The National Intelligence Council (NIC) is the U.S. intelligence community's center for midterm and long-term strategic thinking. Among its other functions, it takes the lead in the production of National Intelligence Estimates— the coordinated judgments

The National Intelligence Council (NIC) is the U.S. intelligence community's center for midterm and long-term strategic thinking. Among its other functions, it takes the lead in the production of National Intelligence Estimates— the coordinated judgments of the intelligence community regarding the likely course of future events.

The NIC recently launched a project entitled National Intelligence Council 2020, a year-long discussion among experts on regional affairs, demographics, and technology. The project is an exercise in crystal-ball-gazing toward the year 2020, and is scheduled to produce an unclassified publication in December 2004. Working papers on the various world regions, and on several overarching themes, have already been released by the NIC. The following is an excerpt from the paper dealing with major trends and possible shocks in the Middle East between now and 2020. [1] The NIC's national intelligence officer for the Near East and South Asia is Paul R. Pillar.

—The Editors

Major Trends

The following four trends are especially likely to shape events in the Middle East between now and 2020.

1. Breakdown of the social contract between rulers and ruled. Regimes in the region will find it increasingly difficult to live up to their part of an implicit bargain with their populations: to provide economic (and physical) security in return for the people forgoing a meaningful political role and overlooking corruption and economic privileges enjoyed by ruling elites. That difficulty, and popular responses to it, will reflect several influences, including population growth outstripping the ability of economies to generate new jobs, mass media increasing awareness of political and economic alternatives, and the uneven effects of globalization making it at least as much a source of resentment as an engine of prosperity.

This breakdown has the potential to bring about major political change in several countries, either revolutionary or peaceful. It is difficult, however, to identify tipping points, because political change will require other catalysts besides popular discontent. Iran, for example, almost certainly will undergo significant political change between now and 2020, and probably will become a more liberal and more democratic country. It is uncertain, however, what—or who—will lead Iranians to throw off their current lethargy and effect such change. Saudi Arabia is another important country where the regime/populace bargain seems unlikely to be sustainable for another 16 years, but that statement says nothing about the nature or direction of whatever political change does occur.

2. Extremist violence turns inward. More of the political violence in the Middle East, including terrorist violence, is likely to be aimed more directly and conspicuously at the area's regimes than it is now. (This does not necessarily mean that terrorism against U.S. and other Western targets will lessen at the same pace.) This trend is related to the one just mentioned, and not just in the sense that increased popular discontent will partly take the form of extremist violence. Another part of the bargain between some regimes and their citizenry is that any political violence would be directed outward, against Israeli, Western, or other targets. Increased international pressure on some regimes to take more comprehensive and effective counterterrorist measures will make it harder for those regimes to condone or overlook such outward-looking terrorist-supportive behavior. This will combine with other elements of popular dissatisfaction to make attacks on the regimes themselves more frequent.

Terrorism alone will not topple regimes, but more peaceful opposition will play off it, and it could precipitate more broadly based political change. In several Arab countries the feasible alternatives to existing regimes will be moderate Islamists and radical Islamists. Responses by regimes will be variable, ranging from increased repression (which sometimes, and in most cases eventually, will fail) to varieties of co-optation.

3. Weapons proliferation. Advanced weapons, including perhaps nuclear weapons, probably will be more widespread in the Middle East in 2020 than now. International efforts to check the proliferation of weapons will slow, not stop, their spread. Most of the principal motives for acquiring nuclear or other advanced weapons will persist even after changes of regime. In some cases, added insecurities associated with a change of regime may even increase the incentives to proliferate. In Iran, a change of regime might ease Western concerns about nuclear weapons in the hands of mullahs but would not erase a more broadly based Iranian view that such weapons would be an appropriate accoutrement to Iran's status as the dominant regional power.

Peace agreements would not by themselves remove the causes of proliferation. An Arab-Israeli settlement probably would be a "cold peace" akin to the current Egyptian-Israeli relationship. Israel almost certainly would retain its nuclear arsenal, and that would weigh heavily on national security decision-making in other regional capitals.

Ironically, some of the most significant proliferation might involve moderate states such as the current Saudi regime rather than "rogues" such as Libya or Syria. The former will seek ways to ensure their security without overly heavy reliance on the United States. The latter will seek to escape the opprobrium of being "rogues" and to be fully rehabilitated as members of the international community.

4. New ties with outside powers. There will be strong reasons for states both outside and inside the Middle East to explore new relationships with each other. For the outsiders, oil and money are reasons enough to want to be engaged, in addition to any other political or security-related reasons that specific powers may have. Regimes inside the region will look for security support and sources of arms and technology, while trying to avoid overly close relationships that could be a political liability with their own populations.

Foreign relations for Middle Eastern states will exhibit considerable volatility. This is partly because their objectives in forging new relationships will be somewhat contradictory. (In particular, the United States could be seen as both the strongest possible guarantor of security and the most politically unpopular patron.) It also is because the region's foreign relations are in some ways still sorting themselves out from Cold War-era patterns. There could be some increased polarization between those who throw in their lot with Washington and those who do not.


Although some of the biggest events in the Middle East between now and 2020 may come out of the blue, most of the shocking and unpredictable events are likely to be perturbations in what already are known to be major regional issues.

