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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

Arabism, Islamism, and Iranian Hegemony

Filed under: Iran, The Middle East

Arabism, Islamism, and Iranian Hegemony
A Saudi [Sunni] depiction of Iran [Shiite], the “source of terrorism in the Middle East.”  (Saudi Gazette, June 18, 2019)

The so-called Arab Spring was supposed to topple the Arab post-colonial regimes and replace them with regimes adapted to the reality of the 21st century, regimes with a social appeal, with an Arab and Islamic identity, and definitely anti-Western.

This transformation did not occur. Instead, Arab regimes were confronted with two main threats: radical Islam and Iranian hegemony. In the struggle against Islamic radicalism, some Arab regimes did not hesitate to call for assistance from foreign powers (Russia, China, or the United States) which had no colonial past in the area. Some even turned to former colonial powers such as France and the UK in order to survive the surging wave of radical Islam.

Some went as far as calling for neighboring Arab powers (Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Bahrain) and peripheral powers in the Middle East (Turkey and Iran) to assist them in blocking the assault on their defenses by Islamic radicals associated with al- Qaeda, the Islamic State (Daesh) and the Muslim Brotherhood.

Saudi forces cross the 25km causeway into Bahrain to put down Arab Spring disturbances in March 2011
Saudi forces cross the 25km causeway into Bahrain to put down Arab Spring disturbances in March 2011. (Screenshot)

A decade later, Libya is the only Arab country whose regime did not survive. It transformed into a failed state, divided between rival factions, and whose south is controlled mainly by radical Islamists.

Libya is not the only failed state. Lebanon also descended into that status for different reasons and joined the dubious club. It is struggling to survive as a nation.

The main reasons for Libya’s disintegration are the struggle between its two main geographical divisions – Tripolitania and Cyrenaica – over the control of the state, and a struggle between competing tribes in which foreign powers try to impose their influence. Lebanon, on the other hand, is the victim of its ill-born confessional and sectarian body politic mixed with corruption, mismanagement, and the inability to confront external state subversion.

The Islamic State (Daesh) as a state was defeated by a multinational coalition which included archenemies and sworn rivals such as Iran, the United States, and Turkey. However, Daesh is still present in the region, fed and nurtured by the historical schism between Sunnis and Shiites. This applies in particular to Syria and Iraq, where Daesh still enjoys a safe haven among the Sunni population and the previous political elite who refuse to surrender to being ruled by Shiite/Iranian-oriented regimes.

In deep correlation with the Sunni reaction to the change of regime in Iraq that was the catalyst to creating Daesh, the Arab world sought the dismantling of the Muslim Brotherhood, the champions of political Islam. The Brotherhood was considered a dominant force, even regarded by the Obama administration as worthy of inheriting vacillating and corrupt Arab regimes, together with fringe radical Sunni movements linked to al-Qaeda or to Daesh. The Arab regimes rose to overcome the radical Islamic wave and maintain their traditional rule except for the U.S.-imposed regime in Iraq and the disintegration of Libya under the strike forces led by the West and mainly by France.

As of today, the Muslim Brotherhood has been defeated, even decimated, while their leaders are either in exile or incarcerated in detention camps or jails. In Tunisia, where the Arab Spring began, the Muslim Brotherhood found themselves in the opposition, constantly hunted by the regime and facing high-treason tribunals.

Iran’s New Role

It is important to note: never in the modern history of the Middle East and the Arab world was there a situation in which Iran was omnipresent, influential, and dictating local governments’ policies to the point that Iranian delegates monitor parliamentary elections and decide on the choice of presidents and prime ministers. This new stage saw Iran intervening in regional wars where its involvement was characterized by military assistance and intervention and financial and political support. Iranian politicians boasted openly that four Arab capitals were under their hegemony in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen.

An Iranian cartoon depicting Yemen’s Houthis [Shiite] attacking Saudi Arabia [Sunni] with their jambiya dagger in the form of a drone.
An Iranian cartoon depicting Yemen’s Houthis [Shiite] attacking Saudi Arabia [Sunni] with their jambiya dagger in the form of a drone. (Tasnim News)

The Iranian element has polarized the Arab Middle East, dividing it into two politically polar regions: the northern one extending from Lebanon to Iraq (including Yemen in the south and until a few years ago Sudan), a region with a Shiite majority, and the southern subregion caught between the northern belt and Yemen with a Sunni majority and deeply anti-Iranian.

The northern region dominated by Iran has become increasingly destabilized domestically, dominated by sectarian politics, and mostly characterized by a paralyzed body politic unable to establish governmental continuity, an equitable distribution of power, consolidation of stable economies, and a defense against foreign intervention. Iran through its executive arm – the al-Quds Force, part and parcel of the Revolutionary Guards – has managed to create in each of the “dominated” states proxy forces that assure its paramount position in local politics in which Iran intervenes and governs at its own discretion. Such is the case with Hizbullah in Lebanon, the “popular mobilization force” (Al-Hashd el-Shaabi) in Iraq, the Houthis in Yemen, and the foreign legion incorporating Pakistani and Afghani militias in Syria which serve as a pretorian guard for the Assad regime.

Historically, Persians and Arabs were bitter rivals, even though Persian culture penetrated the Arab realm and was deeply integrated in the Arab heritage. The different Shiite communities were scattered all over the Arab world, but mainly in the Arab Levant, where the contact with Persia/Iran went back several centuries. The interaction between those communities and Iran covered all aspects of life while serving from time to time as a haven for political or religious Iranian figures persecuted by the authorities in Tehran. However, at no point was there an intention to dominate Arab politics. This tendency changed radically with the advent of the Ayatollah regime in Iran, the fall of the Shah of Iran, and the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran which adopted proselytism as an official policy, hiding its intentions under the cover of pan-Islamism.

With the growing influence of the Islamic Republic in different Arab states and the domination of Tehran in what is called “the Fertile Crescent,” tensions began to mount between Arabs and Iran. These tensions are not limited to the historical clash between Sunnis and Shiites; they also extend to the Christian community in Lebanon, and of much more significance, to the growing chasm in the Shiite camp in Iraq – between Shiites who are totally committed to Iran and those who seek to protect their Arab, Iraqi, independent identity. Such an inter-Shiite schism in Iraq has produced not only paralysis in the political system, with fighting Shiite factions unable to decide or agree on the choice of a president, a prime minister, and on the convening of parliament since the legislative elections in October 2021, but it has raised the likelihood of an all-out civil war in Iraq.

The Arab protests also roil divided Lebanon where the Iranian agent and proxy, Hizbullah, is criticized by its Sunni political rivals and parts of the Christian community because of its paralyzing grip on the body politic, serving ultimately Iranian interests, and pushing the state into a confrontation with Israel.

More significant is the de facto alliance that has been established between the different Sunni-majority Arab states which have decided to confront Iran’s covert expansion, either through economic sanctions (such as the case in Lebanon) or through establishing a political network meant to counter Iranian initiatives in the Middle East and Africa.

Saladin’s army in manuscript illumination, 1337
“Saladin’s army,” French reproduction, 1337. (Wikipedia)

It is worth mentioning that several centuries ago, parts of the Arab world were dominated by the Fatimids, Shiite rulers from the 10th to the 12th century (909-1171), a sultanate that ranged from the Atlantic Ocean in the Maghreb to the Red Sea. It took Salahuddin (Salah el-Din), the Kurdish-born Sunni, to defeat the Fatimids and replace them with the Ayyubid Sunni dynasty.

The war between Arabism and Iranian hegemony is far from over.