Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Finally, it Seems, Iran Has Overplayed its Hand

Youssef Ibrahim, USA Today:
The attempt by Hezbollah and Hamas to drag the whole Arab world into their war with Israel in the past two weeks has drawn flak in the form of Arab public opinion that neither militant jihadist organizations anticipated.

Speaking in an unusually blunt tone, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and Bahrain openly rejected what they described as unilateral "adventurism," telling both groups that they are on their own vis-à-vis Israel. More important, indications are surfacing that a long-silent Arab majority has had enough of being hijacked by extremists in its midst.

In a meeting of its 22 foreign ministers Saturday in Cairo, the League of Arab States did not mince words. "Behavior undertaken by some groups in apparent safeguarding of Arab interests does in fact harm those interests, allowing Israel and other parties from outside the Arab world (read Iran) to wreak havoc with the security and safety of all Arab countries." READ MORE

The outburst has been long coming, building up ever since the 1979 Iranian Islamic revolution, which poured political militancy into the red-hot religious rivalries between Sunni and Shiite Muslims. Iran championed the oppressed Shiites as well as repressed revolutionaries in the Arab world. It also has lent a hand to jihadist Islamic fundamentalists, launching savage wars against their governments and societies in Egypt, Algeria, Saudi Arabia and Tunisia since the early 1980s:

Algeria's slow-burning civil war against ferocious armed Islamic groups has claimed more than 110,000 civilian deaths since 1992.

In Saudi Arabia, al-Qaeda terrorists have bombed civilian and oil facilities, killing Saudis and foreigners indiscriminately.

In Egypt, these extremists have killed secular writers and government officials, burned churches and hounded the Christian minority of nearly 8 million.

Long before targeting the World Trade Center's towers and subways in London and Madrid, jihadists have been relentless in their march to Islamize the Arab world.

The latest outburst in Gaza and Lebanon was particularly alarming to the Sunni Muslim public, as it so transparently bears the imprints of Iran and its Shiite mullahs. This is disconcerting because the Persian nemesis is historically viewed in the region as a neighbor with imperialist ambitions. In pushing its immediate proxies, Hezbollah and Hamas, to engage Israel now, Iran reached ever further to set the Arab world's agenda of war and peace by advancing its own agenda to confront the West, Israel included. To be sure, Syria acts as Iran's Sunni agent in the Arab world, supplying access to Iranian arms and material and feeding the cycle of violence. It is working hand-in-glove to accommodate Iran's regional strategy.

For centuries, Sunnis dominated the Muslim world. That began to change in 1979, when the Iranian Shiite mullahs' revolution led to an astonishing ascent of what King Abdullah of Jordan last year decried as a menacing "Shiite crescent" rising above the Sunni Muslim Arab world. Similar alarm was voiced by President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and indeed by Saudi Arabia, the mother of all Sunni regimes. In Iraq, the two sects are engaged in a bloody massacre of one another.

What frightens the Arabs is that Iran has an impressive network already in place to do its deeds. Even before the United States conveniently dispensed with Iraq — which was the major bulwark against Persians — Iran had planted seeds throughout the region. Hezbollah was formed in the 1980s as Iran's private militia in Lebanon. Shiites loyal to Iran were dispensed to Iraq. And assorted jihadists spread to Jordan, Egypt and Tunisia.

At first, the Iranian motive was self-defense of its young revolution, but by the 1990s its ambitions graduated to regional hegemony. The election last year of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president signaled Phase 2 of the Iranian march, further alarming normally placid Arab majorities who appear to be silent no more.

The collective resistance spoken by Arab presidents, emirs and kings at the highest levels is echoed below among ordinary people. In Lebanon, for instance, it is evident that the people in the streets are blaming Israel, of course, but also Hezbollah for today's crisis.

Ironically, Hamas and Hezbollah's provocation of Israel, coupled with the Jewish state's retaliation, might have opened a new chapter in the greater Middle East discourse — but not the one these groups anticipated. Perhaps the time has come in which war for war's sake might not just bring condemnation from the world at large, but from the Arab world as well.

Youssef Ibrahim, a former Middle East correspondent for The New York Times and energy editor for The Wall Street Journal, is a freelance writer and political-risk consultant based in the United Arab Emirates and New York.