Middle-east Arab News Opinion | Asharq Al-awsat

Knocking on the Persian Door | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
Select Page

The scene in Syria today seems distorted and vague. Is the mission of joint UN and Arab League Special Envoy to Syria, Kofi Annan, over? If so, how did this mission end? What does the sending of international monitors to Syria truly signify? How will this observer mission be any different than the “scandalous” Arab League observer mission headed by Sudan’s Lieutenant General Mohammed al-Dabi?

Is this considered a victory or a defeat for the regime? What about when we consider the fact that even Russia supports the Annan initiative and the international observer mission, as well as the fact that there are overt attempts to draw comparisons between the regime and the opposition? This is something that does not please the regime which has gotten used to naming its dissidents as “terrorist gangs.”

What role are Turkey and Iran playing? Did the international stance change after the failure of the previous international observer mission? What are the Arabs, especially the Gulf States, doing other than expressing their sympathy, and praying for the people of Syria? Is there something being planned behind closed doors that has yet to be announced?

How should we view the latest conference held in Istanbul between the G5+1 and Iran on the latter’s nuclear energy issue? How can we explain the praise that Iran received for taking somewhat “constructive” positions in these negotiations? How can we interpret the Istanbul conference being regarded as a resounding victory for Iranian foreign policy by certain Iranian politicians and intellectuals when Tehran continues to provoke the Gulf States, for example, by Ahmadinejad visiting one of the three occupied Emirate islands? This visit brought sharp reactions from the Gulf Cooperation Council [GCC].

In a related context, the UAE sent a message of protest to the United Nations [UN] condemning Ahmadinejad’s visit to the island of Abu Musa. The UAE also recalled its Ambassador from Tehran and cancelled a friendly football match that was scheduled to take place between the two countries in protest to Ahmadinejad’s unprecedented visit.

An important means through which we can try to understand the nature of the Syrian crisis is by monitoring Iran’s movements and the nature of its discourse with the international community and the region. Iran today is flexing its muscles. Meanwhile, it is negotiating with the international community in Istanbul, skirmishing with Gulf States and backing the al-Assad regime.

Iran is a country that is very good at juggling its interests. It is able to play its cards according to its priorities.

Iran is the gateway to regional tension. The Syrian and Iraqi crises are just one symptom of the Iranian canker.

Is the West unaware of this fact?

Not at all, the Obama administration itself has fallen under heavy criticism due to its laxity in estimating the threat posed by Iran. Commenting on the recent Istanbul conference, President Obama denied that he had made any concessions during talks regarding Iran’s nuclear issue. Indeed Obama vowed to impose stricter sanctions if no progress is made.

What does Iran want in order to stop creating problems? Is this nothing more than a radical sectarian revolution, a Persian pan-national prejudice or an exploitation of the region’s disintegration and dilapidation? Iran capitalized on the Arabs’ broken spirit several times over the last four decades: during the era of Nasser and Saddam Hussein, as well as following the moral besiegement of Sunnis across the region following the infamous 9/11 attacks.

Is the West truly alarmed by Iran? Is it actually antagonistic toward Tehran and toward its role in the region? Or does Washington actually want Iran to play a role in the region, albeit in a specific manner?

These questions are more of a quest, particularly as the situation is complicated and intertwined; this involves historical and mythical issues, pan-national and radical considerations, not to mention taking into account the issues of oil and religion. The West is not one unified voice, and there are a lot of proposed ideas on how to deal with the problems in the Middle East.

We know this, but we must realize there are groups in the US, Europe and even Russia which support the idea of strengthening the Iranian and Shiite role in the region at the expense of the Arab and Sunni role. By doing this, they follow the proverb that goes: Better the devil you know! This orientation exists in US think-tanks and was reviewed by Saudi writer Abdul Malik Ibn Ahmed Aal al-Sheikh in his latest article in this newspaper. It is an article well worth reading.

Aal al-Sheikh mentions a book written by an American author called Robert Baer entitled “The Devil We Know: Dealing with the New Iranian Superpower”.

