Saving Face: The Middle East Minefield
There's a caste system in the Arab world, and Palestinians are at the bottom. Despite all of the rhetoric that you hear, Palestinians as a group are regarded as contemptible by their Arab brethren. In Jordan, Egypt, Syria, Iraq, or any other Arab country, ask a man on the street if he is a Palestinian, and if the person you're addressing isn't a Palestinian, the look on his face and the tone in his voice will underscore the truth. Emphatically, he'll say "no" because he wants to assure you that he is not "one of them."
Jordan stands out, since about 70% of the Jordanian population is Palestinian, and the Queen of Jordan, Queen Rania, is a Palestinian. Even so, if you ask a humble camel jockey in Petra if he is a Palestinian, he'll react swiftly to convince you that he is not.
Arabs have such low regard for Palestinians because as a group, Palestinians have a reputation for being rabble-rousers, malcontents, and troublemakers. As a case in point, Yasser Arafat and his PLO followers wreaked havoc in Israel before they fled to Jordan and tried to overthrow the king. Ousted from Jordan, they moved to Lebanon, where they helped to foment the Lebanese Civil War. Truth be told, one of the main reasons why Arab leaders want to see the creation of a Palestinian state, and probably the most important reason from my perspective, is to segregate them and to transfer responsibility for them to Israel.
That said, Palestinians have garnered enormous global media support for their cause, which mainstream journalists would lead you to believe is the plight of Palestinian "refugees" in "occupied territories" and "refugee camps." Nothing could be farther from the truth, as both the Hamas and Palestinian charters make plain, but the storyline that people hear is far removed from reality. In a nutshell, the Palestinian goal is to eradicate Israel.
A larger caste system extends beyond the borders of the Middle East. For instance, Ottomans (i.e., Turks) see themselves as better than Arabs, as do Persians (i.e., Iranians). Turks, Iranians, and Arabs know each other and their histories well because they've lived in close proximity for thousands of years. Ottomans and Persians built empires with cities and systems of government to regulate affairs in far-flung regions while Arabs roamed the deserts living in tents. When Arabs did try their hand at empire-building during their so-called "Golden Age," it didn't work because their tribal predilections got the best of them, and they fought among themselves constantly. Ottomans and Persians have always regarded Arabs as unruly people who need to be managed or controlled for their own good.
In the Arab world, saving face is essential. That's one reason why Saddam Hussein risked invasion by U.S.-led forces rather than admit that he didn't have weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). He would rather go down in flames than lose face. Saving face was so important to him because his power in the region was based on the belief that he had WMDs and was willing to use them. Without those weapons, he would have been seen as another petty dictator who could be taken lightly and/or overthrown. Saddam couldn't live with that, literally.
Saving face is also important to Ottomans. That's why, for instance, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan demanded an apology from Israel after he orchestrated an ill-fated attempt to run Israel's Gaza blockade. He wanted to look like a modern-day Saladin coming to rescue the Palestinians as a part of his quest to establish hegemony over the region, but his mission failed just as miserably as every Arab war with Israel has failed. Gazans may have danced in the streets following the flotilla debacle, but deep down in their hearts, they knew that Erdoğan was no more successful than they had been. To this day, relations between Israel and Turkey remain tense because the Israelis refuses to apologize for defending their country, and Erdoğan won't be satisfied unless they do. It boils down to saving face.
Erdoğan's hope of achieving hegemony in the Middle East hinges on his being seen as the liberator of Palestinians and a strong rival to Iran. As a result, tension between Iran and Turkey is growing, as are tensions between the U.S. and Turkey, Europe and Turkey, the U.S. and Iran, and Europe and Iran. You can't understand what's happening in the Middle East today unless you realize that the larger question is who will achieve hegemony over the Arab world. Will it be Western powers led by the United States? Will it be Turkey? Will it be Iran? Or will Arabs finally overcome their tribal tendencies and religious differences, most notably the hostility between Sunni and Shia Muslims, and form "the Arab Nation" about which Arabs love to fantasize? The Palestinian cause is the pivot point in the struggle, and Israel is regarded as the enemy by all save the United States -- though even that is uncertain under President Obama.
Saving face matters to Persians as well. With sanctions on Iran beginning to bite, Iranian leaders are busily attempting to save face because they want hegemony over the Middle East, too. They can't afford to be seen as inept and weak. According to White House spokesman Jay Carney, Iran's recent warning to the U.S. Navy not to enter the Strait of Hormuz was "a measure of the impact that sanctions have been having on Iran ... putting pressure on Iran and isolating Iran because of its refusal to live up to its international obligations."
Iranian leaders find themselves in the unenviable position of confronting increasingly severe sanctions because they want to manufacture nuclear weapons or creating the impression that they will soon have nuclear weapons, even though they deny that developing nuclear weapons is their aim, at a time when they have boldly declared that they intend to "wipe Israel off the map." To achieve their regional goals, they believe that they must be seen as strong and able to stand firm under intense pressure.
Saving face explains why Iran and Russia agreed to replace the dollar with their own currencies in bilateral trade; it explains why the supreme leader of the Islamic Revolution, Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei, said that sanctions are "not squeezing Iran" despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary; it explains why Iran's deputy foreign minister, Hassan Qashqavi, said that "Western sanctions against Iran are ineffective, calling them 'a rusty sword'"; it explains why Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad went to Latin America to forge ties with the likes of Hugo Chávez, an avowed enemy of the United States; and it explains why Revolutionary Guard Commander Mohammad Ali Jafari took to the airwaves to proclaim that "[w]e are always ready to counter any threat or invasion that even may cross the mind of the enemy."
Face-saving moves can have catastrophic consequences, as Saddam Hussein would confirm if he were still alive. He was determined to save face, and it precipitated a war and cost him his life. Today's face-saving moves by Iran in particular may have similar consequences, and we are rapidly approaching the time when Iranian leaders will be forced to put up or shut up. From their point of view, it probably looks as though they have no choice but to engage the West in every imaginable way, including military confrontation, and it's all about saving face. They may well believe that their long-term goal of regional hegemony depends on it, and they're probably right.
Neil Snyder is a chaired professor emeritus at the University of Virginia. His blog, SnyderTalk.com, is posted daily. His latest book is titled If You Voted for Obama in 2008 to Prove You're Not a Racist, You Need to Vote for Someone Else in 2012 to Prove You're Not an Idiot.