America is silent about — or perhaps even complicit in — Iran’s ever increasing influence during the recent period. In interviews, President Obama has signaled that the American administration does not want to clash with Tehran. It acknowledges the role Tehran is playing in Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen, yet promises not to target Assad in Syria in the current war because it fears provoking the wrath of Iran’s allies.
We can actually understand why America is dealing with Iran as an emerging regional power and overlooking “Shia extremism.” We can even understand why the Americans have covertly marveled at the role played by Qasem Soleimani, leader of Iran’s al-Quds force in Iraq, and are now cooperating directly with the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and Shiite militias there. At the forefront of these militias is Asa'ib Ahl al-Haq, a group led by Qais al-Khazali that has previously targeted American soldiers in Iraq.
Perhaps the Americans do not see Iran — or the Shiite — as an imminent danger to their strategic interests if a pact is signed. Furthermore, Obama has whispered to renowned American journalist Jeffrey Goldberg that these Shiite militias can be controlled through their relationship with Iran in a way that serves America’s vital interests, whereas no one can control Sunni extremists or keep the danger they pose to American interests in check. That is to say, there is no “Sunni shepherd” directing these wayward groups, which have declared a global war against the United States.
Hence, in the logic of national interests and balances of power and in light of America’s declining role in our region, we can understand why America has sided with Iran. That Obama was elected on the promise of withdrawing from Iraq — a promise he will fulfill even if it means handing it over to Soleimani, Khamenei and Sistani — facilitates this understanding.
We understand all that. But what we cannot understand — or what requires a large amount of complex and interwoven psychological and strategic analysis to understand — is why the governments of the Arab conservative camp have changed sides. They have turned their priorities and perception of sources of threat upside down, shifting their focus suddenly from Iran and its regional influence, support for the Assad regime and control of Beirut, Baghdad and Damascus to the talk about Sunni terrorism. Not only that, they have thrown all Islamist movements, including the Muslim Brotherhood, Salafists of all persuasions, even Islamic aid organizations and the Syrian revolutionary factions (including those that do not belong to the Islamic State or al-Nusra Front), into the category of terrorism. They now consider the source of danger to be Sunni Islamism, along with Erdogan’s Turkey.
The Arab states have not lifted a finger over what is happening in Sana'a. They have retreated very far — perhaps even back flipped — on the Syrian issue, as they will now accept any international or regional settlement, even one that keeps Assad in power. And they have surrendered to Iran in Baghdad and Beirut, now preferring to take their anger out on the Turks, Erdogan and the Muslim Brotherhood!
We can even understand the reasons underpinning the position these countries have taken on Erdogan and their attempt to charge Turkey with responsibility for the growth of the Islamic State, al-Nusra and other Islamist groups in Syria, as inaccurate as that may be. (Everyone knows that the decision to arm the Syrian opposition and facilitate the passage of fighters was made by a range of international and regional players, including Arab ones.) But what we cannot understand is why they have totally abandoned the “Sunni predicament” in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen. This predicament — at the heart of which is fear for the continued existence of the Sunni identity, given Iran’s increasing influence and the absence of a comparable power to stand up to Arab-Sunni interests in the region — is the key condition for the emergence and growth of the Islamic State in the region.
Conflict with Iran is not the only potential scenario available. But even if the Arabs do want to sit at the negotiating table with Iran, they must have strong, clear cards to play. Yet they are now throwing it all away and losing everywhere, and we have no real idea on what they are betting.
Edited by Nicholas Eckart