Sunday, 8 September 2013

Islam's political schism

“Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth” is an old English saying.  In other words, when offered a present, it’s bad manners to examine it for defects.  Accept it graciously, however flawed it may be, and whatever the motives of the giver.

Old English sayings do not travel well to the Middle East.  For example, recent New Year (Rosh Hashana) messages of goodwill to the Jewish people emanating from Iran a gift horse indeed have been received with more than a little scepticism.  The first arrived on the eve of Rosh Hashana, Wednesday September 4, as a tweet from the newly–elected President of Iran, Hassan Rohani: “As the sun is about to set here in Tehran, I wish all Jews, especially Iranian Jews, a blessed Rosh Hashana.”  It was accompanied by a picture of an Iranian Jew bowing his head in prayer.

The gilt was somewhat taken off the gingerbread – to quote yet another old English saying – when the authenticity of the message was openly questioned by Fars News, an Iranian news agency close to the Revolutionary Guards.  An official was quoted as saying the president did not have a Twitter account.

Not true, say observers of the Iranian scene.  The account has semi-official status and is kept active by Rohani's supporters with his consent.  In fact, it is not surprising that the president maintains a Twitter account he is only following in the footsteps of the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Kahmenei, who tweeted the whole nation just prior to the recent presidential elections.

Rohani’s message was further validated when Iran’s new foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, tweeted his own New Year message to Jews in Iran and worldwide and, to remove all doubt of his intentions, confirmed in an interview given to Iran’s Tasnim news agency and published on Zarif's Facebook page, that he had indeed sent the "Happy Rosh Hashana" message.

   As a matter of record, he followed his message up with a unequivocal affirmation of the Holocaust and repudiation of the often stated position of ex-president Ahmadinejad on the matter: "Iran never denied it. The man who was perceived to be denying it is now gone. Happy New Year."

The motives of Iran’s newly-elected president and foreign minister in making these gestures are indeed open to question.  The political reality within Iran is that the Supreme Leader has supreme power.  Any apparent change of direction regarding the state’s attitude to Judaism, Jews and Israel, its nuclear objectives or its regional ambitions, must be considered a tactical move designed to achieve Iran’s aims by more subtle means.  The suspicion must be that the new administration has the approval of the Supreme Leader in trying a new approach, designed to soften up the West by encouraging left/liberal opinion which disapproves of sanctions, favours dialogue, and appears to believe that Iran has no ambitions to become a nuclear power.

   However the majority of the Islamic world will not be taken in by Rohani’s soft soap approach.  This is made crystal clear by the revelations that emerged from the 250,000 confidential US documents that were published in November 2010 by WikiLeaks, the website dedicated to disseminating covertly acquired information. For they show that, contrary to their public positions, Arab leaders strongly support, and indeed campaigned for, a US attack on Iran’s growing nuclear programme.  According to the leaked documents Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah “frequently exhorted” the US to bomb Iran and “cut the head off the snake.”  He warned Washington that if Iran acquired nuclear weapons, “everyone in the region would do the same, including Saudi Arabia.”

Abu Dhabi’s crown prince is reported to have said that Iran was seeking regional domination, and urged Americans to “take out” its nuclear capacity, or even send ground troops.  Iran “is going to take us to war … it’s a matter of time.” 

The king of Bahrain said the US “must terminate” Iran’s nuclear programme, “by whatever means necessary”.   Zeid Rifai, then president of Jordan’s senate, said: “Bomb Iran, or live with an Iranian bomb.”  President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt expressed a “visceral hatred” for the Islamic Republic.  Even Syria, Shia Muslim as Iran is, according to conversations with Turkish officials, was sounding “alarm bells.”

         In short no Arab government accepted Iran’s claim that its nuclear programme is merely peaceful.  More to the point, perhaps, the WikiLeaks documents revealed that, far from the Israel-Palestine conflict being of prime importance in the minds of the majority of Arab League nations, it is Iran that looms largest as a source of concern.  This explains – and explanations have been sparse why the Arab League has repeatedly endorsed its 2002 Peace Plan, recently softened its terms of reference, and virtually pushed PA President Mahmoud Abbas to the negotiating table.

   Two vital factors need to be borne in mind in considering power politics in the world of Islam: first, that the Sunni brand of Islam represents up to 90 per cent of the Muslim world, and second that Iran is not an Arab nation, but is the champion of  Shia Islam, supporting the Assad regime in Syria by way of the Hezbollah fighters it controls, funds and equips.

The Arab world today feels threatened by Iran’s efforts to create a Shi’ite axis from Iran, Iraq and Syria to Lebanon, allied to its endeavours to acquire nuclear weapons that will make it the leading power in the region.  As Israel’s Intelligence Minister, Yuval Steinitz, pointed out recently, the Arab world feels no less threatened than Israel, for they can see a hundred thousand Sunni Muslims killed in Syria, more than two million expelled from their homes, and an attempt to turn Syria into a Shi’ite Iranian state – an enterprise halfway to achievement already in Lebanon, and with a similar struggle in Iraq. If all that succeeds, then the Persian Gulf and Jordan will be half encircled by an Iranian Shi’ite axis. Faced with that prospect, the Israeli-Palestinian dispute pales into comparative insignificance. So, says Steinitz, they banged on the table and said to Abbas: “Stop your games about preconditions, and talk to the Israelis.” 

It seems clear that within the political world of Sunni Islam a strong streak of realpolitik has emerged. 

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 8 September 2013:


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