If we look reasonably at the course of history, we can see that fundamentalism has never truly faded away. It may have been weakened at one time or another, but it never really disappeared. For instance, European fundamentalism still has its supporters despite all the progress and awareness we have reached on a global level. It may be true that the influence of European fundamentalism has been cast aside to the sidelines of history, but we cannot deny its existence.
Similarly, the Middle East and the rest of the world have not been able to escape the clutches of fundamentalism that claims to be Islamic. In fact, the influence of this so-called Islamic fundamentalism seems to be more prominent than ever before despite its relatively short history compared to its European predecessor. Many believed that this influence would abate after classifying Islamic fundamentalist groups as terrorist organizations in some Arab countries; however, this is unfortunately not the case.
Former US President Barack Obama had a distinct vision in this regard; he believed that confronting these fundamentalists is futile. Therefore, he saw that the best course of action would be to become their ally, as he did in the so-called Arab Spring though his alliance with the Muslim Brotherhood, and his support for these fundamentalists reaching power in a number of Arab countries, or through reconciling with them, as he did with the Iranian theocratic regime through the infamous nuclear deal.
What signals a new rise in fundamentalism is the latest stance undertaken by the new US administration regarding the move to revoke the designation of the Iran-backed Houthi militia as a foreign terrorist organization. The main issue here lies in the fact that the new US administration seems hesitant about calling these militias as well as other more widespread fundamentalist groups by their name: terrorists. It is not difficult to understand the practical reasons behind this position; however, those reasons would have been left unquestioned if it weren’t for the arsenal of theoretical justifications and unfounded claims of a visionary approach.
Upon examining the latest escalating stampede of events, it becomes easy to understand the apparent contradictions in this context. It has become crystal clear that the only deterrent that Iran responds to is fear, and it is simply unrealistic to idly stand by until Iran is ready to show goodwill. As we have all noted, during the Trump era, the Iranian regime had been quick to deny its involvement in multiple acts of terrorism. It has also ordered all Iran-backed Sunni or Shiite terrorist groups to ease down their aggression. However, the moment a new US administration took office, Iran seized the opportunity to revitalize its sponsorship of terrorism, and quickly mobilized its militias all across the region, not to mention stepping up its development of nuclear weapons as well as openly boasting about preventing international inspectors from performing their assigned roles. There is no denying that, without the threat of sanctions, Iran will continue to test its limits by escalating its provocations.
Meanwhile, the role of political mediation has grown significantly in the last period and we have seen European countries racing to mediate between the US and the Iranian regime in order to push for reinstating the unquestionably flawed nuclear deal as if it was the only remaining lifeline for the region and the world. These countries are almost ready to beg and plead as if the world’s salvation lies only in Iran’s hands.
In the future, Western countries will pay the price for their leniency in dealing with fundamentalism, which has evidently taken root in their societies and political institutions over the past decades. These countries will soon discover how dangerous this leniency and inaction really is, as France has discovered. The danger of fundamentalism to Western countries has become greater than its danger to Arab countries, since these countries have become the center of gravity and source of strength for Islamic fundamentalist groups, and not Arab countries.
It is true that several commendable and rational statements have been issued by the US and Europe regarding the danger of the Iranian nuclear program and Iran’s support for terrorism as well as its deployment of armed sectarian militias in the region and, to a lesser extent, the need for limiting its interference in Arab internal affairs. However, it is safe to say, as past experiences have shown us, that this is nothing but a smokescreen to divert attention. Not long ago, before the signing of the infamously disgraceful nuclear deal, such statements were in circulation, and we now realize that it was merely a ruse aimed at covering up the US’s real intentions.
We have heard several statements from several Western institutions and countries that indicate the same approach. For instance, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) will issue a report firmly denouncing the discovery of uranium in some Iranian locations. Meanwhile, German Chancellor Merkel seems to be the most eager about restoring the nuclear deal, despite her “concern” regarding Tehran’s violations. The White House has also declared that the new US administration does not “intend” to lift the sanctions imposed on the Iranian regime before negotiating with Europe. the British Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs has stated that “the West should not send signals that it is prepared to overlook Tehran's breaches.”
These are just quick examples of statements and positions that are not indicative of anything. Many similar positions can be pointed out to reveal the true level of seriousness with which the Iranian threat is being addressed. Many terms have been used by officials to purport a firm political stance, when in reality this does not seem to be the case.
Without a decisive stance on the Iranian regime's hostile policies, Western countries are merely delaying the inevitable devastation instead of abolishing it. The greatest flaw in the previous nuclear deal was its condonement of Iran's ballistic missiles program and its interventions in Arab countries. At this point, Western political players seem much more eager about joining the negotiations table with Iran instead of focusing on ensuring Iran’s compliance especially in terms of these two key issues.
All of Iran’s current efforts, provocations, and statements are aimed at finding a way to free itself as soon as possible from the harsh sanctions imposed by the Trump administration, which have resulted in real repercussions for the Iranian regime. Evidently, the US seems to have expected this outcome and has prepared for it from the beginning. It is clear that lifting the sanctions, even partially, will give Iran a breathing space to prolong the negotiations for years to come, without making any real commitments.
Modern fundamentalist movements, be they Sunni or Shiite, are connected to the Iranian regime. The Muslim Brotherhood and other political-Islam groups, which are the root of terrorism, are allies of this regime. Therefore, we will witness a rise of these fundamentalist groups in the coming period, and the whole world will just sit and watch.
There is a long list of figures, positions and files within the US administration suggesting that the old approach of dealing with the Iranian regime will be restored. Individuals may change, but groups with a declared rhetoric do not. It is important to know the political trends and visions that drive these groups, and to deal with them as they are without underestimating them, because that alone will ensure the success of future endeavors in upcoming conflicts, while preserving the necessary and vital interests.
Throughout the decades, relations with Western allies have gone through phases of tension, stability, agreement and conflict. After all, this is politics and that is how it will always be. Allies’ interests and priorities change over time, and the world is facing a new reality in many aspects. International superpowers have different agendas and strategies, and the future lies uncertain.
Finally, US President Joe Biden stated at the Munich Security Conference, last Friday, that the United States must work with other international superpowers to deal with Iran's destabilizing activities. This is a positive statement, and all that remains to be seen is how this will be accomplished.
This article was originally published in, and translated from, the pan-Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat.