition of Muslim Brotherhood-linked rebel groups. Also, in the northeast local Kurdish militias have taken up arms and fought with both rebel Islamist factions and government loyalists.

The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) are an alliance of Arab, Assyrians, Armenian, Kurdish, and Turkmen militias fighting for a democratic and federalist Syria. They are opposed to the Assad government, but have directed most of their efforts against Al-Nusra Front and ISIL.

A number of countries, including many NATO members, participate in the Combined Joint Task Force, chiefly to fight ISIL and support rebel groups perceived as moderate and friendly to Western nations such as the Free Syrian Army. Those who have conducted airstrikes in Syria include the United States, Australia, Bahrain, Canada, France, Jordan, The Netherlands, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, and the United Kingdom. Some members are involved in the conflict beyond combating ISIL. Turkey has been accused of fighting against Kurdish forces in Syria and Iraq, including intelligence collaborations with ISIL in some cases.

Consequences

Estimates of deaths in the Syrian Civil War, per opposition activist groups, vary between 321,358 and 470,000. In April 2016, the United Nations and Arab League Envoy to Syria put out an estimate of 400,000 deaths.

A UN fact-finding mission was requested by member states to investigate 16 alleged chemical weapons attacks. Seven of them have been investigated (nine were dropped for lack of “sufficient or credible information”) and in four cases the UN inspectors confirmed use of sarin gas. The reports, however, did not blame any party for using chemical weapons. Many, including the United States and the European Union, have accused the Syrian government of conducting several chemical attacks, the most serious eing the 2013 Ghouta attacks. Before this incident, UN human rights investigator Carla del Ponte, who has been investigating sarin gas use in Syria, accused the opposition of the government of using sarin gas in 2013.

Formerly rare infectious diseases have spread in rebel-held areas, brought on by poor sanitation and deteriorating living conditions. The diseases have primarily affected children and include measles, typhoid, hepatitis, dysentery, tuberculosis, diphtheria, whooping cough, and the disfiguring skin disease leishmaniasis. Of particular concern is the contagious and crippling poliomyelitis.

The violence in Syria caused millions to flee their homes. In March 2015, Al-Jazeera estimated 10.9 million Syrians, or almost half the population, were displaced. As of March 2017, the UNHCR reports 6.3 million Syrians are internally displaced and nearly five million registered as Syrian refugees (outside of Syria). Most Syrian refugees have sought safety in Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, and Iraq.
In 2017, the United Nations (UN) identified 13.5 million Syrians requiring humanitarian assistance (in 2014, the population of Syria was about 18 million).

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Wounded civilians arrive at a hospital in Aleppo during the civil war in Syria, October 2012

Aleppo is an ancient city and one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, possibly since the 6th millennium BCE. During the Battle of Aleppo, the city suffered massive destruction and has been the worst-hit city in the Syrian Civil War. In December 2016, the Syrian government achieved full control of Aleppo following a successful offensive.

According to various human rights organizations and United Nations, human rights violations have been committed by both the government and the rebels, with the “vast majority of the abuses having been committed by the Syrian government.” The UN commission investigating human rights abuses in Syria confirms at least nine intentional mass killings in the period 2012 to mid-July 2013, identifying the perpetrator as Syrian government and its supporters in eight cases and the opposition in one. By late 2013, the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Network reported approximately 6,000 women have been raped since the start of the conflict,  with figures likely to be much higher given that most cases go unreported. According to some international lawyers, Syrian government officials could face war crimes charges in the light of a huge cache of evidence smuggled out of the country showing the systematic killing of about 11,000 detainees. Most of the victims were young men and many corpses were emaciated, bloodstained, and bore signs of torture. Experts note this evidence is more detailed and on a far larger scale than anything else that has yet emerged from the crisis. In 2014, Human Rights Watch released a report detailing government forces razing to the ground seven anti-government districts in the cities of Damascus and Hama. Witnesses spoke of explosives and bulldozers used to knock down buildings. Satellite imagery was provided as part of the report and the destruction was characterized as collective punishment against residents of rebel-held areas. UN also reported that armed forces of both sides of the conflict blocked access of humanitarian convoys, confiscated food, cut off water supplies, and targeted farmers working their fields. UN has also accused ISIS forces of using public executions, amputations, and lashings in a campaign to instill fear. Enforced disappearances and arbitrary detentions have also been a feature since the Syrian uprising began. In February 2017, Amnesty International published a report which accused the Syrian government of murdering an estimated 13,000 persons, mostly civilians, at the Saydnaya military prison.

