Tuesday, July 28, 2015

The Big Sheik-Up

For a long time, the animosity between those who believed that the Qur’an was a mystical book that only a most senior cleric could explain (Shiites) and those who believed in a literal reading of that Holy Book (Sunnis) had faded into irrelevance. But recent events changed that dynamic and rekindled that hostility. Although Sunnis are the vast majority (85%) in global Islam, in the Middle East, Shiites dominate Iran and Iraq and rule the majority of Sunnis in Syria.
A headless Shiite faith (since the 10th century when their Imam just disappeared) found new leaders with the fall of Iran’s Shah in the 1979 Shiite revolution, and a new Shiite agenda was resurrected. The American-led attack on Iraq that toppled a Sunni minority leader (Saddam Hussein) of a Shiite majority land, and caused nearly everyone in that country to take sides based on the nature of their faith. Old scars become fresh wounds. Iraq became a Shiite country with an oppressed Sunni minority. Friendly neighbors turned on each other. Climate change pushed impacted farmers to pray against the seemingly never-ending droughts that plagued western Syrian and southwestern Iraq (Sunni strongholds).
Thus, Muslims everywhere were being asked to reconsider their faith for any number of reasons. The Arab Spring and resultant regime changes required people who never considered governmental alternatives to determine the new directions that toppling dictators opened up. Conservative religiosity began to sweep across all segments of Islam. Coupled with a growing resentment of Western meddling in Middle Eastern affairs (noting that Israel is often considered as an American puppet government by too many Middle Eastern locals), Salafism, Wahhabism and the even more extreme views of the ISIS/al Nusra/Boko Haram took hold in Sunni lands (al Qaeda became representative of an old-world moderate view), while the Iranian militant but puritanical Shia reality redefined that movement.
The Middle East, North Africa and South Central Asia (Afghanistan and Pakistan) became ultra-violent battlegrounds even as once more tolerant regimes in the Islamic parts of Southeast Asia began more rigidly and symbolically defined by creeping Islamic conservatism. Turkey, once heavily secular, veered toward government-supported Sunni practices. This Sunni/Shiite schism paralleled a growing Islamic/Western Judeo-Christian clash of civilizations. A battle of surrogates ensued. ISIS became the firebrand of extreme Sunni believers as Iran deployed and supported Hezbollah and the Houthis (Yemeni rebels adjacent to Saudi Arabia).
Enter the six-nation sanction-pressured talks with Iran over reducing her nuclear program, which otherwise seemed inevitably headed toward embracing nuclear weapons. Given Iran’s pledge to push Israel into the sea and their overt championing of Shiite attacks threatening the entrenched Sunni royals in the Gulf States, their collective position on Iran’s developing that nuclear capacity moved from fear to morbid obsession. As the negotiations produced a 159 page anti-nuclear-draft-treaty, requiring some form of ratification by all parties involved, both Israel and the Gulf States hit the panic button and began a concerted effort to have the non-Iranian parties reject the product of their own negotiators.
I’ve blogged about Israel’s position repeatedly, so today, we look at the fierce response of the Gulf States, nations with the financial wherewithal to write some very large checks to buy nukes from a very volatile global marketplace for weapons that disappeared as CIS countries reconfigured two and half decades ago and an unstable Pakistan has amassed a sizeable nuclear arsenal. The focus has to begin with U.S. ally, Saudi Arabia, and is made involuntarily transparent by documents released by reason of the recent WikiLeaks.
“For decades, Saudi Arabia has poured billions of its oil dollars into sympathetic Islamic organizations around the world, quietly practicing checkbook diplomacy to advance its agenda.
“But a trove of thousands of Saudi documents recently released by WikiLeaks reveals in surprising detail how the government’s goal in recent years was not just to spread its strict version of Sunni Islam — though that was a priority — but also to undermine its primary adversary: Shiite Iran.
“The documents from Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Ministry illustrate a near obsession with Iran, with diplomats in Africa, Asia and Europe monitoring Iranian activities in minute detail and top government agencies plotting moves to limit the spread of Shiite Islam.” New York Times, July 16th.
While some Gulf State leaders see some potential benefits to opening regional trade with Iran, regional fears over the new accord range from a further downward price-vector as Iranian oil floods the global marketplace to thoughts of Iran’s enhanced stature and military capacity. “Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, a political analyst based in the United Arab Emirates, said the accord could trigger a nuclear arms race, though it sets back Iran’s ability to immediately make a nuclear bomb… Iran’s neighbors have expressed concerns that the lifting of economic sanctions will provide the Islamic republic with more money to fund armed groups in the region.” Washington Post, July 14th.
Iran’s hardliners could easily reject the pact, and the 60 day Congressional review, with strong lobbying from Israel and the Gulf States, could pull the U.S. approval of the détente off the table. If Iran and the other powers approve the treaty and the U.S. does not, the American opposition will become meaningless as the rest of the world lifts enough of the sanctions to bring Iran where its moderates want it to be. The alternative, a military attack on Iran, has such dire consequences for the global economy and our own massive deficit, particularly given our track record of military failure in that region, that it is doubtful that such an effort would resonate with the American public. And if we were to attack Iran, think of how grateful ISIS would be for giving them that helpful hand!
I’m Peter Dekom, and in this litany of bad choices, we probably will accept the treaty with Iran as our best of the bad choices open to us… and if we don’t or if Iran rejects the treaty… standby for a much more volatile result.

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