While the US strives for an agreement with Iran that will leave it on the threshold of nuclear power, the Arab nations declare “Decisive Storm” campaign in Yemen. What’s the war in Yemen got to do with Iran’s nuclear crisis and how can all of this affect Israel?
To answer these questions, one should examine the civil war in Syria and Iraq: Syrian civil war began as part of the “Arab Spring” that began in Tunis and spread to the Levant (A-Sha’am in Arabic, includes the area of Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Israel). The “Arab spring” reflected the desire for overthrowing the dictatorships that ruled in the last 40 years in the area; and building the culture of democracy and freedom. But sooner than later the democratic elements in Syria were left alone on the battlefield. Iran, who considers the Assad regime an ally, sent Hezbollah forces to rescue it, later Iranian generals from the Revolutionary Guards were sent there, and Syria had sank in a bloody endless civil war.
On the other side, the United States, that promised to intervene militarily if Assad will use chemical weapons, did not fulfill its promise. Casualties of chemical weapons had to find another patron to give them, other than money, also hope and dignity after years of suppression by the regime. Thus, they fell as a ripe fruit into the hands of various radical Islamic organizations that have made the discourse of the revolution in Syria a discourse of religion rather than a discourse of freedom. For example, in the sad film “Notes from the dark – Aleppo”, filmed among the Syrians rebels in 2013, when deep despair has already appeared on their faces, one of them was interviewed on camera while in the background were flags associated with the “Al-Qaeda”, and made it clear that he was never religious, and before the war sold lingerie, but eventually joined an organization with Islamic tendencies because he felt that the Islamists were the only ones who cared.
In order to understand the religious discourse in the region it is important to learn the demographic complexity: Assad regime is Alawite, a flow associated with the Shia, and thus it is a natural member in the axis led by Iran (Shiite superpower), accompany with Hezbollah (who emerged from the Shiite population in southern Lebanon and in the center) – While, most of the population in Syria, (antebellum, about 22 million people) is Sunni, like the vast majority of the Muslim world. The rivalry between Shiites and Sunnis goes back to the first century of Islam when the religion was split into the two streams, due to disagreements over who would succeed the Prophet. This rivalry exacted a bloody price throughout Muslim history and now returns to the fore, although never completely disappeared. Within this reality has evolved ISIS, considers Shiites as infidels which must be addressed first, followed by Sunnis “perverts” – that is, the moderate Arab states, and anybody who doesn’t follow the way of radical Salafi Islam, which seeks to return to the days of Muhammad at all aspects of life, both in the public and private sphere.
ISIS was split from Al-Qaeda branch in Iraq. This country also suffers from ethnic complexity made it difficult to formulate a national identity. So,Saddam Hussein who belonged to the country’s major Sunni minority (35%) ruled for 40 years the Shiite majority. After Saddam was overthrown by the US, tables were turned and the Shiite prime minister, crowned by the Bush administration, suppressed the Sunni minority. Out of the frustration of the Sunnis, who were accustomed to receive the lion’s share of the pie and left destitute after the dissolution of the Baath Party of Saddam, evolved the support for Al-Qaeda and his successor – ISIS.
President Obama’s decision to form a coalition against ISIS opened the door to massive Iranian interference in Iraq. The Sunni states that stepped in to help in the global fight against the extremist organization, found themselves facing a “Shiite Crescent” bolstered by this campaign. Its end northwest Lebanon, where Hezbollah has strengthened its position in recent years, through Syria and Iraq in its center – where militias from Iran, or Iran proxies, are leading the war against ISIS. The southern end of the “Shiite Crescent” in the Persian Gulf is, first, Bahrain, where Shiite minority, again with the help of Hezbollah and Iran, tried to stage a coup against the Sunni regime. Second, there is Yemen with the Houthis rebels supported by Iran – which was the last straw for the Saudis. If so, Iran took advantage of the Coalition against ISIS, to establish its hold in the Middle East. Sunni Arab states have realized this and thus came to create a mechanism for coordination and cooperation between them over the head of Americans.
Let us go back to Yemen – the Houthis are a flow within the Shi’a that exists only in Yemen, they account for about 30% of the population and since the overthrow in 2011 of President Ali Abdullah Salah, who ruled the country for about 30 years, they are trying to take control over Yemen, as mentioned, with the active assistance of Iran. In the past month, they have had notable successes upon conquering the capital Sana’a and announced that they actually control the country. The Houthi’s approaching over the past week, the city of Aden, which rules in effect, on the way from the Indian Ocean to the Mediterranean, led the Saudis to intervene. For the first time since the 60’s of the last century, when the Arab states were united against Israel, the Arab League announced the establishment of a joint Arab force to deal with the security challenges they face. At the same time, Saudi Arabia, not waiting for official decisions, already opened the military operation “Decisive Storm” against Houthi forces in Yemen.
The Agreement on the establishment of the Sunni coalition against the Shiite-Iranian threat apparently was achieved during a series of meetings held last month in Riyadh, between the new Saudi king Salman, and Sunni leaders around the area, including, King Abdullah of Jordan and a-Sisi president of Egypt. This cooperation is not a self-evident in view of the conflict of interest and political power struggles between Arab leaders over the past decades. Thus, Egypt, which was ruled by a secular regime with pan-Arab ideology and Saudi Arabia which is ruled by tribes implementing Salafi Islamic ideology, both competed for years, for hegemony in the Arab League. In Jordan, King Abdullah’s great-grandfather received Amman from the British Empire and founded the Kingdom of Jordan as compensation, after he was expelled, at the beginning of the last century, from Mecca and lost the Arabian Peninsula to the Saudis. And in the Middle East, old bills are never forgotten.
