Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Why Won’t the Arabs Protect Themselves from Iran by Actively Battling Against Tehran Having Nuclear Weapons?

By Barry Rubin

It isn’t hard to conclude that Iran having nuclear weapons is a direct threat to Arab states, except Syria—Tehran’s ally—which would benefit. Why, then, don’t Arab states and intellectuals public express more concern?

Western observers were shaken up when at a debate in Qatar, the relatively moderate Arab audience split almost down the middle between those cheering and those jeering the idea of Iranian nuclear weapons.

One member of the audience said:

“Why in the first place should Iran seek the trust of anyone? Iran is an independent, sovereign country, and it has every single right to defend itself. If it wants a bomb, definitely it should have one."

The audience cheered.

Another man said:

"There is something called balance of power. As long as there is Israel, we need a nuclear bomb."

A serious analysis would have to include three main points in explaining this seeming suicidal desire of many Arabs that the real worst enemy of the current Arab order become really, really powerful:

First, fear. Iran is strong, aggressive, close, and represents an ideology that appeals to some of their people. To stand up to Iran’s growing strength could incur costly hostility, pressure and subversion now. And once Tehran gets nuclear weapons, it will remember and take revenge on those who have tried to thwart it.

Second, there is the Middle Eastern version of Political Correctness which, unlike its Western version, has very sharp teeth. All good Muslims are supposed to love each other, hate Israel, and hate America. Much the same can be said of all good Arabs, though Iran of course does not benefit directly from that paradigm.

Consequently, if Iran can become a nuclear-armed Muslim state which views America, the West, and Israel as its enemies, then that must be good for Muslims and even Arabs too, right? How proud they all can be that one of them has made good! That will sure show the West that Muslims can have the ultimate weapon. Certainly, many of their people will be enthusiastic and so the rulers—even in dictatorships—rush to get to the head of the crowd lest it turn on them.

Third, their behavior is based on hopeful thinking, a sort of more likely version of wishful thinking. Surely, they wish, the United States or Israel will solve the problem without their having to do anything. Incidentally, this is similar to their position on the Arab-Israeli conflict.

And, of course, this is a test of U.S. power and will power. After all, if America can’t deal with Iran for them that proves the United States cannot protect them against Tehran. So they are better off keeping their mouths shut now and the option  open of appeasing Iran.

In general, Arab states are content to wait it out. Some movements--Hizballah, Hamas, Iraqi clients of Tehran—and Syria are already on the Iranian team. Qatar and non-Arab Turkey are moving in that direction. Lebanon has been Finlandized, that is, forced into a posture of not doing anything Tehran doesn't like because of the power of Hizballah and other Iranian clients inside the country.

But for most—Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and the remaining small Gulf states—the risk is too great of changing sides. After all, they genuinely don’t trust Iran and really don’t want it to change the strategic balance in its favor.

Yet on the other hand, their fear that Iran might become a hegemonic power in the Middle East and subvert these states a factor that should make them vigorously oppose Tehran getting nuclear weapons. The same goes for their hatred of Iran as radical Islamist and Shia Muslim and (largely) ethnic Persian.

The first set of motives, however, outweighs the second. And so they remain silent.

Here’s an obscure story that indicates the shape of things to come. A group of Iran-backed Shia rebels, called the Houthi, in Yemen are waging a guerrilla war to try to take over the country. The Saudis, who view themselves as the guardians of Yemen and don’t want another pro-Tehran state on their border, have been bombing them.

Two top-ranking Iranians have denounced the Saudi action as “Wahhabi terrorism” and openly threatened Saudi Arabia. The language they used indicated the ideological nature of the war, since the Saudis’ Wahhabi version of Islam is very anti-Shia. The Iranians said the war is a U.S.-backed effort to divide Arabs.

And for those who think that Iran’s current internal conflicts will take care of its external aggression, the identity of these two Iranians is significant. One of them is Major General Hassan Firouzabadi, introducing a military threat. But the other is Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani, a leading “moderate” member of the radical ruling group who opposes President Ahmadinejad. In other words, Tehran’s ambitions have a wide base of support across faction.

Now, the way things are supposed to work, the United States should support the Saudis, signaling Riyadh that America is a reliable ally (so don’t be afraid of Iran having nuclear weapons) and Tehran that Washington won’t tolerate Iranian aggression (so be afraid and slow down or abandon nuclear weapon development).

Of course, the Obama Administration won’t say a word. Why? Specifically:

--It views normal power politics as neo-imperialistic.

--It fears that Iran will present the Yemen issue as one showing American intervention. Guess what? The Iranians already are doing so.

--It worries that such action will endanger U.S. engagement with Iran over nuclear weapons. Guess what? That’s already dead any way. And showing you are weak doesn’t give you leverage in negotiations.
But this is the pattern, isn’t it?

--The Obama Administration has not backed Iraq’s denunciations of Syria’s involvement in cross-border terrorism. (To be fair, U.S. envoys have asked Syria to stop but there aren’t any teeth behind this request.)

--The Administration isn’t giving strong backing to Israel. Indeed, after Israel agreed to a U.S. request for a freeze on construction inside settlements with the exception of Jerusalem, the Arabs complained and the Administration backed down on its own deal.

--Despite some verbal support the Administration hasn’t taken a tough position backing Lebanese moderates (March 14 coalition) against pressure from Iran- and Syria-backed Hizballah to give the radicals a bigger share of government. Indeed, the U.S. effort was so feeble that the Saudis gave up their own efforts to pressure Syria to ease off on the Lebanese.

--The U.S. government barely gave a squeak in support of the Iranian economic opposition.

--In Afghanistan the government is hanging around waiting for the United States to make up its mind whether to defend or virtually abandon the country. The indecision is not such as to promote confidence in Kabul or trembling among the Taliban.

So here's the question of the era. You are an Arab or a non-Arab Muslim (or an Israeli). You don't want your country to be taken over by Islamists who are likely to shoot you, seize your property, and force you to change your lifestyle to that of Taliban Afghanistan.

You don't ask yourself: Is President Barack Obama nice to Muslims, sympathetic, and apologizes for America being tough in the past.

Rather, you ask yourself: Can I depend on America under the Obama Administration to protect me now and in the future? Would the United States attack Iran if necessary to deter Tehran? Would it even threaten the use of nuclear weapons to shield me against any Iranian attack? Would it send troops if I decided I wanted them?

Ok, what's your answer? And if it is "no" then what alternative to appeasement is possible?

At the debate in Qatar, an Iraqi woman in the audience tried to have it both ways, pointing out that even from a perspective that thinks Israel makes the devil look like a nice guy there are good reasons to oppose Iran having nukes. Note that she didn't mention the United States at all as the solution:

"We're going to [be] between two powerful countries, Iran and Israel, with nuclear weapons. Where will this region be?"

Answer: Up the Gulf without a paddle.

By the way, if you want to get an idea of what Middle East politics is really like, watch this 32-second film about a day in the life of a railroad track inspector. And remember you can't always expect to get this lucky.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books. To see or subscribe to his blog, Rubin Reports.

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