Crooke understands today’s Middle East as similar to Sarajevo in 1914, where a random event could precipitate a cascade that changes the world. Someone will overreach—Israel, Syria, Lebanon…—and then everything will shift. He reiterates this opinion when I meet him for lunch in New York. He’s in town for a panel at George Soros’ house after a trip to Washington, where State Department officials assured him that big changes were on the way. “Then when you ask what, they are not quite sure,” Crooke tells me. “We are now in an era where no one sees a direct intervention by a Western power.” This, he clarifies, means that conservative Sunnis in the Gulf states and Egypt are now free to battle it out with the Shiites in Hezbollah and Iran for the first time since the Arab nations gained their independence. “The attitude of both the US and Europe,” he says flatly, “has to be categorized as a form of denial.”
In the short term, Crooke explains, an Iranian victory in the war of ideas that divides the Muslim world would extend Iran’s power over Persian Gulf oil reserves and shipping lanes, putting Saudi Arabia in its shadow. The further empowerment of Iran would mean a profound reduction in Israel’s ability to use force against its enemies. It would also mean the end of the American-Saudi-Egyptian axis as the focal point of politics in the Arab world.
Crooke seems comfortable with all of these outcomes, in part because he believes Iran is on the right side of history. While Tehran’s rise at the expense of our Sunni allies might be disruptive and scary, Crooke implies, it’s the only way to get the relationship between Islam and the West back on a workable footing. Certainly, the idea of throwing America’s commercial ties with the Saudis and strategic ties with Egypt and Israel out the window for the sake of a romantic gamble on the Iranian regime is too much for most Westerners to stomach. Yet our current alliances with Sunni fundamentalists, Crooke warns, will guarantee that Islam remains stuck in the medieval past, and that the conflict between Islam and the West will continue. One thing that separates Crooke from more conventional, mealymouthed analysts of the Middle East is his unwillingness to understate this conflict, which he understands as a deadly struggle between two armed camps whose notions of reality are fundamentally irreconcilable.