The sectarian gulf between the Sunni Arabs and Shia Iranians runs deep. Recent reports suggest that Arabs, while being motivated by their abhorrence of the Shias, appear willing to support Israel in her not-so-covert plans to attack Iran.
Peter Cohan, writing in Forbes.com, reports that “Saudi Arabia’s rage against the Shias exceeds its dislike of its Jewish neighbors” so much so that Saudis are willing to provide Israel logistics support to attack Iran later in June. Other Arab states including Jordan and Egypt may also stand behind Israel’s foray into Iran.
It was only in November 2010 when WikiLeaks revealed that Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz was egging the American leadership to take out Iran’s nuclear programme. In April 2008, WikLeaks exposed US diplomatic cables in which the current Saudi Ambassador to the United States, Adel al-Jubair, told an American diplomat about King Abdullah's “frequent exhortations to the US to attack Iran and so put an end to its nuclear weapons program.” According to the leaked cables Ambassador al-Jubair, while referring to Iranians, asked Americans to “cut off the head of the snake”. The Saudis never denied making these comments and observed that they could not verify the veracity of these documents.
The Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is on a whistle stop tour of the western capitols to win their support for an Israeli military foray into Iran. The American newspapers, such as New York Times, have willingly become cheerleaders encouraging Israel to follow through on its threats by publishing speculations about when and how Israel will or should attack Iran. In the past three months alone, the New York Times has published over 32 stories flirting with the idea of an Israeli attack on Iran.
While Israel’s loud threats against Iran are increasing by the day, the deafening silence of the Arab leadership on threats against Iran, a supposedly brotherly Muslim country, is also becoming hard to ignore. At the same time one is at loss to understand why Iran continues to antagonise the West who is concerned about Iran’s hard stance against Israel and her unqualified support for Hamas and the Palestinian Authority. Over the past three decades Iran has taken a leading role in mobilising Muslims against Israel. However, while Iran has become a pariah for supporting the Arabs in the Arab-Israeli conflict, Arabs on the other hand continue to treat Shia Arabs and Iranians with contempt.
The brutal repression of Bahraini Shias, who are in majority, by the minority Sunni rulers was aided and abetted by the Saudi regime who sent the Saudi army (including retired non-commissioned soldiers from Pakistan) and heavy armaments across the causeway to help the Bahraini regime. Rulers in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia blamed Iran for the uprising by the majority Shias in Bahrain against the Khalifa and his clan who are Sunni Muslims. Similarly, Saudi Arabia continues to suppress Shias in the south and deprives them of the opportunity to practice their faith freely.
While Hamas has profited from the Iranian support over the years, it too is equally hostile to Shias living in Gaza. Earlier in January, armed men belonging to Hamas attacked Shias in a house in the Sheikh Zayyad neighbourhood (between Beit Lahia and Jabalya) who were commemorating Arbaeen, the end of the 40-day mourning period for Imam Hussain. The London-based Al-Hayat newspaper quoted a Gazan residence Rafik Hamad whose brother was tortured by Hamas. “The police said my brother was a heretic [Shia] and asked me to keep him at home and not let him out,” Al-Hayat quoted Hamad.
The sectarian strife is ever so obvious in the Arab-Israeli conflict where Sunni Arabs are distrustful of the Lebanon-based Hezbollah, which is dominated by Shia Arabs. A survey conducted in Lebanon by the Pew Research Center in 2010 revealed that while 94 per cent Lebanese Shias held a favourable view of Hezbollah, only 12 per cent of Sunni Lebanese felt the same way. Surprisingly, Christians in Lebanon were more responsive than the Sunnis to Hezbollah where one in five Lebanese Christians reported holding a favourable view of Hezbollah. Even as they faced off against a common nemesis, the Shias and Sunnis in Lebanon remained polarised along the sectarian lines.
The survey by Pew Research Center in 2010 revealed that despite Iran’s hardline stance against the West and its unreserved support for Palestinians, most Muslim respondents continued to hold an unfavourable view of Iran. Respondents in Pakistan and Indonesia were the only two exceptions where more than 50 per cent respondents held a favourable view of Iran. Most respondents in Egypt, Jordon, Lebanon, and Turkey reported an unfavourable view of Iran.
Even a smaller proportion of respondents expressed confidence in the leadership of Iranian president Ahmadinejad. Consider that only 35 per cent respondents in Pakistan expressed confidence in Ahmadinejad, even when 72 per cent Pakistanis had reported a favourable view of Iran.
And while it may appear that only western countries are opposed to Iran acquiring the nuclear weapons technology, polling data suggests that most Muslim countries are equally alarmed by the possibility of a nuclear-armed Iran. The Pew Research Center survey revealed that more than 80 per cent Egyptians and over 74 per cent Jordanians felt threatened by the possibility of a nuclear-armed Iran. Of the surveyed Muslim majority countries, most respondents in all countries, with the exception of Pakistan, reported feeling threatened by the possibility of a nuclear-armed Iran.
These trends indeed are quite surprising if one were to ignore the sectarian strife between Shias and Sunnis. However, when one acknowledges the sectarian differences between the Shias and Sunnis, one is able to appreciate the motivation for Sunni Arabs to oppose a nuclear-armed Iran.
Iran once again is increasingly getting isolated on the global stage. It was not long ago when in 1988 the US shot down Iran Air Flight 655 over the Strait of Hormuz, killing all 290 persons aboard. The dead included Iranian nationals, as well as 13 Emiratis, 10 Indians, 6 Pakistanis, 6 Yugoslavians and an Italian. Despite this act of naked aggression, the global response was mute at best. Iranians stand equally isolated from the world today as they did in 1988.
As Israel continues to think aloud about the idea of attacking Iran, Arab Muslims are also not averse to attacking Iran to prevent her from acquiring nuclear weapons capability. No fewer than 71 per cent respondents to the Pew survey in Nigeria, much more than the ones in the US, favoured a military action against Iran in 2010; note that 50 per cent of Nigerians are Muslims. In Egypt, only 16 per cent of the respondents opposed the idea of attacking Iran. Similarly, only one in five Jordanians opposed attacking Iran to disrupt her alleged pursuit of nuclear weapons technology.
I wonder if Arabs, who are mostly Sunni Muslims, would have held such hostile views for another Sunni Muslim country suspected of pursuing nuclear weapons technology. Given the fact that Iran is a Shia majority country and that hardline Sunnis consider Shias heretics, one can appreciate that because of the sectarian strife Sunni Muslims are equally predisposed to attacking the Shia Iran. This has happened in the past as well when all Arab countries backed Saddam Hussain against Iran in the Iran-Iraq war that killed millions on both sides of the conflict.
Given the overt abhorrence of Shias common amongst Arabs, Palestinians have not been immune to the sectarian strife, Iran’s policy to antagonise the West and Israel while it tries to appease Arabs makes no sense at all. Iran now stands almost alone in the community of nations. The world, including Iran’s Arab neighbours, is becoming increasingly wary of its nuclear program and Iran’s efforts to assume the leadership of billion-plus Muslims whose overwhelming majority follows Sunni Islam.
A prudent foreign policy would require Iran to reconsider support for Hamas and the Palestinian Authority. It may require Iran to leave the Arab-Israeli conflict to Arabs who have never welcomed Iranian interference in the dispute between Arabs and Israel. Iranians should instead champion the rights of Shias who are increasingly becoming victims of targeted killings at the hands of other Muslims.
The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.