As the conflict has expanded across Syria, many cities have been engulfed in a wave of crime as fighting caused the disintegration of much of the civilian state and many police stations stopped functioning. Rates of theft increased, with criminals looting houses and stores. Criminal networks have been used by both the government and the opposition during the conflict. Facing international sanctions, the Syrian government relied on criminal organizations to smuggle goods and money in and out of the country. The economic downturn caused by the conflict and sanctions also led to lower wages for shabiha members. In response, some shabiha members began stealing civilian properties and engaging in kidnappings. Rebel forces sometimes rely on criminal networks to obtain weapons and supplies. Black market weapon prices in Syria’s neighboring countries have significantly increased since the start of the conflict. To generate funds to purchase arms, some rebel groups have turned towards extortion, theft, and kidnapping.

As of March 2015, the war has affected 290 heritage sites, severely damaged 104, and completely destroyed 24. All the six UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Syria have been damaged. Destruction of antiquities has been caused by shelling, army entrenchment, and looting at various tells, museums, and monuments. A group called Syrian Archaeological Heritage Under Threat is monitoring and recording the destruction in an attempt to create a list of heritage sites damaged during the war and to gain global support for the protection and preservation of Syrian archaeology and architecture. In 2014 and 2015, following the rise of the ISIL, several sites in Syria were destroyed by the group as part of a deliberate destruction of cultural heritage sites.

The Iranian Nuclear Deal

The Iran nuclear deal is an international agreement on the limits and international control imposed on the nuclear program of Iran. It was reached in 2015 after years of negotiations between Iran, the P5+1, and the European Union.

Learning Objectives

Explain the arguments for and against the nuclear deal between the U.S. and Iran

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The nuclear program of Iran has included several research sites, two uranium mines, a research reactor, and uranium processing facilities that include three known uranium enrichment plants. In 1970, Iran ratified the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), making its nuclear program subject to International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) verification. The program was launched in the 1950s with the help of the United States as part of the Atoms for Peace program.
  • The participation of the United States and Western European governments in Iran’s nuclear program continued until the 1979 Iranian Revolution that toppled the Shah of Iran. Following the 1979 Revolution, most of the international nuclear cooperation with Iran was cut off. In the 2000s, the revelation of Iran’s clandestine uranium enrichment program raised concerns that it might be intended for non-peaceful uses. While since 2003 the United States has alleged that Iran has a program to develop nuclear weapons, Iran has maintained that its nuclear program is aimed only at generating electricity.
  • Formal negotiations toward the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action on Iran’s nuclear program began with the adoption of the Joint Plan of Action, an interim agreement signed between Iran and the P5+1 countries in November 2013. For the next twenty months, Iran and the P5+1 countries engaged in negotiations, and in April 2015 agreed on an Iran nuclear deal framework for the final agreement. In July 2015, Iran and the P5+1 agreed on the plan.
  • Under the agreement, Iran agreed to eliminate its stockpile of medium-enriched uranium, cut its stockpile of low-enriched uranium, and reduce by about two-thirds the number of its gas centrifuges. For the next 15 years, Iran will only enrich uranium up to 3.67%. Iran also agreed not to build any new heavy-water facilities for the same period of time. Uranium-enrichment activities will be limited to a single facility. Other facilities will be converted to avoid proliferation risks. To monitor and verify Iran’s compliance with the agreement, the IAEA will have regular access to all Iranian nuclear facilities.
  • More than 90 countries endorsed the agreement as did many international organizations, including the UN and NATO. The most notable critic of the agreement is the state of Israel. Nuclear experts and watchdogs agreed that the agreement was a positive development. An intense public debate in the United States took place during the congressional review period, with various groups lobbying both opposition and support for the agreement.
  • With the prospective lifting of some sanctions, the agreement is expected to have a significant impact on both the economy of Iran and global markets. The energy sector is particularly important. The agreement will boost Iran’s scientific cooperation with Western powers and has already improved diplomatic relations in some cases. However, Iran and the U.S. have been both accused of violating the agreement, and its future under Trump administration is uncertain.

