The Spirit of '79
King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia is worried. At the Gulf Cooperation Council, the Saudi King warned that the entire region was about to convulsed in conflict:
"Our Arab region is surrounded by dangers," King Abdullah said at the opening of a summit for leaders of the oil-rich Arab nations around the Persian Gulf. "It is like a keg of gunpowder waiting for a spark to explode." Palestinian factions are fighting each other, and Iraq is slipping into "the darkness of strife and mad struggle," a danger that also looms over Lebanon's diverse communities, he said in a speech before the leaders began a closed session.
The dark shadow hovering over Abdullah's remarks was of course Iran and its Islamic Revolution, with its challenge to modernism and the Sunni world, at once the font of recent radical Islamism and rival of the Sunni counter-revolution, al-Qaeda, for the leadership of radicalism in the region. Within the conflict against which King Abdullah warns there are really two wars: that between Sunni and Shi'a and the other between the region and the West. Let's revisit 1979, the Year Zero of the current conflict; the year the Ayatollah Khomeini seized power in Iran.
Facing a revolution, the Shah of Iran sought help from the United States. Iran occupied a strategic place in U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, a pro-American country sharing a long border with America's cold war rival the Soviet Union and the largest, most powerful country in the oil-rich Perisan Gulf. But the Pahlavi regime had also garnered unfavorable publicity for its human rights record. The U.S. ambassador to Iran, William H. Sullivan, recalls that the U.S. National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski “repeatedly assured Pahlavi that the U.S. backed him fully." However, President Carter arguably failed to follow through on those promises. On November 4, 1978, Brzezinski called the Shah to tell him that the United States would "back him to the hilt." At the same time, certain high-level officials in the State Department decided that the Shah had to go, regardless of who replaced him. Brzezinski and Energy Secretary James Schlesinger (former Secretary of Defense under Ford), continued to insist that the U.S. would support the Shah militarily. Even in the final days of the revolution, when the Shah was considered doomed no matter the outcome of the revolution, Brzezinski still advocated a U.S. military intervention to stabilize Iran. President Carter could not decide how to appropriately use force, opposed a U.S. coup and ordered the USS Constellation aircraft carrier to the Indian Ocean, but soon countermanded his order. A deal was worked out with the Iranian generals to shift support to a moderate government, but this plan fell apart when Khomeini and his followers swept through the country, taking power 12 February 1979.
Like the Bolsheviks, Khomeini came to power by mounting a revolution within a revolution. He came on the wings of a broad coalition that overthrew the Shah, and slowly, patiently and cunningly eliminated his rivals within that movement until he grasped the levers of the Iranian state. It is an ironic and cautionary tale -- which will doubtless go unheeded -- that the first victims of the "Green-Red Coalition" were the Reds. The Islamic Revolution should have disabused the Marxists, socialist and secularists of the anti-Shah coalition of the illusion that they were the vanguard of history.
Now began the second, or Islamic phase of the revolution. There was great jubilation in Iran at the ousting of the Shah, but the glue that stuck together the dozens of religious, liberal, secularist, Marxist, and Communist, revolutionary factions—opposition to the Shah—was now gone. ... The one that would prevail was the strongest, Ayatollah Khomeini and his supporters. Khomeini was in his mid-70s, had never held public office, been out of Iran for more than a decade, and had told questioners things like "the religious dignitaries do not want to rule." All of this gave many the impression he intended to be more a spiritual guide than a power holder, but with skillful timing Khomeini eliminated both adversaries and unwanted allies and implemented his wilayat al-faqih design for an Islamic Republic led by himself as Supreme Leader.
After digesting Iran, the Islamic Revolution looked out hungrily over the region. And the Sunnis looked back at them. The rival Sunni counter-revolutionary brand, al-Qaeda, after a splendid start in Afghanistan made the grave strategic error of attacking America on September 11 (foreshadowing Zarqawi's ill fated decision to duplicate the error in Iraq, and by fighting a losing battle against the US in Iraq, fatally weakened the Sunnis against the Shi'ites). The September 11 attack led not only to al-Qaeda's ouster from Afghanistan, but to the subsequent destruction of the key Sunni-controlled buffer state of Iraq. With Saddam gone and the Sunnis defeated under the inept Zarqawi, the Shi'ites would gain the upper hand in the struggle to control the subsequent vacuum. Then the international and American left, misjudging the situation again, would agitate to abandon Iraq to the last man standing. And neither King Abdullah nor his fellow rulers at the Gulf Cooperation Council had any doubt who that would be.
How greatly the Arabs fear a dominant Iran and its Islamic Revolution is highlighted by the London Times article which describes the frantic efforts by Arab countries to get their own nukes to offset the impending Iranian atomic bomb. (In contrast, Anwar Sadat unhestitatingly attacked a nuclear-armed Israel in the 1973, just as al-Qaeda attacked America on September 11, absolutely convinced that the Evil Jew and the Great Satan would be too moral to use their full strength against them.)
