The Shia-Sunni Power Play in the Middle East

The continuing public spat between Hezbollah and Arab states is a mixture of old and new styles of power play.  The “old” part implicitly involves Iran–the chief supporter of Hezbollah–while the new aspect of this power play is between the antiquated monarchies and the nexus between Iran and Hezbollah.  Iran is the “rising power” of the Middle East, while the Sunni Arab states belong to the category of “declining” powers.  Hezbollah’s status will be determined most significantly after the impending elections in Lebanon.  As an example of how the U.S. foreign policy toward the Middle East is more of an expression of continuity than change (despite President Barack H. Obama’s rhetoric of “change’) Vice President Biden was dispatched to Lebanon to influence the outcome of the Lebanese elections, an action that is likely to backfire and, in the process, only enhance the political clout of Hezbollah. 


From the point of view of their potentials for bringing about balance of power-related changes in the Middle East, Sunni monarchies and dictatorships are archaic and outmoded.  Throughout the post-colonial era of the Twentieth Century, all they wanted to do was to preside over obscurantist and backward-looking societies where their authority would never be challenged.  They also made sure that the Sunni religious establishment “wheel” was amply greased so that it would permanently support their rule by issuing favorable religious rulings when needed.


The Arab Development Reports–written for the UN by Arab scholars–are full of candid explanations as to why the Arab world remains so close to the bottom rung in terms of Internet use, scientific education, overall literacy, and gender equality.


The monarchies and dictatorships’ ruling style was favored by the colonial powers of Europe and by the United States, when it emerged as the major Western power in the Arab region during the post-colonial era.  No one was going to challenge the United States’ strategic dominance in any significant way.  Saddam Hussein attempted to do just that.  But he could never raise himself to the status of an Arab hero who was committed to the uplifting of the Arab masses.  As long as he ruled Iraq, he was no more than a tyrant.  As such, he indulged in any amount of blood-letting to keep himself in power.


The Islamic Revolution of 1979 in Iran brought forth a promise of change when it ousted the rotten monarchy of Mohammad Reza Pahlevi.  But then the Islamic Republic itself became part of struggle for which the Middle East is notorious.  Except this time, that struggle also involved the Mullahs’ ventures to maintain their rule.  Still, Iran did bring about a number of changes, one the most significant ones was its politicization of the under-privileged Shias of Lebanon.  The emergence of Hezbollah was very much part of that aspect of Iran’s involvement in that country. 


However, it is the U.S. invasion of Iraq that opened new vistas of opportunities for Iran, not just inside that country but on to the rest of the Middle East.  An important point that should be kept in mind is that the U.S. propaganda machine has also helped Iran by unwittingly overplaying its clout beyond its real scope.  Needless to say, such U.S. publicity suits the rulers of that country just fine.

The Sunni Arab countries–most significantly Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan–are watching with a mixture of fascination and dismay as Iran has emerged as a major player inside Iraq since 2003.  Even when the Surge strategy implemented by General David Petraeus has deescalated violence and its related instability in Iraq, Iran is just standing around, it seems, waiting to see what the next major U.S. move is likely to be. 

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When President Obama entered the White House, the prospect of having a serious dialogue with Iran became part of his agenda.  Iran is now enjoying the kind of attention no Arab state has ever experienced.


Iran’s nuclear program is what is most troubling to the United States and the Sunni Arabs.  Even on this point, the U.S propaganda machine is doing a good job of exaggerating Arab fears.  Realistically speaking, Iran has no quarrels with the Arabs to use its nuclear weapons against them after acquiring it.  By the same token, a nuclear Iran’s best option is never even to threaten Israel with its use.  But these types of rational arguments are presented in the uppermost echelons of policymakers and behind closed doors.  No amount of cavalier attitude may be publicly expressed regarding Iran on this matter.   Any discussion that lowers the level of fear of Iran’s potential acquisition of nuclear weapons is not part of conventional wisdom in the United States.


After the recent nuclear test conducted by North Korea, the Obama administration’s level of patience regarding Iran’s ostensible delaying tactics will be getting short.  The most important maneuver on the part of Iran is to see if it can successfully continue its nuclear program without forcing the United States to give it some sort of deadline.  It may not be important for Iran that it emerges as a nuclear power in the immediate future, as long as its scientists acquire the critical knowledge of manufacturing nuclear weapons, learn to miniaturize them, and master the coupling of their miniaturized nuclear tips to the long-range ballistic missiles.  Its leaders may realize that the time for developing nuclear weapons is not appropriate.  But the question is when would be the appropriate time for Iran.  Not in the foreseeable future. 


Alternatively, Iran might bite the bullet and declare one day that it has already developed nuclear weapons.  Then it will be up to the United States to figure out the next move.


If Iran were to become a nuclear power and still escape any attacks from the United States and Israel, then the Middle Eastern power hierarchy will experience considerable changes.  One has only to imagine what the status of Iran is likely to be vis-à-vis the United States.  The example of India is very much in front of Iran.  In 1998, India exploded its nuclear weapons and became a nuclear power.  By 2008, it signed a nuclear deal with the lone superpower without even signing the NPT and has gained access to cutting civilian and military technology.  That may not be a bad example for Iran to follow.  Such a potential might be one very crucial reason why Arab monarchs and dictators are worried about Iran.

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