1. Arab-Israeli conflict: war or peace. The conflict plays such a large role in regional discourse that any sharp departure from the current standoff would have substantial regional repercussions. Departures could take either of two opposite directions.

One would be the outbreak of a new war between Israel and one or more Arab states, especially Syria. Neither side would seek a war, but there will be continuing potential for an unintended outbreak of hostilities, stemming perhaps from confrontation in the Shaba Farms area where Lebanon, Syria, and Israel meet. A new war might entail use of CBRN [chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear] weapons, possibly initiated by Syrian employment of chemical weapons. A war would undo whatever amelioration of anti-Americanism there might have been in the Arab world. It also would torpedo any ongoing efforts to advance or resurrect an Israeli-Palestinian peace process, although it could also serve as a catalyst for new outside mediation efforts. Another crushing Arab military defeat at the hands of Israel would exacerbate the disillusionment of Arabs with their ineffective regimes.

The opposite departure would be the conclusion of a final, comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace settlement, which seems so elusive now that it may deserve to be called a "shock." Perhaps the death of Arafat—which is likely before 2020—would set in motion events leading to a settlement. Although an accord would be at least initially a "cold peace," if it were regarded as acceptable to the great majority of Palestinians, it would mean the biggest change in regional discourse since Israel's creation. It would significantly affect attitudes toward the United States by negating the most frequently recited regional complaint against Washington. It also would be a moment of truth for several Arab regimes, which would lose their most effective distraction from their own shortcomings and major excuse for not facing up to needed reforms.

2. Advent of a new radical regime. The coming to power of a radical (probably, but not necessarily, Islamist) regime in a Middle Eastern state which currently has more moderate leadership could be an important cause as well as effect of some of the possible developments discussed above. As a consequence of popular dissatisfaction with existing governments, to have one or more revolutionary changes of regime somewhere in the region in the course of the next 16 years should not be surprising. But any single change will be a shock. That would be particularly true if the change occurs in an important state such as Egypt (the most populous Arab country) or Saudi Arabia (the wealthiest one). A new radical regime might go through an initial phase—as the Iranian revolution did—of seeking to foment similar revolutions in other regional states in the belief that it would need like-minded neighbors to survive. As such, a new radical regime could be a destabilizing force for the whole region.

At a minimum, it would shake up regional alignments, partly in unpredictable ways. Replacement of the Saudi regime by a radical Islamist successor, for example, might increase Arabian-Iranian tensions, with a rivalry for Islamic leadership (one party Sunni, and the other Shia) overshadowing whatever common characteristics would set both regimes apart from the Al Saud. Radical regime change would unavoidably affect relations with Washington and probably the U.S. role in the region. It also would affect the Arab-Israeli equation—in a major way if the change of regime occurred in Egypt or Jordan.

3. Major change in oil prices. The heavy dependence of the Middle Eastern economy on the oil market means sudden changes in that market are bound to have significant regional repercussions. The effects of a major increase in oil prices might be hard to disentangle from the other effects of whatever caused the jump in price (which might be war or revolution in the Middle East itself). Increased oil revenues could weaken or at least postpone popular pressures for political and economic change in producing states, which might help stability in the short term but weaken constituencies for reform that would eventually be needed anyway. A drop in prices (perhaps reflecting moves toward alternative fuels in consuming countries) would naturally tend to have the opposite effects. A key question in that instance is whether fiscal crunches and further inability to meet popular demands for services would outpace any acceleration in reform that realistic leaders would be almost forced to accept.

4. Alternative outcomes in Iraq. Although the effects that political change in Iraq will have on the rest of the region are sometimes overstated, the size and centrality of Iraq mean that events there are bound to have repercussions elsewhere in the region. That the United States has made the outcome in Iraq a matter of high stakes for itself will accentuate those repercussions, at least regarding the U.S. role in the region and relations between the United States and regional states.

There is a broad range of possible outcomes in Iraq. Which would be "shocks" and which would not is a matter of definition, debate, and individual expectations. Probably the "non-shock" portion of the range would include all of the possibilities that could plausibly be described as largely democratic. Those possibilities could run from political systems having electoral elements combined with a heavy dose of patronage politics and negotiated power-sharing (something like today's Lebanon) to a more democratic Switzerland-on-the-Tigris.

The principal possibilities outside that range are:

  • A radical Islamist regime. The effects would be similar to the advent of such a regime in another major regional state (see above).

  • A secular strongman. (something like Tunisia's Ben Ali, or Saddam without the brutality). This outcome would have some stabilizing aspects, at least in the short term. In the long run it would face many of the same challenges as neighboring states in trying to meet popular expectations, as well as representing a non-solution to the problem of apportioning power among Iraq's sectarian and ethnic groups.

  • Civil war. This would be very likely to draw in outside states, especially Turkey and Iran, with the danger of the conflict turning into an interstate war.

  • Iraq breaks up. In some respects, not forcing the different sectarian and ethnic groups in Iraq to share the same country would be more stable than some of the alternatives. But this possibility would raise many of the same concerns among—and invite intervention by—neighboring states, as well as almost certainly leaving dissatisfaction among some of those groups about the division of Iraqi resources.

Any of these last four possibilities would be seen as a major defeat for the United States, with corresponding negative consequences for U.S. prestige and influence in the region.

[1] At