Six Arab states announced that they were embarking on programmes to master atomic technology. The move, which follows the failure by the West to curb Iran’s controversial nuclear programme, could see a rapid spread of nuclear reactors in one of the world’s most unstable regions, stretching from the Gulf to the Levant and into North Africa. The countries involved were named by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) as Algeria, Egypt, Morocco and Saudi Arabia. Tunisia and the UAE have also shown interest.
Mark Fitzpatrick, an expert on nuclear proliferation at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said that it was clear that the sudden drive for nuclear expertise was to provide the Arabs with a “security hedge”. “If Iran was not on the path to a nuclear weapons capability you would probably not see this sudden rush [in the Arab world],” he said. The announcement by the six nations is a stunning reversal of policy in the Arab world, which had until recently been pressing for a nuclear free Middle East, where only Israel has nuclear weapons.
An Asia Times interview with ex-director of the Pakistani ISI Hamid Gul illustrates how the Sunni politicians -- and possibly al-Qaeda -- are sick with fear that the Iranians, with their apostate brand of Islam and uncompromising anti-Americanism, may soon wrest control of radical politics in the Middle East, thereby directly threatening the ruling houses and eclipsing the influence of their Islamic confession. This is the mainspring of the conflict that King Abdullah fears. This is the specter haunting the Middle East.
First, the Iranian Revolution has appropriated the mantle of anti-Americanism in a region where "friends" and enemies vie with one another in anti-American vitriol.
"Tehran has taken over the central stage by challenging American hegemony," Hamid Gul told Asia Times Online. "Tehran is today's inspiration force. It charms the Arab youths on the streets. The Arab rulers are terrified of this development, and this is the reason they are coming to Pakistan one after another."
"Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad's anti-American calls have become the voice of today's Arab youths. They see in him a hero, and it has shaken the foundations of pro-American dictators and monarchs," Gul explained."They [Arab rulers] are anxious and restive. They are seeing their doomsday started. Since Pakistan and Arab rulers operate under the US umbrella, they are basically joining their heads together to contain the Iranian threat.
Second, Iran, unburdened by any need to keep on even secret good terms with America, is even threatening to take over the leading psychodrama of the Middle East, that holy of holies, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
"Iran raised funds for Hamas at a time when the whole Muslim world was sympathetic with Hamas but did not dare to openly support them. Iran [this week] pledged [US]$50 million. "
This is the storm cloud racing through Iraq, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories. Not the hatred of the Jew, nor the fear of America but the dread of a Sunni-Shi'ite regional conflict. Returning to the Gulf Cooperation Council article on King Abdullah's speech, we find the Arab pundits anxious to prevent a rapid withdrawal of America from Iraq -- not out any attachment to democracy -- but out of the desire to deny Iraq to Iran, a goal which they secretly hope the US will achieve without openly being able to say so to their anti-American publics.
Kuwaiti columnist Youssef al-Rashed expressed alarm Saturday that suggestions from the Iraq Study Group could lead to a too rapid withdrawal of U.S. forces, saying that could hurt Persian Gulf nations. "If the United States is unable to manage the situation shrewdly, any sudden or premature pullout would result in a security vacuum that would affect us all," al-Rashed wrote in the newspaper Al-Anba. Kuwaitis are nervous that Iraq's Sunni-Shiite bloodshed could spill over to their country, where Shiites make up 30 percent of the people. Similar concerns are shared by Saudi Arabia, which is up to 15 percent Shiite, and Bahrain, a Sunni-ruled island kingdom in the Persian Gulf with a Shiite majority.
The key destabilizing event in the Middle East was Jimmy Carter's failure to understand and respond to the threat posed by the Islamic Revolution. The principal mistake of the Sunni counter-revolution both internationally and within Iraq was to directly attack the United States, leading to their catastrophic battlefield defeat both internationally and within Iraq -- a defeat the MSM is seemingly blind to, but which has had profound consequences -- and effectively ceded the field to their undamaged foes of the Islamic Revolution. And perhaps the major error of the United States after September 11 was to war against al-Qaeda in isolation, without seeing it as part of the broader Islamic fundamentalist challenge to the West. In disempowering the Sunni terrorist foe by defeating it, America empowered its rival. The score is now Osama:-2, US:0, Ahmedinajad:1. Though alone of the actors the United States possesses the military and economic overmatch, the one nation that can cut the Gordian knot, if it for a moment had Alexander's daring, this advantage is negated by its own civil war, one that is renewed every fourth year at the Presidential level and every second at the legislative, unable to answer the one key question on which the fate of the 21st century turns: what are America's goals and is it prepared to attain them?