Netanyahu’s silent Middle East majority

The Middle East’s silent Sunni majority backs Netanyahu’s “distrust, dismantle, and verify” approach to Iran.

Rouhani on the phone 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Rouhani on the phone 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
It’s not easy being Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu these days. He has faced heavy criticism in western circles for his uncompromising stance on Iran’s nuclear program. His October 1 address to the United Nations plenum, where he accused Iranian regime President Hassan Rouhani of being “a wolf in sheep’s clothing, who is trying to pull the wool over the eyes of the international community,” was met with accusations of war-mongering. Columnist Roger Cohen accused Netanyahu of “crying wolf” while a New York Times editorial blasted Netanyahu for “Blind distrust of the Iranian regime,” seeming eager for a fight... and sabotaging diplomacy, especially before Iran is tested.”
While optimistic western elites bristle at Netanyahu’s rejection of Rouhani’s “smile and conquer diplomacy,” The Middle East’s silent Sunni majority backs Netanyahu’s “distrust, dismantle, and verify” approach towards neighboring Iranian regime’s nuclear program and race for regional supremacy.
Led by Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states and supported by the region’s many minorities including Kurds, Christians, Druse, Sufis, Baluchees and others, several hundred million Sunnis across the Middle East are quietly banking on Netanyahu’s making good on his declaration before the UN General Assembly that, “Israel will not allow Iran to get nuclear weapons,” and “If Israel is forced to stand alone, Israel will stand alone.”
While official Arab Sunni and non-Arab Sunni criticism of America’s softer approach to Iran and its Syrian state proxy remains muted, as is expected in non-democratic “fear societies” as former soviet dissident Natan Sharansky has coined them, voices have begun to pierce the silence.
Jamal Khashoggi, a prominent Saudi journalist who is close to the Saudi royal family, told the New York Times recently that, “ There is a lot of suspicion and even paranoia about some secret deal between Iran and America.
My concern is that the Americans will accept Iran as it is – so that the Iranians can continue their old policies of expansionism and aggression.”
The Times also reported that Mustafa Alani, a Dubaibased security analyst, said the Saudis think US President Barack Obama is “not a reliable ally, that he’s bending to the Syrians and Iranians.” Mishaal al-Gergawi, a United Arab Emirates-based analyst, said, “There is a lot of cynicism, and it feeds into the notion that Obama is very naïve – he was naïve with the Muslim Brotherhood, naïve with Bashar al-Assad, and he is now naïve with Iran.”
Sunni concerns over Iranian regime-sponsored Shi’ite power extends beyond Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states.
A very senior Jordanian lawmaker told this author in 2009 during a visit to the Jordanian senate in Amman that the Iranian regime “could only be stopped by military force and that only Israel was capable of doing that.”
In fact, it was Jordan’s King Abdullah II who first coined the phrase “Shi’ite crescent,” that began with what he called the “Islamic republic of Iraq” referring to Iranian penetration and control of Iran’s Shi’ite-majority neighbor that the king warned would extend to Syria and Lebanon.
Saudi Arabia’s top cleric, Sheikh Abdulaziz bin Al Sheikh, condemned Iran’s Hezbollah proxy’s role in Syria, urging politicians and Muslim scholars to take “effective steps to deter its aggression” on Syria. Egyptian cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi noted that “Iran wants “continued massacres to kill Sunnis.”
While US and some Western leaders have expressed cautious optimism over Rouhani’s expressed readiness to reach an agreement over Iran’s nuclear program, Sunni regimes are mindful and respectful of Israel’s past readiness to use force to stop Tehran, and its proxies and allies.
Israel’s destruction of Syria’s nuclear program in 2007, according to foreign reports, its war against Iran-backed Hezbollah in 2006, and Hamas in 2009 and 2012, and the Jewish state’s five preemptive assaults against the Iranian-Syrian-Hezbollah strategic balance-breaking weapons stockpiling and transfers in 2013 alone has made Israel a center of power, deterrence and even salvation for the Sunni world.
However, while the Sunni world is taking Israel’s side for the moment, it is likely a tactical convenience. If and when the Iranian regime is replaced by a new government more amenable to the West, the Sunni establishment would likely not hesitate to turn against the Jewish state in their traditional attempt to coalesce other Sunni powers in attempting to reassert regional control.
But for now, with the US seen by its Arab allies as turning inward in handing pro-Syria and Iran-friendly Russia the keys to superpower influence in the Middle East, Prime Minister Netanyahu and Israel are perceived as the only hope for saving the Middle East’s Sunnis from Iran’s nuclear ascension. With Sunni powers unwilling to act, Israel and its so-called “distrustful” prime minister are not only the protectors of the Jewish state; They have also become the defenders of a primarily Sunni Middle East.
Sunni states and other peoples of the Middle East have remained unimpressed by Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s shift in tactics as faithfully carried out by President Rouhani. Many have also been captivated by Israel’s will to stop them. The free world would do well to heed their warnings.

The author is a Foreign Policy Fellow at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and an Adjunct Fellow at the Washington, DC-based Hudson Institute. He served as secretary-general of the World Jewish Congress from 2011 to 2013.