By Ibrahim Kalin
March 31, 2015
The Arab League Summit held at Sharm al-Sheik over the weekend ended with a strong support for Yemen's elected President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi against the alliance of Ali Abdullah Saleh, the former president of Yemen, the Houthis and Iran. The Saudi-led operation in Yemen seems to have united the Arab countries. It is certainly important to resolve the Yemen crisis and stop the ill-advised policies of the Houthis, Ali Abdullah Saleh and Iran in that country. But we must be vigilant against the start of a new cold war in the Middle East - a danger that Arabs, Turks and Iranians must work together to prevent. Saudi Arabia has long been alarmed by Iran's growing influence in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen but done very little to counter it. The $3 billion grant to the Lebanese army - nearly twice Lebanon's annual defense budget - that the Kingdom announced last year was a message to both Hezbollah and Iran.
Though the grant will not make the Lebanese army a strong and efficient defense force immediately, it shows the extent to which the Saudis are willing to go to balance out the Iranian penetration of prominent Arab capitals. The Kingdom was even more direct and forceful in Bahrain in 2011 where it sent in ground troops to quell widespread protests led by Shiite Bahrainis, which many suspected of being orchestrated by Iran.
So, it is evident that the Saudis are willing to use their economic and technological might to support their allies in the weak Arab states. The lessons learnt from both Iraq and Syria, however, show that the insertion of hard power without a smart strategy is not enough. If Saudi Arabia gives money and weapons to ally Arab governments, Iran does the same with its proxies and non-state actors. This creates only a dangerous vicious cycle that hurts everyone in the region.
There is no doubt that Iran is seeking to create proxy alliances within the Arab Shiite populations across the Middle East. But the level of success it has achieved is not simply due to Iran's abilities. It is also facilitated by the socio-political and economic circumstances that encourage alternative loyalties. Sunni and Shiite Muslims have a collective responsibility to address their own issues independent of nation-state rivalries.
A Saudi-Iranian clash will not be just a political rivalry between two countries; it will also inflame Sunni-Shiite tensions. This should be prevented at all costs. Saudi Arabia does not represent Sunni Islam just as Iran does not represent Shiite Islam per se. The Sunni and Shiite communities of the Muslim world may feel affinity toward certain states but they are bigger than any nation-state agenda. At the end of the day, each country acts with its own nation-state interests. A prolonged conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran will only hurt those communities they purport to support and protect.
Iran has a historic opportunity to become a responsible regional power accepted by its neighbors and the larger world if it acts with prudence and wisdom. Iran is close to a major deal with the West over its nuclear program. If a deal is made, it will release Iran from the heavy burden of economic sanctions and political isolation and boost Iran's economy and relations with the outside world. Turkey has all along recognized Iran's right to peaceful nuclear energy and supported the nuclear talks, for which it has been wrongfully accused of moving away from the West, betraying Western alliance, et cetera. Iran should not squander this opportunity with harmful dreams of regional expansionism.
Instead, Iran should work to develop better relations with its Arab neighbors instead of seeking undue influence through its Shiite proxies. Most Sunni Arabs including political Islamists perceive Iranian policies not pan-Islamist but rather expansionist and sectarian. Iran's intelligence and military operations in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen and Bahrain reveal a desire to create spheres of influence through proxy groups and non-state actors. This inevitably creates an anti-Iran, anti-Shiite reaction in Muslim countries. In a rather dangerous way, the Iran-backed Shiite domination in Iraq and Syria push many mainstream Sunni Arabs to the arms of such extremist groups as al-Qaida and ISIS. Iran's attempt to use ISIS terror as a pretext to legitimize its operations in Arab capitals is disappointingly similar to the Assad regime's hopeless attempt to position itself as a secular bulwark against religious extremism but this posturing no has credibility in the Arab world and the West. This is also rather ironic in that it is the Assad regime supported by Iran and Russia that created the circumstances for the rise of ISIS in Syria, Iraq and beyond.
In turn, the Sunni Arab states need to find ways to engage Iran in a constructive manner. A paranoid fear of Shiite Islam and Iran on the one hand and Islamic political parties on the other will only exacerbate the existing problems that engulf the Middle East. A smarter strategy requires inclusiveness, transparency and cooperation. The Yemen crisis should be an opportunity for all key players in the region to reassess their strategic priorities and revise their policies. This is a collective responsibility, one that can prevent a new cold war in the Middle East and bring a much-needed respite to an already troubled region.