Friday, May 4, 2007

What the moderate Arab world is

In the second of two pieces examining Iran's rising regional role, Amal Saad-Ghorayeb argues that attempts by "moderate" Arab leaders to whip up popular fear of Iran are US-orchestrated and aimed to keep in-check regional resistance to US-Israeli plans

Not only does the notion of an Iraq-inspired model of Shia empowerment fail to stand up to scrutiny, but the so-called "Shia crescent" that Iran allegedly seeks to fashion out of it is an equally unsound proposition denoting a sectarian enterprise defined by an exclusively Shia alliance, an all-Shia constituency, and a regional agenda that caters solely to Shia communal interests.

Judged by these criteria, the regional alliance of which Iran and Hizbullah are part, bears little, if any, resemblance to a Shia crescent and much more to a cross-sectarian strategic front, consisting of state and non-state actors, which commands the support of the vast majority of both Shias and Sunnis in the region based on its political and military confrontation to the US and Israel.

This quadripartite alliance is not confined to Shia actors such as Iran and Hizbullah, but also incorporates the Sunni movement Hamas and a predominantly Sunni Syria, led by a secular Baathist state. Although many proponents of the Shia crescent theory insist, nonetheless, on counting Syria as a Shia state on account of its Alawite regime, such an attempt is an overstretch given the highly disputable classification of Alawism as Shiism among Shia clerical circles. In fact, it was not until 1973 that Alawites were deemed to belong to the Shia sect by Imam Musa As-Sadr, who did so as a political favour to President Hafez Al-Assad. The inclusion of Hamas and Syria in this alliance, means that it cannot be considered Shia or even Islamic in character and composition, but more accurately regional.

Yet, this has not prevented Arab leaders from trying to stoke fears of an Iran-led Shia power grab in the region. Besides the now infamous "Shia crescent" spectre raised by Jordan's King Abdullah, Egypt's President Mubarak accused Shias of paying allegiance to Iran before their own nation-states while Saudi officials have also publicly expressed concern over Iran's cultural and political influence in the region. To a large extent, this scare-mongering rhetoric has failed to strike a chord among Arab Sunnis, despite reports to the contrary in Western and some Arab media. Though Sunni-Shia tensions cannot be discounted, they are far less the product of the ascent of a Shia power in the region like Iran, or the looming threat of a Shia crescent, than of concrete crises in Iraq, and to a much narrower extent, Lebanon.

The current Sunni-Shia rift is fundamentally a political one that has been fuelled by the ouster of Sunni leader Saddam Hussein in Iraq and the institution of an American-backed, Shia- dominated state. Sunni rage was further ignited by the Iraqi government's highly incendiary execution of Hussein in December last year. While Iran is not feared as a Shia power as such, its support for the Iraqi government and its alleged links with Shia death squads in Iraq has earned it the reproach of many Sunnis and soured Sunni-Shia relations overall. In a similar vein, the crisis in Lebanon between the Siniora government and the Hizbullah-led opposition, has been interpreted by some Sunnis in the region as a flagrant Shia-instigated power struggle which has derailed Hizbullah from its loftier campaign of resistance to Israel.

Having said all this, the scope and intensity of sectarian tensions should not be exaggerated. Even in Lebanon, where the Sunni-Shia divide is only second to Iraq in its rancour, two-thirds of Sunnis do not support Sunni attacks against Shias in Iraq, while almost three-quarters of them do not view the Shia crescent as a reality, according to the findings of a Beirut Centre for Research and Information (BCRI) poll. In the region as a whole, Sunnis do not appear to be anywhere near as concerned as their leaders about Iran's rise as a regional powerhouse and its attendant sectarian implications. A joint survey conducted by Shibley Telhami and Zogby International in November 2006, revealed that only six per cent of a general sample of respondents from the predominantly Sunni countries of Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Morocco and UAE, in addition to Lebanon -- states dubbed as "moderate" by the Bush administration -- regarded Iran as the greatest threat to their security, despite the fact that significant majorities in each of these countries viewed Iran's role in Iraq as negative. What these findings imply is that while the vast majority of Sunni Arabs are highly critical of Iran's policy on Iraq, they do not draw generalisations about Iran's Middle East policy on this basis. In other words, they do not see Iraq as the lynchpin of an incipient Shia crescent led by Iran that imperils their security. In fact, any misgivings Sunni Arabs may have about Iran and Hizbullah appear to be outweighed by the perception of these two strategic players as bulwarks against US hegemonic designs and Israeli territorial ambitions in the region.

