'Shi'ites pushing Sunnis to West'

Former US defense secretary: Moderate Arabs afraid of Iranian hegemony.

Shiite sunni clash 298 a (photo credit: AP)
Shiite sunni clash 298 a
(photo credit: AP)
The argument that the ascendancy of Shi'ite Iran and its Hizbullah and Hamas allies has aroused sufficient fear in "moderate" Sunni regimes to push them toward America, Israel and a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has gained considerable traction within the US administration. Indeed, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was quoted in The Washington Post as saying, "After the war in Lebanon, the Middle East really did begin to clarify into an extremist element allied with Iran, including Syria, Hizbullah and Hamas. On the other side were the targets of this extremism - the Lebanese, the Iraqis, the Palestinians - and those who want to resist, such as the Saudis, Egypt and Jordan." According to this view, that "clarity" on Iran came from the perception of a Hizbullah win over Israel, increased sectarian violence in Iraq leaving a weakened Sunni presence, and growing alarm at Teheran's progress in realizing its nuclear ambitions while thumbing its nose at the West. And the opportunity, roughly translated, is that after years of fanning populist flames by blaming all ills on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, these Sunni regimes, epitomized by the Saudis, will want to broker peace as a way of cooling destabilizing public anger. In other words, the overblown Arab rhetoric on the centrality of Palestine - which has long had real consequences for Israel and the United States - is now becoming more than verbiage for Arab states as well. They, too, have to deal with their Frankenstein in the form of pumped up Islamic extremism. "It's coming back to burn them," William Cohen, defense secretary under Bill Clinton and now involved with the NGO Campaign for American Leadership in the Middle East, told The Jerusalem Post. He said the moderate Arab regimes were afraid of Iranian hegemony, and that prosperous Gulf states that have begun modernizing are worried their development could be jeopardized by conflicts. "They understand that they are targets as well," Cohen said. And they need to legitimize their alliance with - or dependence on - the United States, something that movement on the peace process could do, according to Tamara Wittes, a research fellow at Washington's Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. Violence by Israel - seen as a US proxy - against Palestinians strengthens extremist voices in places such as Saudi Arabia, she said. Those voices can be dampened, however, "by helping transform the United States into a [positive] actor," she said. Rice has been touring the region in the framework of the "GCC plus two," or the Gulf States plus Egypt and Jordan, and will be returning within the next two weeks to make another attempt at progress. Even committed Saudi skeptic Tom Neumann, executive director of the Washington-based Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, said there had been some indications of Saudi actions of the type the Bush administration wants. "They're making noises, and that's always positive," he said. The Saudis have sent letters to Bush urging action on the Israeli-Palestinian front; they've met with left-wing Jewish Israel activist groups in Washington; they sent a diplomatic presence - including outgoing ambassador Turki Al-Faisal himself - to the event honoring the State Department's first anti-Semitism czar where they encountered the Post. "It's a temporary convergence of interests," Neumann said. "In the past, they didn't root for Israel to beat the Iranians or Hizbullah, but now they do." He emphasized the temporary nature of the phenomenon, though. "In their heart of hearts, they would like Israel to take care of their enemies, but when that's over, the Saudis are the Saudis." Neumann doesn't expect real change because previous signals - such as the trip he made with a Jewish delegation to Saudi Arabia in 1982 - didn't usher in real progress. And he said there was no compelling reason the proverbial "Arab street" would welcome a Saudi-backed peace deal that enshrined Israel's existence in the Middle East. But Stephen Cohen, a scholar with the Israel Policy Forum, one of the groups that met with Saudi officials in Washington recently, said he believed the achievement of a Palestinian state side-by-side with Israel would help the Saudis and the rest of the GCC+2 group "very much." The Saudis themselves, meanwhile, are touting their engagement with the peace process. "There were a number of messages encouraging President Bush to seek this opportunity," Jamal Khashoggi of the Saudi Embassy in Washington told the Post last week. "We are hoping he will leave some marks, not just on the peace process, but peace itself."