Danger Ahead: Tipping the Ideological Balance in the Persian Gulf

10 01 2012

Attacking Iran would be an ideological victory for hard-line Salafists / Wahhabis, tipping the regional balance-of-power in favor of the ultra-orthodox.  This is not a minor consequence.  Like it or not, Iran’s Twelver Shiite national ideology is somewhat of a counterbalance to the ultra-orthodox Salafists in the region.

The Egyptian parliamentary election results show that the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom & Justice party gained 193 seats (45.2%), and more worrying are the gains of Al-Nour, the Salafist party, which has 108 seats (25.3%), according to Jadaliyya.  And the Saudis are arming themselves to the teeth.

Now that tensions are rising with Iran, and supposed progress in its nuclear program may trigger further confrontations, what policy-makers are potentially failing to see is that Iran’s demise might translate into the ideological hegemony of hard-line Islamists, namely Saudi-oriented Salafists / Wahhabists, throughout the region.  That is not a good thing for Western national interests, nor is it good for the Middle East region, as it is the antithesis to liberal democracy, and I will even go as far as to say that it potentially will arrest the region’s development prospects.  That is a controversial statement to make, I know, but nonetheless, that is my opinion.  Theocracies by definition restrict people’s rights and freedoms, which in turn arrest comprehensive socioeconomic development; and Saudi Arabia, which exports its hard-line ideology globally, is the epitome of a totalitarian religious-police state.  If the region is tilting in that direction, then that’s very bad news for secularists, liberals, and in my view, women and minority groups.

Western powers need to be very careful about which regional horse they want to back in the showdown against Iran.  There’s no denying that the Iranian regime must be contained, but the danger is a scenario wherein we might inadvertently end up backing and empowering hard-line Salafi-types in the effort to keep Iran in check.  The longer-term ramifications, even ideological ones, must be thought out carefully, or else we’re doomed to repeat history.  Can we say “Afghanistan”?

In a January 9th opinion piece in the Tehran Times, former Iranian Ambassador to Syria, Hossein Sheikholeslam, placed the blame for the current turmoil in Syria squarely on Western powers allegedly backing the opposition Salafists.  He says:

The Arab governments that have dispatched representatives to monitor the situation in Syria actually have terrible records in terms of human rights and political liberty in their own countries. This hypocrisy shows that instigating a civil war in Syria is the real goal of these countries. The recent wave of suicide bombings in Damascus is a clear illustration of this policy, which is directly sponsored by the United States and is being implemented by the Salafis.”

Yes, we must be mindful of the source of that quote.  However, if there’s an element of truth to this, then we risk backing a horse that could potentially emerge as a Frankenstein’s monster down the road, not unlike what happened with the Cold War zeal to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan by supporting the most diehard militants in the Af-Pak region (i.e., the Reagan Doctrine).

And, this quote is in no way cited in support of the Assad or Iranian regimes on my part, so please do not misconstrue my comments.  My posting is only meant to serve as an analytical caveat.

As I remind my students, the Middle East is a 3-D chess game, with a lot of moving parts.  We must tread very carefully.  Expediency can lead to mistakes, some far too costly.

NOTE:  Everything I write in this blog constitutes my personal opinions and views.

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