Arab leaders sweat Iran - Sunnis start to see Shiite state as a bigger threat than Israel (CHICAGO TRIBUNE OP-ED) By Frida Ghitis JERUSALEM, ISRAEL 10/08/06)
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JERUSALEM -- When Israeli newspapers broke the news recently of a
secret meeting between Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Saudi Arabian
officials, not everyone was surprised at the revelation.
True, the two countries have no formal relations. The official enmity
is such that Saudi law, as in most Arab states, forbids anyone with a
passport bearing an Israeli stamp from entering the country.
Nonetheless, some Middle East observers have come to see the
controversial meeting as a sign of a dramatic realignment in the
region, one that could transform relationships between long-standing
friends and enemies.
At the root of the change is Sunni Arabs´ fear of Shiite Iran. As a
result, the traditional enemy of Arabs--Israel--could begin to build
a subtle but powerful alliance with Sunni Muslim regimes in the Arab
Saudi officials promptly denied that a meeting took place, and Olmert
said he did not meet with anyone "who should cause a sensation." But
the denials proved unconvincing to those watching the rise of Iran.
"Every country in the Arab world, except Syria, has something to fear
from Iran," said Ofra Bengio of Tel Aviv University´s Moshe Dayan
Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies, whose fields of
specialty include contemporary Middle East history.
With its growing influence in what is now Shiite-dominated Iraq, its
nuclear program and a defiantly reinvigorated revolutionary regime,
Iran may just be starting to keep Arab leaders awake at night.
Bengio describes a three-pronged threat from Tehran: ideological,
political and strategic. Iran´s nuclear program, along with its
sponsorship of armed militias such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and
Moqtada Sadr´s al-Mahdi Army in Iraq, poses a growing worry to Sunni-
ruled countries that have long feared their restive Shiite minorities.
As a result, Sunni regimes in the Arab world, according to some
observers, are beginning to see Iran, not Israel, as the country to
This natural convergence of interests has the potential to recast the
political landscape from the traditional one of Arabs versus Israelis
that has dominated the Middle East since the late 1940s.
During the opening salvos of the Lebanon war, the Saudi regime and
other Sunni governments in the Middle East gave us a glimpse into
that dramatic realignment. In an unprecedented attack on the Arab
side in a conflict against Israel, Saudi Arabia blamed Hezbollah´s
raid into Israel and its capture of two Israeli soldiers
as "irresponsible adventurism."
As the war dragged on and popular sentiment turned passionately pro-
Hezbollah, the Saudis condemned Israel. Other Sunni regimes, such as
those in Jordan and Egypt, criticized Israel but were careful to
craft statements in solidarity with Lebanese civilians rather than in
support of Iran-backed Hezbollah.
To be sure, it remains politically expedient to criticize Israel
loudly. Behind the scenes, though, there is growing evidence that
Iran is viewed as an emerging threat of enormous proportions.
If Tehran acquires nuclear weapons, that threat will grow even larger.
At the start of the U.S.-led war to topple Saddam Hussein in Iraq,
Jordan´s King Abdullah II warned about the dangers of a "Shiite
crescent" from Beirut to Baghdad. Earlier this year, Egyptian
President Hosni Mubarak showed his hand, angering Shiites, when he
said, "Most of the Shiites [in the Arab world] are loyal to Iran, and
not to the countries they are living in."
Even in the media, a few are openly expressing the emerging fears
over Iran´s designs.
In a recent opinion piece titled "For These Reasons We Fear Iran" in
the pan-Arabic daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, the director of Al-Arabiya
TV, Abd al-Rahman al-Rashed, argued that the most likely target of
Iran´s nuclear weapons is the Arab countries of the Persian Gulf.
"It is incomprehensible that Iran will bomb Israel, which has a
shield of missiles, tremendous firepower and nuclear weapons
artillery sufficient to eradicate every city in Iran," he
wrote. "This means that if this destructive weapon is used, the only
option for a target is the Arab Gulf."
At the Dayan Center, Bengio said she wouldn´t be surprised if Arab
countries at this moment are trying to persuade Washington to attack
Iran´s nuclear facilities. She acknowledged that an American attack
would produce a sharp reaction from the so-called Arab street. But
she thinks Arab regimes believe they can handle the unrest, and that
they would take that chance rather than see Iran continue to build
political, military and ideological influence in the Arab back yard.
In case the U.S. does not take action, Sunni Arab nations are making
contingency plans. Saudi Arabia has engaged in a huge military
shopping spree, spending billions on American Black Hawk helicopters
and armored vehicles, and negotiating billions more in purchases from
France and Britain.
Egypt recently announced its intentions to pursue nuclear energy, a
decision echoing Iran´s claim that its nuclear program seeks only to
The conflict in Lebanon was a wake-up call to many Arab countries
about the danger they could face from the "Shiite Axis," according to
published comments by Martin Indyk, director of the Saban Center for
Middle East Policy at The Brookings Institution and a former U.S.
ambassador to Israel.
In the short term, the public voice of Arab politics will continue to
castigate Israel for its treatment of Palestinians. Still, as Iran
continues to strut its newfound influence on the international stage,
and as its militias continue to boast of their great arsenals and
ideological fervor, the regional realignment will continue to take
shape. A not-so-secret meeting between an Israeli prime minister and
Saudi officials looks like one of the first steps toward that
transformation. ---------- Frida Ghitis writes about world affairs.
(Copyright © 2006, Chicago Tribune 10/08/06)
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