How Iran Could Save the Middle East

The definitive Middle East cliché is “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.” With Shiite Iran growing stronger, Jews and Sunni Arabs suddenly have a potent basis for friendship. Could leveraging Sunni fears of rising Shiite power finally solve the Israeli-Palestinian problem? The case for a Sunni-Jewish alliance.

Image: AFP/Getty

Not long after the “Mission Accomplished” phase of the Iraq War, I attended a dinner in Ramallah, the capital of the rump state of Palestine, hosted by a sophisticated and aggressively secular leader of Fatah, the main faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization. The guests were like-mindedly secular, and the conversation was amiable and reality-based, until someone raised the subject of what George W. Bush’s actual goals in the Middle East might be. The host, growing angry, accused Bush of harboring entrenched and violently pro-Shia sympathies. I said that this was implausible, for any number of reasons. Another guest, an official of the Palestinian Authority, agreed with our host. He argued that the Bush administration was secretly motivated by a desire to establish a Shia state in the Arab heartland in order to create a new Washington-Baghdad-Tehran axis. Such an axis would replace the existing Washington-Riyadh-Amman-Cairo axis, and would serve both America’s oil interests and its desire for vengeance against the radical Sunnis who attacked America on September 11, 2001.

Very Kissingerian in its amoral convolution, and undoubtedly beyond the capacities of the planning branches of the Bush administration.

Then the real issue erupted into view.

“The Shia are apostates,” the host said. “Bush is giving power to apostates. They want to use Iraq as a base to convert Sunnis.”

This man, in a previous, Beirut-based life, had been a Marxist, so I couldn’t understand why the particular brand of opiate mattered to him. To these secular men, I thought, the assorted confessional categories—Shia, Sunni, Sufi, and for that matter Presbyterian and Lubavitcher—were interchangeable and identically passé. I asked if his problem might be ethnic, rather than religious: Iran is Persian, not Arab, and the two civilizations are historically competitive. “Of course,” came the answer, but I was missing the subtlety: a Palestinian cannot become Persian, but he can become Shia. And this, to a Sunni Muslim—even to a wine-drinking, pork-eating Marxist Sunni Muslim—is a reprehensible idea.

This dinner occurred shortly after 2 million Shia had visited Karbala, a Shia holy city in Iraq, to commemorate the martyrdom of a crucial Shia saint. It was the first time so many Shia had gathered in Karbala in recent memory; Saddam Hussein, a Sunni, had prevented such gatherings. President Bush saw this as a triumph: “Many Iraqis are now reviving religious rituals which were forbidden by the old regime,” he said. “See, a free society honors religion.” But the sight of such Shia power, however moving to George Bush, was intensely upsetting to America’s Sunni allies in places like the West Bank, Jordan, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia. At dinner that night, the message, in its purest distillation, was simple: Who do these uppity Shia think they are?

Shiism, whose followers constitute a mere 15 percent of the world’s 1.4 billion or so Muslims, long ago acquiesced to second-class status in the Arab world. But then came 1979, when Ayatollah Khomeini seized power in Iran and sought to export the ideology of his country’s Islamic revolution to Muslims everywhere, even to Sunni Muslims. It was an unlikely goal. Centuries of blood-spattered encounters, prompted by deeply felt doctrinal differences, made Khomeini’s vision seem fantastical.

Most Westerners are insensitive to these doctrinal differences, viewing them as dry technicalities rather than matters of cosmological importance. The Sunni-Shia split dates back to the seventh-century dispute over who was meant to be the Prophet Muhammad’s rightful successor. Today’s Shia are descended from those who believed that Muhammad had chosen his cousin and son-in-law, Ali, as his heir. This was a minority view in the days following the prophet’s death, and one of his lieutenants, Abu-Bakr, was made caliph and successor to Muhammad instead. The schism became permanent after the Battle of Karbala in 680, when Ali’s son Hussein was killed by the caliph’s soldiers.

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.

