Thursday, June 30, 2011

"Arab Shias are not an Iranian fifth column!"

"... Iran drew the following lesson from this: it would not be the Islamic Revolution that would advance its cause but anti-American militancy, support for the Palestinians and its new stance as the major regional power, which ensured security in the Gulf in a way that neither the Saudis nor the US had managed. This policy reached its apogee with the war in Lebanon in July 2006, when Hezbollah held its own against the Israelis and its leader, Hasan Nasrallah, appeared as the new champion of the Arab cause. But everything changed with the execution of Saddam Hussein some months later. This was seen as the revenge of the Shias, supported by both the Iranians and the US.Arab Shias are not an Iranian fifth column: Shias in Iraq and Bahrain have long understood the dangers of becoming instruments of Iran. They are Iraqis and Bahrainis first and foremost and are fighting to be recognised as full citizens of the countries in which they live. But, like Hezbollah in Lebanon, they depend on Iranian patronage in a hostile Sunni environment.Saudi Arabia is behind the elaboration of a grand narrative that pits Persian Shias against Arab Sunnis and in which all Arab Shias are regarded as Arabic-speaking Persians (as well as heretics, according to Wahhabi doctrine). This is one of the rare instances in which the foreign policy of the Saudi kingdom finds a religious justification - which also explains the ambivalence that Riyadh has long shown towards hardline Sunni movements, from the Taliban to new jihadists in Fallujah. For some time now, the Palestinian question has been marginal for the Saudis. It has registered for them only in that it has created a climate in which popular opposition has flourished among Arab peoples.
The real issue, as it is for Israel, is the "Iranian menace". Here, the prophecy could come true: in denying the Shias of Bahrain full citizenship rights, Saudi Arabia in effect confirms their status as an Iranian fifth column.
Then there is the neuralgic issue of Syria. The Syrians are the Iranians' main allies in the region and everyone, from the Saudis to the Israelis, would celebrate the fall of the government in Damascus. Yet anxiety reigns, because the consequences of regime change, in this case, are unknowable. The idea of a stable and easily identifiable national interest that would endure while power changes hands can be applied to Tunisia or Egypt. But would it apply to Syria? What would the foreign policy of a post-Ba'athist Syria look like? It is hard to say, because the regional strategy of the Assad family has always been intimately bound up with internal political considerations.For 40 years, Damascus has followed a strategy of permanent tension with Israel, so as to present itself as the defender of Arab nationalism. But it has also pursued a form of diplomatic realpolitik that has crossed no red lines and has kept several alliances in play at the same time. Bringing the regime down would put an end to this subtle yet stable game and lead to who knows where.A fear of the unknown paralyses all of the states surrounding Syria - perhaps with the exception of Turkey, which appears to be the only neighbouring country that is preparing for the post-Assad era. It could be that, when the dust finally settles, it will be Turkey that emerges as the big winner from the current convulsions in the region and establishes itself as the new pole of stability in the Middle East. Provided, of course, that it manages to resolve the eternal Kurdish question."

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