Thursday, February 12, 2009

An Escalating Regional Cold War

Very brief excerpts only, from Hudson New York, February 6, 2009, by Yigal Carmon*, President, The Middle East Media Research Institute [follow the link to the full paper, complete with references]:

The recent Gaza war was portrayed by the international media as a local military conflict between Israel and Hamas. However, this war, like the 2006 war in Lebanon and various other military and political events in the last three decades in the Middle East have a common denominator - namely, all stem from the conflict between revolutionary Iran and the Saudi Kingdom and the respective camps of each. This conflict is key to understanding the Middle East in the 21st century.

This Saudi-Iranian conflict ...began with the Islamic Revolution in Iran, led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. ...The conflict has now escalated into an actual cold war, and is reflected in the emergence of two distinct blocs in the Middle East: the Iranian axis (comprising Iran, Syria, Qatar, Hizbullah and Hamas) and the Saudi-Egyptian camp, with which most of the other Arab countries are identified.

This schism, and cold war, will have a major impact on the local, regional, and international level, severely restricting options for diplomatic activity, to resolve the intra-Palestinian rift, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the problem of a nuclear Iran.

The 2009 Gaza War: Timeline
The Gaza war broke out on December 27, 2008, after Hamas leader Khaled Mash'al refused - reportedly on orders from Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki- to attend talks for a Cairo-brokered intra-Palestinian agreement. Instead, he announced in Damascus that the tahdia (calm) with Israel had ended and would not be renewed, as his men in Gaza fired dozens of rockets into southern Israel.

As soon as the fighting started, Syria and Qatar attempted to convene an emergency Arab League summit in order to help Hamas. This move was blocked by Egypt and Saudi Arabia ...Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak said at a closed meeting with E.U. foreign ministers that "Hamas must not be allowed to emerge triumphant from the present confrontation."

Nevertheless, Qatar and Syria persisted in their efforts ...This clash ended with a victory for the Saudi-Egyptian camp, in that the summit, held in Doha, was convened in the absence of a legal quorum. To the dismay of some Arab countries, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was invited to attend the summit as an observer. Also present as an observer was Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who expressed total support for Hamas.

To reinforce its political victory, the Saudi-Egyptian camp enlisted international support by summoning all European leaders to a special weekend meeting at Sharm Al-Sheikh, on Sunday, January 18, 2009. The summit was attended by the main European leaders, which rallied to show its endorsement of the Saudi-Egyptian camp.

...On January 18, Hamas was compelled to accept the ceasefire declared unilaterally by Israel the day before, as well as Egypt's mediation in the intra-Palestinian talks - two demands it had categorically rejected prior to the war.

It can therefore be said that, unlike the 2006 war in Lebanon and the subsequent clash, in 2008, between Hizbullah and the March 14 Forces, which ended in Lebanon's falling under the control of Hizbullah and the Iranian-Syrian axis, the Gaza war yielded an achievement for the opposite side. It ended with Hamas defeated on the ground and with a political victory for the Saudi-Egyptian camp on the regional level.

The Iranian-saudi/shi'ite-sunni Rivalry in the Wake of the 1979 Islamic Revolution
The Iranian-Saudi conflict is rooted in Iran's aspirations to regional hegemony - both geostrategic and religious - which pose a threat to Saudi Arabia. From the onset of the Islamic Revolution era and Ayatollah Khomeini's rule (1979-89), Iran's attitude to Saudi Arabia was marked by ideological and political enmity, stemming from the historic religious, social, and ethnic rift between the Sunni-Wahhabi Arab society and the Shi'ite Persian one. The Sunnis perceive the Shi'ites as a political sect that seceded from Islam, while the Shi'ites regard the Sunnis, and especially the Wahhabis, as a radical apostate political sect that has taken over the Muslim holy places.

This rivalry, which emanates from revolutionary Iran's competition with Saudi Arabia for the leadership of the Muslim world, reached its height in 1984, when thousands of Iranian pilgrims rioted in the streets of Mecca, calling for the overthrow of the Saudi regime. The Saudis forcibly quelled the riots, closing Mecca to Iranian pilgrims for several years. The Iranian threat also prompted the Saudis to support Iraqi president Saddam Hussein in the Iran-Iraq war.

The wave of solidarity with Iran's Islamic Revolution in the Sunni world prompted Saudi Arabia to exert great efforts in strengthening Sunni Islam in general and Wahhabi Islam in particular. To this end, Saudi Arabia acted mainly on two levels: giving massive support to the jihad in Afghanistan throughout the 1980s until the Soviets were defeated, and investing billions of dollars, over two decades and more, in establishing and maintaining schools, mosques, and other educational and religious institutions in Sunni communities worldwide. These efforts reversed much of the popularity of the Iranian revolution.

