The Magazine

Arabs vs. Iranians

Courtesy of the Jews.

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