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.