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This talk of Shiism represents a dangerous diversion because in fact the future of the Middle East is not basically about sectarian power. Yes, key dispossessed minorities – Shiites in Iraq and Bahrain, Sunnis in Syria – will seek to right skewed political balances, and sectarian tensions inevitably develop out of that unsettling process. But instability develops most explosively when frozen autocracies burst open, leading to a scramble for a new political order. Nonetheless, some sectarian stasis will eventually emerge, as it has in the past. Most Arabs are more concerned with liberation from harsh rule, and with corruption, jobs, dignity, and national sovereignty. Reversion to sectarianism, or racism, is everywhere the ruling scoundrel’s last ploy.
So Riyadh’s desperate call to create a club of Sunni monarchs and allied Sunni states in South and East Asia to hold the line on Iran runs counter to what enlightened Washington policy should want in this region. Anti-Iranian policies do not create a meaningful framework for a new regional order. Egypt may have no special love for Iran, but its new regime now clearly sees hostility with an important state like Tehran to be counterproductive.
Turkey, too, sees greater benefit in trying to integrate Iran rather than engage in fruitless and truculent confrontation. No other gulf state is truly “threatened” by Iran, nor has there been any war with Iran in a very long time – except for a diplomatic dust-up over a few islands under the Shah. Only the oppressive minority regime of Bahrain is threatened with change and now typically clings to Riyadh in a desperate end game.
Saudi Arabia probably does not want actual war with Iran. But it hopes its extreme stance on Iran will help gain Washington’s unconditional acquiescence for Riyadh’s own anti-democracy stance. But should Washington go that route? If Washington wants a stable and sound future for the Middle East, it should not follow Riyadh’s lead. Saudi Arabia will always sell its oil to the world – even if reduces its extravagant arms purchases from the US arms industry.
Riyadh may well succeed in buying off its own population from domestic revolt for some years to come. But the US should not be tying its star to a “flagship Saudi Arabia,” even under the best of circumstances. And especially not now that Riyadh exploits extreme ideological and sectarian appeals in an effort to blunt the slow but inexorable, complex process of Arab Spring.
Graham E. Fuller is a former vice chairman of the National Intelligence Council at the CIA. His most recent book is “A World Without Islam.” He is an adjunct professor at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada.