Saturday, July 21, 2007

Fomenting fears of Shiite Crescent?

There are many shady forces signaling the rise of an ‘Iranian-led Shiite crescent’ - but a surprising number don’t come from the Middle East. Many extra-regional actors are fanning the flames out of their own self-interest. Aside from the Bush administration’s thinly veiled propaganda there are other more pervasive forces difficult to pin down. Chief among them are the ‘regional experts’ eager to provide the Bush administration with justification to intervene in Iran and other hot spots, either because of shared ideological commitments or personal aggrandizement. Then there’s the global defense industry targeting the Gulf market, which is conveniently made up of precarious Sunni monarchies awash in petrodollars.

As usual, there is no shortage of experts ready to peddle their advice on confronting this “looming danger.” One such menacing assessment comes from Gulf Research Council Chairman Abdulaziz Sager, "The Gulf region, which has not enjoyed security and stability for decades, is currently passing through a danger-laden historical turning-point." A columnist in the state-sponsored Saudi daily wrote “Iran is invading the Arab world and burning everything in its path.” In July Reuters reported a Western diplomat in Riyadh as saying, “Who in the long term is their main strategic threat? They see it as Iran.”

If that’s true the Arab public seems to have missed it. A November 2006 University of Maryland/Zogby poll of six Arab countries (including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates) indicates that more than ¾ of respondents see Israel and the US as their greatest existential threats, only 11% name Iran. Although they overwhelmingly support Shiite Hizbullah and its leader, Hassan Nasrallah, as well as Iranian President Ahmadinijad, it isn’t because of their sectarian identity – but because they refuse to bow to US and Israeli pressure. This reflects the vast divide between Arab governments’ policies and the views of their citizens. One U.S.-based Saudi analyst speaking on condition of anonymity to Reuters last year summed it up: "It seems that the Saudis will likely continue to spend on the most modern weaponry, regardless of whether this Iranian-led Shi'ite crescent is real or not.”

Predictably, fears of a “Shiite crescent” have driven defense spending to unprecedented heights in the region. Overall measures for 2005 show that the largest relative spending increase in the world was in the Middle East, and that’s without Iraq and Qatar, excluded because of inconsistent data (SIPRI). But, if Iran is planning any major military action in the region, it’s doing so on the cheap: its 2005 per capita military spending was less than half the average of the other Middle East and North African states (IISS).

A critical inspection suggests that rising sectarianianism may reflect a well-orchestrated campaign to foment division as much as any primordial divisions. Rumors of mass conversions of Sunnis to Shiism following Hizbullah’s impressive performance in the summer war with Israel, the circulation of proselytizing literature among Sunnis in Egypt, videos of anti-Sunni rallies in Jordan and other places all have dubious origins and are dismissed by many well-placed analysts and religious leaders as fabricated. The drive to confront Iran, and the US plan to establish permanent bases in Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, and the UAE and at least 12 equipment ‘sets’ from which to launch operations from Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan, would both be served by trumping up fears of Shiite ascendancy.

Divide and Conquer has always been a tool of control – the question is whether Arab governments are willing to play up sectarian divisions and the Iranian threat just to further US policy goals. If the Sunni-Shiite outreach on Al Jazeera and the recent high profile meetings between Ahmadinijad and Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah signal anything, it is that Middle East leaders are realizing the importance of building bridges as US power diminishes. This development may prove the most constructive in the region’s history.

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