Regional Opposition

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Mark N. Katz

Senior Fellow

Many fear (and many others hope) that American withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan will lead to a takeover of these two countries by radical Islamic forces, who will then be in a stronger position to spread to neighboring countries. The U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, some believe, will result in Iran’s working with Iraqi Shia forces to not only dominate Iraq, but threaten the Sunni-led governments in neighboring Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Jordan — as well as others farther away. Similarly, an American withdrawal from Afghanistan, it is feared, will lead to a return to power of the Pakistani-backed Taliban and the spread of radical Islamic revolution to Central Asia and perhaps even the predominantly Muslim regions of Russia.

Indeed, the fear of an Islamic revolutionary takeover in any one country stems not just from what this would mean for that country (as well as for its relations with Western and other countries), but also from what it means for the prospects of spreading the Islamic revolution. This fear, of course, is similar to that which existed during the Cold War: the success of Marxist revolutionaries in coming to power in any one country was seen as increasing the prospects for Marxist revolution in neighboring countries. This fear also existed with regard to revolutionary Arab nationalism, especially in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

What was — and still is — feared is not just revolution (of whatever type) in one country, but of revolutionary contagion. During the Cold War, this notion was popularly referred to as the domino theory. How realistic is this fear at present? While what happened in the past is not pre-destined to occur again, examining the past can help us to identify the various forces that promoted or opposed the spread of revolution then — and to ponder whether similar forces may be at work now.

In both the Arab-nationalist and Marxist-Leninist revolutionary waves, this fear of contagion spreading from one country to others appeared justified — for a time. After Nasser came to power in Egypt in 1952 and later proclaimed his vision of uniting the Arab world — especially when his popularity increased dramatically in the Arab world from his apparent victory over Britain, France and Israel in the 1956 Suez Crisis — Arab nationalism did spread to other countries. Nationalists seized power in Syria and Iraq in 1958, in North Yemen and Algeria in 1962, and in Libya and Sudan in 1969. But, while Arab nationalist forces came to power in several countries, it did not come to power in others, much less succeed in uniting the Arab world into one country. For not only did the West oppose the further expansion of Arab nationalism (including through the U.S. intervention in Lebanon and the British intervention in Jordan in 1958), but regional forces did too. These forces included the conservative monarchies of Saudi Arabia and Morocco, on the one hand, and the Marxists of South Yemen, on the other.

Similarly, the U.S. withdrawal from Indochina in 1973 was followed by Marxist takeovers in South Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia in 1975. But Marxism did not spread to Thailand or other countries of Southeast Asia as the proponents of the domino theory had warned. Marxist revolutionaries, of course, did seize power in several other regions of the Third World during the 1970s, including Ethiopia, Portugal’s African colonies, Afghanistan, Nicaragua and even Grenada. They did not, however, succeed in coming to power in any country neighboring the new Marxist regimes in these other regions. While American foreign policy did play some role in this (especially after the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan), the knowledge that the American Congress and public were unwilling to undertake any more counterinsurgency operations after the experience of Indochina undoubtedly served to encourage Marxist revolutionaries rather than deter them. By contrast, regional powers — either with or without U.S. support — played a crucial role in containing or even damaging pro-Soviet Marxist regimes in their neighborhood. These included (1) white-ruled South Africa’s efforts against Marxist Angola; (2) Chinese and Thai cooperation against the pro-Hanoi Marxist regime installed in Cambodia by Vietnam after its 1978 invasion, which drove the pro-Beijing Khmer Regime from power; and (3) the actions undertaken by Pakistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, China and others — in addition to the United States — in support of the Afghan mujahideen fighting against the Soviet occupation of their country.

Regional opposition also arose to prevent radical Islamic regimes from exporting revolution to other countries prior to 9/11. While Iraq’s 1980 attack on Iran was opportunistic — to take advantage of what Saddam Hussein mistakenly believed was Iranian weakness — after Iranian forces pushed into Iraq the war became one to prevent Iran from ousting Saddam and setting up Islamic regimes in both Baghdad and the much weaker Arab states bordering it. Similarly, Sudan’s neighbors strongly resisted the efforts to export its revolution undertaken by the Islamic regime that came to power in Khartoum in 1989. Finally, both Russia and Iran worked to prevent the Taliban from taking control of all of Afghanistan between 1996, when the Taliban seized control of most of the country, and late 2001, when the United States took it upon itself to drive the Taliban out of power. And since 9/11, of course, many governments — whether in the West, the Muslim world or elsewhere — have worked against al-Qaeda and other Islamic radical groups. They have done this, not so much to help the United States, but to protect themselves against the threat that radical Islamic groups pose to their own security and even survival.

Following an American withdrawal from Iraq, Afghanistan or both, then, it would not be surprising if regional opposition also arose to prevent Iran from dominating Iraq and the Pakistani-backed Taliban from dominating Afghanistan. Indeed, it would be highly surprising if such regional opposition did not arise. Some signs of it are already visible. In Afghanistan, for example, Russia, India and Iran are all working with the non-Pushtun groups, which (like them) oppose the Taliban’s return to power. And although the Saudi government fired him for saying so publicly in 2006, Saudi analyst Nawaf Obaid predicted what appears to be coming true: the kingdom is assisting the Sunni Arabs in Iraq as the United States begins to withdraw. A similar reaction can be expected anywhere else that Islamic radicals take over: regional powers and neighboring states that feel threatened by this are highly likely to work to prevent the new regime from exporting revolution.

History teaches an important lesson: In the past, regional opposition has often proven to be a significant obstacle to the spread of revolution from one country to its neighbors. It is also likely to do so in the future.


Mark N. Katz is a Visiting Senior Fellow at the Middle East Policy Council and a Professor of Government at George Mason University. Links to many of his publications can be found on his website:

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  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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