The Region: National Islamism: The new front

After three years of intensive diplomacy the Iranian gov't has run rings around its adversaries.

barry rubin 88 (photo credit: )
barry rubin 88
(photo credit: )
The elephant has gone into labor and brought forth a mouse. That's the most apt remark about the end-game in the international effort to stop Iran getting nuclear weapons. After three years of intensive diplomacy involving the highest-ranking policy-makers and "best minds" of the Western countries, the Iranian government has literally run rings around its adversaries. Teheran has repeatedly lied and misled its interlocutors, rejected good offers and broken its own promises. And, at the end, the UN Security Council proposes to pass a resolution not only without teeth but with scarcely any gums either. Oh, sure, there will be lots of articles, analyses, speeches and self-congratulatory explanations. But it can all be boiled down to a single sentence: The international effort has been pitiful, provoking laughter if the issue were not so serious. It is not a satisfactory response to say that the proposed sanctions were watered down to win Russian support. Although diplomats don't think this way, perhaps a strong resolution should have been offered and Moscow told: Veto this, if you dare. Moreover, it is no secret that most of the Western states don't want to take strong action and are relieved to use Russia as an excuse. Ironically, the only ones taking strong, effective action are the mainstream radicals in Iran's own government. For their own interests, they are seeking to block President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his faction from taking over the regime. It isn't that they disagree with him on principles, just that they see no reason to gratuitously bash the West, flaunt Iran's nuclear plan and call for Israel's destruction every week. Now they have inflicted a setback on Ahmadinejad in Iran's recent leadership elections. BUT WAIT a minute. Even with Ahmadinejad at his most extreme, the West won't really stand up to him. The UN resolution freezes the assets abroad of 10 companies and calls on members to "exercise vigilance" in letting in 12 people who work on Iran's nuclear program. Wow! Take that, miscreant! One wonders what the international community would do if Iran actually dropped a nuclear-tipped missile on someone - exclude its leaders from airport duty-free shops? Not surprisingly, Iran was not intimidated, and officials announced publicly that it would carry forward its nuclear project at full speed. "We don't think this resolution is enough in itself," US Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns said. "We want to let the Iranians know that there is a big cost to them," he added, so they will return to talks. Well, they know it will not have a big cost for them, so they can do whatever they want. Have no illusions: This is a massive failure and it would be better if people admitted it, expressed outrage, and figured out some way to do better in the time that remains before Iran gets nuclear weapons. To bring things into perspective, counterpose two other recent developments regarding Iran: A US court concluded that Iran's leadership was directly responsible for a 1996 terrorist attack in Saudi Arabia which killed 17 American soldiers. And a high-level commission on Iraq proposed that the US government ask Iran's help in dealing with Iraq. WHO NEEDS satire when you have the Middle East? If I were to characterize the three most important events for the region in 2006, two of them would be obvious: the above-cited failure on Iran's nuclear program and the Israel-Hizbullah war. The third is one you haven't heard about yet. It was the Sixth Islamist-Arab nationalist conference held in Qatar, December 22-24. The main organizer was Yusuf Qaradawi, an Egyptian cleric who lives in Qatar and is probably the No.1 spiritual guide for the Muslim Brotherhood today. I would suggest that Qaradawi is far more important than Osama bin Laden, and certainly a better strategist. It was Qaradawi who insisted that Islamists participate in elections because he predicted they would win. Qaradawi, too, is the man who incites and justifies terrorist attacks against the United States and Israel while being hailed in many Western circles as a moderate. Top figures in Hamas and Hizbullah also participated in the conference, whose goal was to unite Islamists and Arab nationalists in a united radical front. Up until now it seemed that the Arab world's future would be determined by a struggle between Arab nationalist regimes, Islamist opposition movements, and liberal reformers, with the third group far behind the other two. Increasingly, however, there is an attempt to bridge the main gap by creating what I call a National Islamist ideology. This kind of thinking is the basis of the HISH bloc (Hizbullah, Iran, Syria, Hamas) and is finding increasing favor among Arab intellectuals. In fact, this doctrine also seems to have absorbed a large portion of the traditional Arab Left as well. At the moment, Palestinian nationalists and Islamists are shooting at each other. But, with a few moderate exceptions among the former group, they are close in their basic world view and rejection of a compromise peace with Israel The problems between them - which are quite enormous - stem more from a desire for power and loot rather than any distinction in their goals or ideas. After all, the two groups keep talking about a national unity government as the solution to their differences. The emergence of National Islamism also finesses the problem of how Iran can be a leading factor in the Arab world and creating a united radical front. The year 2006 may well be seen by history as the moment when this new force emerged on the scene and changed the direction of the region. The writer is director of Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center.