Key Terms

  • Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty: An international treaty whose objective is to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and weapons technology, promote cooperation in the peaceful uses of nuclear energy, and further the goal of achieving nuclear disarmament and general and complete disarmament. Opened for signature in 1968, the treaty entered into force in 1970. As of August 2016, 191 states have adhered to the treaty, although North Korea announced its withdrawal in 2003.
  • P5+1: A group of six world powers that joined together in diplomatic efforts with Iran with regard to its nuclear program. The group consists of the UN Security Council’s five permanent members and Germany.
  • Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action: An international agreement, known commonly as the Iran deal or Iran nuclear deal, on the nuclear program of Iran reached in Vienna in July 2015 between Iran, the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council—China, France, Russia, United Kingdom, United States—plus Germany), and the European Union.
  • Iran Sanctions Act: A 1996 act of Congress that imposed economic sanctions on firms doing business with Iran (and originally also with Libya, but the act does not apply to Libya since 2006). The act allows the president to waive sanctions on a case-by-case basis, although this waiver is subject to renewal every six months. Despite the restrictions on American investment in Iran, other provisions apply to all foreign investors, and many Iranian expatriates based in the U.S. continue to make substantial investments in Iran. On December 1, 2016, the Senate voted 99-0 in favor of extending the sanctions a further ten years.
  • Joint Plan of Action: A pact signed between Iran and the P5+1 countries in Geneva, Switzerland in 2013. It consisted of a short-term freeze of portions of Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for decreased economic sanctions on Iran as the countries worked towards a long-term agreement. It represented the first formal agreement between the United States and Iran in 34 years. Implementation of the agreement began January 20, 2014.
  • International Atomic Energy Agency: An international organization that seeks to promote the peaceful use of nuclear energy and inhibit its use for any military purpose, including nuclear weapons. It was established as an autonomous organization in 1957. Although established independently of the United Nations through its own international treaty, it reports to both the United Nations General Assembly and Security Council.

Iran’s Nuclear Program

The nuclear program of Iran has included several research sites, two uranium mines, a research reactor, and uranium processing facilities that include three known uranium enrichment plants. In 1970, Iran ratified the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), making its nuclear program subject to International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) verification. The program was launched in the 1950s with the help of the United States as part of the Atoms for Peace program. The participation of the United States and Western European governments in Iran’s nuclear program continued until the 1979 Iranian Revolution that toppled the Shah of Iran. Following the 1979 Revolution, most of the international nuclear cooperation with Iran was cut off. In 1981, Iranian officials concluded that the country’s nuclear development should continue. Negotiations took place with France in the late 1980s and with Argentina in the early 1990s, and agreements were reached. In the 1990s, Russia formed a joint research organization with Iran, providing Iran with Russian nuclear experts and technical information.

In the 2000s, the revelation of Iran’s clandestine uranium enrichment program raised concerns that it might be intended for non-peaceful uses. The IAEA launched an investigation in 2003 after an Iranian dissident group revealed undeclared nuclear activities carried out by Iran. While since 2003 the United States has alleged that Iran has a program to develop nuclear weapons, Iran has maintained that its nuclear program is aimed only at generating electricity. The United States’s position is that “a nuclear-armed Iran is not acceptable,” and the United Kingdom, France, and Germany have also attempted to negotiate a cessation of nuclear enrichment activities by Iran.

