The Magazine

Arabs vs. Iranians

Courtesy of the Jews.

Jun 1, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 35 • By REUEL MARC GERECHT
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Americans like to think big in foreign policy, so they yearn to settle the Israeli-Palestinian confrontation. Both Democrats and Republicans have repeatedly tried to rally the region's denizens for a "comprehensive settlement" and thereby transform the Middle East. George W. Bush's desire to change the region's politics by establishing a democracy in Iraq actually seems more timid, invested with fewer questionable assumptions, than the proposition that a settlement of the 60-year-old Israeli-Palestinian imbroglio will fundamentally change America's standing among Muslims.

Nevertheless, confronted with the likelihood of an Iranian nuclear weapon, the Obama administration is loading ever more strategic expectations onto the people of the Holy Land. "For Israel to get the kind of strong support it's looking for vis-à-vis Iran," warned Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, "it can't stay on the sidelines with respect to the Palestinians and the peace efforts." The two "go hand in hand."

According to Clinton, Arab states want "very much to support the strongest possible posture toward Iran. .  .  . They believe that Israel's willingness to reenter into discussions with the Palestinian Authority strengthens them in being able to deal with Iran." But does this really make sense? Might it be more likely that by throwing an American spotlight again on the Israelis and the Palestinians and the latter's internal differences, the president will unintentionally help the Iranians more than us? The president could well, through determined efforts to bring peace, scare and weaken the Arab leaders he wants to help and further isolate the Israelis, leaving them on their own when it comes to stopping the Iranian quest for a bomb. Like its predecessor, the Obama White House is slowly backing into a containment strategy against the clerical regime. Unfortunately, what worked against the Soviet Union is unlikely to work against Iran.

Unstated in Secretary Clinton's warning is the assumption that an Arab bloc could be assembled to oppose Iran, and that this would benefit Israel and the United States. But for all practical purposes we've seen an Arab bloc of Sunni dictators, kings, and sheikhs opposed to the Islamic Republic since 1979. And the results have been mixed. When Saddam Hussein invaded Iran in 1980, he had the sympathy of most Arab leaders. When his war started to go badly after the Iranian victory of Khorramshahr in 1982, he had the active support of the Gulf Arab states, especially Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. Their financial aid mattered. Without their support, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's die-hard believers probably would have collapsed the Baathist state.

This is the only instance of an Arab bloc producing a clear strategic victory over Iran. There is no contemporary parallel to the Iran-Iraq war alliance that could plausibly benefit either Israel or the United States. Iraq's Shiite majority, though far from an ally of Tehran, absolutely doesn't want to resuscitate the Sunni Arab vision of their country as a mailed fist against the Persian horde. The Iraqi Shia view themselves as being the victims of homegrown Sunni Arab dictators who regularly used pan-Arabism and the Iranian bogeyman--both Pahlavi and clerical--as a justification for oppression of Shiites.

When officials of the Bush administration tried to depict post-Saddam, democratic Iraq as a bulwark against Iran, Shiite Iraqi officials and clerics cringed. Historically the most religiously consequential land outside of Arabia--all of the most holy cities of Shiism are within its borders--Iraq never again wants to play in any Arab cold war against the region's Shiite powerhouse. Such a contest could only roil Iraq's still-dicey intercommunal relations, needlessly antagonize Tehran--which has shown itself willing to intrude lethally in Iraq's politics--and put the Iraqi Shia community perversely on the side of the much-disliked Sunni kingdoms of Jordan and Saudi Arabia, the most anti-Shiite country in the world. So with Iraq out, the Obama administration can't suggest that an anti-Iranian Arab alliance could militarily intimidate the mullahs. Against Iran, there are only two countries that matter militarily: the United States and Israel.

But perhaps it is an Arab alliance capable of intimidating Iran economically or spiritually that Secretary Clinton has in mind, once the Israelis make concessions to the Palestinians. This also seems far-fetched. Sunni Arab states have never effectively implemented economic sanctions against Iran since (1) they really don't have anything to sanction--trade between the Islamic Republic and Sunni Arab states is so small as to be meaningless to the oil-based Iranian economy--and (2) most Arab states are connoisseurs of an Italian economic ethic: They will trade with their worst enemies, even if they don't do so openly. It's a very good bet that the commercially minded friends and family of Egypt's ruler, Hosni Mubarak, who has for two years been warning his fellow Sunni Arabs about a rising Shiite menace, would gladly cut trade deals with Iran's commercial elite.

This leaves us with the realm of soft power and the battle of religious ideas. Since 1979, a massive struggle has been taking place between Saudi Arabia and clerical Iran. The two countries, which see themselves as vanguards of the faithful and represent different but overlapping strains of Islamic fundamentalism, loathe each other. It is impossible to overstate the effect that their missionary tug of war has had on the practice of Islam in the Middle East, Central Asia, and Europe.

