Saudi Arabia is peddling the message of sectarian division, but that’s a dangerously inaccurate misreading of the what the Arab Spring is really about. If the US wants stability in the Middle East, it shouldn’t bow to Saudi Arabia’s opposition to Shiite Iran.
A panicky Saudi Arabia has now openly seized the banner of outspoken opposition to Iran across the Muslim world, surpassing even Washington’s long and obsessive Iran-centered interpretation of Middle East events. Riyadh is perpetuating a false – and hence dangerously misleading – reading of key regional issues.
The Saudi Kingdom grows understandably fearful as “stable” autocratic rule in the region now faces the severest threats since the heyday of the Arab nationalist revolution half a century ago. The Saudi regime has chosen to single out Iran as the primary source of populist agitation and revolution. This in itself is an irony since Iran’s own regime – a complex, messy, unpleasant, fractured, and opaque blend of autocracy and quasi-democratic institutions – faces threats from domestic forces that demand greater openness. But that’s not the issue.
Iran has played its foreign policy cards shrewdly over the years, so that to most Middle Eastern publics, Tehran has displayed the kind of defiance of American dominance and its support for Israeli policies in the Palestinian territories that has always held street appeal – especially in states dominated by supine US-supported dictatorships. Polls indicate that Arab publics rate concern over potential Iranian nukes quite low.
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Take the Palestinian resistance organization Hamas, which enjoys Iranian as well as Arab support. Hamas surely does not threaten Riyadh by dint of being a Sunni fundamentalist movement; its threat is that it is basically anti-monarchical, has called for armed resistance by Palestinians, and represents activist popular anti-autocratic forces at work. That is what unnerves the House of Saud: uncontrolled populism. Similarly, Riyadh also seeks to neutralize the dominant Shiite community in Lebanon led by Hezbollah that enjoys much popularity among Sunnis outside Lebanon for its stubborn resistance to Israeli military power.
So today Riyadh seeks to portray Iran as the heart of a new super-menace to Arab monarchy. Not so much because it is Persian, but above all because it is Shiite – a sect theologically detestable in Wahhabi, as well as Al Qaeda eyes. Wahhabis not only loathe Shiism, but they fear the internal “threat” of an oppressed Shiite minority in Saudi Arabia – only some 10 percent of the population — which must be kept under muzzle. More important, the oppressed Shiite population in Bahrain – an absolute majority – must never be allowed to gain power through elections, as happened in Iraq. Bahrain and Saudi Arabia are fighting the tides of history and are losing.