Quite why or how it happened has yet to be fully determined, but the early years of the 21st century have seen the Middle East morph into a gigantic battleground. Political and religious antagonisms, both ancient and newly conceived, have flared into armed conflict in a dozen places across the region. The ancient fault line within Islam, present from the earliest days of the faith but quiescent for long periods of time, has suddenly become one of the defining elements of the turmoil – the Sunni-Shia divide. Saudi Arabia, with Mecca and Medina within its borders, is the flag-bearer for Sunni Islam; the Islamic Republic of Iran claims to represent the Shi’ite branch.
Unfortunately it represents much else as well, for it is dedicated to proselytizing the rest of Islam, and to combatting all non-Shia governments and nations, both Muslim and Western. In pursuit of this vainglorious objective, Iran has become the world’s largest state sponsor of terrorism. The catalogue of individual deaths and mass slaughter for which it has been responsible, either directly or by way of its puppet organization Hezbollah, is horrific and stretches back to the earliest days of the Iranian revolution in 1979.
The Iranian leadership makes little secret of its desire to achieve religious and political hegemony in the Middle East, nor of its efforts to undermine the governments of the Sunni Gulf states. The rulers of these more moderate Muslim states have long regarded Iran – which, of course, is not an Arab nation – as the major threat to Middle East stability, as the Wikileaks documents released in 2010 made perfectly clear.
Perhaps a defining moment in this struggle for power was the accession to the throne of Saudi Arabia of Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud in January 2015. Salman instantly revealed himself to be a ruler who believes in decisive action, and the man he appointed as defense minister – his favorite son, 29-year-old Prince Mohammed bin Salman – soon set about energetically implementing his father’s approach in dealing with the Iranian menace.
In short order Prince Mohammed formed and led a 10-nation coalition to fight Iranian-allied rebels in Yemen, lobbied against Iran’s nuclear deal with world powers, and in December 2015 hosted a conference in Riyadh to persuade Syria’s opposition factions to settle on a common negotiating position in the forthcoming UN-sponsored peace talks. Then, as part of King Salman’s newly assertive foreign policy, Riyadh announced that it was prepared to engage its own military in opposition to the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and the forces of Hezbollah that, with Russian support, were fighting on behalf of Assad.
Although Hezbollah, a powerful political, social and military organization, functions within Lebanon’s political structure, it is largely autonomous – virtually a state within a state. Its forces are bigger and better equipped than Lebanon’s own military, and do not answer to it. At Iran’s behest, and without any authorisation from the Lebanese government, it has deployed substantial forces within Syria in support of Assad.
Saudi Arabia, in pursuit of its new proactive approach, decided to punish Lebanon for allowing Hezbollah this degree of latitude. In February it slashed billions of dollars in aid originally intended to boost the Lebanese army, and issued a travel warning discouraging Saudi tourists from visiting the country. Then, on March 2 the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), led by Saudi Arabia, designated Hezbollah a terrorist organization. This was the first time that the GCC, comprising Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait and Oman, had collectively stood up against Hezbollah.
Lebanese journalist, Naila Tawani, asks how the country’s relations with Saudi Arabia, its closest ally in the Gulf, have been allowed to hit such a low. Her answer? “Hezbollah has dragged our country into an unnecessary involvement in the Syrian civil war,” she writes. “It is following orders given to it by Damascus, while ignoring Lebanese national interests. How have foreign powers hijacked our government?… It is our responsibility to get our country out of this mess.”
It was in March 2013 that Bahrain became the first Arab country to define Hezbollah as a terrorist group. The king, Hamad bin Isa al Khalifa, and the Bahraini government accused Hezbollah of fomenting unrest among its majority Shi’ite population, and of training Shi’ite groups to rebel against the Sunni monarchy and carry out terrorist attacks in the country. With the Arab League opposed to growing Iranian hegemony in the region, it is not surprising that Khalifa recommended that the League as a whole follow the GCC in designating Hezbollah a terrorist organization, nor that the League followed his advice on March 11 and did just that.
These moves by the GCC have, not surprisingly, met with vehement condemnation from Iranian and Hezbollah sources, which followed the well-worn path of seeing a malignant Israel behind the scenes. The Iranian Students’ News Agency opined that the GCC decision was the precursor to a new military attack by Israel against Hezbollah. The Ansar Allah Houthi movement in Yemen called the GCC decision “free service to the tyrant Zionist regime.”
More perceptively, perhaps, the Lebanon News maintained that the “designation by the GCC of Hezbollah as a terrorist group is seen as part of a process by Arab nations to align themselves with Israel. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over the past 3 years has been overseeing back channel discussions with many Gulf states including Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. He believes Arab nations share his country’s disdain of Iran, and recently has hinted strongly that an alliance is in the wings. He confirmed last month that a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was not part of the discussions and did not pose a hurdle to Arab countries establishing diplomatic ties with the Jewish state.”
Such a possibility was outlined by the Bahraini monarch, Khalifa, on March 2 during a meeting with Rabbi Marc Schneier, president of the Foundation of Ethnic Understanding based in New York. Schneier reported that during their discussion the king said that in his opinion it was just a matter of time before some Arab countries began opening diplomatic ties with Israel. Khalifa maintained that the balance of power in the Middle East between moderates and extremists depended on Israel, which had the power to defend not only itself but the voices of moderation and the moderate Arab states in the region.
As Schneier himself noted, anti-Iranianism provides a hitherto undreamed-of opportunity for formerly hostile countries to band together, thus providing the basis for peace between Israel and the Arab world. “This,” said Schneier, “could be a game changer in the geopolitical climate of the Middle East.”
It could indeed.