As the 2016 presidential election approaches, relations between the United States and the Middle East have become a source for heated debates — not only among candidates but around American dinner tables.
How the next president approaches this tumultuous region, particularly with the rise of ISIS, will have great impact at home and abroad, according to Manochehr Dorraj, professor of international affairs at Texas Christian University. His expertise about Middle Eastern politics and society has made him a frequent commentator on national radio and television.
“No other region of the world has politics as complex and different from Western political and social systems than the Middle East,” said Dorraj, who has taught at Fort Worth’s TCU for more than 25 years.
Dorraj uses an uncommon perspective to approach the issue. He grew up in northern Iran before moving to the U.S. in the 1970s.
Dorraj has strived in his teaching to create an understanding between the disparate cultures, using his background as a touchstone. “There was the culture I grew up with and the culture I adopted; I can be a bridge between the two,” he said.
“As a teenager, I was a ‘beach boy’ on the Caspian Sea coast, dreaming of coming to the United States. I love both cultures, and I try to humanize both.”
The main issue in the Middle East today, he said, is the high level of violence and lawlessness.
“You have sectarian violence like never before between Shiites and Sunnis manifesting itself in Syria, Iraq and Yemen, as well as the conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which represents Sunni and Shiite sects of Islam, respectively,” Dorraj said. However, “the conflict between the two countries is not as much based on religious differences as it is on political differences. It is really a struggle for power, but it happens that on one side you have Sunnis and on the other Shiites.”
Such infighting has helped spawn the rise of ISIS, which Dorraj calls “a cancerous growth on the body of Islam.”
“In Libya, for instance, you have a hundred different militias with loyalties to a hundred different tribes and localities, and a very weak central government, which has allowed ISIS to form a foothold there,” he said.
This year’s slide in oil prices, which have fallen more than 70 percent since June 2014 to about $30 a barrel, has further strained the region. It has increased unemployment and poverty and brought about a sense of desperation. This turn of events has contributed to the radicalization of the most vulnerable sector of youth in the region, making them more susceptible to recruiting efforts by extremist groups, Dorraj said.
Dorraj believes weakening ISIS will block its ability to recruit fighters. “In 2015, they lost 30 percent of their territory in Iraq alone. But if ISIS is victorious and left alone, it becomes a source of appeal and inspiration for impressionable young men and women,” he said.
The key to defeating ISIS is not only about destroying them militarily, but also disarming them politically by addressing the underlying issues that render them salient. This requires political initiatives to respond to the demands of Sunni populations in Iraq and Syria for political participation and an equitable sharing of power and resources.
But the world of presidential politics might be doing more harm than good, he said. Dorraj is alarmed by campaign trail rhetoric, particularly the promises by some to derail Iran’s nuclear agreement with the United States.
“Some of the talk among the candidates is absolutely reckless and dangerous,” he said. “The (Iran) deal was a great example of what good diplomacy can do. It defused a very tense situation and we were able to resolve a potentially explosive conflict peacefully and all sides could claim victory.”
Dorraj believes if the agreement is annulled, as some candidates are proposing, it could be “a recipe for a wider war” in the already war-torn Middle East.
“The region does not need more tension,” he explained. “Compromise isn’t easy, but we couldn’t have gotten this result if we had gone in militarily.”
Politics is about the art of possible, and often skillful diplomacy can achieve more optimal results than war and conflict. Dorraj teaches that to defeat ISIS, more cooperation between countries is needed, including Russia, the United States, Europe, Iran, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Syria and Turkey.
“The larger Middle East should be involved and come to the negotiation table to seek a solution to this common menace,” Dorraj said. “ISIS has a global reach. It will take a global coalition to destroy it.”
With ISIS out, Dorraj said, the Middle East could focus on the pressing issues of reducing poverty and unemployment, creating political accountability and establishing rule of law and democracy.
Dorraj hopes the U.S. can play a constructive role as mediator in the Middle East, similar to what it has done in Syria with the help of Russia. There the countries brokered a ceasefire among parties involved in the Syrian civil war, which has, for the most part, held. “We should build up on this momentum of diplomacy,” he said.
For his part, Dorraj tries to serve as a bridge of understanding between the Middle East and the Western world.
The level of education in the U.S. on the Middle East stands to be elevated, he added. “If I can be that vessel, then I have done something good, and that is one of my aspirations as an educator: to leave this world a better place than what I found when I was born into it.”