Middle East

Arabs Fear Iran As a Tidal Wave; The West Thinks It’s Easily Contained by a Sand Castle

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Prof. Barry Rubin

22 February 2010


How do leading Arab forces view the U.S. and Iranian maneuverings over Tehran’s drive to get nuclear weapons, the world’s number one political and strategic crisis? Such reactions are almost always either left out of Western calculations on the Middle East or treated in a distorted manner, replaced by clichés: they only react to what the West does and they are overwhelmingly concerned about the Arab-Israeli conflict.


If treated properly, however, such primary materials are a gold mine for comprehending world views, the situation, and probable responses. Al-Sharq al-Awsat is probably the most interesting Arabic-language newspaper today. It is Saudi-owned, London-based, and the closest thing to a liberal daily. Still, though, it reflects Saudi elite viewpoints.


The newspaper’s editor, Tariq al-Homayed, in a February 18 article, sees the region heading toward war, and he is far from alone in doing so. What he says is extraordinarily important even if—especially if—one doesn’t take it literally.
In the words of the MEMRI translation:


“The notable thing is that [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad threatens Israel and the West… not with his own country’s weapons but in the name of ‘the resistance and the countries in the region’….


“If a war breaks out, it will be an Iranian war, and Iran will be its target… Why [then] does [Iran threaten to] attack our region and our countries? This is not our war, nor are we working [to promote it]–this war belongs only to Iran and its proxies. As for us, we will be Iran’s victims whether it acquires nuclear [weapons] and whether a war breaks out [against it]…”

Note especially that last phrase. If the United States (an outcome far less likely than Homayed suggests) or Israel attacks Iran to destroy its nuclear weapons’ facilities, Iran and its allies will unleash a wider conflict (more details in a moment) that will suck in the Arabs. But if no one stops Iran from getting weapons, the Arabs will suffer even more from Iranian imperialism, both direct and through fomenting revolutionary upheaval.


Of course, portraying themselves always as victims is a mainstay of the general Arab world view. It reflects a desire to let others do the work of solving problems and to provide an excuse to ask for concessions without making any of their own. But the same argument also reflects a sense of weakness, division, and genuine helplessness. In this case it also highlights the remarkable fact that there is not any Arab state with real regional power or even any Arab regime with considerable influence outside its own borders.


Consider the parallel argument made by the editor of al-Goumhouriyya, Muhammad Ali Ibrahim, February 18. That newspaper is usually the most outspoken of the trio of state-controlled Egyptian dailies and since Ibrahim is also a member of parliament for the ruling party he really reflects government opinion. As MEMRI translates it:


“One can envision the region as a chessboard with white and black pieces moving across it…As everyone knows, chess is a game played by two opponents, but in the Middle East, Iran is playing against a very formidable rival [consisting of] the U.S. and Israel….”
The players are the United States, Israel, and Iran. Where are the Arabs? Ibrahim hints they are abandoning the side of Iran and going over to that of the United States and Israel, though saying that in an indirect enough fashion not to tread on Arab Political Correctness of claiming never to side with Israel, and usually not too much with the United States either.
Following his newspaper’s usual line—which is more Third World radical and traditionally Arab nationalist in tone, Ibrahim continues by saying, far more questionably, that both sides want war. Iran is supposedly seeking war as a way of uniting its population and getting rid of its domestic problems. I doubt this is true but it certainly reflects how Egyptian and Arab politics have worked for the last century.


He says the United States wants war because it will then “sell advanced weapons to the countries of the region, to impose its air defense umbrella on the Gulf states, and to determine oil prices independently of OPEC….”


What is interesting about this point is not that it is accurate but that it shows—along with a mountain of other evidence–that the presence of President Barack Obama has made zero difference in the Arab view of the United States. It is just business as usual as far as they are concerned. Americans often have no notion of how little real change relates to the president, his strenuous efforts at—depending on your viewpoint—empathy or appeasement, and his alleged popularity.


[Speaking of which I can’t resist inserting here a point which I was telling you about a year ago but which even the New York Times has finally had to acknowledge:


“The probable loss of the Dutch contingent and the continuing resistance to significant increases in manpower by other allies [in Afghanistan] demonstrate the extent to which the dividend expected from the departure of President George W. Bush, who was so unpopular in capitals across the Atlantic, has not materialized, despite Mr. Obama’s popularity in Europe.
“`The support for Obama was always double-faced,’” said Stefan Kornelius, foreign editor of the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung. `It was never really heartfelt. People loved what they heard, but they never felt obliged to support Obama beyond what they were already doing.’”]


Finally, the Arab editors both see two very different aspects to such a war. On one hand, it will be an aerial battle in which cruise missiles and bombs will fall on Iran, but on the other hand it will involve Iranian attacks in the Gulf, against Israel from Arab soil, and within Arab states.
The United States isn’t going to attack Iran and it isn’t even certain that Israel would do so. But the editors point to three scenarios that no one is talking about in the West:
–Iran may trigger a conflict through aggressive action, including possible miscalculation.
–Any conflict, no matter how it starts, would bring some involvement by Hamas, Hizballah, and Syria, along with smaller Iran-directed or even independent Islamist revolutionary terrorist groups.


–If Iran does have nuclear weapons, Tehran will outweigh all the Arab states not only in terms of strategic power but the ability to mobilize allies, subversive forces, and followers in the region.


That’s why the idea that the West can “contain” Iran using pledges of support and threats to attack Iran if Iran nukes anyone else is so misleading and simpleminded. How is the West going to “contain” the cheering millions, the wave of passion that will sweep the region?
It’s easy to find parallels. In the 1950s, Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser became a hero across the region and mobilized supporters everywhere merely by nationalizing the Suez Canal company and telling the West to go to Hell. Only his defeat in the 1967 war by Israel dissipated Egypt’s leading and revolutionary role in the region.


Later on, during the late 1960s and through the 1970s, came various experiments with Marxism, the PLO, and with radical Arab nationalist regimes in Syria and Iraq as the great transformative heroes.


During the 1980s, the Iranian revolution seemed to pose the model for upheaval but it was handicapped by being Persian, Shia Muslim, and involved in conflicts with Arab states that led to the Iran-Iraq war.


After that it was Saddam Hussein’s turn in 1990, until he was defeated the following year. If a U.S.-led coalition hadn’t gone in and thrown him out of Kuwait, Saddam would have been the Arab world’s strongman.


Usama bin Ladin had his shot in 2001 but didn’t go anywhere after his initial big splash. He was chased out of Afghanistan, and any way Arab regimes had an incentive to put down his supporters who were also attacking them.


Now it is going to be the Age of Ahmadinejad and the Egyptians, Saudis, Jordanians, and others know that this involves far more than getting a nuclear umbrella. Either there will be a shooting war or, more likely, a combat conducted through subversion, terrorism, mass hysteria, and serious efforts at revolutionary upheaval.


Meanwhile, in the West, the debate continues of whether to have sanctions; precisely what weak and useless sanctions to impose; or how easily it will be to “contain” Iran through a few sentences of speech by a president not noted for his strength or readiness to use force along with a few military units in the Gulf.


The threat far outweighs the response.



Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). His new edited books include Lebanon: Liberation, Conflict and Crisis; Guide to Islamist Movements; Conflict and Insurgency in the Middle East; and The Muslim Brotherhood

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