Bush administration efforts to forge a US-Arab alliance against Iran are threatening to produce a new Middle East Cold War, with dangerous implications for regional stability, US interests and American lives.
When Condoleezza Rice was in the region to lay the foundations for a united front with key Arab states based on the perception of a common threat posed by Iran and other forces of extremism and violence in the region, according to State Department spokesman Sean McCormack.
But by creating yet another ‘with us or against us’ scenario, the Bush administration is fueling a growing schism between Sunni and Shia Arabs.
On the surface, a US-Arab alliance against Iran makes sense. Line up the ‘good guys’ against the ‘bad guys.’ But nothing in the Middle East is simple. We should know that by now. Governments in Egypt, Jordan and the Gulf states, where Sunni Muslims are in the majority, may perceive Shiite Iran as a threat, but their ideas on how to respond and who they consider “other forces of extremism are not necessarily in synch with those of the US.
One example: For the past two months, an Egyptian satellite has been hosting a channel run by Iraq’s Sunni insurgency, which airs non-stop footage of attacks on American troops. It’s a reminder that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s desire to reassert Egypt’s leadership of the Sunni Arab world may clash with his erstwhile role as “dependable US ally.
The sectarian spectacle of Saddam Hussein’s execution was the catalyst for the harsh new anti-Iranian and anti-Shiite rhetoric being heard in the region. Columnists have written of “the Iranian plan to crush Iraq’s Sunni minority. Mubarak himself warned Tehran, “don’t touch Iraq.
Recent weeks have seen hints of possible Saudi military support for Iraq’s Sunnis, frequent references to the threat of a “Shia crescent stretching from Iran to Lebanon, and even suggestions that “oppressed Sunni Arabs minorities in Iran should be funded to stir up trouble there. A top general in Iran’s Basij militia hit back with a threat to blockade the Strait of Hormuz and stop the flow of oil.
All this against the backdrop of increased sectarian tensions across the region, from Shia charges of Sunni vote-rigging in last month’s elections in Bahrain to a Saudi cleric’s fatwa declaring Shia “infidels. A recent Zogby survey found that the public in Kuwait, Jordan, Egypt and Morocco consider a nuclear Iran as the greatest threat to political stability in their own countries.
Along with increasing the danger to American troops, Arab support for Iraq’s Sunni Muslim insurgents in their civil war against the Shiites – whether psychological or military – could easily cause the conflict to spill beyond Iraq’s borders, with anti-Sunni violence carried out by Shiite militants in neighboring Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states. An all-out regional conflagration is unlikely, but the potential for military incidents in the Gulf, to which President Bush just dispatched another carrier battle group, is very real.
Meanwhile, the implications for Lebanon are grim. The feuds of the Middle East have long been fought through proxies on the streets of Beirut. So far, the political confrontation between Shia Hezbollah and its Sunni and Christian rivals has remained peaceful, but it wouldn’t take much provocation to send Lebanon spiraling back into violence. Hezbollah earned the respect of Sunni Arabs in last summer’s war with Israel, but it is ultimately the face of Shiite militancy. And for a host of religious, historic and family reasons, the Shiites of Iraq and Lebanon share a close bond.
Then there is Palestine, where Iranian funding for Hamas increases Tehran’s ability to undermine the Bush administration’s newfound desire to broker an Israel-Palestine settlement.
In his speech last week, President Bush warned that failure in Iraq would put Al-Qaeda and its allies “in a better position to topple moderate governments and “create chaos in the region. The danger is that by encouraging a regional Cold War through a policy of confrontation rather than engagement, the Bush administration will – once more – feed the forces of terror, not contain them.
Lawrence Pintak is director of the Adham Center for Electronic Journalism at The American University in Cairo and author of Reflections in a Bloodshot Lens: America, Islam & the War of Ideas. Email: lpintak-AT-aucegypt.edu.