According to a recent Zogby poll, George W. Bush jumped ahead of Ariel Sharon this year as the world leader Arabs like least. Perhaps Bush owes his remarkable surge to the fact that the former prime minister was in a coma for all but two weeks of 2006. This same poll that surveyed respondents on the popularity of an Israeli leader who for all practical purposes is dead, also reports that the majority of Middle Easterners do not fear Iran. It is the answer to what seems a very fuzzy question, indeed a much politicized one designed to challenge what has recently become the White House’s regional flow-chart: The Sunni Arab states are lined up with the US and Israel, against Tehran and its regional allies, Syria and Hizbullah.
You can’t entirely blame the Zogby pollsters for wanting all the traditional enmities to still hold water: Arabs hate Israel and Bush most of all, and they like—er, ok, they don’t fear Iran! What seems like a fundamental re-alignment of interests has come as a surprise to almost everyone, here in Washington and elsewhere. Sunni powers like Egypt and Jordan have been quite clear about their concerns over the Iranian threat, while the Saudi royal family has put up a noble front, perhaps because they have the most to lose if Iran becomes the regional hegemon. But the issue’s even more interesting within the Palestinian Authority.
Now that the Mecca Agreement has, temporarily at least, ended the discord between Hamas and Fatah, maybe the Palestinian Prime Minister can relax about his fashion choices. Ever since a Fatah crowd started chanting “Shia, Shia” against their Tehran-funded rivals, it seems Ismail Haniyeh will not be photographed without a red and white kafiyeh on his head. Maybe the color-scheme is to distinguish himself from the late Chairman Arafat—or perhaps he just wants to wrap himself in Arab garb to avoid seeming too Persian. So, then perhaps the more useful question is not whether Arabs fear Iran, but if some Arabs are very worried about seeming too Iranian.
The Iranians of course are also anxious, which is why unlike their clueless ally in Damascus, they seem to want very much to avoid a sectarian civil war in Lebanon. Another Sunni-Shia conflict in the Middle East is probably not to the Islamic Republic’s advantage, especially since the US military’s “surge” in Iraq seems so far mostly to involve rolling up Iranian assets in Baghdad. And if Bashar al-Assad keeps trying to bring down the Seniora government for the sake of sidelining an investigation into the murder of a popular Sunni zai’m and empowering a Shia militia, then Tehran will lose much of the region-wide credit it earned this past summer, outside Lebanon at any rate, as benefactor and grand sorcerer of the Islamo-nationalist resistance against Israel. The fact is that the Iranians may have already reached the limits of their ability to project power in a region that is majority Sunni Arab.
Perhaps that’s why here in Washington we are watching an extraordinary publicity campaign on behalf of the Islamic Republic of Iran unfold, waged by a host of journalists and policy specialists in articles like “Courting the Saudis, and Catastrophe,” and “Why America Must Throw in its Lot with the Shia.” In short, the argument is that the US cannot abandon the Shia revival at this stage and return to the policies that allowed Sunni fanaticism to blossom and eventually bear fruit on September 11. The problem however is that the White House interprets regional transformation very differently than the Shia do: Washington means making room for democracy, or power-sharing, while the Iranians and Arab Shia from Iraq to Lebanon have largely taken it as a cue that after 1,400 years, they get to ride the pony now. Sure, the Shia reaction is a very understandable human response to more than a millennium of repressive violence, but the Americans are not going to run roughshod over all their strategic interests just so that the Shia can get their pound of flesh out of the Sunnis.
Elsewhere recently, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman argues that Iranian civilization and the country’s well-educated and progressive populace make Iran a much more likely US ally than Riyadh. In an ideal world, Washington policymakers would very much like to have a relationship with Iran. Among other things, it would give the US some much-needed leverage over the Saudis to finally stop funding, inciting and staffing, if unwittingly, terror against Americans and American interests. Alas, it is not an ideal world, and the Iranian regime is a much bigger problem as it is openly fighting the US, its allies and interests across the Middle East, from Iraq to Lebanon.
Vali Nasr is one of the hot names in US policy circles these days, which is why just last month he was invited to testify before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. There, he explained that, “a policy that is focused on Iran rather than Iraq will escalate conflict in Iraq and across the Middle East, thereby deepening American involvement in the region with the potential for adversely impacting US interests.” In other words, let Iran go about its business of adversely impacting US interests.
In fact, it wasn’t until very recently that Washington recognized the significance of Iran’s campaign, an oversight that explains why the Americans were essentially conducting two Middle East policies—one to deal with Lebanon, Syria, the Gulf, etc. that saw Iran as the major strategic threat; and another for Iraq that ignored, as Nasr counseled, the extent of Iranian penetration there.
With Moqtada al-Sadr hiding himself away like another famous underground mullah, those days are gone. And now who knows what new alliances are yet in store—a Damascus isolated by Saudi Arabia and its anxious Iranian ally?