Since 1979, the Islamic Republic of Iran has tried to establish itself as a dominant power in the Middle East. The goal to dominate during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s cost both sides of the conflict millions of lives and billions of dollars. While the Iran-Iraq war was essentially over the Shaat al-Arab (the oil rich and strategic delta of the Euphrates and Tigris rivers), there was of course also a religious and ethnic component to the conflict. Spinning it as a war between Shia and Sunni islam helped mobilize the masses.
Iran has been trying to further nurture natural allies in opposition to strong Sunni regimes across the Middle East. Iran’s push for domination also involves sponsoring terrorist organizations such as Hezbollah and supporting leaders who offer mutual support. Iran supports Hezbollah in Lebanon, a Shia community in a country composed of Sunni, Christians and Druze. In Syria, Iran’s backing of the Allawite Assad regime was consistent with supporting a counter-Sunni government. In most of the Middle East (excluding Iran) Shite communities are a poorly treated minority. To add to the mix, there are several non-Sunni Muslim populations that are considered by radical Sunni Islam as Murtad or apostates. These include Druze, Allawites, Yazidis, and many more Islamic offshoots, followers ‘false prophets,’ created after the birth of Islam. For those Sunnis, the Murtad are even worse than Christians and Jews who at least follow true prophets (Jesus, Abraham). Shia and Murtad are both in the minority, making their’s a natural allegiance.
The picture changed with the second Gulf War. The U.S. took down the Iraqi regime creating a power vacuum in Iran’s next door neighbor, a vacuum hardily exploited by the Iranians. The Iraqi government turned Shite with the help of the U.S. Former military (Sunni) leadership of Saddam Hussein was dissolved and pushed out. These leaders began a militia to protect ethnic or religious communities with which they were aligned, Sunni towns in northern and central Iraq. These militia evolved into what we now know as ISIL. Many Iraqi Sunnis feel they have no choice but to support ISIL (even though they don’t believe in the doctrine, per se) because they are pushed against the wall.
In Iran, the Pasdaran (Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps) and the Quds brigades (one of which was the genesis of Hezbollah) are now pushing westward to Syria and Lebanon. Their aim is to create an empire that extends from Iran through Iraq to the Mediterranean Sea, essentially reestablishing the great ancient Persian Empire. This movement westward includes clamping down on Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States by financing, equipping and training the Houthis in Yemen and supporting Shiite minorities in southern Saudi Arabia.
How does this movement impact other players on the world stage? One example is how the Sunni coalition led by Saudi Arabia and Egypt is feeling the pressure and taking assertive actions such as cutting diplomatic relations with Qatar (a Sunni regime) which has been hedging its bets by aligning with everyone.
The United States and Europe seem to be influenced more, and understandably so, by what is happening on their home fronts, rather than reading the larger Middle Eastern map of ethnic and political power plays. Terrorism in the western world is conducted mostly by ISIL, a Sunni movement. The public discussion in the West is about eradicating ISIL, taking it down. But ISIL is one of the opposing forces to Iran leaving a Catch 22 situation, not unlike what happened with the overthrow of Saddam Hussein after 9/11. True, he was a ruthless despot but also a strong buffer between Iran and the rest of the Middle East. It is unlikely that taking down ISIL would stop suicide attacks in the streets of London, Paris, New York, just as taking down Saddam did not stop terrorism in all the above mentioned cities.
Radical Islamic movements operating in the western world are a local problem. Influence and radicalization can come from any corner of the world via social media and the internet. But the attacks that have taken place over just the last six months were perpetrated by local citizens, legal residents of those countries.
Israel is another albeit small component in the mix, and is finding itself in the eye of the storm. The Iranians are getting very close to its borders, within miles. The Syrian army (Iran plus Hezbollah) is trying to take over the Syrian side of the Golan Heights. The Wall Street Journal recently exposed that Israel is supporting mildly religious Sunni militias whose goal is to protect the Syrian towns and villages next to the Israeli border from both the Iranian, Syrian, Hezbollah and the ISIL forces that are fighting in the tri-border area between Israel, Jordan and Syria Shuhada el yarmouk (the Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade). And so, Israel finds itself in the same camp with Egypt, Saudi Arabia and other moderate Sunni regimes, something hard to imagine decades ago.
Given the turmoil, it is worth considering that in the Middle East the ideal situation is not concerned with human rights, freedom and democracy but rather stability. At this point, the impact of the Arab Spring is not blooming liberation but rather that country after country has been hijacked by two competing forces, both staunch enemies of the west: Iran and ISIL. Throw into the mix Russia that is assertive in taking advantage of the power vacuum to establish Mediterranean ports in Syria. And then the Kurd forces fighting ISIL who are generally ethnically motivated to create a country for themselves along the border between Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria. Kurdistan is trying to expand its border to encompass all Kurds. Which in turn scares the bejesus out of Turkey. It’s a mess.
The policies of the west vis-à-vis the Middle East may be better governed by the following guidelines:
1. Fully understand the ethnic and religious DNA of the Middle East. Sometimes ethnic and national identity trumps religious identity, and vis versa.
2. Refrain from creating power vacuums absent an understanding of the mid and long term ramifications of such.
3. The more religious the forces one is dealing with, the harder it is to negotiate. When one side feels its rights are god given, discussion is difficult.
4. Application of Western ideals, context or logic to any region in the Middle East is bound to failure. The cultural norms are so fundamentally different that this approach is not workable.
At this point there are roughly three main forces in the Middle East:
- ISIL, Hamas and Al Qaeda fall under the theological doctrine of the Muslim Brotherhood extremism, believe in Islamic superiority.
- Shite led forces under Iran to include the Syrian regime and Hezbollah falling under the doctrine of the Ayatolla and revolutionary guard.
- The third force includes the moderate Sunni regimes in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the Palestinian Authority and Jordan that generally speaking, seek stability. This group seems the lesser of three evils. While these regimes and their leaders are imperfect, follow different rules than we do in the West, and are even what we would consider at times ruthless, cautious alignment with them would at least set us on the path to stability.