Monday, July 06, 2009

Is The Time Ripe For An Israeli-Sunni Alliance Against Iran? (Updated)

Israel has denied reports that Saudi Arabia would help it against Iran by allowing Israeli airplanes to use its airspace to attack Iranian nuclear facilities.

However, that has not stopped Jeffrey Golderg of The Atlantic to write about the possibility of a Sunni-Jewish alliance against the Shiite Iran:
The conflict between Sunni and Shia is the most consequential in the Middle East because it is so profound and elemental. But precisely because it is so intractable, it might hold the key to solving another seemingly eternal Middle East conflict, the one between Muslim and Jew. The definitive Middle East cliché is, of course, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.” Well, it turns out that today, more than at any other time in the ruinous 100-year encounter between Arabs and Jews on the strip of land between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River, the two parties in the dispute have a common enemy: the Shia Persian Islamic Republic of Iran. President Obama’s skills and charisma just might bring Sunni Arabs and Israeli Jews together, but he will be helped inestimably if he considers that the road to peace runs not through Jerusalem but through Karbala. Consider the possibility of a grand, if necessarily implicit, Jewish-Sunni alliance as a gift to Obama from his predecessor.
I am not sure which particular skills Goldberg thinks Obama would bring to bear to the situation. Having applied pressure solely on Israel thus far, on an issue which is not primary to the peace process, Obama can still count on Israel's wariness of Iran as a motivating force regardless of how Israel may feel about Iran.

The issue instead is the Arab countries. Obama would face the same issue that President Bush 41 faced in assembling a coalition of Arab countries against Iraq. Bush was able to put together an impressive coalition--but had to leave Israel out, even to the extent of limiting Israel's defending itself against Iraq's retaliatory rockets.

Have times changed--and is the perceived danger--enough to allow for a Sunni-Jewish coalition?

Some thing so:
At a Pew Forum discussion on Iran and the Middle East last December, Vali Nasr, the Iran expert (and adviser to Richard Holbrooke, the State Department’s envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan), talked about the rise of Iran, and the marginalization of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Nasr argued, convincingly, that most Arab states have a deeper interest in containing Iran than they do in containing Israel. “Once upon a time we used to think—and some people still do—that the Arab-Israeli conflict is the key to solving all the problems of the region: terrorism, al-Qaeda, Iran, and Iraq,” he said. “I think the Persian Gulf is the key to solving the Arab-Israeli issue. All the powers that matter—Iran, Saudi Arabia, and even the good news of the region: Dubai, Abu Dhabi, etc.—are all in the gulf. And all the conflicts that matter to us—Iraq, Afghanistan, and Iran—are in the gulf and then to the east.”
Of course, Nasr is a US Iran expert, and when he talks about "all the conflicts that matter to us"--he is talking about the US perspective. What about the Arab perspective on Iran?

The remarkable thing about this moment in the Middle East is that Arab leaders speak about Iran more critically than even Netanyahu does. In March, Morocco broke diplomatic relations with Iran over what it claimed were attempts by Iranian Shia to convert Moroccan Sunnis; in Egypt, President Hosni Mubarak’s intelligence services spent the spring breaking up Hezbollah cells (Hezbollah being the Lebanese Shia proxy of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps). “Even if we forget that Iran is trying to obtain a nuclear capability, all gulf and Arab countries are extremely unhappy with the Iranian involvement in our region,” a senior official of the United Arab Emirates recently told me. “We see this today in Iraq, in Lebanon, in Yemen. We just saw the Moroccans breaking diplomatic ties with Iran because of that. We’ve been seeing that in one way or the other in Afghanistan, in Pakistan, in Sudan.”

In 2006, Mubarak accused Arab Shia of being loyal to Iran. “Definitely Iran has influence on Shiites,” he said. “Shiites are 65 percent of the Iraqis. Most of the Shiites are loyal to Iran, and not to the countries they are living in.” And Yusuf Qaradawi, a leading Sunni scholar, said last year, “Shiites are Muslims, but they are heretics, and their danger comes from their attempts to invade Sunni society. They are able to do that because their billions of dollars trained cadres of Shiites proselytizing in Sunni countries.”

Goldberg suggests that this is where Israeli concessions come in--that regardless of the danger the Arab world may see in Iran and the fear and hate Sunnis may have for Iran, the Arab countries require Israeli concessions--such as freezing the settlements--in order to demonstrate to pro-Palestinian elements that they are the true defenders of Palestinian Arab interests and not Iran.

On the other hand, mitigating against such an alliance, writes Goldberg, is the aftermath of the Gaza war earlier this year--and that the Sunni Hamas has no trouble allying itself with Iran and will be willing to do Iran's bidding to throw a wrench into the works by escalating tensions with Israel.

Nevertheless, Goldberg is persistent that the current situation with Iran provides a unique opportunity--to the extent that the issue of Israeli settlements can be skipped over altogether:
David Makovsky, one of the most respected experts on the peace process (and the co-author of a new book, Myths, Illusions, and Peace, about how to revive the process), suggests that freezing settlements should not become an end in itself. “There is a convergence of interests between the Arabs and Israelis on Iran. As such, this moment is a gift that shouldn’t be wasted,” Makovsky says. “The two sides need to put their differences in perspective to address the common challenge.” He suggests leapfrogging the settlements issue and moving to border demarcation. “This is not like the issues of Jerusalem and the status of refugees or security arrangements,” he said. “Both sides have already come very close on the West Bank land issue.” The former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert, before leaving office, suggested that the future state of Palestine be built on 93 percent of the West Bank, and receive additional territory from Israel in a land swap.
Read the whole thing.

Again, talk of significant concessions is limited to Israel, though Goldberg dutifully makes mention of Arab gestures such as "direct flights between their capitals and Tel Aviv, and a host of other symbolic yet important moves." Again, concessions Israel has made in the past are forgotten and everything rests on what concessions Israel is willing to make now.

All of this depends on the assumption that the Arab fear of Iranian control in the Middle East is trumped by consideration for Palestinian Arabs--and their allies. Those allies are unidentified; they will not be found in Iraq, Kuwait and Lebanon. Syria will not join such a coalition anyway, though that will not stop Obama from trying.

The bottom line is whether the Arab countries really do see a threat in Iran: if they do, Israeli concessions should not be an issue. If they do not, then nothing will change that--and Israel is back to relying on itself to deal with the Iranian threat.

Israel should not have to pay extra to join this club.

UPDATE: I was just wondering why, if Goldberg is correct that Israel must make concessions in order to allow the Arab countries to establish street creds with the pro-Palestinian element--if that is the case, then why is the US the number one donator to UNRWA? Why don't these Arab countries feel pressure to donate more to their fellow Arabs?

Just wondering...

Also, Israel Matzav dissects the Goldberg article.

[Hat tip: Instapundit]

Crossposted on Soccer Dad

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