With nearly limitless funding and the advantage of holding to globally predominant Sunni Islam, Saudi Arabia decisively won the first round. The Saudi creed, Wahhabism, has pushed the Sunni identity in Arab lands in a profoundly conservative direction since the Islamic revolution. Institutions, like Egypt's al-Azhar seminary, that once stood as bulwarks against the crude Wahhabi faith, have largely been coopted through Saudi-financed endowments and scholarships. The contemporaneous collapse of the political legitimacy of Arab secular dictatorships--in Egypt, Gamal Abdel Nasser was popular; his successor Anwar Sadat was increasingly disliked; his successor Hosni Mubarak is despised--has further opened the field to Islamist organizations, usually funded much more generously by the Saudis than by the Iranians. The communications revolution of the 1980s and 1990s allowed Muslim fundamentalists everywhere to propagate their views more efficiently and give each other spiritual reinforcement. At just the right moment, the Soviet-Afghan war (1979-89) gave the Sunni world's most militant and intrepid jihadists a place to coalesce and refine their thoughts and skills.

This fundamentalist renaissance wouldn't have been so intense without Saudi cash, and it certainly fortified anti-Shiite tendencies among many Sunnis. But a funny thing has happened in the last 15 years: Revolutionary Iran's Islamic message has become a lot less Shiite, and the Sunni world's embrace of revolutionary martyrdom and resistance to illegitimate government has become more Shiite. With deep roots in Islamic history, martyrdom isn't a Shiite Iranian invention, but the modern theological sharpening of this instrument done by revolutionary Iranians and their Arab offspring, the Lebanese Hezbollah, produced a holy-warrior mentality in the early 1980s that was deeply admired by Sunni militants. And as radical Islam has modernized and globalized, its traditional divisions--Shiism versus Sunnism is one of the oldest--have become less important than modern "values," such as anti-Americanism, anti-Semitism, and anti-Zionism.

There is still usually no love lost between Sunni and Shiite militants, but they can cooperate for higher causes, and the most felicitous common ground is their hatred of the United States, the cutting edge of the culture-destroying, female-liberating West, and its Palestinian-oppressing advance guard, Israel. This explains why al Qaeda militants would accept, and the clerical regime would offer them, laissez-passers even though elements of al Qaeda are virulently anti-Shiite. This explains why the Sunni fundamentalist mother ship, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, never an enthusiastically anti-Shiite organization, has become almost pro-Iranian; and why Hamas, a Palestinian offshoot of the Brotherhood, has gladly accepted arms and money from Tehran and shows no sign of diminishing its ties to the mullahs despite increasing pressure from the Mubarak government and Saudi Arabia, which also funds Hamas, to do so. The considerable popularity among Sunni Arabs of Hezbollah's Hassan Nasrallah and Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad stems directly from their uncompromising, loud opposition to American influence and to the existence of a Jewish state in the Middle East.

The Obama administration appears to believe that having the rulers of Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia threaten to ramp up their rhetoric against the clerical regime would hurt the Islamic Republic. Although not particularly bold against Iran publicly, the Saudis are livid in private about recent Shiite riots in their own oil-rich Eastern Province and in Bahrain, where it is assumed, not necessarily correctly, that Iran had a hand in the trouble. Saudi Arabia may well again increase its funding for anti-Iranian missionary work. It's a decent bet that Saudi Arabia will soon put pressure on impoverished Pakistan--which may have received financial assistance from Riyadh to build its "Muslim bomb"--to give the kingdom nuclear weapons if Iran goes nuclear. Neither America nor Israel can expect any good to come from this.

While Iraq's Sunni community was losing the battle of Baghdad in 2006-07, President Mubarak and Jordan's King Abdullah let loose a barrage of anti-Shiite diatribes aimed at the Iranians and the Iraqi and Lebanese Shia. Their efforts to paint a menacing Shiite arc, ready to strike at the Arab Sunni heartland like a scimitar, fell flat, especially in Egypt, where the population has certain Shiite sympathies. Both men still lobby vigorously against Iran behind closed doors, as do many of the fearful Arab Sunni potentates of the Persian Gulf states, but they are now more guarded in public. Mubarak is in the unenviable position of having the reverse-Midas touch. If he's for something, the odds are good that a substantial portion of the Egyptian people would question whether it's in their best interest. (Iran's clerical overlords actually have a similar problem. This is one reason America's image in the Islamic Republic has improved as the clerical regime has grown increasingly unpopular, and why even in the clerical stronghold of Qom young men and women mock the much-disliked ruling elite by joking about "Palestine"--a once holy cause that the young no longer find so sacred.)

Although Mubarak's commitment to the peace process is very much in question (we can only assume that Clintonites serving in the Obama administration recall how assiduously Mubarak worked to undermine Palestinian-Israeli negotiations at the end of Bill Clinton's presidency), what isn't in question is how powerful the Muslim Brotherhood has become in Egypt. There are many reasons for this, but a not insignificant one is the Brotherhood's unflagging hostility to the idea of a Jewish state in the Middle East.

