Why Tehran should step back
Conflicts across the Middle East have taken on a strong sectarian dimension in what appears to be a proxy war between the Iranian axis and an Arab alliance led by Saudi Arabia.
From Iraq to Syria to Lebanon and all the way south to Yemen, historic buried rivalries between Muslim Shias and Sunnis have resurfaced in a bloody way and are spreading like fire in a dry wood, dividing families, tribes and countries. The sectarian genie is out and is threatening those who helped release it.
It is not a secret that Iran has successfully exported the Islamic revolution to Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Bahrain. Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei also has great political and religious influence on many Shias in the Arab and Islamic world.
This gives Tehran influence and puts it in direct confrontation with most of the region’s leaders. Although the conflict between Iran and the Arab world is largely political with historic ethnic roots, it has become today largely sectarian.
The Arab countries largely relied on their allies — the United States and Europe — to help them stand against Iran. But Washington shocked its Arab allies with the agreement it negotiated and reached with Tehran over the Iranian nuclear programme. This constituted an important landmark in Arab relations with the West and generated a strong sense that Washington was eager to strike a deal with Iran even if that did not prevent Iran from becoming a major power in the region.
When the Sunni majority of Syria revolted against the Iranian-backed Alawite Syrian regime, Arab countries saw an opportunity to check Iranian expansionist schemes. They sent large caches of weapons to the rebels who were quickly infiltrated by Islamic groups that gained the upper hand in the fighting and occupied large chunks of the country.
Iraq at the time was also engulfed in a sectarian war between the Iranian-backed Shia government forces and Sunni tribes supported by Arab Gulf states. Islamic groups in Syria and Iraq joined forces and invaded most of the Sunni provinces of Iraq and subsequently established the Islamic State (ISIS) in Iraq and Syria.
In Yemen, Iran supported the Houthi movement which is made up of the Zaidi sect, an offshoot of Shi’ism. The Houthis fought for few years against the Yemeni government under president Ali Abdullah Saleh, also a Zaidi. But when the Arab Gulf States supported the Yemeni revolution against Saleh, the Houthis joined forces with the former president and overthrew President Abd Rabbo Mansour, a Sunni from the south. Now, Riyadh is leading an alliance of nine Arab countries plus Pakistan against the Houthis to restore Hadi to power.
The patriotism and sense of nationalism of Shia communities in the Arab countries is being questioned. Does the Arab Shia regard himself a citizen of this country or a follower of the Iranian supreme leader? Can his Arab government trust him? These are questions on the minds of many Arab officials and leaders.
At the same time, the rise of ISIS as a force that is adamant on confronting the Iranian-Shia threat that the Arab regimes failed to stop has appealed to many young people who continue to travel thousands of miles to join the extremist group. Arab leaders are being challenged by ISIS as to who is the rightful protector of Sunni Arabs.
The Iranian-axis of Tehran- Damascus-Hezbollah is no longer being accepted by most Arabs as a genuine anti-Israeli force set on liberating Palestine. It is seen as a Shia alliance aimed at undermining Arabs and Sunnis. Pakistani and Turkish support to Operation Decisive Storm in Yemen is a clear signal to Tehran that non-Arab Muslim states have grown frustrated with Iranian efforts of exporting the revolution.
Therefore, the regional political struggle has taken on a sectarian dimension and is quickly sliding into an all-out sectarian war that nobody can really win because religious ideological wars are total wars: They end when one party annihilates the other or when one surrenders and converts.
Iran and its allies are fighting ISIS on one front (Iraq) and the United States is on their side there, while Arab allies are fighting Iran on another front (Yemen) with America’s aid. Both are willingly subjecting themselves to a war of attrition that neither can win.
It is time for Iran to end the policy of exporting the revolution and seek a political agreement with its neighbours, while it is also time for Arab countries to come together in an all-out effort to combat extremism and terminate ISIS before it expands beyond control.
Only a Sunni force can defeat a Sunni extremist group. Hence, Tehran should step back and seek a political settlement with its Arab neighbours that would end the current madness.