Saturday, January 27, 2007

The real origins of sectarianism

The region is dancing to the tune of destructive ideas whose prime beneficiaries are the United States and Israel, writes Hassan Nafaa

Iran is mistaken to think that it can handle alone the current US-Israeli escalation, which may be a prelude to a military strike. Watching Iran's management of the current crisis, one comes to the conclusion that Tehran is confident of its ability to respond to any military strike against it.

Iran has several means of retaliation: it can close the Strait of Hormuz and thus obstruct the passage of oil, an action that would double oil prices worldwide; it can send thousands of fighters to harass US forces in Iraq, complicating further Washington's debacle; it can inflict extensive damage on US bases and troops in Gulf countries, either through sabotage operations or direct strikes; it can open a new front by waging guerrilla war against the multinational forces in South Lebanon and getting Hizbullah resume shelling northern Israel; and it can strike oil facilities in the Gulf -- including Saudi Arabia -- although this would be a last resort.

Iran is acting as if the above options are enough not only to deter the US, but also to dissuade neighbouring Arab countries from collaborating with the Americans. But Tehran seems to forget two things: one having to do with the nature of the US administration, and the other having to do with its own regime.

As for the US administration, Tehran seems to think that due to the Democratic win in Congress, Washington may not be in a position to strike against it. What Tehran should keep in mind is that President Bush and Vice President Cheney, now in their second term, feel liberated from the pressures of the 2008 presidential campaign. Also, the ideological characteristics of the current US administration and the tendency of President Bush to take unusual risks must be taken into consideration. However insane an attack on Iran may seem, one cannot underestimate President Bush's ability to take insane chances.

As for the Iranian regime, it tends to think in doctrinal and religious terms rather than in political and practical terms, which makes it often unable to assess the dangers ahead or predict the behaviour of its allies.

For their part, Arab countries would be wrong to think that cooperation with the US in a strike against Tehran can get them anywhere. They would also be wrong to assume that the US wants to help them contain Iran's regional ambition out of friendly concern. The Gulf Cooperation Council, Egypt, and Jordan appear to have no voice of their own when Condoleezza Rice summoned them for a meeting in Kuwait recently.

Arab countries are reacting to Iran on the basis of the following assumptions. First, that Iran has a plan to dominate the region and create a "crescent" in those countries with a significant Shia presence. Second, that Iran's plan is based on sectarian considerations and is aimed against Sunnis. Third, that Iran's opposition to the Zionist scheme is mere posturing and that its true aim is to dominate the region. And fourth, that Iran's nuclear programme is unjustified and poses a threat to the region.

No one can claim that the above assumptions are utterly wrong. Iran has indeed boosted its influence in the region despite all attempts to isolate it. Iranian influence is evident in Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine, and Tehran has made friends among various groups around the Arab world. This situation worries both the regimes and people of the region. When Saddam was executed in the most inappropriate fashion, Iran and its Arab allies seemed to gloat. Hizbullah's television channel was uncharacteristically vengeful in its coverage of that event.

But one cannot conclude that Iran is determined to dominate the region. Iran's influence may have increased, but only as a result of the mistakes the Arabs and the Americans have made. In Afghanistan and Iraq, the Americans smashed two regimes that were among Iran's most determined foes. In Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine, Tehran benefited from the errors of Arab policy. No one can deny that numerous Arab countries have helped the US -- much more than Iran did -- wreck Iraq.

Arab countries have failed to help the Iraqis overcome their crisis after Saddam's fall. Many Arab countries pressured Arafat to make concessions to Israel, but failed to provide him with the means to achieve an acceptable peace settlement. When the peace process collapsed, Arab countries declined to support the Palestinian resistance, and even colluded in the blockade against the Palestinian people.

So now we blame the Iranians for giving the Palestinian resistance money and weapons. We blame Iran for trying to break the siege on the Palestinian people. Let's assume for the sake of argument that Tehran is helping Hizbullah for sectarian reasons. This doesn't explain why it supports the Palestinian people and their resistance. Had Arab Sunni countries helped out the Palestinians, the latter wouldn't have turned to Tehran.

For sometime now, Arab countries have been reacting as if the sectarian factor were the main -- if not the only -- catalyst in the region. Many in this region are under the impression that the Israeli threat to the region is diminishing while the Iranian threat is mounting. Oddly enough, this mood is evolving only a few months after Israel waged a barbaric and unjustified a war on Lebanon, a war during which Arab countries showed tremendous support to the resistance and its leader, Hassan Nasrallah. And yet, it is Nasrallah, the last man who would support sectarianism by word or deed, who stands today accused of sectarianism.

Many in the Arab world believe that sectarianism is an integral part of the Arab mindset or culture. I disagree. The Arab mindset and culture, I would argue, are among the most tolerant in the world and the most accepting of others. Sectarianism must be blamed on despotism. It must be blamed on politics, not culture. Politics is what motivates the Palestinians or the Kurds to fight each other. Politics is what turns a Shia against a Sunni, or a Muslim against a Christian. Because our countries are ruled by regimes that are just as despotic as they are susceptible to foreign influence, that are as backward as they are ignorant, various political elites are tempted to use sectarianism for personal gain.

Let's not forget that the US relied on sectarianism to invade and then rule Iraq. The US did so because it wanted not just to bring down the regime, but also to wreck the country's political system. The US and its local friends have encouraged sectarianism from day one. And the more the Americans got bogged down in Iraq, the more they fomented sectarianism to hide their failures. When the US discovered belatedly that Iran was the biggest beneficiary of the sectarian game, it went ahead and told Arab "moderates" that Iran was to blame.

Because we lack democratic regimes that respect citizenry, and because the US and Israel are dictating things around the region, sectarianism is becoming rife and more dangerous than ever. Unless Iran and the Arab world understand this fact, they will be torn to pieces. And Israel would climb high on their tattered remains, cheered by the world's sole superpower.

* The writer is a professor of political science at Cairo University.

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