Forget the fiery rhetoric. Washington, Tel Aviv and Tehran have more in common than you might imagine. All share the same aim: to control the Arab States, the custodians of the world’s largest oil and gas deposits, and prevent them from uniting under one powerful bloc. In earlier times, they have been co-conspirators in that endeavour. The question is whether Iran truly is an enemy of America and Israel and a natural ally of the Arab world – an image which the Iranian leadership works hard to portray.
The rivalry between the Persians and the Arabs goes back 1,400 years to the time of the Muslim Conquests, when the Persians first embraced Islam. Today, the Iranians fly the Islamic flag in an effort to lead the Muslim world, yet the pre-Islamic Zoroastrian New Year Norouz is still Iran’s most celebrated festival.
Attempts by Iranian clerics to undermine the resurgence of the Shiite holy city of Najaf in Iraq, to retain the centre of religious gravity in the Iranian Shiite city of Qom as the centre of religious gravity, exemplify Tehran’s nationalistic instincts.
If Iranians were true friends of the Arabs, they would not impede the speaking of Arabic; or the construction of Sunni mosques when there is a proliferation of Shiite mosques and synagogues. The Iranian government also bans parents from giving traditional Arab names to their newborns. It should be remembered too that Tehran still occupies UAE land islands, refuses demands from the Arab population of Al-Ahwaz (Khuzestan) for autonomy, has territorial claims on Bahrain and threatens airlines that use ‘Arabian Gulf’ instead of ‘Persian Gulf’ with being barred from Iranian airspace. With friends like these, who needs enemies?
Dr Abdullah Al-Nafisi, a university professor and specialist on Shiite affairs, says the Iranians are primarily Persian nationalists who use their faith to reach Arabs via Shiite Arab minorities. He says Iranian officialdom, from the supreme leader, down to the senior military officers, the revolutionary guards and the intelligence personnel, once followed the teachings of the politician and cleric Abdollah Nouri. This former Interior Minister maintains that all the Gulf States belong to Persia; and promotes Iranian retribution for Arabs for helping to destroy the Persian Empire, which may account for Iranian Arabs being treated as second-class citizens. Conversely, according to Al-Nafisi, ordinary Iranians harbour no hostility towards the country’s 25,000 Jews who are represented in Parliament and are so well respected that most have declined cash incentives to move to Israel.
Under-the-table dealings between Israel, the US and Persia extend back to the reign of Mohammed Reza Shah, to the time when Iranian oil flowed into Israel and, in turn, Israel supplied Iran with technological knowhow, missile assembly plants and military training. Iran even supplied Israel with details of Jamal Abdul Nasser’s military planning; according to an illuminating and revealing book by Trita Parsi titled Treacherous Alliance.
Following the 1979 Islamic revolution, Yasser Arafat was lectured by the Ayatollah Khomeini on the need for the Palestinians to reject Arab nationalism and revert to their Islamic roots, Parsi says. It was clear that Khomeini wasn’t serious in his support for the Palestinian cause. His primary aim was to lead the Islamic world, indoctrinate Arabs with his credo and bolster the Arab Shiites. A research paper by Xue Maior concludes that Iran disseminates the principles of the Iranian revolution under anti-Israel slogans. Israel never took the ‘Little Satan’ slur seriously and lobbied Washington to renew relations with Tehran, it claims. In 1981, Iran facilitated Israel’s attack on Iraq’s nuclear reactor with photographs and maps of OSIRAK and during the eight-year-long Iran-Iraq War, the Iranians purchased weapons from Israel with the White House’s blessing, writes Parsi. In early 1986 President Reagan signed a secret memo authorising the sale of US arms to Iran, resulting in the Iran- Contra scandal.
With the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993, Tehran saw its plan to dominate the Arab world slipping away and so began funding and arming Islamist rejectionist groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas to spoil the peace process. Despite being included in George W. Bush’s ‘Axis of Evil’, Iran offered to help strengthen the fledgling Afghan army under US supervision and in 2002, the US State Department initiated talks with prominent Iranian political figures.
Tehran later urged Iraqi Shiites not to resist the US-led occupation, for good reason. Iraq – the main obstacle to Iran’s access to the Gulf States – had been conveniently defanged and was now ruled by political figures that had either lived in Iran for many years or considered it their spiritual home. Inadvertently or otherwise, Mr Bush spent billions of American taxpayers’ money and sacrificed tens of thousands of lives only to bring Iraq under Iran’s sphere of influence.
Tehran has since made efforts to woo Washington, so as to gain access to the IMF; win clout in the UN and oil the lifting of anti-Iranian sanctions. It’s worth noting that economic sanctions against Iran have not heavily impacted on the Iranian economy, certainly not in comparison to those that crippled Iraq and were considered responsible for the death of 500,000 Iraqi children – perhaps indicating that the West isn’t serious about disciplining Iran.
It’s curious, too, that Washington has been flexing its muscles over Iran’s uranium enrichment programme since a 2006 UNSC resolution demanding its suspension, but despite Iran’s intransigence, the West has refrained from enforcing its demands – a dramatic contrast from its determination to punish Saddam for his non-existent WMD – weapons of mass destruction. Why the double standards?
In recent decades, Iran has hardened its grip on Lebanon and expanded its influence to Syria, Iraq and Yemen, as well as the Shiite minorities in the Gulf. Prior to the ‘Arab Spring’ – which may have been planned by American NGOs working with Arab youth movements, as reported in the Washington Post and the New York Times – veteran leaders kept a lid on Tehran’s ambitions.
The toppling of strong Arab leaders is an invitation for extremist organisations, and secessionist groups and encourages sectarian conflict and civil war. I would argue that division and chaos, under the banner of ‘freedom’ serve Iran’s interests. It’s already happening. The new Egypt has permitted Iranian warships, to travel through the Suez Canal and is preparing to normalise diplomatic relations with Tehran, despite deep reservations within the GCC.
It’s notable that while the US is vehemently supportive of revolutionaries in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Syria and is using its airpower to attack the Libyan regime, its condemnation of Iran’s repression of antigovernment activists has been weak. I have always suspected that the ‘enmity’ between Iran, and the US and Israel, may be an elaborate act. If Tehran has covertly cooperated with its socalled enemies in the past, it’s not that much of a stretch to believe that may be occurring now.
In any case, keeping up the pretence of enmity is a symbiotic win-win situation for all concerned. It gives Israel a pretext to expand its nuclear arsenal and propagandise its need to put security first, in the face of an Iranian existential threat. Iran can use anti-Israel slogans to increase its standing among Muslims. And the US has an excuse to maintain its military footprint in the Gulf.
What if, in the future, Washington and Tel Aviv form an alliance similar to the one that existed at the time of the Shah? How would that impact on the independence of the Gulf states? It may be that such a scenario is being prepared, which would explain the West’s softly-softly approach to Iran’s nuclear programme, its oppression of dissidents and the support of armed religious militants in Arab lands.
In conclusion, I would strongly urge the GCC states to increase their military might and initiate a unified strategy to defend against threats to their land, dignity and freedom. In an increasingly unprincipled geopolitical climate, where major powers are willing to dump even close allies to suit their interests, we cannot rely on protection from others. We’re on our own – and the sooner we face up to that fact and take care of ourselves the better.