Arab media reported on the series of meetings in Riyadh last month, played down the Iranian issue and most publications dealt with the Arab cooperation against ISIS. For, Jordan and Saudi Arabia are bordering areas where ISIS controls in Iraq and Syria, and suffer the infiltration of radical Islamic elements into their territory, in a way that threatens their stability. That, along with the Jordanian obligation to revenge the brutal execution of the Jordanian pilot who was burned alive by ISIS. While Egypt is dealing with the spread of ISIS in its neighbor, Libya, and beheadings of its civilians there, and in addition fighting the organization’s penetration into Egypt in the Sinai Peninsula, where an Islamic organization, named “Ansar Beit al-Maqdisi”, sworn to ISIS. Arab leaders went to Riyadh to make sure it’s not struggling ISIS on one hand, but offers assistance to extremist Islamic organizations, on the other, in their war against Shiites in Iraq. In return, they offered to Saudi Arabia, their soldiers and Air Force in their fight against the Iranian grip in Yemen. If so – it seems that the traditional allies of the US in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan, are struggling now on two fronts: against the Shi’ite-Iranian expansion and against ISIS – radical Sunni organization – which threatens their Sunni regimes and sees them as not legitimate.
Despite the differences in priorities, Arab leaders came to Riyadh reached an agreement: the military force that has been announced last month that will be set up to deal with the threat of ISIS, is dealing primarily with the Iranian threat. Arab leaders understood, as it was well put by the former Jordanian Information Minister, that “those who eat your brother for lunch will eat you for dinner” (Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, February 2015) and determined to fight the Iranian attempts to take over the Middle East. The Jordanian Minister phrase is not just paranoia of Arab leaders. In recent months occurred in Iraq several massacres of Sunnis by Shiite militias, in areas that were liberated from ISIS and returned to the control of the Iraqi government. Thus, eastern Iraq has become Iran’s influence area, in which Sunnis are paying the price. Now, there is an open question of how the Sunni leaders will defeat the “Shiite Crescent” without losing the second front – that is, without strengthening ISIS? The latest fights the Shiite militias in Iraq. The same militias that sought through last week and received military aid from the United States, carried out an Air strike in Tikrit, where battles against ISIS are now been handled. As said the Saudi Foreign Minister, Saud al-Faisal: “Tikrit is a clear example of what concerns us. Iran on its way to put its hands on the country” [Iraq] (Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, March 2015).
The “Shiite Crescent” and the Nuclear Issue
The American Government is striving to reach an agreement with Iran, which would allow it to remain on a nuclear threshold, and lead to the removal of the sanctions against it. This would, in fact, start a regular flow of currency to the Shiite power and enable it to escalate all fronts against the Sunni powers in the Middle East. Therefore, the timing of the attack against the Houthis in Yemen also constitutes a message to president Obama, saying that an agreement with Iran regarding its nuclear program can’t be reached while disregarding its dangerous policy in other fronts. That’s without considering Iranian Leadership expressions against the U.S. in Farsi. The American government’s policy is perceived as weakness, even treason, to its traditional allies in the Middle East. The Arabs understand that Obama abandoned them for Iran. What does it all mean?
The Iranian or in fact the Shiite, nuclear crisis troubles Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan no less than it troubles Israel. Netanyahu’s speech in the American congress was referred to merely fondly in Saudi press: “Netanyahu’s attitude”, it said, “will serve our interests far better than the foolish attitude of one of the worst American presidents in history” (Saudi Al-Jazeera, March 2015). In Al-Shark al-Awsat, a Saudi newspaper published in London, president Obama was described as one to “lead the area to a tangible disaster”. Allegedly, the United States’ policy towards Iran creates mutual interests between Israel and the Arab nations, which might help Israel’s position in the area, as one who risked its relationship with the U.S., insisting an agreement with Iran must not be signed. However, in practice, and in the long run, recognizing Iran as a nuclear threshold state, will legitimize a nuclear race in the Middle East.
Following the increasing Arab fear of a bad deal with Iran, which will be “considered as an international recognition of the Iranian occupations in the area, and an international blessing to Iran’s sponsorship of terrorism” (Al-Shark Al-Awsat, March 2015) – the demand for an Arab nuclear program counter to the Iranian one was raised in the Arab press again. In Egypt and in Saudi Arabia, the idea of building nuclear reactors has been discussed for years. At least Saudi Arabia is not short of funding, and Prince Turki al Faisal made it clear recently that if an agreement will be signed with Iran, Saudi Arabia will demand to have a nuclear capability in equal terms. In practice, it’s been reported that in early March, Saudi Arabia signed a nuclear collaboration agreement with South Korea, and similar other contracts were signed by the United Arab Emirates (Al-quds Al-Arabi, March 2015). It’s also possible that similar contracts are being negotiated between Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. Is the Obama administrationt interested in turning the already bleeding Middle East into an explosive nuclear powder keg?