Marwan Bishara, in his recent op-ed in the International New York Times (see link above) says that tensions between Saudi Arabia and the US have been brewing for months. Actually, as his article makes clear, many of these issues have been brewing for many years – long before the Arab uprising. Several of his assertions I found puzzling.
Bishara says “America chose Iran and Israel, over their Arab neighbors, as its designated “regional cops” in the 1960s and ’70s, at the height of the Cold War.” I’m not sure this is an accurate description of the U.S.-Israeli relationship; but on the Arab side this formulation no doubt refers to the Nixon Doctrine and the Two-Pillar policy in the Gulf. After the Iranian revolution and two wars (Iran vs Iraq and Desert Storm), the “twin pillars” morphed into the Dual Containment policy of the Clinton administration. The principal characteristic of that policy was that the United States took it upon itself, not others, to maintain security in the Gulf.
But then Bishara asserts that “Since the United States and Iran became sworn enemies after the 1979 revolution, America’s military wishes have by and large been carried out by Arab proxies, often at great cost in blood, treasure and stability. Lebanon, Iraq and Syria are among the countries that have suffered immensely.”
He does not mention U.S. military involvement in the Iran-Iraq war or the ejection of Saddam Hussein from Kuwait or the invasion and occupation of Iraq by U.S. forces. So what are these American “military wishes” that have relied on “Arab proxies”? Surely not Hezbollah fighting Israelis in southern Lebanon? Surely not al-Qaeda and radical Sunni Islamists bombing Shias in Iraq? Surely not the Sunnis fighting the Assad regime in Syria? So who are these Arab proxies of the United States carrying out U.S. military wishes in Lebanon, Iraq and Syria?
I honestly don’t know.
According to Bishara, “Arab powers fear that negotiations between America and Iran are likely to leave Israel as the one nuclear power in the region, while allowing its occupation of Palestine to continue unabated.” That is an entirely reasonable concern. However, it defines a set of realities that have existed at least since the 1960s, when Israel is believed to have acquired nuclear weapons. Iran, it is essential to point out, does not have nuclear weapons. Even assuming no progress on the Palestinian question by the Obama administration (which, to be fair, is making the most serious effort since the Clinton second term to negotiate a settlement), will things get worse if the U.S. manages to place additional controls on Iran’s nuclear program? Why?
Bishara fears that any U.S.-Iran rapprochement will be at Arab expense. He acknowledges that U.S. engagement with Iran might help resolve the Syrian situation and could potentially have some other positive benefits. But the risk, in his view, is that “Iranian-American détente will likely deepen the sectarian divisions between Iran and Saudi Arabia, setting the stage for an all-out regionwide sectarian conflict.”
The fact is, there is a regionwide sectarian conflict in full sway right now, and it has been fueled from the start by Saudi Arabia and other Sunni states. Saudi Arabia moved troops into Bahrain to protect against suspected Iranian designs. The Sunni militants in Syria, who are now close to running out of control, were financed, trained and encouraged from the earliest days of the Syrian revolt by massive infusions of GCC money. And domestic crackdowns on Shia populations in the Saudi Eastern Province and elsewhere have been unrelenting.
Mr. Bishara fails to explain why U.S. engagement with Iran is going to make this worse.
It is unmistakable from his language and his closing words that Mr Bishara – and presumably the Sunni states – feel that they have not been included in U.S. decision making, and that “authoritarian Sunni regimes in the region will probably seek to undermine…any agreement that foresees growing Iranian influence in their backyard.” He warns President Obama “to make sure the Arabs are part of, and don’t lose from, any future bargain with Iran.”
Clearly, that is advice that the U.S. president and his representatives should take to heart. In a fast-moving situation, they need to work overtime with both Arabs and Israelis to insure that the rationale for decisions that are being made and those being considered are well understood.
In the same spirit, perhaps it is also fair to point out that reducing contact with the United States or impugning its motives may not be the most effective means of sustaining the kind of dialogue that is required.
9 months ago
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