Saudi-Iranian enmity declined during the term of Iranian president Hashemi Rafsanjani, and declined even more during the presidency of his successor, Mohammad Khatami. During Khatami's presidency, Iran strove to rejoin the international community by relaxing its efforts to export the revolution and by seeking to reconcile with its neighbors in the Gulf.

The Escalation of the Conflict During ahmadinejad's Presidency
With Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's rise to power in 2005, the conflict reemerged, with greater intensity. Ahmadinejad reverted to Iran's previous policy of anti-Saudi hegemony, by pushing the export of the revolution, and promoting a messianic Shi'ite vision ...

...Ahmadinejad's declarations about restoring the glory of the Shi'ite Persian Empire in the region, and the revival of the revolutionary rhetoric by other Iranian leaders - all backed by the regime's leading ayatollahs - were perceived by the Arab countries, and especially by Saudi Arabia, as a reemergence of the Iranian threat.

The religious-ideological threat was compounded by Iran's attempt to position itself as a regional military superpower, and by its determination to develop nuclear capabilities in addition to its long-range missile capabilities. Iran's insistence on developing nuclear technology despite international opposition was perceived by the Sunni Muslim world as a threat to it.

Iran Extends Its Influence Into the arab World
Another factor contributing to the conflict was Iran's effort to increase its influence throughout the Arab world. ...Saudi Arabia responded by increasing its support for the Sunni minority in Iraq, for various Muslim and Christian forces in Lebanon, and for others who were confronting Iranian threats in their territory (e.g. in Yemen, Sudan, and Palestine).

The military and political achievements of Hizbullah, Iran's proxy in Lebanon, during the 2006 war and in the 2008 Doha agreement (which de facto gave Lebanon to Hizbullah's control) were likewise perceived as part of Iran's bid for regional hegemony ...

... Saudi columnist Muhammad bin Ali Al-Mahmoud described Iran's policy under Ahmadinejad, stating : "... the emergence of a Nazi-like atmosphere ... ...octopus-like expansion ...Iran wants to control the region, not by spreading its ideology... but by maintaining armed organizations [in Arab countries]... it violates their loyalty to their homelands, replacing it with loyalty to Iran. This, especially since Iran is a country that does not spread tolerance or a culture of moderation, but... a culture of one-sided hegemony, as part of a racist effort to impose a kind of occupation..."

...Saudi columnist 'Ali Sa'd Al-Moussa wrote that the Arab countries were being subjected to "Persian colonialism," as evidenced by the Iranian "cantons and districts on the map of the Arab world..." He added: "Iran has become a major and central player in Arab politics... Today we are seeing new signs of Persian colonialism..."

The Emergence of the Iran-syria-Qatar-Hiz-bullah axis
As part of Iran's bid for regional hegemony, a political and military axis has formed, comprising not only Iran and the Shi’a in Iraq, Lebanon, and Yemen, but also various Sunni forces that have an interest in opposing Saudi Arabia and Egypt. It was during the 2006 Lebanon war that a distinct Iran-Syria-Qatar-Hizbullah axis first emerged to oppose the Saudi-Egyptian camp. At a later stage, this axis expanded to include Hamas, which has in recent years received increasing support from Iran, as well as from the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. Lately, Syria and Iran have been striving to add Turkey to their ranks, and have met with some cooperation on the part of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Saudi Arabia, for its part, has been trying to pry some of Iran's Sunni allies away from it.

...Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad a September 2008 interview with Iran's Al-Alam TV: "The strategic ties [between Syria and Iran] have proved to be of importance for the region in recent decades, but their real results have emerged [only] in the last 10 years. These include the victory of the resistance in Lebanon, and the unswerving fortitude of the resistance in Palestine since the Intifada, which began in 2000… We see before us a black slate dotted with bright spots that were once tiny but are now steadily increasing in size. This underscores the importance of [Syrian-Iranian] cooperation and the correctness of the political policy of Syria and Iran. Many countries that once objected to this policy are now beginning to realize its correctness, and to pursue a similar policy themselves…"

The 2009 Gaza War Deepens the schism between the Two Camps
Just prior to its outbreak, the two camps engaged in reciprocal verbal attacks. Syria and Iran accused Saudi Arabia and Egypt of pursuing a pro-Israeli and pro-American policy and of sabotaging the efforts of the resistance movements...

