Arab governments do not share the Barack Obama administration’s enthusiasm for the nuclear deal with Iran. Both sides publicly sidestepped the issue during the Washington visit by Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdel Aziz al-Saud earlier this month, but the difference of views on this subject is widely known.
Americans see the deal as a practical means of delaying, if not stopping forever, Iran’s ambitions of becoming a nuclear weapons power. In the Arab region, however, the nuclear deal — and the concomitant lifting of economic sanctions — raises the spectre of unleashing Iran’s divisive impact on the world’s Muslims at levels similar to the days immediately after the 1979 Iranian revolution.
Iran already has sympathetic regimes in Syria and Iraq and supports strong militant groups in Lebanon, Yemen and Bahrain. Only last February, the commander of the foreign wing of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, Qassem Suleimani, told a rally marking the 36th anniversary of the 1979 uprising that “we are witnessing the export of the Islamic revolution throughout the region”. Suleimani spoke proudly of Iran’s successes “from Bahrain and Iraq to Syria, Yemen and North Africa”.
President Obama has argued that the nuclear deal should not be judged on whether it “transforms Iran, ends Iran’s aggressive behaviour towards some of its Arab neighbours or leads to détente between Shiites and Sunnis”. He sees the deal solely as an instrument to “prevent Iran from breaking out with a nuclear weapon for the next 10 years” and as “a better outcome for America, Israel and our Arab allies than any other alternative on the table”.
That offers little comfort to governments and people in Muslim countries who anticipate a better funded Iranian campaign to exert more influence across the Muslim world than in the past. Such a campaign would result in renewed competition for influence between Iran and the Saudis, causing strife among Muslims from Morocco to Indonesia.
Even under sanctions, Iran managed to prop up Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria and make the Hezbollah in Lebanon a force to reckon with. Sanctions did not prevent Tehran from dominating politics in post-Saddam Hussein Iraq, even though the new order in Baghdad was created with American blood and treasure.
Iran’s influence is visible in the events in Yemen and Bahrain and pro-Iranian groups now exist in virtually every Muslim country. Arab governments wonder what Iran might be able to do once the sanctions are over and its coffers are full.
Contrary to assertions in the Western media, it is not a matter of some historic rivalry between Shia and Sunni Muslims. It is a question of existing states trying to defend their sovereignty and autonomy in a region that has often been dominated by larger external powers. In some places, where there are very few Shias (like North Africa), Iran has still managed to enrol radical allies for a potential Pax Iranica.
Historically, Arab states (particularly in the Gulf region) have seen the United States and other Western powers as their protectors, against communism from 1945 onwards and against Iran’s revolutionary regime since 1979. They now fear the end of that protection.
The Americans dealt with the aftermath of Iran’s revolution by simplifying their understanding of the Muslim world in a “Shias bad, Sunnis good” approach. Washington assumed that Islamist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood and its affiliates were valuable allies against global communism. Arab countries helped the US mobilise Islamist ideology against the communists, culminating in the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan.
Ironically, the spread of puritanical madrasas in the Muslim world was partly a function of the fear generated around the Muslim world by Ayatollah Khomeini’s Iranian revolution. As Shia clerics created a theocracy in ancient Persia, Sunni clerics started nurturing ambitions of similar authority and power in other countries.
Support for conservative Islamic groups, such as the Wahhabis, inadvertently led to Islamist radicalism. But none of the regimes in Muslim countries became radical as a result and the ones that did — for example, the Taliban in Afghanistan, the Mohamed Morsi regime in Egypt — were forced out of power by one set of circumstances or another. That is very different from Iran, where radicalism is entrenched in the very nature of a revolutionary regime.
The US opening to Iran, coupled with the Obama administration’s neglect of the Middle East, has created a genuine fear that America might end up embracing Iran in a mistake similar to the one it made after 1979 by funding jihadis in Afghanistan. Encouragement of Iran and invoking of Shia-Sunni sectarian rivalry could undermine the ideological battle against Islamist radicalism that some Arab countries, notably the United Arab Emirates, have launched against Sunni radical groups in the aftermath of the rise of the Islamic State.