How the Middle East Came to be (Part 2)
World War II ended in 1945, bringing massive amounts of change to the Middle East. Under the burden of the largest war in human history, colonialism had begun to decline, and European powers began to relinquish their colonies. Syria and Lebanon both gained independence from France. More importantly, Israel was created in 1948, which greatly angered Muslim states surrounding Israel. After months of fighting, Israel established itself, and was largely treated as a country, although many Middle Eastern countries still do not recognize Israel.
Meanwhile, in Iran, the first steps to the Islamic Revolution of 1979 had begun. Iran’s democratically elected Prime Minister, Mohammad Mosaddeq, implemented sweeping changes to Iran, the most notable of which being the nationalization of Iranian oil fields in 1951, which were previously held by the British Anglo-Persian Oil company. During the tension of the cold war, this was a big blow to Britain. As such, the British government and the CIA overthrew Mohammad Mosaddeq in 1953, and granted Mohammad Reza Pahlavi absolute power. This resulted in large amounts of anti-western sentiment in Iran, especially as Mohammad Reza Pahlavi grew more corrupt, authoritarian, and power hungry. This included the most expensive party in history, at a time when many Iranians were still struggling in the clutches of poverty.
At the same time, much of the Arab world was undergoing sweeping changes in the form of Pan-Arabism. In 1956, Gamal Abdel Nasser was elected president of Egypt. Nasser’s ideology consisted of several parts -- Arab nationalism, socialism, and anti-colonialism. Egypt’s political victory in the Suez Crisis of 1956 espoused all of these traits, and Nasser’s popularity soared across the Arab world. Various groups like the PLO (Palestinian Liberation Organization) begun to rise. In Syria in 1971, the Assad family seized power, espousing Nasserist ideals. In Iraq in 1968, the Ba'athist party took power, who also believed strongly in Nasserism. In 1969, Muammar Gaddafi took power, who viewed himself as a successor to Nasser in every regard.
All of this led to the drastic turning point in 1979 and 1980. Extremely displeased with Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, Iranian citizens turned to Ayatollah Khomenei, a highly respected Shiite leader who had been expelled from Iran. With the army already in mutiny and Iranian citizens protesting on the streets, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi fled Iran in January of 1979. 14 days later, Ayatollah Khomeini returned to Iran, and became the new leader of the now Islamic Republic of Iran.
At around the same time, Saddam Hussein executed a coup of the Ba'athist party, becoming undisputed ruler of Iraq and gaining absolute power. This put two very different ideologies against each other- Khomenei’s Islamic, Persian theocracy in Iran, and Saddam’s secular dictatorship in Iraq. Additionally, both countries were now relative pariahs on the global stage-neither country had any major allies, at least during the opening stages of the war.
The scene was ripe for conflict, and with the Lebanese Civil War still ongoing, regional tensions were extremely high. In 1980, the tensions between Iran and Iraq reached a breaking point, and Iraq invaded Iran, setting off a chain reaction that would eventually send the entire region into turmoil.
Initially, Iraqi offensives were successful. However, by 1982, Iranian forces had repelled Iraqi troops from Iran, and started to mount a counteroffensive. Saddam Hussein’s attempts at a ceasefire and armistice were denied, and Iran invaded Iraq in an effort to turn Iraq into a Shiite theocracy. Iranian troops, similar to Iraqi troops, were initially successful, but battered back by waves of (illegal) chemical attacks. In 1988, both nations settled for an uneasy peace, but only after half a million people died in one of the longest wars of the 20th century. Iranians were paranoid-much of the world had covertly supported Iraq, and Iran begun to export its revolution in other ways-namely funding rebellions against Sunni, western-aligned governments.
1979 was also important in another part of the world -- Afghanistan. Attempting to prop up a pro-Soviet government in the mountainous country, the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979, installing a pro-Soviet puppet as their leader. Deeply unhappy, the Muslim population rallied around the Mujahideen, ragtag fighters who fought for the Islamic religion against the atheist, secular Soviet Union -- one of these fighters being Osama Bin Laden. Due to language and ethnic differences, the Mujahideen were initially uncooperative with each other. However, by 1985, they managed to largely unite under the Islamic Unity of Afghanistan Mujahideen. Additionally, in the stark rivalry of the Cold War, the US supplied stinger missiles to the Mujahideen, which were extremely effective in shooting down Soviet aircraft. By 1989, the Soviet Union withdrew from Afghanistan. By 1991, the Soviet Union had ceased to exist, in large part due to the Mujahideen.
By 1988, a number of factors were left in the Middle East that turned the region into an absolute powderkeg. Iraq was ruled by the tyrant Saddam Hussein, eager for redemption on the world stage and revenge on Iran. Thousands of well armed, muslim extremists set up camps in Afghanistan and nearby Pakistan. Iran was now hyper nationalistic, paranoid, and actively attempting to spread its revolution. Saudi Arabia opposed Iran in every conceivable way, wanting the status quo of authoritarian, western-aligned monarchs to stay in place. The Lebanese Civil war was winding down, but tensions were still high. The only question now was what would spark the next explosion. The answer came in 1990: Iraq.
Iraq was left with a massive amount of debt following its costly war with Iran, and to Saddam Hussein, the solution was simple - invade Kuwait and take the oil. On August 2nd, 1990, Iraqi tanks surged into Kuwait, occupying the tiny country within a few days and completely overrunning the Kuwaiti army. Saddam expected the world to stand by with a few strong statements towards Iraq, but no real military action, as Iraq at that time had a very powerful army and felt that the US wouldn’t want to get bogged down in another version of Vietnam. This could not be further from the truth.
Rather than sit idly, the US and a large multinational coalition intervened on the side of Kuwait, in what was known as the Gulf War. Within days, coalition airstrikes had utterly wiped out Iraqi forces in Kuwait, and a massive surge of coalition troops from bases in Saudi Arabia finished the job, advancing 120 miles into Iraq before calling a ceasefire. Iraq was totally defeated, losing 10,000 troops compared to just 300 coalition troops. Along with this horrendous defeat, came a deep mistrust between the west and Iraq -- which would later play a major role in the 2003 US invasion of Iraq.
1992 was another extremely important year. In 1988, Osama Bin Laden and his future 2nd in command, Ayman-Al Zawahiri, founded Al-Qaeda in Peshawar, Pakistan. By 1990, Al-Qaeda had struck a chord with radical Sunnis, and Bin Laden offered his support to Saddam Hussein in the Gulf war. Al Qaeda’s founding came out of a number of factors. Firstly, just as the Mujahideen beat the Soviet Union, Bin Laden believed Al-Qaeda could beat the west, who supported states such as Israel, were run by “infidels” and propped up “fake Islamic governments” in Saudi Arabia and Egypt. On December 29, 1992, Al-Qaeda committed it’s first act of terrorism, bombing a hotel in Yemen where US troops were staying and attempting to launch rockets at US military planes.Over the next few years, Al-Qaeda continued to commit more and more acts of terror. In 1993, Al-Qaeda bombed the World Trade Center, killing six people and injuring around 1000. Al Qaeda also became active in Somalia, where Islamic militants were attempting to overthrow the Somali government. In October of 1993, Al-Qaeda managed to shoot down a US helicopter. Al Qaeda continued to commit more and more attacks, including the bombing of a Shiite shrine in Iran (killing 26), culminating in the worst terror attack in world history - 9/11.