Politics & Policy

Sunni Salvation

Organizing new alliances in the Middle East.

American field commanders have made considerable progress in winning the respect of Sunni tribal leaders and turning them against al Qaeda in Iraq. But a key part of this improved relationship is a pledge to protect the Sunnis from genocidal attacks by radical Shiite death squads and Iranian-backed militias. Recent attacks on Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki by U.S. senators, including presidential aspirant Hillary Clinton, have again raised the question of whether the prime minister is an Iraqi nationalist serious about leading a national unity government, or merely a Shiite partisan. Though born and educated in Iraq, Maliki went into exile in Iran and Syria during Saddam’s crackdown after the 1991 Gulf War. He was deputy leader of the De-Baathification Commission in the post-invasion interim government, which many charge became a witch hunt against Sunnis.

On Aug. 22, al-Maliki lashed out at his American critics on his return from a 3-day trip to Syria, saying, “We will pay no attention. We care for our people and our constitution and can find friends elsewhere.” The danger is that he only defines his “people” as Shiites, and “elsewhere” is Iran. Pres. George W. Bush has voiced continuing support for al-Maliki, but at the same time, the Bush administration is taking steps to prepare the next line of regional defenses if Iraq stays in turmoil or its Shiite majority falls under Iranian influence.

On July 30, just a few days before the U.S. Congress went on its August recess, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns held a press briefing in Washington outlining how the Bush Administration plans to arm the Sunni states in the Middle East to contain Iranian expansion. The $20 billion in planned military aid to the Saudi Arabia and the other five members of the Gulf Cooperation Council will run in parallel with increased military aid to Israel ($30 billion) and to Egypt ($13 billion) over the next decade. According to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, the arms sale to Cairo will “strengthen Egypt’s ability to address shared strategic goals” with Israel and the other Sunni Arab states. The best way to build new diplomatic and security alliances is to pull otherwise diverse states together against a common enemy.

The arms deal with Israel was signed in Jerusalem on August 16. At the signing, Under Secretary Burns put the aid to Israel in the context of the Iran-Syria axis and its support for Hezbollah and Hamas, all enemies of the Jewish state. But he then went on to say, “We have said to the congressional leadership that we intend to seek their support for increased military assistance to our friends in the Gulf: to Saudi Arabia and to Kuwait and to Bahrain and to Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and to Oman. All of this together represents a signal from the United States that our country is strong in this region, that we intend to be a good friend to our allies and our partners in this region.” This was an explicit setting of Israel and the Sunni Arabs together in a U.S.-backed security alignment.

It should be remembered that last summer, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan openly criticized Iran’s proxy Hezbollah for raiding into Israel and triggering over four weeks of heavy fighting. The Arab states gave Israel the diplomatic space it needed to mount military operations aimed at crippling Hizbollah in Lebanon.

In his March 29 testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Under Secretary Burns outlined the new regional dynamics in which Lebanon plays a major role: “We are also working with France, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, and others to signal our strong support for Prime Minister Siniora’s democratically elected government in Lebanon, to enforce the arms embargo imposed by Security Council Resolution 1701, and to prevent Iran and Syria from rearming Hizballah. We have stationed two carrier battle groups in the Gulf, not to provoke Iran, but to reassure our friends in the region that it remains an area of vital importance to us. And at the regional level, Secretary Rice last autumn launched a series of ongoing discussions with our Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) partners, as well as Egypt and Jordan, regarding issues of shared concern, including most especially the threat posed by Iran.”

Iran, with its support for militias in foreign lands, its nuclear ambitions, and its aggressive Shiism, poses a much greater threat to the Sunni Arab world than does Israel, which has no intention of toppling Arab regimes and converting their people to its religious doctrines. Iran does have these ambitions, directed at both Jews and Sunni Muslims. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has said Israel will not lobby against the new arms sales to Saudi Arabia, as it has against previous sales.

On August 9, the Tehran Times, the self-proclaimed “loud voice of the Islamic Revolution,” highlighted a speech given in Lebanon by Hizbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah which attacked the proposed U.S. arms sales as an attempt to “drown the Mideast in wars.” The speech was given at an event marking the terrorist group’s “victory” in last summer’s war, and follows Nasrallah’s claim that his fighters have been fully rearmed and trained for a new round of conflict.

There is congressional opposition to the Saudi-GCC weapons deal. Even though the details of the deal are classified and months from being finalized, 114 members of the U.S. House, (96 Democrats, 18 Republicans) rushed a letter to President Bush on August 2 declaring their intention to vote against any sale of advanced weapons to Saudi Arabia. The letter was organized by New York Democratic representatives Anthony Weiner and Jerrold Nadler, who staged a protest outside the Saudi consulate in New York City on July 29.

The thrust of their stated argument is that “Saudi Arabia has not been a true ally in the War on Terror or furthering the United States interests in the Middle East.” This opposition is really just another aspect of liberal-isolationist opposition to the Iraq War, and to any continued geopolitical involvement by the United States in the region. Those who signed the letter don’t just want out of Iraq, they want to withdraw completely from everywhere “east of Suez.” Such a retreat would leave a security nightmare in its wake.

Ever since the pro-Western, secularizing shah of Iran was overthrown by the radical Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979, the Middle East has been ripped by the Shia-Persian/Sunni-Arab divide. Far more have died in this sectarian struggle than have ever fallen in combat with Israel or Western “imperialists.” Iraq was the front-line state against Iran under Saddam Hussein, who became the hero of the Arab world during the 1980–1988 Iran–Iraq War. But he brought disaster upon himself when he invaded his ally Kuwait in 1990. U.S. reconciliation with Iraq proved impossible, as Saddam had gone mad after his defeat. He continued to threaten Kuwait and even made overtures to Iran for a united front against America.

The two countries with the strongest military potentials in the Gulf region are Iran and Iraq. Washington needs a friendly regime in either Tehran or Baghdad. Whatever the proximate cause cited for the invasion of Iraq, the real strategic objective was to replace Saddam with a new government with which the U.S. could cooperate against Iran.

U.S. forces are again engaged, as they have been during several prior phases of the Iraq campaign, in beating down the pro-Iranian militia of Moqtada al-Sadr, who also heads a powerful Shiite bloc in Iraq’s legislative assembly. It is not clear who will win the power struggle within the Shiite majority in Iraq, so it is only prudent to strengthen the next line of defense, either to support a unified Iraq or to sustain anti-Iranian forces in a fragmented Iraq.

Saudi Arabia and the smaller Gulf states do not have the manpower to combat Iran, so they need superior weapons which are interoperable with those of the United States. Cooperation in the areas of missile defense, maritime patrol, counterterrorism, and energy security is moving ahead with U.S.-led joint exercises. American trainers, advisers, and support personnel will also have to accompany the new weapon systems.

Though a minority in Iraq, the Sunnis are a majority in the Muslim world. For Congress to block the arms sales would undermine what trust there is between Washington and the Sunni world. It would also fuel the propaganda of both al Qaeda and Tehran that alleges America is at war with all of Islam, when, in fact, U.S. security interests are in line with those of a majority of Muslims regarding the rising threat from Iran.

– William R. Hawkins is senior fellow for national-security studies at the U.S. Business and Industry Council in Washington, D.C.

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