To Egyptian Sunnis, Iran's highly restricted democracy-cum-theocracy can actually appear progressive. Ali Larijani, one of the brightest, best-educated, and most lethal of Iran's ruling elite, loves to highlight the likelihood of fundamentalists' gaining political dominance in the Arab world if democracy spreads. No friend of representative government at home, Larijani is a big fan of it among Sunni Arabs. It's a perverse situation for the United States: We back the corrupt autocrats, while the Iranian regime champions political reform, which probably would give significant political clout, if not outright dominance, to Muslim fundamentalists who have much more in common ideologically with Iran's Islamists than with the United States. Among devout Sunni Arabs--easily over half the population in Egypt--Iran has the rhetorical high ground.

A loud Obama push for the peace process is much more likely to strengthen the Egyptian Brotherhood than weaken it. This is why Mubarak would probably repeat his behind-the-scenes sabotage of any meaningful negotiations that got off the ground. But it is highly unlikely that meaningful negotiations can begin, given the power of Hamas among Palestinians and the decrepitude of Fatah's Palestinian Authority under Mahmoud Abbas.

What Mubarak needs most is American money and military hardware and some political means to put Hamas off balance in Gaza. But under no circumstances would he permit sufficient political progress among Palestinians that he could be labeled by the Muslim Brotherhood a betrayer of the faith. Nor would Mubarak ever dare favor dropping the demand for a Palestinian "right of return"--a nonnegotiable point for any Israeli government since the right of return would mean the end of the Jewish state. Although the peace-processing establishment in Washington may not admit it, Muslim fundamentalists have probably decisively won the argument about the illegitimacy of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations in the one country indispensable for any settlement: Egypt. Iran, not the United States, is playing the stronger hand here. Quite unintentionally, Obama is ready to make Iran stronger where it matters most.

Sooner or later it's going to dawn on the administration, and others raised on the successful containment of the Soviet Union, that there is no way we can contain the Islamic Republic. Unless America's armed forces shrink considerably, the United States can always repulse any Iranian military aggression--assuming we have the will to do so in the face of threatened nuclear retaliation. But that's not where the Iranians are likely to probe, even once armed with the bomb.

The Islamic Republic was born as a revolutionary state that believed passionately in the power of ideas, backed up always by a good deal of nefarious activity. Ali Khamenei, Iran's clerical overlord, no less than his predecessor, Ayatollah Khomeini, devoutly believes in a Middle East free of American influence. He too sees Israel as an insult to all that he holds holy. He is, however, no fool: He's been a pretty patient and pragmatic revolutionary.

Khamenei and the ruling clerical elite will just keep pushing on the increasingly fundamentalist seams of the Middle East's increasingly modern, troubled societies. In Hamas, they may well have found faithful Palestinians who will repeatedly confront the Israelis head on. United under Iran's leadership, the Sunni and Shiite faithful will wear the Jews down, so the vision goes, in the same way that devout, uncompromising Muslims finally pushed the militarily accomplished crusaders out of the Near East. A profound love of paralleling Israel's end with the demise of the crusader states is just one of many things that radical Sunnis and Shiites have in common.

So are economic sanctions the answer? It's difficult to imagine the Europeans' doing what would be necessary. Any serious sustained sanctions regime against the Islamic Republic must target the energy sector. The Iranians would be able to show easily the human suffering that comes with such measures. It's extremely unlikely the Europeans--who still recoil from the real civilian damage done to Iraq by Western sanctions against Saddam, who did his best to amplify and parade his people's pain--would have the stomach to hurt Iran.

Instead, Europeans' commercial appetites will continue to reinforce their moral sensibilities. The Islamic Republic offers a much more complex picture of good and evil cohabiting within the same society than did Baathist Iraq. Iran's exquisite contradictions--its age-old beauty that so easily enraptures--will make it virtually impossible for the United States to sustain sanctions that are more than seriously annoying. Obama, who fiercely criticized George Bush's unilateralism, will not want to alienate Europeans by trying to coerce them into sanctions with bite. Measures that only annoy Tehran will be enough neither to stop the nuke nor to change the regime.

The day after the mullahs test their nuke--as they probably will, to make sure that we know they have it--we are likely to see any European resolve in favor of sanctions evaporate rapidly. The appeasement-cum-engagement reflex will kick in heavily. As in the Cold War, the United States cannot box in the enemy all by itself. We need the Europeans. And they are unlikely to be sufficiently helpful.

Which brings us back to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process: It is at best irrelevant to our efforts to tame the Islamic Republic, though it could well hurt us. A sensible, historically sensitive onlooker can only laugh contemplating what Jordan and Egypt could do against Iran. They are weak states (blessed with highly proficient internal-security services) whose leaders no longer possess much ideological or religious clout, even within their own borders. As for Saudi Arabia, the last thing in the world we ought to want to see happen is the Saudis trying to line up Sunni fundamentalists against the mullahs. It's not 1979. Their best efforts are likely to backfire horribly. And the thought of Saudi Arabia, where al Qaeda is strong and your ordinary Wahhabi believer is frightful, possessing nukes is enough to make any Israeli--or American--believe in the apocalypse.

Truth be told, unless the Iranians do something really stupid--like sponsor another terrorist attack against the United States or our allies, and thereby force Obama to contemplate preemptive strikes against the Islamic Republic's nuclear facilities--the Israelis are all alone. No one is coming to their rescue.

Reuel Marc Gerecht is a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD and a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.