The Magazine

Arabs vs. Iranians

Courtesy of the Jews.

Jun 1, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 35 • By REUEL MARC GERECHT
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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.