In 2006, American and European representatives noted that Iran has enough unenriched uranium hexafluoride gas to make ten atomic bombs, adding that it was “time for the Security Council to act.” In 2006, because of Iran’s noncompliance with its NPT obligations, the United Nations Security Council demanded that Iran suspend its enrichment programs. In 2007, the United States National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) stated that Iran halted an alleged active nuclear weapons program in fall 2003. In 2011, the IAEA reported credible evidence that Iran had been conducting experiments aimed at designing a nuclear bomb until 2003 and that research may have continued on a smaller scale after that time.

Negotiations

In March 2013, the United States began a series of secret bilateral talks with Iranian officials in Oman and in June, Hassan Rouhani was elected president of Iran. Rouhani has been described as “more moderate, pragmatic and willing to negotiate” than his predecessor, the anti-Western hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. However, in a 2006 nuclear negotiation with European powers, Rouhani said that Iran had used the negotiations to dupe the Europeans, saying that during the negotiations, Iran managed to master the conversion of uranium yellowcake (the conversion of yellowcake is an important step in the nuclear fuel process). In August 2013, three days after his inauguration, Rouhani called for a resumption of serious negotiations with the P5+1 (the UN Security Council’s five permanent members,  China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States, plus Germany) on the Iranian nuclear program. In September 2013, Obama and Rouhani had a telephone conversation, the first high-level contact between U.S. and Iranian leaders since 1979. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry also had a meeting with Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, signaling that the two countries were open to cooperation.

After several rounds of negotiations, in November 2013, the Joint Plan of Action (JPA), an interim agreement on the Iranian nuclear program, was signed between Iran and the P5+1 countries in Geneva, Switzerland. It consisted of a short-term freeze of portions of Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for decreased economic sanctions on Iran as the countries work towards a long-term agreement. The IAEA began “more intrusive and frequent inspections” under this interim agreement, formally activated in January 2014. The IAEA issued a report stating that Iran was adhering to the terms of the interim agreement, including stopping enrichment of uranium to 20 percent, beginning the dilution process (to reduce half of the stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium to 3.5 percent), and halting work on the Arak heavy-water reactor. A major focus of the negotiations was limitations on Iran’s key nuclear facilities.

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The foreign ministers of the P5+1 nations, the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs, and the Iranian foreign minister in November 2013, when the Joint Plan of Action, an interim agreement on the Iranian nuclear program, was adopted in Geneva, photo by U.S. Department of State.

In June 2006, China, Russia, and the United States joined the three EU-3 countries, which had been negotiating with Iran since 2003, to offer another proposal for comprehensive negotiations with Iran.

Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action

The final agreement between the P5+1+EU and Iran on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) is the culmination of 20 months of “arduous” negotiations. It followed the JPA and an Iran nuclear deal framework was reached in April 2015. Under this framework, Iran agreed tentatively to accept restrictions on its nuclear program, all of which would last for at least a decade and some longer, and to submit to an increased intensity of international inspections. The negotiations were extended several times until the final JCPOA was finally reached on July 14, 2015.

The final agreement’s complexity shows the impact of a public letter written by a bipartisan group of 19 U.S. diplomats, experts, and others in June 2015, when negotiations were still ongoing. That letter outlined concerns about the several provisions in the then-unfinished agreement and called for a number of improvements to strengthen the prospective agreement and win support.

Major provisions of the final accord include:

  • Iran’s current stockpile of low-enriched uranium will be reduced by 98 percent, from 10,000 kg to 300 kg. This reduction will be maintained for 15 years. For the same 15-year period, Iran will be limited to enriching uranium to 3.67%, a percentage sufficient for civilian nuclear power and research, but not for building a nuclear weapon.
  • For ten years, Iran will place over two-thirds of its centrifuges in storage, with only 5,060 allowed to enrich uranium, an enrichment capacity limited to the Natanz plant.
  • Iran will not build any new uranium-enrichment facilities for 15 years.
  • Iran may continue research and development work on enrichment, but that work will take place only at the Natanz facility and include certain limitations for the first eight years.
  • Iran, with cooperation from the “Working Group” (the P5+1 and possibly other countries), will modernize and rebuild the Arak heavy water research reactor based on an agreed design to support its peaceful nuclear research and production needs and purposes, but in such a way as to minimize the production of plutonium and prevent production of weapons-grade plutonium.
  • Iran’s Fordow facility will stop enriching uranium and researching uranium enrichment for at least 15 years and the facility will be converted into a nuclear physics and technology center.
  • Iran will implement an Additional Protocol agreement, which will continue in perpetuity for as long as Iran remains a party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The signing of the Additional Protocol represents a continuation of the monitoring and verification provisions “long after the comprehensive agreement between the P5+1 and Iran is implemented.”
  • A comprehensive inspections regime will be implemented to monitor and confirm that Iran is complying with its obligations and is not diverting any fissile material.

Following the issuance of a IAEA report verifying implementation by Iran of the nuclear-related measures, the UN sanctions against Iran and some EU sanctions will terminate and some will be suspended. Once sanctions are lifted, Iran will recover approximately $100 billion of its assets (U.S. Treasury Department estimate) frozen in overseas banks.

Response

More than 90 countries endorsed the agreement as did many international organizations, including the UN and NATO. The most notable critic of the agreement is the state of Israel. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said, “Israel is not bound by this deal with Iran, because Iran continues to seek our destruction, we will always defend ourselves.” Netanyahu called the deal a “capitulation” and “a bad mistake of historic proportions.” Most of Israel’s other political figures, including the opposition, were similarly critical of the agreement. The two countries maintain extremely hostile relations, with some Iranian leaders calling for the destruction of Israel.

Following the unveiling of the agreement, “a general consensus quickly emerged” among nuclear experts and watchdogs that the agreement “is as close to a best-case situation as reality would allow.” In August 2015, 75 arms control and nuclear nonproliferation experts signed a statement endorsing the deal as “a net-plus for international nuclear nonproliferation efforts” that exceeds the historical standards for arms control agreements.

An intense public debate in the United States took place during the congressional review period, with various groups lobbying both opposition and support for the agreement. Many Iranian Americans, even those who fled repression in Iran and oppose its government, welcomed the JCPOA as a step forward. U.S. pro-Israel groups are divided on the JCPOA. Various other groups have run ad campaigns for or against the agreement. For example, the New York-based Iran Project, a nonprofit led by former high-level U.S. diplomats and funded by the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, along with the United Nations Association of the United States, supports the agreement. In July 2015, a bipartisan open letter endorsing the Iran agreement was signed by more than 100 former U.S. ambassadors and high-ranking State Department officials. A separate public letter to Congress in support of the agreement from five former U.S. ambassadors to Israel from administrations of both parties and three former Under Secretaries of State was also released in July 2015. Another public letter to Congress urging approval of the agreement was signed by a bipartisan group of more than 60 “national-security leaders,” including politicians, retired military officers, and diplomats. In August 2015, 29 prominent U.S. scientists, mostly physicists, published an open letter endorsing the agreement. An open letter endorsing the agreement was also signed by 36 retired military generals and admirals. However, this letter was answered by a letter signed by more than 200 retired generals and admirals opposing the deal.

Republican leaders vowed to attempt to kill the agreement as soon as it was released, even before classified sections were
made available to Congress. According to the Washington Post, “most congressional Republicans remained deeply skeptical, some openly scornful, of the prospect of relieving economic sanctions while leaving any Iranian uranium-enrichment capability intact.” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky, said the deal “appears to fall well short of the goal we all thought was trying to be achieved, which was that Iran would not be a nuclear state.” A New York Times news analysis stated that Republican opposition to the agreement “seems born of genuine distaste for the deal’s details, inherent distrust of President Obama, intense loyalty to Israel and an expansive view of the role that sanctions have played beyond preventing Iran’s nuclear abilities.” The Washington Post identified twelve issues related to the agreement on which the two sides disagreed, including the efficacy of inspections at undeclared sites; the effectiveness of the snapback sanctions; the significance of limits on enrichment; the significance of IAEA side agreements; the effectiveness of inspections of military sites; the consequences of walking away from an agreement; and the effects of lifting sanctions.

