Has the Arab world entered an Iranian era?

Lenience and passivity have been the dominant features of the Arab political system in recent years

Eyad Abu Shakra
Eyad Abu Shakra
Published: Updated:
Read Mode
100% Font Size
8 min read

During this period of successive, barely understood regional developments, I believe a question worth asking regarding the Middle East is whether the U.S., and the international community behind it, has a serious vision of how the current situation may develop.

What we have seen over the past few days in Yemen, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon suggests that the Middle East as we know it has ceased to exist and that we are on the threshold of a completely different era. Away from firebrand speeches and threats and counter-threats, we must admit that a certain agenda has been imposed on the region and that a new balance of power is emerging with an international backing and the acquiescence, or acceptance, of the region.

Over the past 10 years, ever since the geostrategic earthquake that the occupation of Iraq caused, we have witnessed a fundamental shift in the region’s dynamics on the ground while the political rhetoric remained as it was.

The former “steadfastness” axis, which following the hegemony of Iran on Iraq has turned into one of “resistance,” has remained hostile to the U.S., only in words, while maintaining of course the “Death to Israel” slogan. In addition, it stepped up its accusations of treason and condemnation of anyone that opposes or tries to halt its march.

On the other hand, some regional players have been performing a strange role that is puzzling to label. This role ranges between an extreme enthusiasm about imposing an approach of “political Islam” as a means to boost their legitimacy in the region, while at the same time adopting a completely contradictory secularist approach under radical and revolutionary slogans with a remarkable focus on bringing about change in the Arab Gulf states.

Meanwhile, a lax atmosphere and a tendency towards self-assurance have dominated the public scene in several Arab states. On the other hand, the build-up of repression exploded public anger in countries not directly involved with the Palestinian cause, such as Tunisia.

Yes, lenience and passivity have been the dominant features of the Arab political system in recent years

Eyad Abu Shakra

This alerted the ordinary people to the realization that they do have a voice with which to chant and a hand with which to raise placards and set up protest. It must be noted that the Palestinian cause, despite its special standing and justice for the Arab political system, is not the force that launched the Arab Spring, regardless of the expression and its consequences. Rather, what sparked the Arab street in early 2011, sending tremors throughout governments from Tunisia, Libya and Syria to Egypt and Yemen, were feelings of discontent and anger in addition to poverty, unemployment and violation of people’s rights and intelligence. These factors have been neglected by Arab hereditary regimes of the republican nature. These regimes basked in absolute power for four decades and, in order to maintain their rule, never hesitated to disrupt any moderate, civilized or democratic alternative. These regimes have put their societies between a rock and hard place: either accept them and tolerate their violations, or face the unknown represented by radical political Islam or the bogeyman of sectarian and regional strife. Most of the rulers toppled by the 2011 hurricane, including Bashar al-Assad whom Iran rushed to rescue, practiced this destructive policy, with the outcome clearly tragic.

Exporting revolutions

Yes, lenience and passivity have been the dominant features of the Arab political system in recent years. This has been evidenced in three separate incidents: first, Iran’s hegemony over Iraq; second, the Israeli right-wing’s exploitation of the division among Palestinians in order to systematically kill off any chances of reaching a just settlement over the Palestinian cause; and third, the phenomenon of the emergence of political Islam in Turkey, a largely secularist country. What happened in Turkey is worth dwelling on, particularly since the majority of the Sunni people of the region are beginning to painstakingly adapt to a post-Arabism phase. It was also necessary to realize the need for a firm Arab stance in the face of the insistence of the Israeli right-wing to push Palestinians into becoming more extremist in order to justify their failure in offering concessions. Naturally enough, it is noteworthy to mention the Iranian regime has, since it assumed power in 1979, made the export of revolution to the Arab world its raison d’être.

The memory of the Iran–Iraq War (1980–1988) is supposed to be still fresh in people’s minds despite Saddam Hussein’s fatal sin of occupying Kuwait in 1990 and antagonizing the international community. Saddam Hussein’s fatal mistake has reduced Iran’s isolation, rehabilitating it in the aftermath of the liberation of Kuwait. As is well-known, Iran has successfully rehabilitated itself on the international level, particularly during the term of its former “moderate” president Mohammad Khatami during 1997–2005.

I believe this artificial moderate face of the Islamic Republic has helped Tehran secretly quicken the pace of its nuclear program and consolidate its organized presence in the Shiite parts of the Arab world. The influence of Hezbollah, a follower of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, has grown after the Israeli military pulled out of southern Lebanon in 2000. The 9/11 attacks persuaded U.S. President George W Bush to invade Iraq and topple the rule of Saddam Hussein, with the obvious alternative being the Shiite current affiliated with Iran.

Iran’s nuclear program is part of its political, strategic project in the region based on achieving the ancient dream of the Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi of making Iran the policeman of the Middle East—though of course in agreement with Washington and Tel Aviv. But it appears that Arabs have failed to realize the dimension of the Iranian project to promote and encourage all forms of religious and non-religious radicalism while sanctimoniously advocating the liberation of Palestine.

And with the start of strikes by the U.S.-led international–Arab coalition against ISIS and other al-Qaeda-affiliated groups, and after the fall of the Yemeni capital Sana’a to the Houthis, who are taking their orders from Tehran, the time is ripe for seriously reconsidering the identity and makeup of this “new Middle East.”

The two main winners here are Israel, which no longer faces any tangible threat to its existence and expansion and therefore has no need to get involved, and Iran, whose influence now spreads from the Mediterranean in the north of the region to the Bab El-Mandeb strait in the south, and whose involvement no-one will request.

As for the region, it faces the danger of fragmentation and dissolution.

This article was first published in Asharq al-Awsat on Sept. 25, 2014.

Eyad Abu Shakra (also written as Ayad Abou-Chakra) began his media career in 1973 with Annahar newspaper in Lebanon. He joined Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper in the UK in 1979, occupying several positions including: Senior Editor, Managing Editor, and Head of Research Unit, as well as being a regular columnist. He has several published works, including books, chapters in edited books, and specialized articles, in addition to frequent regular TV and radio appearances.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
Top Content Trending