As reported by the Telhamy-Zogby poll, 80 per cent of respondents see Israel and the US as posing the greatest threats to their security. Such fears have been prompted by the Bush administration's "war on terror," that is defined in part by doctrines of pre-emptive war and regime change that aim to reshape the face of the Middle East region. The US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, with threats to do the same in Syria and Iran, have combined with its orchestration of the Israeli onslaught against Lebanon last summer and the international embargo it organised against the Palestinians, starving them of needed funds, to create an image of the US as not merely a civilisational threat to Arabs and Muslims, but increasingly an existential one.

In this connection, Iran's right to nuclear power is supported by 61 per cent of Arabs, according to the results of the Telhami-Zogby poll, although half of all respondents in the survey suspect that Iran's nuclear programme is intended for weapons manufacture. For the majority of "moderate" Sunni Arabs then, a nuclear- armed Iran is a desirable counterweight to US and Israeli military dominance in the region. This is further evinced by the fact that President Ahmadinejad was ranked the third most popular leader in the Sunni Arab world, as reported by the Telhami-Zogby survey, in light of his renowned defiance of the US and his highly inflammatory anti-Israel rhetoric, which, while not sitting well with all Iranians back home, wins him much kudos in the Arab world.

Support for Iran also owes itself in large part to its longstanding sponsorship of popular Islamist resistance movements in the region -- Hizbullah and Hamas. Although Arab regimes castigated Hizbullah for its abduction of Israeli soldiers in July 2006, with Saudi Arabia condemning Hizbullah's actions as "irresponsible adventurism", popular Arab support for the movement reached its zenith in last summer's war, given the scale of the Israeli offensive and the resistance's ability to defeat the militarily superior Israeli army. As a consequence, the stature of Hizbullah's secretary-general, Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah, was elevated to heroic proportions in much of the Sunni Arab world, earning him the title of the "new Gamal Abdel Nasser" for his showdown with Israel. In the Telhami-Zogby poll, Nasrallah was ranked the most popular leader by Arab respondents, while in a BCRI survey commissioned by Kuwait's Al-Qabas newspaper in December, Nasrallah emerged as Sunni Kuwait's preferred leader, with 40 per cent of Kuwaitis expressing their preference for him over other Sunni leaders.

In keeping with the growing tide of anti-Israel sentiment, Sunni Islamist movements, including Muslim Brotherhood wings in Egypt, Jordan and elsewhere, lent their full support to Hizbullah's war effort, while Al-Qaeda's second in command, Ayman Al Zawahiri, jumped on the anti- Israel bandwagon in support of the resistance. In turn, Arab regimes, which had previously underestimated Hizbullah's endurance and military strength, were compelled to considerably tone down their earlier rhetoric in a desperate bid to salvage what remaining legitimacy they had left with a staunchly pro-resistance Arab public.

What facilitates the appeal of Shia Islamic actors like Iran and Hizbullah to an Arab Sunni audience is their embrace of the core principles of a once predominately Sunni Arabist movement. Arabist slogans such as resistance to occupation, the liberation of Palestine and the struggle against imperialism for regional independence, resonate well with the Sunni Arab street. While Hizbullah's Arab nationality somewhat mitigates its Shia identity, the notion of a Shia-Persian power becoming the standard bearer of Sunni Arab causes, appears more paradoxical. But judging from the level of Sunni Arab support for Hizbullah and Iran, it appears as though the perceived restoration of Arab pride and dignity that these two strategic players have bought about overrides national and sectarian considerations.