One area of disagreement between supporters and opponents of the JCPOA is the consequences of walking away from an agreement and whether renegotiation of the agreement is a realistic option. According to an Associated Press report, the classified assessment of the United States Intelligence Community on the agreement concludes that because Iran will be required by the agreement to provide international inspectors with “unprecedented volume of information about nearly every aspect of its existing nuclear program,” Iran’s ability to conceal a covert weapons program will be diminished.

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Souvenir signatures of lead negotiators on the cover page of the JCPOA document: The Persian handwriting on top left side is a homage by Javad Zarif to his counterparts’ efforts in the negotiations: “[I am] Sincere to Mr. Abbas [Araghchi] and Mr. Majid [Takht-Ravanchi].

The final agreement is based upon (and buttresses) “the rules-based nonproliferation regime created by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and including especially the IAEA safeguards system.”

Impact

With the prospective lifting of some sanctions, the agreement is expected to have a significant impact on both the economy of Iran and global markets. The energy sector is particularly important, with Iran having nearly 10 percent of global oil reserves and 18 percent of natural gas reserves. Millions of barrels of Iranian oil may come onto global markets, lowering the price of crude oil. The economic impact of a partial lifting of sanctions extends beyond the energy sector. The New York Times reported that “consumer-oriented companies, in particular, could find opportunity in this country with 81 million consumers,” many of whom are young and prefer Western products. Iran is “considered a strong emerging market play” by investment and trading firms.

In July 2015, Richard Stone wrote in the journal Science that if the agreement is fully implemented, “Iran can expect a rapid expansion of scientific cooperation with Western powers. As its nuclear facilities are repurposed, scientists from Iran and abroad will team up in areas such as nuclear fusion, astrophysics, and radioisotopes for cancer therapy.”

In August 2015, the British embassy in Tehran reopened almost four years after it was closed after protesters attacked the embassy in 2011.

Hours before the official announcement of the activation of JCPOA in January 2016, Iran released four imprisoned Iranian Americans. A fifth American left Iran in a separate arrangement.

After the adoption of the JCPOA, the United States imposed several new non-nuclear sanctions against Iran, some of which have been condemned by Iran as a possible violation of the deal. According to Seyed Mohammad Marandi, professor at the University of Tehran, the general consensus in Iran while the negotiations were taking place was that the United States would move towards increasing sanctions on non-nuclear areas. He said that these post-JCPOA sanctions could “severely damage the chances for the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action bearing fruit.”

In March 2016, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC),  defined by English-speaking media as a branch of Iran’s Armed Forces,  conducted ballistic missile tests as part of its military drills, with one of the missiles carrying the inscription, “Israel should be wiped off the Earth.” Israel called on Western powers to punish Iran for the tests, which U.S. officials said do not violate the nuclear deal, but may violate a United Nations Security Council Resolution. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif insisted that the tests were not in violation of the UNSC resolution. On March 17, the U.S. Treasury Department sanctioned Iranian and British companies for involvement in the Iranian ballistic missile program.

Future?

In November 2016, Deutsche Welle, citing a source from the IAEA, reported that “Iran has violated the terms of its nuclear deal.” In December 2016, the U.S. Senate voted to renew the Iran Sanctions Act (ISA) for another decade. The Obama Administration and outside experts said the extension would have no practical effect and risked antagonizing Iran. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, President Rouhani, and Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman said that the extension of sanctions would be a breach of the nuclear deal. Some Iranian officials said that Iran might ramp up uranium enrichment in response.

In January 2017, representatives from Iran, P5+1, and EU gathered in Vienna’s Palais Coburg hotel to address Iran’s complaint about the US congressional bill. The future of nuclear agreement with Iran is uncertain under the administration of President Trump.