Analysis: Two Muslim camps fighting the Middle East's new cold war

The Egyptian press and government officials have, for several consecutive days, been hurling insults at the Hizbullah, in one instance comparing its leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah to a monkey.

Mubarak 248 88 (photo credit: AP [file])
Mubarak 248 88
(photo credit: AP [file])
It's official - Cairo and Hizbullah are fighting a full-fledged media war. The Egyptian press and government officials have, for several consecutive days, been hurling insults at the Shi'ite group, in one instance comparing its leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah to a monkey. These unprecedented attacks were joined by talk in Egypt of an "axis with evil goals," made up of Iran, Syria, Qatar and Hamas, who conspired to overthrow the Mubarak government, according to a report published on Saturday by the Egyptian daily Al-Ahram. The war of rhetoric came after Cairo uncovered a plot by Hizbullah to launch a series of terrorist attacks on Egyptian soil. The attackers also planned to strike inside Israel, according to Egypt. Meanwhile, media outlets in Iran claimed Israel, Egypt and Saudi Arabia are preparing to jointly assassinate Nasrallah. These events are all part of the new alignment which has swept the Middle East like a sandstorm, doing away with old geopolitical constellations and leaving a new reality in its wake. Under the old alignment, Israel stood alone in a trench, facing an alliance of all of its neighbors. Today, Israel is a member of a defensive 'league' of neighbors, formed to counter a common menace: a Teheran regime with imperial, hegemonic designs. Each party in the anti-Iranian bloc has its own reasons for joining; none has done so out of any fondness for the other members, but rather out of a recognition of a common threat. Iran's quest for hegemony, backed by a covert nuclear arms program, has disturbed Sunni Arab states and Israel alike. The threat from Teheran falls as much on Egypt, Jordan, Fatah and Saudi Arabia as it does on Israel. Iran pursues an openly declared plot to destroy Israel, with the aid of proxy militarized quasi-states on Israel's borders. But it also demands that Arab states take up a subservient role in the region, and uses its proxies to undermine Arab regimes such as Egypt's. The result has been the creation of an unofficial regional club, that includes Israel, to face down Iran. This development has not put an end to the anti-Israel and anti-Semitic rhetoric from the clerics and media outlets within the Arab members of the anti-Iran league. The anti-Jewish demonization is designed to keep the Islamist opposition at home reasonably satisfied, and to distract the masses from their lack of civil liberties. But the realignment has seen the introduction of widespread hostile rhetoric between Arab countries and Iran. The Egypt-Hizbullah feud is merely the latest installment. Over the past few months, Egypt's president, Hosni Mubarak, and the Egyptian media have repeatedly condemned Iran's schemes for ascendancy in the region. Cairo has directed criticisms at Iran's proxies, Hamas and Hizbullah, for igniting two wars with Israel in the past three years. Hamas's enclave in Gaza, which is heavily dependent on Teheran, is under a joint Israeli-Egyptian blockade. Saudi Arabia, the heart of the Sunni world, has been vocal in issuing warnings about the threat emanating from its Shi'ite neighbor across the Persian Gulf. In one recent flurry of recriminations in March, the Saudi foreign minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, condemned what he called Iran's "provocation." Quickly returning fire, an Iranian cleric named Ayatollah Ahmed Khatami, who is closely linked to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, used a televised sermon to complain that Saudi hostility toward Persia (on the government level) had replaced Saudi hostility toward Israel. Khatami's complaint may be no exaggeration. In this context, the Saudi-sponsored Arab League offer being waved before Israel, promising full Arab recognition and normalization of ties with Israel, in exchange for large territorial concessions, takes on a new meaning. The offer has infuriated Iran. Everywhere across the Middle East, movements and states belonging to the two rival camps are facing off. The Palestinian nation has been torn into two distinct and hostile entities, with Iran backing Hamas, and the Sunni Arab-Israeli bloc, together with the US, backing Fatah. Any efforts at Hamas-Fatah reconciliation would need to bypass the much larger forces that are assisting each side in order to stand a chance of success. In Lebanon, too, the battle lines have been drawn. Iran's Hizbullah uses a combination of the gun and the ballot to establish dominance there, while the US and Saudi Arabia offer financial, political, and military backing to the Lebanese state, so that it can retain independence from Hizbullah. And so the Middle Eastern Cold War unfolds. Some in the Israeli Left believe Syria, officially on Iran's side of the fence, has signaled its openness to the idea of being dislodged from Teheran's sphere of influence, in exchange for the Golan Heights, though Damascus's actual readiness to dislodge itself from Teheran remains wholly untested. If we take a glance back at ancient times, we find that Israel's membership in a club with former foes is not a new development for Jewish polities. Hebrew kingdoms have, at one time or another, joined forces with former bitter enemies to try to fight off powers such as Assyria and Babylon that threatened everyone else. Persian expansionism isn't new either. King Cyrus of Persia ruled over a powerful empire that dominated the Middle East (and destroyed Babylon). From a Jewish perspective, the ancient Persian kingdom and modern day Iran play diametrically opposed roles. In 539 BCE, Cyrus issued a decree urging all Jews who had been exiled from their homeland by Babylon to return to Judah and Jerusalem, and to rebuild the Temple. Today, Iran's Khamenei dreams of throwing the Jews out of Jerusalem. Back in the 21st century, Iran's centrifuges continue to spin. US President Barack Obama prepares to give words a chance to freeze Teheran's Manhattan Project. All eyes in the region will remain fixed on Obama's efforts, and many will be skeptical of his chances of settling the issue diplomatically. In the meantime, the Middle East's rival camps continue to square off.