My dinner companions were wrong; George Bush did not mean, by invading Iraq, to empower Iran. But they were right about the war’s effect: Bush is the inadvertent father of the first Arab Shia state. And the foothold he provided Iran in Arab Iraq has made Tehran a surging power in the Persian Gulf.

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.”

Israel, of course, considers Iran a threat to its existence. “Can Israel flourish—survive and flourish—in a Middle East in which Iran, under its current leadership, is nuclear?” asked Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, when I visited him earlier this spring. “I think it’s much better not to get to that point.”

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.”

Shimon Peres, the Israeli president, recently told me that he has sensed an oncoming revolution in Sunni thinking. “For the first time, the majority of the Arab world thinks that Iran is the real danger, not Israel. Seventy percent of the Arabs are Sunnis. The Sunnis look upon us, whether they say it or not, not as a problem but as a hope.”

Peres may be overstating, but moderate Arab leaders would obviously like a Sunni-Jewish alliance: Israeli compromise—an agreement, for instance, to freeze settlement growth on the West Bank—would prove to their pro-Palestinian constituents that Arab states, and not Iran, are guarantors of Palestinian interests, and it would allow them to deepen their subterranean military-intelligence connections with Israel on the Iran question. Such an alliance has even more obvious strategic advantages for Israel: Netanyahu has said he will lobby Europe, China, and Russia on the necessity for strong action to stop the Iranian nuclear program. His case would be strengthened immeasurably if he could make these arguments in concert with Arab leaders.

So, how to make use of what the Middle East expert Martin Indyk calls the “symbiotic anxiety” shared by Israel and its Sunni Arab adversaries? It might be too late, of course, to forge a Sunni-Jewish alliance, though not because the two parties hate each other; hate has never stopped the formation of pragmatic alliances in the Middle East. It might be too late because the Arab enmity for Israel in the wake of last December’s Israeli attacks in Gaza might make it impossible for Arab governments to be seen entering even a tacit alliance with Israel. “It’s a good time in theory for something like this, but it won’t happen now unless Israel makes certain strategic decisions to bring real compromises to the table,” says Abdel Monem Said Aly, of the al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, in Cairo. “It is a difficult situation because Iran has presented itself as a guardian of Islamic and, in particular, Palestinian interests by taking the maximum stands, however hollow. If Israel and the Palestinians can be seen making progress, there is a chance. But this requires Israel to rethink its strategic priorities.”

There are other reasons why such an alliance could prove to be chimerical. Half of the future state of Palestine is under the control of a Sunni fundamentalist group, Hamas, that is theologically opposed to the Shia dogma, but more than happy to take Iranian money and weapons. In April, an Arab leader told me he expects Iran to continue encouraging Hamas—as well as the Shia Hezbollah in Lebanon—to subvert any upcoming negotiations. “There will be another round of the Israeli-Iranian war this year,” he predicted.

Which makes the effort to forge an alliance between Israel and its Arab adversaries even more vital. Trust-building steps must be taken more or less concurrently, but Israel is in a position to make a first, decisive step, by freezing settlement growth on the West Bank. Arab leaders who don’t now have diplomatic relations with Israel are ready to reciprocate with direct flights between their capitals and Tel Aviv, and a host of other symbolic yet important moves. But there is an even more dramatic way to move forward on the peace process, while at the same time marginalizing Iran: demarcate the future borders of the state of Palestine. 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.

The history of Middle East peacemaking is littered with missed opportunities, and the shared challenge of an ascendant Iran might not be enough to induce Arabs and Israelis to make common cause. Martin Indyk recalls that Yitzhak Rabin argued at the beginning of the Oslo peace process “that Iran represented the real threat to Israel, and so it made sense for Israel to make peace with the Palestinians and their Arab allies in order to face together the threat from Iran.” We know how Oslo ended. On the other hand, there is a substantial difference between 1993 and this moment. “In the 1990s, the Arabs didn’t feel the same pressure from Iran that Israel felt,” Indyk says. “Today, thanks to our mistake in Iraq, the Arabs feel that pressure just as intensely.”