The Middle East: Iran is Back

And you wanted to say: Not the Crusades? Not the Mongol invasion?

“This (Arab) nation, in its darkest hour, has never faced a challenge to its existence and a threat to its identity like the one it’s facing now,” said General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, now the ruler of Egypt.

And you wanted to say: Not the Crusades? Not the Mongol invasion? Not even the European conquest of the entire Arab world between 1830 and 1920? You really think the gravest threat ever to Arab existence and identity is a bunch of tribal warriors in Yemen?

Sisi was addressing the Arab League summit in Cairo last week that created a new pan-Arab military force to confront this threat, so overheated rhetoric was standard issue, but still…. The air forces of Saudi Arabia and its Gulf neighbours are blasting Yemen from the air, and there is talk of Saudi Arabian, Egyptian and even Pakistani troops invading on the ground, but it all smells more of panic than of strategic calculation.

The panic is due to the fact that the status quo that has prevailed in the Middle East since approximately 1980 is at an end. Iran is back, and there is great dismay in the palaces of Riyadh – especially because it was Saudi Arabia’s great friend and ally, the United States, who finally set Iran free.

It was the agreement in Lausanne last Thursday between Iran and the group of 5+1 (the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany) that marked the end of the status quo. It was about ending the various trade embargoes against Iran in return for ten to fifteen years of strict controls on Iran’s nuclear power programme, but it will also let Iran out of the jail it has been confined to since the 1979 revolution.

Initially that revolution was quite scary for Iran’s Arab neighbours, because Iran’s example in overthrowing the local pro-Western ruler and taking a stronger stand against Israel was very popular in the Arab street. The solution was to paint Iran as a crazy terrorist state and isolate it as much as possible from the rest of the region.

The other tactic that the conservative Arab states deployed was to stress the religious gulf between Iran (which is 90 percent Shia) and the Arab countries (whose people are at least 85 percent Sunni). The doctrinal differences are real, but they do not normally make ordinary people see one another as natural enemies unless somebody (like state propaganda) works hard at it.

Those measures worked for twenty years, assisted by some really stupid Iranian actions like holding US embassy personnel hostage for 444 days, but by the end of the 20th century they were losing credibility. What saved the “quarantine” policy in 2002 was the discovery that Tehran had been working on nuclear weapons design.

The work was a revival of research that had been started during the US-backed Iraqi invasion of Iran in 1980-88 (when Saddam Hussein certainly was working on nuclear weapons), and was shut down afterwards. It was restarted in 1998, almost certainly in response to the nuclear weapons tests by Pakistan, Iran’s eastern neighbour. It was Iran being stupid again, but it was probably never about Israel.

The alleged Iranian nuclear threat provided the basis for another decade and more of political quarantine and trade embargoes that have crippled Iran economically and isolated it politically. All that came to a sudden end last week with the agreement in principle in Lausanne (unless the Saudi Arabian and Israeli lobbies in Washington manage to torpedo the deal in the next few months).

Iran has about the same population and GDP as Egypt, the biggest Arab country by far, but it is far closer both to the Arab Gulf states and to the Sunni-Shia battlegrounds in Iraq and Syria (both of whose governments are closely linked to Tehran). That’s what Sisi was really talking about when he spoke of an existential threat to Arab existence and identity. However, he’s still talking through his hat.

Arab existence and identity are nowhere at risk, and Iran has no need to paint the Sunni Arab countries as enemies. The Iranian regime may be losing its support among the young (or maybe not), but it has absolutely no need to inoculate them against the attraction of Arab political systems and foreign policies by promoting an Arab-Iranian confrontation. They hold no attraction whatever for young Iranians.

As for the notion that the Houthi militia that now controls most of Yemen is really an Iranian tool (which is the main justification for the military intervention there), it is nonsense. The Houthis, like the Iranians, are Shias, but they have their own local interests to protect, and Iran has no plausible reason to want some sort of strategic foothold in Yemen. It is a safe bet that there is not now even a single armed Iranian in Yemen.

If the United States could send troops into Iraq in 2003 in the delusionary belief that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, then Saudi Arabia can believe that it is fighting Iranians in Yemen now. No country has a monopoly on stupidity, and Riyadh will probably have ample opportunity to regret its mistake.

Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.

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