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