The Region: The new Middle East's internal divisions

The battle among the three strong Arab nationalist regimes has given way to the battle between Sunni and Shia blocs.

By BARRY RUBIN
March 4, 2012 21:23
Gulf Cooperation Council state leaders [file]

Gulf Cooperation Council state leaders in Saudi Arabia 311 R. (photo credit: Handout / Reuters)

 
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The new Middle East strategic battle is heating up, and this is only the start. It has nothing to do with Israel and everything to do with two more serious lines of battle: Arabs versus Persians and Sunni versus Shia Muslims.

The Arab-Israeli or Israel-Palestinian conflict is increasingly unimportant, despite the hatred of increasingly powerful Islamist forces for Israel. The real struggle is over who will control each Muslim majority country and who is going to lead the Middle East. Both issues have almost nothing to do with Israel. At the same time, Israel has virtually no role to play in these struggles, except to ensure that Hamas doesn’t take over the West Bank and the Palestinian Authority.

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The Sunni Arab position was stated very clearly by Amr Moussa, a veteran Arab nationalist and candidate for Egypt’s presidency: “[The] Arab Middle East will not be run by Iran or Turkey.” Note that he didn’t even mention Israel, in sharp contrast to how the issue would have been defined in previous decades: as a Zionist threat to rule the entire region.

Iran is Persian-ruled (though only about half the population is ethnic Persian) and Shia Muslim. Turkey is ruled by ethnic Turks even though it is predominantly Sunni Muslim.

What we are seeing again, for the first time in three decades – since former Egyptian president Anwar al-Sadat put the priority on a domestic focus, peace with Israel and alliance with the United States – is an Egyptian bid to lead the Arabic- speaking world and even the whole region. On this point, Egyptian leftists, nationalists and Islamists are united. And in the first round, the battle over control of the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip, Egypt won and Iran lost.

Note that this has nothing to do with the current military rulers of Egypt, who will be out of power before the end of June. This is a long-term struggle led by the civilian, primarily Islamist, politicians.

And it is a program over which the Islamists can unite the country behind them in a wave of patriotic, Arab and Sunni zeal. Building on this agenda, often used demagogically, also requires Cairo to distance itself from the United States.

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Here’s another point to keep in mind. The head of the Egyptian parliament’s foreign affairs committee is now Essam al-Arian, one of the most outspokenly radical Muslim Brotherhood leaders. He’s outspokenly in favor of destroying Israel and US interests in the region. This is but one exhibit among the endless amount of evidence testifying to the Brotherhood’s extremism and the coming collision with Washington.

At the same time, Arian is strongly anti-Iran, predicting the overthrow of the Tehran regime in an internal revolution. When a Muslim Brotherhood member says such a thing, it isn’t political analysis, it’s advocacy. In another example of Brotherhood, and Egyptian, hostility to the Iran-led bloc, Egypt has pulled Hamas into its orbit. The Brotherhood supports its Syrian brothers in their revolution against the pro-Iran regime in Damascus. It also backs the Bahrain government against Shia oppositionists there, and is also hostile to Hezbollah in Lebanon.

And so despite the fact that Iran has now offered Egypt financial aid, which that country needs, the Egyptians are ignoring the proposal. They do not want to be beholden to Tehran any more than they would be to the United States.

It has not yet been widely recognized that the past year has been a disaster for Iran’s strategy of gaining regional leadership. Outside of Syria, Bahrain and Iraq – where Tehran is backing forces which aren’t doing so well at present – only in Lebanon does Iran still have real influence. Its potential appeal is now limited to the largely minority Shia Muslims.

Whereas two years ago an Iranian nuclear bomb would have sparked a wave of pro-Iran reaction throughout the Middle East, now it will have little effect on (Sunni Arab) public opinion. Similarly, two years ago threats to wipe Israel off the map made Iran more popular while hostility toward Israel did the same for Turkey. Now such ranting does nothing to promote those two countries’ regional influence.

For Turkey, too, the “Arab Spring” puts the end to that Islamist regime’s regional ambitions. Nobody needs the Turks as regional leaders. Indeed, efforts to claim such a role have created intense resentment in both Egypt and Iran.

In contrast, the Muslim Brotherhood has expanded its influence to a remarkable extent. Aside from probably ruling Egypt, the Brotherhood can now claim the Gaza Strip, Tunisia and Libya as being within its sphere of influence. And it is also the patron of the Brotherhood branches in Syria and Jordan.

Another result of this process is the orphaning of the Palestinian Authority (PA), which has no foreign patron whatsoever. Iran, Egypt and Syria back Hamas. The PA’s patron should be wealthy Gulf states, notably Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. Yet it has never won back their support after the rupture caused when PA leader Yasser Arafat backed Iraq’s takeover of Kuwait in 1990-1991.

A weakened PA has no maneuvering room except to protect its militant credentials by refusing to negotiate or compromise with Israel while talking in a radical manner. The Israel-Palestinian peace process has in fact been dead since 2000 but only now is most of the world acknowledging the obituary. This is the new Middle East, quite different from the region as understood for the past 60 years.

The battle for predominance among the three strong Arab nationalist regimes – Egypt, Iraq and Syria – has now given way to the battle between Sunni and Shia blocs. Increasingly, Arab assessments of threats from Egypt in the west to the Persian Gulf on the eastern end barely mention Israel at all.

The writer’s new book, Israel: An Introduction has just been published by Yale University Press. He is director of global research in the International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and a featured columnist at PJM and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal.

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