Reach out to the other side

After the nuclear deal, the Arab world fears a better funded Iranian campaign will exert more influence across the Muslim world than in the past. The US needs to reassure the region

Written by Husain Haqqani | Updated: September 21, 2015 12:25 am
iran nuclear deal, US-Iran nuclear deal, Arab nations, Arab countries, Iran USA nuclear deal, Saudia Arbia, UAE iran nuclear deal, iran news, world news, latest news, indian express opinion, President Obama has argued that the nuclear deal should not be judged on whether it “transforms Iran, ends Iran’s aggressive behaviour towards some of its Arab neighbours or leads to détente between Shiites and Sunnis”. (Source: Illustration CR Sasikumar)

Arab governments do not share the Barack Obama administration’s enthusiasm for the nuclear deal with Iran. Both sides publicly sidestepped the issue during the Washington visit by Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdel Aziz al-Saud earlier this month, but the difference of views on this subject is widely known.

Americans see the deal as a practical means of delaying, if not stopping forever, Iran’s ambitions of becoming a nuclear weapons power. In the Arab region, however, the nuclear deal — and the concomitant lifting of economic sanctions — raises the spectre of unleashing Iran’s divisive impact on the world’s Muslims at levels similar to the days immediately after the 1979 Iranian revolution.

Iran already has sympathetic regimes in Syria and Iraq and supports strong militant groups in Lebanon, Yemen and Bahrain. Only last February, the commander of the foreign wing of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, Qassem Suleimani, told a rally marking the 36th anniversary of the 1979 uprising that “we are witnessing the export of the Islamic revolution throughout the region”. Suleimani spoke proudly of Iran’s successes “from Bahrain and Iraq to Syria, Yemen and North Africa”.

President Obama has argued that the nuclear deal should not be judged on whether it “transforms Iran, ends Iran’s aggressive behaviour towards some of its Arab neighbours or leads to détente between Shiites and Sunnis”. He sees the deal solely as an instrument to “prevent Iran from breaking out with a nuclear weapon for the next 10 years” and as “a better outcome for America, Israel and our Arab allies than any other alternative on the table”.

That offers little comfort to governments and people in Muslim countries who anticipate a better funded Iranian campaign to exert more influence across the Muslim world than in the past. Such a campaign would result in renewed competition for influence between Iran and the Saudis, causing strife among Muslims from Morocco to Indonesia.

Even under sanctions, Iran managed to prop up Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria and make the Hezbollah in Lebanon a force to reckon with. Sanctions did not prevent Tehran from dominating politics in post-Saddam Hussein Iraq, even though the new order in Baghdad was created with American blood and treasure.

Iran’s influence is visible in the events in Yemen and Bahrain and pro-Iranian groups now exist in virtually every Muslim country. Arab governments wonder what Iran might be able to do once the sanctions are over and its coffers are full.

Contrary to assertions in the Western media, it is not a matter of some historic rivalry between Shia and Sunni Muslims. It is a question of existing states trying to defend their sovereignty and autonomy in a region that has often been dominated by larger external powers. In some places, where there are very few Shias (like North Africa), Iran has still managed to enrol radical allies for a potential Pax Iranica.

Historically, Arab states (particularly in the Gulf region) have seen the United States and other Western powers as their protectors, against communism from 1945 onwards and against Iran’s revolutionary regime since 1979. They now fear the end of that protection.

The Americans dealt with the aftermath of Iran’s revolution by simplifying their understanding of the Muslim world in a “Shias bad, Sunnis good” approach. Washington assumed that Islamist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood and its affiliates were valuable allies against global communism. Arab countries helped the US mobilise Islamist ideology against the communists, culminating in the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan.

Ironically, the spread of puritanical madrasas in the Muslim world was partly a function of the fear generated around the Muslim world by Ayatollah Khomeini’s Iranian revolution. As Shia clerics created a theocracy in ancient Persia, Sunni clerics started nurturing ambitions of similar authority and power in other countries.

Support for conservative Islamic groups, such as the Wahhabis, inadvertently led to Islamist radicalism. But none of the regimes in Muslim countries became radical as a result and the ones that did — for example, the Taliban in Afghanistan, the Mohamed Morsi regime in Egypt — were forced out of power by one set of circumstances or another. That is very different from Iran, where radicalism is entrenched in the very nature of a revolutionary regime.

The US opening to Iran, coupled with the Obama administration’s neglect of the Middle East, has created a genuine fear that America might end up embracing Iran in a mistake similar to the one it made after 1979 by funding jihadis in Afghanistan. Encouragement of Iran and invoking of Shia-Sunni sectarian rivalry could undermine the ideological battle against Islamist radicalism that some Arab countries, notably the United Arab Emirates, have launched against Sunni radical groups in the aftermath of the rise of the Islamic State.

