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Arabism, Islamism and Iranian hegemony

Iran’s drive to dominate the region is facing a strong pushback from Sunni Arab states.

Iranian military missiles, long-range, short-range and satellite missiles on display at a military museum in Tehran. Credit: saeediex/Shutterstock.
Iranian military missiles, long-range, short-range and satellite missiles on display at a military museum in Tehran. Credit: saeediex/Shutterstock.
Jacques Neriah. Credit: Twitter.
Jacques Neriah
Col. (ret.) Dr. Jacques Neriah, a special analyst for the Middle East at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, was formerly a foreign-policy adviser to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and the deputy head for assessment of Israeli Military Intelligence.

The so-called Arab Spring in 2011 was supposed to topple the Arab post-colonial regimes and replace them with governments adapted to the reality of the 21st century. These new regimes were to have social appeal and an Arab and Islamic identity. They were also definitely meant to be anti-Western.

This transformation did not occur. Instead, Arab regimes were confronted with two main threats: radical Islam and Iran’s push for regional hegemony. In the struggle against Islamic radicalism, some Arab regimes did not hesitate to call for assistance from foreign powers (Russia, China or the United States) which had no colonial past in the area. Some even turned to former colonial powers such as France and the U.K. in order to survive the surging wave of radical Islam.

A few went as far as to call on neighboring Arab powers and peripheral powers in the Middle East, such as Turkey and Iran, to assist them in blocking the assault on their defenses by Islamic radicals associated with Al-Qaeda, the Islamic State and the Muslim Brotherhood.

A decade later, Libya is the only Arab country whose regime did not survive. It transformed into a failed state, divided between rival factions, whose south is controlled mainly by radical Islamists.

Libya is not the only failed state. Lebanon also descended into that status for different reasons and joined the dubious club. It is struggling to survive as a nation.

The main reasons for Libya’s disintegration are the struggle between its two main geographical divisions—Tripolitania and Cyrenaica—for control of the state, and conflict between competing tribes in which foreign powers try to impose their influence. Lebanon, on the other hand, is the victim of its confessional and sectarian body politic mixed with corruption, mismanagement and the inability to confront external state subversion.

Islamic State was defeated by a multinational coalition that included archenemies and sworn rivals such as Iran, the United States and Turkey. However, it is still present in the region, fed and nurtured by the historical schism between Sunnis and Shiites. This applies in particular to Syria and Iraq, where Islamic State still enjoys a safe haven among the Sunni population and the previous political elite who refuse to surrender to being ruled by Shiite/Iranian-oriented regimes.

In correlation with the Sunni reaction to the change of regime in Iraq that was the catalyst for the creation of Islamic State, the Arab world has sought to dismantle the Muslim Brotherhood, which is a champion of political Islam. The Brotherhood was once considered a dominant force—even regarded by the Obama administration as worthy of inheriting vacillating and corrupt Arab regimes—together with fringe radical Sunni movements linked to Al-Qaeda or Islamic State. The Arab regimes rose up to overcome the radical Islamic wave and maintain their traditional rule, except for the U.S.-imposed regime in Iraq and a disintegrating Libya.

As of today, the Muslim Brotherhood has been defeated, even decimated, while its leaders are either in exile or incarcerated in detention camps and jails. In Tunisia, where the Arab Spring began, the Muslim Brotherhood found itself in the opposition, constantly hunted by the regime and facing high-treason tribunals.

Iran’s New Role

It is important to note that never in the modern history of the Middle East and the Arab world was there a situation in which Iran was omnipresent, influential and dictating local governments’ policies to the point that Iranian delegates monitor parliamentary elections and decide on the choice of presidents and prime ministers. This new stage saw Iran intervening in regional wars where its involvement was characterized by military assistance and intervention, along with financial and political support. Iranian politicians boasted openly that the capitals of Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen were under their hegemony.

The Iranian element has polarized the Arab Middle East, dividing it into two poles: The northern one extends from Lebanon to Iraq (including Yemen in the south and until a few years ago Sudan), a region with a Shiite majority. The other is the southern subregion caught between the northern belt and Yemen, which has a Sunni majority and is deeply anti-Iranian.

The northern region dominated by Iran has become increasingly destabilized domestically, dominated by sectarian politics and mostly characterized by a paralyzed body politic unable to establish governmental continuity, an equitable distribution of power, consolidation of stable economies and defense against foreign intervention.

Through its executive arm—the Quds Force, which is part and parcel of the Revolutionary Guards—Iran has managed to create proxy forces in each of the “dominated” states that assure its paramount position in local politics. Such is the case with Hezbollah in Lebanon, the “popular mobilization force” (Al-Hashd el-Shaabi) in Iraq, the Houthis in Yemen and the foreign legion incorporating Pakistani and Afghani militias in Syria that serve as a pretorian guard for the Assad regime.

Historically, Persians and Arabs have been bitter rivals, even though Persian culture penetrated the Arab realm and was deeply integrated into Arab heritage. Shiite communities were scattered all over the Arab world, but mainly in the Arab Levant, where contact with Persia/Iran went back several centuries. The interaction between those communities and Iran covered all aspects of life while serving from time to time as a haven for Iranian political or religious figures persecuted by the authorities in Tehran. However, at no point was there any Iranian intention to dominate Arab politics. This changed radically with the advent of the ayatollah regime in Iran, the fall of the Shah and the establishment of the Islamic Republic, which adopted proselytism as an official policy, hiding its intentions under the cover of pan-Islamism.

With the growing influence of the Islamic Republic in different Arab states and Tehran’s domination of what is called the “Fertile Crescent,” tensions began to mount between Arabs and Iran. These tensions are not limited to the historical clash between Sunnis and Shiites. They also extend to the Christian community in Lebanon and, of much more significance, the growing divide in the Shiite camp in Iraq between Shiites who are totally committed to Iran and those who seek to protect their Arab, Iraqi, independent identity. This inter-Shiite schism has produced not only paralysis in the political system, with Shiite factions unable to agree on the choice of a president, a prime minister or the convening of parliament since the legislative elections in October 2021, but it has also raised the likelihood of an all-out civil war in Iraq.

Arab protests also roil divided Lebanon, where the Iranian agent and proxy Hezbollah is being criticized by its Sunni political rivals and parts of the Christian community for its paralyzing grip on the body politic, which ultimately serves Iranian interests and pushes Lebanon into a confrontation with Israel.

More significant is the de facto alliance that has been established between the different Sunni-majority Arab states, which have decided to confront Iran’s covert expansion, either through economic sanctions—as is the case with regard to Lebanon—or through establishing a political network meant to counter Iranian initiatives in the Middle East and Africa.

It is worth mentioning that, from the 10th to the 12th century, parts of the Arab world were dominated by the Shiite Fatimids, who built a sultanate that ranged from the Atlantic Ocean in the Maghreb to the Red Sea. It took Salahuddin (Salah el-Din), a Kurdish-born Sunni, to defeat the Fatimids and replace them with the Ayyubid Sunni dynasty.

The war between Arabism and Iranian hegemony is far from over.

Col. (ret.) Dr. Jacques Neriah, a special analyst for the Middle East at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, was formerly Foreign Policy Advisor to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Deputy Head for Assessment of Israeli Military Intelligence.

This article was originally published by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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