Hezbollah is not a headache for Israel alone. The Shiite extremist group poses an equally daunting challenge to the Sunni Arab regimes in the Middle East. For behind Hezbollah’s perceived heroics in the Lebanon war sits Shiite Iran, with its claim to great-power status. If unchallenged, the Iran-Hezbollah axis of power will end the millenniums-old Sunni Arab domination of the Middle East.
The Shiite-Sunni conflict dates to the beginning of Islam, when a dispute over succession to Prophet Muhammad split the religion into two sects. Sunnis won control of the political institutions and suppressed the Shiites, often brutally. In the 16th century, Shiites triumphed in Iran, but in the Arab world down to modern times, they have remained on the economic and political margins. The Middle East that the British created at the end of World War I confirmed Sunni hegemony, but the war in Iraq threatens to undermine it.
The fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003 has unleashed the centuries-old blood feud between Shiites and Sunnis in Iraq, which, in turn, has hardened sectarian hostilities across the Middle East. Meanwhile, Iran’s bullish determination to enrich uranium and possibly acquire a nuclear capability deeply worries its Sunni neighbors, who see Iran’s hand behind the Shiite drive for power in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East.
No surprise then that Sunni rulers and radical clerics reacted viscerally to Hezbollah’s perceived victory in the Lebanon war. But Riyadh’s and Amman’s denunciations of Shiite rulers and extremist groups, coupled with a flurry of anti-Hezbollah fatwas by radical Sunni clerics, have not diverted the admiring gaze of Arabs everywhere toward Hezbollah. Reversing this situation will not be easy, especially when Hezbollah’s yellow flag and pictures of its leader, Hassan Nasrallah, are ubiquitous on the Arab street.
Vulnerable to popular anger at home and the resurgent Iranian-Hezbollah alliance in the region, Arab leaders have few options but to look to the U.S. to protect their interests. The last time Shiites threatened Sunni dominance was after the Iranian revolution in the 1980s. In response to rising Shiite power and influence, Saudi Arabia mobilized radical Sunni forces, leading to the formation of Al Qaeda and the wave of extremism that today threatens both Sunni regimes and the West. The danger of a blowback this time around is even more real and probably will threaten Sunni regimes more than it will Iran and Hezbollah.
Washington too is caught in a dilemma. It’s on a path of conflict with Iran and Hezbollah just as it seeks to stabilize Iraq by working closely with the Shiite-led government in Baghdad. As the fighting in Lebanon intensified, the Iraqi prime minister, Nouri Maliki, refused to condemn Hezbollah even as he made his way to the White House for a visit with President Bush earlier this month. Maliki’s main backer in Iraq’s ruling Shiite coalition, Muqtada Sadr, called his followers into the streets and threatened to attack U.S. forces.
Part of the problem is that Washington has long thought of Iran, Iraq and Lebanon as separate policymaking universes. This has blinded it to important crosscurrents of religion and identity that tie Shiite politics in Lebanon and Iraq to the rise of Iranian power.
But the Lebanon war has turned Hezbollah and Iran into regional power brokers and custodians of the Palestinian cause. U.S. allies in the region—Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Egypt—now count for far less than its enemies. Anger on the Arab street threatens them, and where Sunni regimes rule over Shiite populations—Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf emirates—rising sectarian tensions could be destabilizing.
Iran’s geostrategic position, vast energy reserves, large population and economic output, not to mention its growing military power and regional influence, make it difficult to easily contain. Excluding Iran will only give Tehran greater incentive to subvert the region.
In short, the old Middle East in which the United States relied on friendly moderate Arab regimes to manage conflicts and exercise influence is now a region in which unfriendly forces hold most of the cards and where the specter of unwieldy conflict threatens U.S. interests.
Sectarianism is a Muslim problem, but if unchecked, it can unleash conflicts detrimental to U.S. interests. Washington cannot erase historical memories in the Middle East. The best it can do is help contain their explosive potential.
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