The writer, director for South and Central Asia at the Hudson Institute in Washington DC, was Pakistan’s Ambassador to the United States from 2008-11

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    Naim Naqvi
    Sep 21, 2015 at 10:59 am
    The author is factually wrong and prejudiced when he says,”Ironically, the spread of puritanical madrasas in the Muslim world was partly a function of the fear generated around the Muslim world by Ayatollah Khomeini’s Iranian revolution.” The Indian Deoband Seminary was founded before Iranian Revolution. The so-called Islamic world was a silent observer when all the holy places that Shias and many Sunnis even in Arab lands revered were desecrated and destro by Al Sauds in 1920’s. A new kind of Islam was introduced into Muslim world with the push of petrol money. Most of the religious seminaries were taken over by Wahabbis as traditional Sunni Schools like Hanafis and Tawuf were economically weak; these leaders of Sunni world were silent and acquiesced to Wahabi pressure. Iran had never attacked any country ever and the first slogan and message of Ayatullah Khomeni after landing in Tehran was – Ittihad bainul muslemeen, Unity of Muslim Ummah. The royals of desert and dictators of herds got chill in their spine as their turfs were slipping out of their hands. They prepared Saddam to attack Iran and for eight years the blood of Muslim Ummah was shed. Shia clerics, even today, are the most educated, open minded and well read. The author is misinforming as he said,”As Shia clerics created a theocracy in ancient Persia, Sunni clerics started nurturing ambitions of similar authority and power in other countries.” Shia seminaries are well equipped with intellectuals and resources, There is no such discease as THEOCRACY there. Author is color blind and ignorant in his observation – “That is very different from Iran, where radicalism is entrenched in the very nature of a revolutionary regime.” Iran is the only democratic country in Islamic Arab World.
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    1. Anil Gupta
      Sep 21, 2015 at 10:56 pm
      Islamist radicalism is another name for Sunni aggressiveness.With the lifting of sanctions and increase in oil export will definitely give some advantage to Shia Iran.With a pro-Shia regime in Iraq and ertion of Shias in Syria and other Muslim countries is a big challenge to the hegemonistic Sunni aggressiveness.This is good for world peace.
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        MiLady
        Sep 21, 2015 at 5:08 pm
        I never expected this stupidity from Mr. Haqqani. You essment is factually incorrect. History is witness that many so-called Sunni rulers inclusing Umayyads, Abbasids, Ottomans, Al-Sauds, Saddam & now the dreaded Daesh have only one thing in common. They slaughtered Shiites to gain legitimacy in the eyes of their subjects. The brutal conquest of the Arabian peninsula in the foregone century under the Mohammad Ibn Saud was aided and abetted by Muhammad Ibn Wahab and his "radical" ideology. Virtually the same principles of takfir have now been used by Al Qaeda and its offshoot Daesh. One can even see the excerpts of Ibn Wahab's book in Daesh proselytisation. Ofcourse, Khomeini was a radical revolutionary of his time, so was Che Guevara but nevertheless they were not monsters. The middle ground is what is differentiates as normal or radical. Unfortunately, Khomeini's revolution couldn't shift the middle ground because of the demographics. The world today hopes that he should have compared to todays middle ground where fellow muslims' throats are slit and their mosques bombed under a divine license. This is the normal of today & Mr. Haqqani just doesn't see that while world longs for the should have been radical past.
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          MiLady
          Sep 21, 2015 at 6:12 pm
          There is some truth to what you say. But lets look at the shia historical grievance. The events of Siffeen and Karbala were orchestrated by muslim caliphs, those who w'd later call themselves sunni. CIA, Israel or US were far from being in sight. One can understand the political grievance because of the 1952 coup but this ideological resistance is certainly unnecessary. Iran is supportive of Hizbullah because it wants to save the shiites of the Baal Bek valley, the primary guardians of Zainabiyya. Though it looks like Iran is ideologically intertwined with Bashar, if the security of Zainabiya is guaranteed Iran will withdraw even at the expense of Bashar. The support to Palestinian cause is based upon this(its quite ironic that the present-day al-aqsa, the pride of quds was built by Fatimid Caliph az-Zahir, a shiite). If say the two state solution is welcomed by Palestinians, then what can Iranians do about it? The resistance to the nuclear deal is due to this ideological baggage & not the bomb per se.
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            G M
            Sep 21, 2015 at 1:33 pm
            Haqqani your essment of disturbance of established equilibrium of military might in Arab region in the wake of nuclear deal with Iran is a fact. For America the deal solely as an instrument to “prevent Iran from breaking out with a nuclear weapon for the next 10 years” is correct. For exactly same reason America was very keen for a deal with stan when Atal Behari Vajpayee led Indian Pokhran2 made stan to do Chaigai nuclear test and America's effort for disarming stan forever was defeated. Courtesy to Atal Bihari Vajpayee within a weak of Pokhran2 , stan did nuclear test at Chaigai and established itself as nuclear armed nation to the extent that America intervened in Kargil war saying -India and stan are nuclear armed nation and declaring Kargil as a nuclear flash point. As far as Iran is concert ,past experience tells us it is next to impossible to contain Iran from evil design for world community.
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