Issandr El Amrani is a Moroccan-American independent journalist based in Cairo. His work about Middle East culture and politics regularly appears in American and British magazines and newspapers. A former editor of two independent liberal weeklies in Egypt, he also publishes a collaborative weblog on the Arab world, www.arabist.net.
Making a renewed appearance in the State of the Union address this year was Iran. Bush set out an agenda that puts the U.S. on a path of confrontation with Iran—the latest installment in the haphazard collection of ideological fads that passes as Middle East policy in Washington these days.
Having made a mess of Iraq, continuing to refuse to play a constructive and even-handed role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and having gotten bored with democracy promotion, the Bush administration now appears to be fanning the flames of sectarian strife region-wide. Since September 2006, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Vice President Dick Cheney and other senior administration officials have made trips to the Middle East to rally the support of what Rice has described as the “moderate mainstream” Arab states against Iran. This group has now been formalized as the “GCC + 2,” meaning the six members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Oman) as well as Egypt and Jordan.
I suggest that this new coalition be renamed to something less technocratic: the Sunni Arab-Dominated Dictatorships Against the Mullahs, or SADDAM. I have to confess I was inspired by historical precedent. In the 1980s, some of you may remember, there was another Saddam who proved rather useful against Iran. Saddam invaded Iran without provocation, sparking an eight-year-long war that was one of the 20th century’s deadliest. Along the way, the U.S. and the Arab states listed above provided much in funding, weapons and turning a blind eye when Saddam got carried away and used chemical weapons against Kurds (it did not raise that much of a fuss when he used them against Iranians, either).
By forming SADDAM, the Bush administration hopes to do several things. Firstly, encourage countries with ambivalent policies towards Israel to accept a new regional security arrangement with the Jewish state firmly as its center—the holy grail of the neo-conservatives who, despite reports to the contrary, continue to craft U.S. Middle East policy. (Otherwise, why would Elliott Abrams still have his job?) Secondly, it is securing the support of these countries against Iran, in preparation for a possible strike against its nuclear facilities or some other form of military action, or at least to ensure the recently announced United Nations sanctions against Iran are effective. One tactic is getting the oil-producing SADDAM countries to up production and bring the price of the oil barrel back to under $50, as Saudi Arabia is obviously doing by boycotting calls by fellow OPEC members to cut production.
At stake is limiting one of the biggest effects caused by the administration’s decision to invade Iraq (and subsequently failing to maintain order): the rise of Iran as a regional power. Long under-represented in the regional balance of power for a country of 70 million souls with large oil reserves, Iran has seen two hostile neighboring regimes fall (the Taliban and Saddam Hussein) and has become an important player in the internal politics of Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine, where it is supporting political actors who threaten clients of Israel, Saudi Arabia and the U.S. There is good reason to worry about Iran’s ascent: The regime has a track record of fanaticism and has made several distasteful pronouncements against Israel and Jews, particularly under the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmedinejad. But before Iran topped the news agenda, most SADDAM countries had begun to recognize that Tehran had an inevitable role to play in regional politics and had begun diplomatic negotiations aimed at formalizing relationships severed since 1979.
The new SADDAM is much more collaborative (and less mercurial) than the old Saddam. The aging autocrats and puppet kings that make it up are getting some nice trade-offs for their support, most notably the abandonment of the Bush administration’s last policy du jour, the “Forward Strategy for Freedom.” You may remember another Bush speech—delivered at his inauguration in 2005—in which he said: “All who live in tyranny and hopelessness can know: The United States will not ignore your oppression, or excuse your oppressors. When you stand for your liberty, we will stand with you.”
Well, with the new SADDAM policy, you get something more along the lines of “I know we previously encouraged you to stand for liberty and all that, but if you live in tyranny and hopelessness we will ignore your oppression and excuse your oppressors. When you stand for liberty, we will look the other way.”
Just ask Ayman Nour, the Egyptian opposition politician who in 2005 was the darling of the “Arab Spring” but now lingers in jail on trumped-up charges, being denied proper medical treatment for diabetes. Egypt used to top the list of countries under pressure to democratize from Washington—President Bush mentioned it specifically in several speeches—but when Rice visited Cairo earlier this month, the talk was all about Iraq and Iran. There was zilch about democracy, or even Nour’s condition. A few days later, when interviewed by The Washington Post , which has campaigned for Nour and other Egyptian democrats, she meekly protested that the policy still stood, but that “it's not easy and it's not going to be concluded on our watch and there will be ups and downs.”
The new anti-Iranian alliance with SADDAM appears to be deliberately reviving an old divide in the Islamic world between Sunni and Shia Muslims. To convince their populations, which are generally aghast at U.S. policy in Iraq and Palestine, that Iran is the real enemy (although, unlike say Israel, it has never in modern history been the first to attack an Arab country or threatened to use nuclear weapons against them), the SADDAM regimes are engaging in anti-Shia hate-mongering. State-backed clerics and journalists are recuperating the poisonous anti-Shia language typically heard from Iraqi jihadists to lure public support away from Iran and its allies (notably Hezbollah and Hamas, which are widely admired for their resistance to Israel occupation and aggression) and prepare the ground for a confrontation with Tehran.
This policy will have disastrous consequences. Not only will it further discrimination against the already downtrodden Shia minorities in SADDAM countries, but it will encourage the adoption of exactly the kind of intolerant ideas Osama bin Laden and his ilk have tried to spread for decades. The perennial losers will be those Arabs (and Iranians) who struggle for a more tolerant and democratic political culture. We’ve been down this road before.