BEIRUT—Worried about the waning power of the Bush administration, Sunni Arab regimes aren’t confronting Iran, as the U.S. would like, but instead appear to be cozying up to the Shi’a nation and its firebrand president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
On his highly touted visit to the Middle East earlier this month, Arab leaders showered President George W. Bush with gifts and praise, all the while sizing up whether his lame-duck administration was capable of containing Iran. The answer, apparently, was no, because the president had not even left the region before critics began attacking him.
“In his confrontational remarks about Iran, he offers no carrot, no inducement, no compromise—only the big U.S. stick,” wrote the Arab News, a Saudi paper that often reflects the government’s position. “This is not diplomacy in search of peace. It is madness in search of war.”
The aftermath of Bush’s visit signals the demise of an alliance between Washington and authoritarian Sunni Arab regimes—Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf states—that tried to counter Iran, a non-Arab country that is the tip of what Jordan’s King Abdullah famously described as the emerging “Shiite crescent,” stretching through Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. Each side has helped fuel a proxy war in Iraq, with the Sunni regimes backing Sunni militants and Iran supporting Shi’a militias.
The largely Sunni Gulf states still view Shi’a Iran as a significant threat, but they now favor negotiation with Tehran instead of confrontation.
Bush tried to convince the Arab states, especially the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, to isolate Iran. But the Emirates have substantial banking and economic ties with Tehran. And in recent months, Saudi Arabia has taken significant steps to reach out to Ahmadinejad.
In early December, with tacit Saudi approval, Ahmadinejad addressed the Gulf Cooperation Council, an Arab bloc formed to resist Iran. Later in the month, Saudi King Abdullah invited the Iranian president to perform the annual hajj pilgrimage in the holy city of Mecca.
In a region ruled by kings and despots, Ahmadinejad has worked hard to cultivate his image as a populist hero. Ironically, he has become more popular among Arabs than his own people, who are frustrated by his inability to deliver on promises to improve a stagnant economy, root out corruption and redistribute oil wealth. When Ahmadinejad denies the Holocaust or threatens Israel, his rhetoric resonates more with Arabs than Ira nians.
Ahmadinejad is a Shi’a Mus lim and a Persian in a region dominated by Sunni Arabs. Historically, Arabs have been fearful of Iran’s cultural and political influence. But he plays the anti-American and anti-Israel cards in an attempt to transcend the Persian-Arab rift and Sunni-Shi’a tensions, which are on the rise because of the Iraq war.
His rhetoric works. “He has the courage to stand up to America and Israel,” an Egyptian civil servant told me over sips of mint tea in a Cairo coffee house a few months ago. “What other leader in the world is doing that?”
For its part, the Bush administration has become so unpopular that even its staunchest allies are trying to publicly distance themselves from it. And this strategy appears to be working for the Saudis, judging by the reaction in the U.S. media and on the Arab street. The Saudis are also hedging their bets—flirting with both the Americans and the Iranians.
King Abdullah began this public break from the Bush administration last March, when he denounced, for the first time, the U.S. military presence in Iraq as an “illegitimate foreign occupation.” The king was reflecting the view of many Arabs who blame the U.S. overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s minority Sunni regime in Iraq for emboldening Iran.
Arab leaders also blame the breakdown of Israeli-Palestinian talks on Bush’s refusal for seven years to actively engage in Middle East peacemaking, until the re cent Annapolis summit. Even limited progress on peace efforts could provide diplomatic cover for the Sunni Arab states to cooperate more closely with the U.S.—and work to isolate Iran.
But Arab leaders see little hope that Israelis and Palestinians will be able to carry out substantial negotiations that would lead to a peace deal by the time Bush leaves office next January.
The traditional centers of power in the Arab world are very nervous about the growing influence of Iran: its nuclear ambitions, its sway over the Iraqi government and Shi’a militias, its support for militant groups like Hezbollah and Hamas, and its alliance with Syria (which some Arab regimes accuse of being a traitor to the Arab cause).
Contrary to widespread impression, Arab leaders are not worried that Iran will export the cultural and theological aspects of Shiism; rather, they’re afraid of political Shiism spreading to the Arab world through groups like Hezbollah.
The group’s strong performance against a far superior Israeli military during the July 2006 war has electrified the Arab world, and it offers a stark contrast to Arab rulers appeasing the United States. Arab regimes fear that their Sunni populations will be seduced by Iran and Hezbollah’s message of empowering the dispossessed—creating a new and potent admixture of Arabism and Shi’a identity.
There is some precedent for this. After the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini inspired revolutionary zeal among nationalists throughout the Arab world. The revolution’s aftershocks were felt for a long time in the Middle East, helping, indirectly, to give rise to some militant Sunni movements and inspiring Shi’as in Lebanon and Iraq.
And this is why Saudi rulers are suddenly talking tough against America. Threatened by this new challenge from Shi’as, the Saudis are trying to reassert their role as leaders of the Arab and wider Muslim world.
The Saudis and other Arab regimes are most concerned with their own survival. Of course, they will remain staunch U.S. allies and always be wary of Iran’s ascendance. But they will ignore Bush’s pleas and continue hedging their bets by appeasing Tehran. It’s the only way to survive in a tough part of the world.
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