December 18, 2009

The Eclipsing of the Arab-Israeli Conflict

According to a new study of public opinion by the folks who host the Doha Debates in Qatar, a clear majority in 18 Arab countries now thinks Iran poses a greater threat to security in the Middle East than Israel. The leadership in most of these countries has thought so for years. That average citizens now do so should be encouraging news for everyone in the region — aside from the Iranian government, Hamas, and Hezbollah.

Some may find it hard to believe that so many Arabs think Iran is more threatening than Israel, but I don’t. Leave aside the fact that Iran really is more threatening. Arabs and Persians have detested each other for more than a thousand years, ever since Arabs conquered premodern Iran and converted its people to Islam. The lasting ethnic enmity between the two is compounded by religious sectarianism. Most Arabs are Sunnis, most Persians are Shias, and Sunnis and Shias have been slugging it out with each other since the 8th century.

After the Iranian revolution against the Shah Reza Pahlavi in 1979, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s Islamic Republic exploded into the Arab Middle East with a campaign of imperialism and terrorism. Khomeini never concealed his ambition to lead the whole Muslim world, and the government he founded has been hammering the established Sunni Arab order with a battering ram ever since.

Iran had excellent relations with Israel before Khomeini scrapped the alliance and switched to the Arab side. Like his successor Ali Khamenei, he used violent anti-Zionism to win the hearts and minds of the Arabs. It worked to an extent for a while. Most Arab governments didn’t buy it, but the people often did.

As recently as 2006, Iran, despite the fact that it has a Persian and Shia majority, picked up considerable cache among Sunni Arabs for attacking Israel from Lebanon with its Hezbollah proxy. (Lebanese Sunnis weren’t very happy about it, but Sunnis in Egypt and Syria certainly were.) The Egyptian and Saudi governments were alarmed, and they condemned Hezbollah for sparking the conflict.

This was unprecedented. While it barely registered in the West, it was huge in the Middle East, so huge that some of the more paranoid Lebanese Shias started thinking that the Sunnis and the Israelis were conspiring against them.

“Gulf Arabs give bombs to Israel to kill my people!” one excitable individual said to me at a Hezbollah rally in downtown Beirut. The guy was bonkers, of course. Israel doesn’t need bombs from the Gulf, and no one in the Gulf would donate or sell them even if Israel asked. Still, the man correctly sensed that Sunnis in the region aren’t as willing to team up with Shias against Israelis as they used to be.

Read the rest in Commentary Magazine.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at December 18, 2009 11:29 AM

Thanks, Michael, for the interesting post.

Iran has certainly overplayed its hand. It's not just a number of Arab states--and now apparently the Arab street--that are alarmed by the Iranian threat; the French are practically leading the Western charge against Iran's nuclear program, as this article hints: and as numerous statements from Paris attest.

The first question I asked myself is why the French are hawkish on Iran compared to their dovish stance regarding Saddam's Iraq. True, Sarkozy is cut from a different cloth than Chirac. But I think the primary reason is because Iran, at its current trajectory, will have missiles that will be able to reach Europe in the not so distant future.

I'm less than impressed with the Obama Administration's Middle Eastern foreign policy. They seem very naive. The first big gaff was demanding a total halt to all construction in ALL territory conquered by Israel in 1967, even in Jerusalem neighborhoods that everybody knows will remain a part of Israel in any final status peace agreement. This move allowed Abbas to make preconditions (that never existed before) and, as a result, he has now climbed up a tree that he cannot or doesn't want to get down from.

The Gulf Arab states look to the U.S. to protect them from the big regional players like Iraq and Iran. But our timidity isn't reassuring them. I never thought I'd see the day when the French would be leading the charge against an anti-Western Middle Eastern power, but alas, this is what seems to be starting to happen. And I'm surprised that the U.S. hasn't made stronger statements of support on behalf of the brave Iranians who are risking their lives protesting the regime.

Are witnessing the slow abdication of American leadership in the Middle East?

Posted by: Semite5000 Author Profile Page at December 18, 2009 12:43 PM

"I never thought I'd see the day when the French would be leading the charge against an anti-Western Middle Eastern power"

France sees itself as the guide for the E.U., and Iran's missiles can hit Europe, not the U.S.

Posted by: Solomon2 Author Profile Page at December 20, 2009 7:53 PM
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