There is a passionate, but somewhat academic debate over the following issue:
Which is the greater threat, the Sunni Islamists (Egypt, Tunisia, Gaza Strip and
perhaps soon to be Syria) or the Shia Islamists (Iran, Lebanon, Syria at the
moment)? My answer would be the Iran-led Shia bloc. But with two reservations:
the margin isn’t that big, and it also depends on the specific place and
To begin with, Iran is still the greatest strategic threat in
the region. It is moving as fast as it can toward nuclear weapons and it is
still the main sponsor of terrorism. At the moment, it is still, too, the most
likely state to initiate an anti-Western war, though that possibility is smaller
than often believed. It also has lots of money.
What has gone largely
unnoticed is that it is almost the middle of 2013 and the Obama administration
has barely begun the negotiations with Iran that will probably drag on without
success for a year or more. In addition, after Iran’s June elections, which will
presumably put a radical in power who is less obviously extremist than current
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the US government and mass media will
probably proclaim a new era of Iranian moderation.
Iran is also the main
backer of Islamist revolution in Bahrain (where it has failed); Lebanon (where
its Hezbollah clients are the strongest force); and Syria (where its regime ally
is in serious trouble).
One final point is that Tehran is having some
success in drawing the Iraqi (Shia) government into its orbit. Baghdad is
certainly cooperating with Iran on defending the Syrian regime, though one
should not exaggerate the degree to which Iraq is in Iran’s pocket. At any rate,
nobody would want the Iraqi regime to be overthrown by the al- Qaida terrorist
So a strong case can be made that Iran is the greatest threat
in the region.
On the other hand, however, a “great Sunni wall” has been
built to prevent the extension of Iranian influence, except in Lebanon. The
Sunni bloc contains few Shias. The Muslim Brotherhood, the even more radical
Salafists, and other Sunnis (Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates,
for example) have said that the Shias are a worse threat than
Perhaps the fear of Iran provides some common cause with the
West. But this is also a scary proposition since the Obama administration’s
promotion of Sunni Islamism (Egypt, Tunisia, Syria and even Turkey) could use
this point as an excuse. Perhaps America could be said to be building a united
front against Iran, but at what price? Turning over much of the Arab world to
repressive, anti-American, and anti-Semitic Sunni Islamism as Christians flee?
There is also another weakness of Sunni Islamism, however, that also makes it
seem relatively less threatening.
In contrast to Iran, the Sunni
Islamists do not have a wealthy patron comparable to Iran. They can depend on
money from Qatar and to some extent from Libya but they have fewer resources.
Sometimes the Saudis will help Sunni Islamists, but only if they tone down their
warlike and anti-Western actions. There is no big banker for Sunni Islamist
destabilization of the Middle East.
Equally, they do not have a reliable
source of arms, in contrast to the Shia who have Iran and also at times
True, in Syria the Sunni rebels have US backing to get weaponry
and arms from Libya and elsewhere, paid for by Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Yet Syria
is an exceptional case. The Saudis are not going to finance the Muslim
Brotherhood and its ambitions. Bahrain has declared Shia Hezbollah to be a
terrorist group even while the European Union refuses to do so.
arguably one could say that the Shia Islamists and Iran are a bigger
But a second danger is a US or Western policy of promoting Sunni
Islamism as a way to counter the Shia; a strategy that has intensified regional
dangers and the suffering of Arab peoples. Then, too, there’s the fact that
al-Qaida is a Sunni Islamist organization, and al- Qaida forces are getting
stronger in Syria.
One would have to be very foolish to want to see Sunni
Islamism make further gains, or overthrow the monarchies in Morocco, Saudi
Arabia, Jordan, Oman, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, or Bahrain, as well as
the Algerian regime. One would also have to be foolish – but here the Obama
administration is – to want to see Muslim Brotherhood regimes succeed in Egypt,
Tunisia, the Gaza Strip and Syria.
What we are seeing, however, is that
Islamism is becoming entangled at present with the power it has gained,
especially in Egypt. The country is in economic difficulties and these are being
intensified by Muslim Brotherhood misrule. Rather than raise their countries to
the peak of military-economic efficiency, the Islamist regimes are wrecking
But there are some very significant wild cards in the deck: • If
Sunni Islamist regimes in Egypt and Syria face significant problems with
instability and economics, they might adopt the time-honored, traditional Arab
dictatorship tactic of stirring up foreign quarrels and promoting
anti-Americanism. This could unleash future Arab-Israeli wars.
Islamist regimes in Egypt, the Gaza Strip and probably Syria would give
extremely radical Salafist forces a free hand in attacking Christians,
moderates, women’s rights, foreign embassies and possibly Israel. Human rights
in these countries – if anybody in the West cares about that – are going to
suffer severe hits.
• Hamas will probably attack Israel in future,
perhaps with at least some Egyptian backing, though the Egyptian regime is now
trying to restrain Hamas in order to consolidate rule at home and get Western
• Al-Qaida is gaining strength in Syria and for the first time its
possible takeover cannot be ruled out, at least in alliance with other Salafist
• The stronger the Sunni Islamists, the more uncooperative the
Palestinian Authority (PA) will be with attempts at a “peace process.” It is
possible that the PA would face a considerable challenge from Hamas on the West
Bank while forces within Fatah, the PA’s ruling party, might form alliances with
Hamas. Israel should be able to keep the PA in power – a situation wrought with
irony – but its stability could crumble.
In short, while one can make the
case for Shia Islamism being the more dangerous – at least as long as Iran might
get nuclear weapons – one must very carefully examine the implications of that
judgment in each specific case.
Promoting Sunni Islam is no panacea but
rather substitutes longer-term for shorter-term threats.The author is
the director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center.
His forthcoming book is
Nazis, Islamists and the Making of the Modern Middle
East (Yale University Press).