The author is a former case officer at the Central Intelligence Agency [CIA] who has written a number of books. The gist of his opinion is that Iran is the power which the US should approach in the region in view of the consideration that Iran is a rational State with an ancient imperial civilization, whereas the Arabs are a backward people. Baer argues that the Shiites are more rational than the Sunnis and that the US should not take hostile statements by Iran’s leaders very seriously, contending that what counts is their actions on the ground.

In this manner, the author proceeds to make suggestions on how to contain Iran’s fears, reassure and offer it a leading role in the region and transform it from an enemy into an ally.

Baer’s words are not new to American think-tanks. This is a suggestion that was previously and strongly adopted by writers like Vali Nasr, who is a US academic of Iranian descent and Professor of Middle East and South Asia Studies at the US Naval Academy. In his exciting book entitled “The Shia Revival”, Nasr forcefully argues that there is more chance of establishing democracy with the Shiites than with the Sunnis. He observes that, during the invasion of Iraq, the Americans stepped into the region on the wrong foot. According to Nasr, they were unable to fully realize the roots and impact of the Islamic sectarian conflict in ancient and modern times. He believes that the Sunni – Shiite conflict has shaped the history of the Middle East in the past and it is reshaping it again today.

In his book “The Shia Revival” (2006) which was snapped up by the American elite and acclaimed by top-notch American critics, Vali Nasr enthusiastically points to the fact that a new history is being written in the Middle East today. This history can be seen by monitoring the features and milestones of the conflict between the “Shia Revival” and the Sunni resistance to this revival. Even though he presents himself as a Liberal who champions Liberal values and encourages the democratic project, Nasr focuses on the momentum of this revival represented by the revolution and State of the “Wali al-Faqih” [Guardian of the Jurists] in Iran, which is, in his own view, the prop and stanchion of this revival.

Taking a walk down memory lane, Nasr takes us back to the period of Umayyad – Hashemite conflict. He carries on throughout the book recalling such times, touching on the era of extended “Shiite dormancy” after the Sunni prevalence over the scene, before arriving to the emergence of the Safavid State and its conflict with the Ottoman Empire. He eventually reaches the decisive moment of the Khomeinist rule. At this milestone, Nasr notices that Khomeini considered himself the real founder of a new Shiite trend with a non-reactive revolutionary spirit, very much like the nature of the Hawza (traditional Islamic school of higher learning) clerics.

One of the key points introduced by Vali Nasr in the book is his description of the nature of Iran’s “influence”, which is founded on revolutionary political Shiism. Nasr said that the year that followed 2001 represented, in several ways, Iran’s “Prussian moment” which could be compared to the era of Berlin’s growing influence. He said that Bismarck knew how to engineer and maximize this influence despite the vastness of the German-speaking world in the mid-19th century, adding that he believes that the Shia revival will attempt to expand the scope of Iran’s regional influence and strengthen Tehran’s demand to be treated as a “superpower.”

In Iraq, we saw an incarnation of this revival or Shiite political “revolution”. We witnessed clear statements highlighting the importance of this decisive moment in Shiite political history. This is manifestly reflected in the seventh chapter of Nasr’s book; chapter seven is entitled “Iraq: The First Arab Shia State.

For his part, Adel Abdul Mahdi, one of the moderates on Iraq’s Al-Hakim Council, was quoted, in the 2003 December issue of the American “Smithsonian” magazine, as saying that the Shiites can now hold their heads high as they are now capable of representing Iraq.

American writer Robert Baer also mentioned that he attended a meeting in Tehran with Hashemi Rafsanjani, who told him that the Mullahs in Tehran are aware that they have a duty to restore the time-honoured glory of Persia.

In the end, we must try to be more enlightened with regards to our approach to dealing with the Syrian, Iraqi, Lebanese, and even the Yemeni, Emirate and Bahraini crises. We must view what is happening from a much broader perspective, rather than linking everything that is happening to Iran’s Damascus pawn, Bashar al-Assad. We must take into account the specific background and history of each country, as well as the everyday course of events, for even the smallest details could distort the bigger picture.