Why Is Iran's Influence in the Arab World Declining? What is The New Regional Line-Up?
By Barry Rubin
Often, coverage of the Middle East in the mainstream media is beyond belief. Even when the article has good information it often misses the main point. Such is the case with an article in the Wall Street Journal, "Arab Spring Turns Up Heat on Iran." The article correctly reports that Iran is losing popularity in much of the Arab world:
In Egypt, favorable views of Iran declined from 89 percent in 2006 to 37 percent today. In Saudi Arabia those holding such beliefs declined from 85 percent to 6 percent; and in Jordan from 75 percent to 23 percent. That's an incredibly steep decline. Incidentally, in these countries, attitudes toward the United States remained highly unfavorable and only got worse under President Obama.
A reader who doesn't have any understanding of the region--a category probably including most Western leaders, academic "experts," and journalists--would think: Aha! Democracy is triumphing over radical Islamism. Iran is no longer much of a threat These are great things! This is how the media is presenting this development and no doubt that's what Western policymakers think.
Such an analysis, however, is ridiculous so I'm glad you are reading this article. Don't stop now. Here comes the good and original part.
So Egyptians, Jordanians, and Saudis are turning away from Iran. Now what do these three countries have in common? Answer: they all have big Sunni majorities, 90 percent in Saudi Arabia, 100 percent in Jordan, and 100 percent of the Muslims--who form about 90 percent of the whole population--in Egypt.
So where is Iran losing popularity? Among Sunni Muslim Arabs. Why? Because now they have their own Sunni Muslim Arab Islamists and don't need Iran's Shia Persians to be their patrons, leaders, or hope for the triumph of Islamism. Thus, this development shows the deepening schism between Sunni and Shia Muslims and Islamists, not declining support for radical, anti-Western, and Islamist politics.
Read this paragraph from the article:
"Iran and Syria—together with Shiite political and militant group Hezbollah and Palestinian Hamas—have for years banked on their anti-Israeli, anti-American posture as a guarantee for popular support in the Arab street as well as a shield against domestic unrest. Iran saw itself as the leader of this resistance group."
Notice that only Hizballah is identified as Shia Muslim. Actually, the sentence is so poorly constructed one might well think that Hamas is Shia, too, which it isn't!
True, the article notes in passing: "Its allies supported Iran's growing influence while rival Sunni Arab countries including Saudi Arabia viewed it as a threat." But that's hardly making the point clear.
There's one more complicating factor: a deep split in the Sunni camp, though, since a radical nationalist and semi-Islamist Egypt headed by Amr Moussa (and aligned with Hamas) is the Saudis worse nightmare. Moreover, Sunni states will not give strong backing to the Palestinian Authority because they're angry due to its past behavior, despite their general backing for the "Palestinian cause" (including unanimous support for a Palesitinian unilateral declaration of independence).
So here's the likely line-up:
--Radicals: Iran, Hizballah, Syria, Bahrain opposition radical faction
--Moderates: Iranian opposition, Iraqi government; Bahrain opposition moderate faction.
--Radicals: Egypt, Hamas, Libya?, Muslim Brotherhood in Syria and Jordan, Sudan, Turkish regime.
--Moderates: Algeria, Jordan, Lebanese, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, moderate forces in Syrian opposition, Tunisia, Turkish opposition.
This line-up tells us precisely what needs to be done. The United States should take leadership and work with Europe, Israel, and the moderates of both the Sunni and Shia variety. As for the radicals, none of them are "good guys" who can be allies in the battle against revolutionary Islamism.
A good strategy would not side with Sunni against Shia or vice-versa, nor would it have any illusion about moderating the radicals through appeasement, flattery, or concessions.
What is worrisome is that few Western leaders understand any of these points.
A final note, I didn't mention the Palestinian Authority (PA). That is partly due to the fact that it isn't very important in regional politics. While it is Sunni, it doesn't get real support from either the radicals or the moderates in that camp. The radicals prefer their fellow Islamists in Hamas; the moderates are mostly angry at past backstabbings by the PA leadership. Everyone pretends to love the Palestinians and they will all vote for unilateral Palestinian independence at the UN, badmouth Israel, and compete for control over the Palestinian card. Yet in terms of genuine material support or patronage, the PA is very isolated while Hamas is in a much more favorable position regionally.