A Fateful Moment.

Currently, the American list of terrorist organizations in the Middle East includes al Qaeda, ISIS, Hamas, and many other groups.[1]  Now the Trump administration is considering adding both Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard and the Muslim Brotherhood to the list.

What are the arguments for and against such steps?

A Sunni-Shi’ite civil war tears at the Middle East.  Russia has made a clear choice to back the Shi’ite side.  Iran leads the Shi’ite cause, is unique as an Islamist state, and is hostile to both the United States and Israel as well.  The Obama administration refused to choose, causing a good deal of distress among its Sunni allies and Israel.  Despite these real diplomatic problems, an attack on Iran’s nuclear program would have opened a larger conflict at a moment when Americans were fed-up with war in the Middle East and ISIS banged at the gates of Baghdad.

The Trump administration is re-thinking this policy.  The Revolutionary Guard is an independent military force that answers directly to the Supreme Leader of Iran.  Over the years it has also spread into a powerful position in the economy.  In addition, it plays a leading role in Iran’s covert operations.[2]  The Trump administration believes that Iran plays a disruptive, hostile role in the Middle East.  Targeting the Revolutionary Guard makes sense as a starting point.

The Muslim Brotherhood was founded in Egypt in 1928.[3]  Eventually, getting nowhere with violence, the Egyptian core of the Brotherhood abandoned that in favor of concentrating on its other social programs.  The Egyptian movement has off-shoots elsewhere.  There are affiliates in Morocco, Tunisia, and Jordan.  Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip, is another off-shoot.

In the wake of 9/11, the Bush and Obama administrations pursued a policy of engagement with any Muslim group that sought political power by peaceful and democratic means.[4]  Thus, in 2012 the Obama administration embraced the Muslim Brotherhood government of Mohammed Morsi in Egypt.  However, important American allies in the Middle East have long considered the Brotherhood to be a terrorist organization.  These allies include Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.[5]  Also, Israel is deeply hostile to Hamas.

Again, the Trump administration is considering reversing course by declaring the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization.  However, Turkey’s Islamist government supports the Brotherhood, which it sees as a similar movement.  Since the Egyptian coup, the Brotherhood has been allowed to maintain offices in Istanbul and to operate a television station that broadcasts throughout the Middle East (including to Egypt).  Moreover, millions of Egyptians still support the Brotherhood, albeit they’re keeping their heads down at the moment.

The Muslim Brotherhood is an umbrella organization.  Many of its members in many Middle Eastern countries remain committed—for now—to peaceful means.  Would declaring the Muslim Brotherhood further alienate its members?  Would it drive some of them to using violence?

So, a fateful moment in which caution should prevail over bold action.  Bold action in 2003 led to the invasion of Iraq, “and all that implies.”

[1] Felecia Schwartz and Jay Solomon, “U.S. Weighs Terror Label for Two Groups,” WSJ, 9 February 2017.

[2] I realize that it is inflammatory to say so, but the historian in me sees organizational and political parallels between the Revolutionary Guard and the SS in Nazi Germany.  I do not mean to suggest any moral equivalence.

[3] Yaroslav Trofimov, “The Pitfalls of Blacklisting Muslim Brotherhood,” WSJ, 27 January 2017.

[4] While this is admirable in theory, one cannot help wondering if it is merely cosmetic in a region of authoritarian governments.

[5] That said, Saudi Arabia has eased up a little in its hostility to the Brotherhood.  Conversely, Egypt experimented with toleration for the Brotherhood in 2012-2013, only to restore the military dictatorship by a coup.

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