In effect, the much promoted "Shia crescent" theory appears to be far less of a political reality, or widespread social concern, than a card played by "moderate" Arab regimes to whip up fears among their Sunni publics within the context of a wider, US-orchestrated campaign to enlist the support of Sunni Arab regimes in demonising and isolating Iran. Since these regimes are unwilling to forgo their alliances with the US, they feel compelled to invent an enemy to counter- balance and deflect attention away from the US- Israeli threat, on which they cannot deliver, with the purpose of winning back some popular legitimacy via an imagined threat called "Shiism".

While the spectre of a Shia-Iranian security threat is one concocted by Arab leaders, the Iran- Hizbullah model is a very real political threat to the popular legitimacy and regional influence of Arab regimes. What the "moderate" regimes of Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia fear is not so much the strategic threat posed to them by a nuclear-emboldened Iran, or even a Shia conversion campaign in their Sunni heartland, but rather, the model of political empowerment represented by Iran and Hizbullah. Arab alarmism is therefore not directed at the export of religious or cultural Shiism but, more significantly, at political Shiism as defined by its anti-imperialist, anti-Zionist, pro-resistance identity. That the US supports Saudi efforts to play a more active role in resolving regional disputes, in a last ditch attempt to eclipse Iran's regional soft power, is indicative of the recognition by both parties of the extent of Iran's influence and appeal among Sunni Arabs. And it is precisely because Iran does not act like a Shia power, with distinctly Shia objectives, that makes it such a formidable challenge to the US and its Arab allies. For the US-allied moderate states, the gravest threat to the longevity and stability of their regimes is a strategic regional alliance that cuts across the Sunni-Shia, Persian-Arab and religious-secular divides.

In effect, the new fault lines dividing the region are not between Arab-led Sunnis and Persian-led Shias, nor between democrats and autocrats, a la yesteryear's Bush doctrine. Nor is the now fashionable "extremists" versus "moderates" schema an apt depiction of reality. Today's fault lines centre on ideological and strategic orientations. On one side of the divide lie Arab regimes, such as Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, as well as recently elected governments, all of which have earned their "moderate" epithets by dint of their alliances with the US and their moderation vis-à-vis Israel. Whether authoritarian or democratically elected, these governments are fully buttressed by the US, and are therefore widely accused of ceding their nation's sovereignty and lacking popular legitimacy.

On the other side of the divide sits the strategic front represented by Iran, Syria, Hizbullah and Hamas, formed in response to the US- Israeli axis and thus essentially a reactive alliance. As a defensive front, whose central objective is to actively resist US and Israeli political intervention, security/intelligence infiltration, and military occupation with a combination of cultural, political and military means, the most suitable designation for this coalition of forces is the "resistance and mumanaa front". While only Hamas and Hizbullah are currently engaged in military resistance, the term mumanaa -- derived from the Arabic word "to prevent" and which connotes all forms of non-military resistance, confrontation and rejection -- refers to the politically confrontational stands assumed by Iran and Syria. Though none of the actors that constitute this front actually label themselves as such, they often characterise themselves as being part of a "resistance camp", " mumanaa front", or "circle of steadfastness" that "rejects hegemony and defeat" and seeks "justice" and "dignity".

In the final analysis, a potential wide-scale attack by the US on Iran -- which would most likely involve Israel and engulf Lebanon, the occupied Palestinian territories, and possibly Syria as well -- would only serve to further unify Sunni-Shia ranks, as exemplified by the July 2006 war. In such a scenario, Iran would unleash the Shia Iraqi resistance in full force, thereby eliminating the main source of Sunni antagonism towards it. For Hizbullah, greater participation in strategic decision-making would become of negligible significance in the face of a US-Israeli offensive on the movement and its regional allies. Unfettered by concerns for national unity and internal stability -- which would cease to exist in the midst of a regional war -- Hizbullah would devote itself exclusively to its "resistance priority", thereby regaining any Sunni support it recently lost. Thus, the launching of yet another chapter of the "war on terror" would only serve to radicalise the people of the region beyond the level achieved by the so-called "Iraq effect", while promoting the popular standing of a resistance and mumanaa front in the Arab world and beyond.

* The writer is a leading Lebanese expert on Hizbullah and a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment Middle East Centre. She is the author of Hizbullah: Politics and Religion, Pluto Press.

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Questioning the Shia crescent

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