Saturday, January 23, 2016

The Arab problem with Iran


      


Iran and the US reached an agreement on the Iranian nuclear program. President Obama presented the Iranian deal as the triumph of diplomacy.


       There is a misconception that Arab countries wanted the US to remain in conflict with Iran. Having traveled in the Arab Gulf area in the summer, the impression I have is that Arab Gulf governments and people want the region to be normal. They want Iran to be a normal country with whom they can have normal relations. The issue in the Arab Gulf media coverage of the Iranian-US negotiations was not whether a nuclear deal is good or bad, the issue was Iran’s behavior in the Middle East and whether Iran is going to use the billions of dollars to continue to stir the sectarian pot with US acquiescence or with the US turning a blind eye.

       An Arab Gulf country, Oman, a member of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), played a key role in providing a forum for the US and Iran to meet and start the process that led to the agreement. Arab newspaper commentators, in Oman and in the other Arab Gulf countries, almost unanimously wanted the American-Iranian talks to succeed but were worried that President Obama was not taking their interests into account.

       Arabs want Iran to stop its reckless business of the export of its revolution, a so- called revolution that has long fizzled in Iran itself but is surviving on brutal force. The Iranian revolution of 1979 brought into the region a zealous regime intent on spreading its ideology. That project was stalled by the 1980-1988 Arab-Iranian war spearheaded by Iraq from the Arab side. The first Gulf war was started by Iran against Iraq and Iraq, despite all odds, won the war with the Iranian regime. Iran accepted defeat. That war had a steep cost in lives and treasure. 

While the Iranian regime has an ideology that it wants to export, the Arab Gulf countries are status quo countries.  It is true that Saudi Arabia funds projects that advance its view what is orthodox Islam and counters what Salafi Muslims consider innovation in religion. However, such projects are a far cry from the ideology of the Welayat al Faqih that Iran wants to spread in a Muslim world that is 90% Sunni Muslim and finds core beliefs of the Twelver Shiites anathema to orthodox Islam as practiced by the overwhelming majority of Muslims in the world. Iran’s version of Twelver Shiism puts the leader of Iran, the Wali al Faqih, at the center with believers in that ideology owing complete and total allegiance to the infallible Iranian leader in all matters spiritual and secular. This business of exporting this ideology to Sunni- majority countries is understandably deeply troubling to leaders of Sunni- majority countries. Iran is in the business of exporting a highly politicized form of Twelver Shiism that demands complete and total loyalty of the convert to Iran.

In an opinion column entitled “Can Iran Change?” in The New York Times of January 19, 2016, the Saudi foreign minister Adel al Jubair presented a concise and precise summary of Iranian wrongs over the years. Mr. al Jubair wrote:
 “THE world is watching Iran for signs of change, hoping it will evolve from a rogue revolutionary state into a respectable member of the international community. But Iran, rather than confronting the isolation it has created for itself, opts to obscure its dangerous sectarian and expansionist policies, as well as its support for terrorism, by leveling unsubstantiated charges against the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. It is important to understand why Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies are committed to resisting Iranian expansion and responding forcefully to Iran’s acts of aggression. The Iranian government’s behavior has been consistent since the 1979 revolution. The constitution that Iran adopted states the objective of exporting the revolution. As a consequence, Iran has supported violent extremist groups, including Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Houthis in Yemen and sectarian militias in Iraq. Iran or its proxies have been blamed for terrorist attacks around the world, including the bombings of the United States Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983 and the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia in 1996, and the assassinations in the Mykonos restaurant in Berlin in 1992. And by some estimates Iranian-backed forces have killed over 1,100 American troops in Iraq since 2003.”
       

          It is not only Saudi Arabia that accuses Iran of stirring the sectarian pot. President Obama himself also accused Iran of a destructive role in the region that exacerbates sectarian tensions. However, Obama said that that reprehensible behavior should not be a factor in the nuclear negotiations. In effect, Obama held that if Iran is harming America’s Arab allies in the Arab Gulf it is ok as long as Iran’s nuclear program is neutered to make the Israelis feel safer. President Obama’s callous indifference to the interests of America’s Arab allies in the Arab Gulf is seen by Gulf Arabs as a betrayal of a decades’ old friendship.


Is Iran going to change? Unlikely. It has now billions more of dollars to spread its mischief in the Arab and Muslim world further exacerbating Sunni-Shiite tensions. The Economist of January 16, 2016 summarized this reality:

“Yet, just as critics of the deal are wrong to describe it as a disaster in which Iran got everything it wanted, its supporters (including this newspaper) need to be realistic about it, too. The smooth progress towards Implementation Day is largely because the president, Hassan Rohani, and Mr Zarif are desperate to get sanctions lifted. They want to see $100 billion of Iranian assets unfrozen before parliamentary elections next month, in which they hope their faction will oust some of the hardliners who oppose them. Although both back greater engagement with the West for economic reasons (and appear to have the conditional support of the supreme leader, Ali Khamenei), nothing else about Iran’s behaviour shows the slightest sign of change. It still hangs gay people, locks up dissidents and stokes sectarian conflict around the Middle East, most destructively in Syria.”
       


           The Economist’s reporting on Iran’s Yemeni proxy the Houthis' behavior brings to mind the Iran-Iraq war when Iranian children wore around their necks “keys to paradise”:

“Houthi fighters head to battle carrying charms, such as keys and visas to paradise. Their preachers on satellite television call for re-establishing Zaydi rule across the border, not just over the three border provinces the Al Sauds seized in 1934 but even over Mecca farther north.”

On Iran, there is no room for optimism.






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