For the purpose of understanding what the Iran deal means in regional terms, one must consider first the dynamics of hostile relations among tribes.
Much ink will be consumed in the coming days and weeks analyzing the terms of the new deal over Iran’s nuclear program brokered by Russia. As dispiriting as these valuable analyses will be—and they will be, if they are accurate—it is important to understand in regional terms the magnitude of the geostrategic collapse that our acceptance of this deal in the Middle East will cause.
We Americans profoundly believe in the universal nature of our concept of freedom, and thus tend to give short shrift to the influence of culture and civilization on the political mentality of states. In the Middle East, alongside the physical remains of ancient civilizations, are the remains of their cultures underlying the region’s politics.
The political imagery of many Islamic cultures emanates from their nomadic, tribal and clan origins. While that may, in some cases, overlay an older urban culture, the penetration of Arab influence via Islam still shapes their politics.
Even in ancient times, the greatest Arab tribes filled the lattices of power between the great urban civilizations, rather than function as an empire in themselves. Indeed, the rise of the Umayyads and the Abbasids as independent Arab empires actually was a rather short-lived ahistorical anomaly. Baghdad fell by 965 to the Persians Buyids. As such, this tribal soul, rather than the ethos of urban empire and the strategic behavior that this soul engenders, is easily visible in current Arab politics.
To understand the current situation, it helps to consider the case of revenge-killing in tribal and clan dynamics. Americans whose descent originated north of Hadrian’s Wall and who study their heritage are more familiar with this, and are indeed quite proud of their history and the values it implies.