Mideast: Specter of sectarianism


The observation by T. H. White, British author of the Arthurian novels, that “It has to be admitted that starving nations never seem to be quite so starving that they can’t afford to have far more expensive armaments than anybody else,” should be a major hook to all political commentaries on Iran today.
At the outset of the talks between world leaders and Iran in Geneva last Wednesday, to secure a deal on Tehran’s nuclear ambitions, the country’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei warned that his government would “not step back one dot” from its nuclear program, which he asserted was for “peaceful purposes” and not aimed at seeking nuclear weapons capability. Whether its intentions are benign or nefarious, the program has already cost the people of Iran dearly. Iran’s economy is already in trouble, strained as it is by crippling sanctions and by a dramatic drop in the value of its currency. Regionally, Iran’s disastrous Syria policy has cost it dearly as well. Imagine, as a case in point, a country plagued by precipitous shortages and major cutbacks in subsidies to its population nevertheless pledges an aid package to the Syrian regime of $3 billion.But beyond the price tag in dollars and cents, that disastrous policy, whose building block has been to give unstinting support to the regime of Bashar Assad as it goes about brutally smashing the uprising – that initially began as a peaceful movement calling for political reforms – has lost for Tehran the credit it had earned among Arabs over the years for its support of the Palestinian cause and its implacable opposition to Israel’s savageries in Palestine and Lebanon. In effect, Iran went from being a popular regional ally to a mistrusted, perhaps even reviled, neighbor whose sectarian goals may very well be the establishment of a Shiite crescent with a strategic depth stretching all the way westward from Tehran to Beirut, thus encompassing virtually the entire Levant.
For many in the region, the unspeakable misery in Syria could not have been sustained for almost the last three years without the massive aid that Tehran has consistently extended to Assad’s regime. Iran’s proxies in Lebanon, Hezbollah, are actively engaged in the military campaigns against the Syrian fighters. All of which, given the Sunni-Shiite divide in the identities of the combatants, has lent a toxic and combustible sectarian hue to the conflict. As a result, Hezbollah’s image as a successful resistance movement fighting Israel, a movement that was able in the year 2000 to chase Israeli troops out of Lebanon, has been irredeemably tarnished. Arab Sunnis now consider the Shiite party no more than a band of contract killers in the pay of Syria and Iran. It is clear that the double bombing that struck the Iranian Embassy in Beirut last Tuesday came as a consequence of Iran’s role as the most forceful backer of the detested Syrian regime, a regime hell bent on crushing the insurgency by resorting to a whole gamut of villainy, by means fair or foul – mostly the latter. For anyone to gloat over an incident like that, which killed at least 23 people, is to give echo to a kind of predatory sectarianism that we do not need now – or ever – in our part of the world. Our problems with Iran, with the Syrian regime, with Hezbollah, do not, in the end, stem from the sect that they belong to, but from their policies; just as, if you wish, our conflict with Israel does not stem from the fact that the people of Israel are Jews – we had lived harmoniously with Jews for six consecutive centuries in the Andalus – but because of their Zionist ideology that promotes racism and violence. (Abbreviated)