...After the war, the Iranian leaders boasted of the support they had given to Hamas ...

...The pro-Saudi camp, for its part, accused Hamas of serving Iranian and Syrian interests rather than those of the Palestinians. ...Senior Palestinian Authority officials likewise pointed to Iranian involvement in Gaza...

After The War - The schism between the Two Camps is an acknowledged fact
The Western media has largely ignored the new reality in the Middle East - namely, the schism and the escalating cold war between the two camps - as well as the far-reaching political implications. However, in the Arab world, this reality has become a publicly acknowledged fact, and is being intensely discussed.

Nasrallah's deputy Sheikh Na'im Qassem explained that Hizbullah was proud to belong to the Iranian axis, which was hostile to the U.S. and its Arab supporters.…

...Dr. Majed Abu Madhi, columnist for the Syrian government daily Al-Ba'ath and lecturer at the University of Damascus, argued that the war in Gaza had exposed not only the rift in the Arab world between the regimes that support the resistance and those that oppose it, but also the conflict between the rulers who object to the resistance, and their peoples who support it. He wrote: "It has become patently clear which countries support the resistance. It has also become patently clear which [Arab] regimes are the ones that the U.S. calls 'moderate' -[those that] oppose the resistance and even conspire against it. ..."

The saudi Camp: Iran Is Responsible for the Rift in the arab World
The pro-Saudi camp accused Iran of causing the rift in the Arab world. Saudi Foreign Minister Saud Al-Faisal said that the current disagreement among the Arabs was the result of "intervention by non-Arab forces" in Arab affairs - referring to Iran. During the Kuwait economic summit, Egyptian President Mubarak likewise hinted at Iranian interference, when he accused "internal and external" forces of dividing and weakening the Arab world.

Editorials in newspapers associated with the Saudi-Egyptian camp stated that Iran was sowing division in the Arab world as part of its plan to achieve regional hegemony, and accused Arab forces such as Syria and Qatar of cooperating with this plan. ...

"The Trojan Horse" - Qatar's Role in Con­solidating the Iranian axis
It should be noted that Qatar has played a crucial role in exacerbating the rift in the Arab world by initiating the January 16, 2009 Doha summit, to the dismay of Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Qatar's inviting of Iranian President Ahmadinejad to the summit against the will of several Arab countries (such as the UAE, which responded by canceled its participation) clearly identified the summit as a convention of the Iranian-Syrian axis. The summit's pro-Iranian and anti-Saudi orientation was underscored by the fact that it called on Egypt to revoke its peace agreement with Israel, and on Saudi Arabia to withdraw its initiative for peace with it.

After the war ended, Hamas leader Khaled Mash'al thanked Qatar for its support for his movement during the fighting...

Two Camps, Two Contrasting approaches to the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict
Iran's and Syria's support of the resistance, as well as Egypt's and Saudi Arabia's support of a peace agreement with Israel, can both be understood in light of the Iranian - Saudi schism.

The Saudi camp's opposition to Hizbullah during the 2006 war, and its opposition to Hamas during the Gaza war, were both part of its conflict with Iran. Likewise, the Saudi camp's determination to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is meant to strengthen its position vis-à-vis Iran and its allies. Egypt is demanding to sponsor the intra-Palestinian dialogue and the current arrangements between Gaza and Israel, in order to prevent Iran from taking over Gaza via Hamas. Saudi Arabia, for its part, is striving to promote its peace initiative with Israel as a strategic option that will consolidate its position vis-à-vis the Iranian axis - at the same time as this axis attempts to undermine the Saudi position through its support for the resistance against Israel.

...The Iranian axis contends that the correct course of action vis-à-vis Israel is resistance. Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad declared the Arab Peace Initiative "dead," and coined a new phrase by defining the resistance as "a way to achieve peace," explaining that "peace without resistance is surrender."...

...The Saudi-Egyptian camp, on the other hand, opposed the resistance strategy, and rejected calls to sever ties with Israel or withdraw the Arab Peace Initiative. The Saudi foreign minister said, "The Arab Initiative is still relevant," adding that it "places Israel under considerable pressure."

Some even called to return to the original version of the Saudi Peace Initiative, before amendments were introduced in 2002 in response to demands by Syria, such as a clause acknowledging the Palestinian right of return....

*Y. Carmon is the President of MEMRI; Y. Yehoshua is Director of Research at MEMRI; A. Savyon is director of MEMRI's Iranian Media Project; and H. Migron is a Research Fellow at MEMRI
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