Op-ed | The road not taken
Published: Tuesday, October 2, 2012
Updated: Tuesday, October 2, 2012 07:10
At last week’s U.N. General Assembly, Egypt’s first democratically elected president Muhammad Morsi warned that, “[the] acceptance by the international community of the principle of preemptiveness, or the attempt to legitimize it, is in itself a serious matter and must be firmly confronted to avoid the prevalence of the law of the jungle.” Although implicitly referring to Israel’s belligerent verbiage towards Iran, Morsi’s analogy actually encompasses the broader contemporary Middle East during this period of tumultuous change.
Commentators now widely acknowledge the Arab Spring’s evolution into an Arab Summer, and, like most summers in the Arab world, it’s a blistering one. The seeds of revolution have either sprouted into flawed, but fledgling, democracies in Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt, or withered into bloody conflict and repression in Syria and Bahrain, forming a kindling that now carpets the floor of a forest teetering between verdancy and self−immolation.
In this context, the world must heed President Morsi’s cautionary metaphor. The Arab Awakening, by giving deserved voice and influence to the mercurial whims of public opinion, has made the region’s previously most secular and iron−fisted governments now malleable. As with any malleable object, these countries stand more susceptible than ever to the shaping and molding of those more solid, stable, and often autocratic nations that surround them. Any discussion of military action against Iran by Israel or the U.S. must acknowledge this reality, as well as the dry underbrush upon which they spark their weapons.
A harem of seductresses now vies for the spot next to the “awakening” Arabs in civilization’s cradle. Iran positions itself as the influential patron behind an emerging Shia undercurrent stretching from Tehran to Beirut. However, this vision runs perpendicular— both ideologically and geographically— to the Saudi desire to enhance their own regional standing through support of groups aligned with their extreme interpretation of Sunni Islam. These conflicting goals now play themselves out by either violent or political means in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Bahrain, a string of countries with mixed Sunni−Shia populations that form a buffer zone between their respective benefactors. Both Iran and Saudi Arabia see the retention or implantation of friendly governments along this arc of confrontation as vital to their respective national interests. Iranian−backed Hezbollah vies for control of the government with the Future Movement in Lebanon, while Sunni rebels armed by the Gulf States do battle with the Iranian− funded Assad regime across the border in Syria. In Iraq, the Shia−dominated, Iranian−leaning government recently sentenced its Sunni vice president to death, and in the Persian Gulf Kingdom of Bahrain the Sunni Al−Khalifa ruling family violently attacks democratic Shia protests with physical and material aid from Saudi Arabia.
In my Anthropology of War and Peacemaking class, we recently viewed the documentary Fog of War, in which former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara outlines eleven lessons learned from his experiences during the Vietnam War. The first one is to empathize with your enemy.
As Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu continues his aggressive posturing against the Iranian regime, he must learn from the wisdom of this elder statesman McNamara, who himself led his country into a bloody, unpopular, and now considered unnecessary war in Vietnam. Netanyahu should take Iranian rhetoric for its intended response, rather than its face value. Any good politician employs words as catalysts rather than contracts, and if anyone needs to inspire a positive reaction it’s Iran. Despite the Western media’s tendency to conflate Iranian prowess and influence, they’ve had a bad few years in terms of foreign relations.
American armies still occupy Afghanistan on Iran’s eastern border; American money still holds huge financial and military sway in Iraq to the west, and international sanctions are greatly hindering the Iranian economy. Meanwhile, their regional allies suffer at the hands of the Saudis, their Gulf allies, and their proxies. Hamas remains isolated and confined to Gaza, while Western and Gulf donor money flows to their Fatah rivals through the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. Iran watched helplessly as less than 100 miles away, the Saudi army, with American complicity, violently crushed a popular and peaceful revolution led by the Shia majority in Bahrain against its Sunni monarchy. Finally, the Syrian conflict epitomizes the jungle mentality now threatening to engulf the region. Supplied and supported by Iran, the Assad regime now battles for survival against a Sunni−led, Saudi−equipped and American−encouraged rebellion. No coincidence that Assad means “lion” in Arabic.
Under these circumstances, the Iranian regime relishes verbal confrontation with the Arabs’ historical enemy, Israel. By tapping into a popular sentiment, the Iranians are attempting to increase their beneficiaries’ popularity, and thereby enhance their power. In political contests and armed conflict across the region, Iran cannot match superior Saudi and American funding and technology, but by simply posturing as a counterweight to Israel, they can still compete for influence in molding the Arab Awakening to their benefit. The Americans and Saudis desperately want to do this as well, but American politicians won’t risk offending Israel, and the Gulf States won’t risk their lucrative business deals with the Americans.