Will Iran now fill the vacuum?
The extraordinary implosion of the entire Arab order has been building for a long time. Something like it was bound to happen one day. A young man killed himself in a small Tunisian city on account of the injustice done to him, and this one local incident was enough to set the whole region alight. Millions of Arabs immediately recognized that they too are victims of injustice and powerless to do anything about it. The speed and uniformity with which their rage has spread proves how deeply they resent and loathe the governance imposed upon them. Some Arab rulers are monarchs, others presidents, but the distinction hardly matters, because all have absolute power. Some of them, or others taking their place, may survive in future, but this unprecedented rebellion against one-man rule is bound to leave its mark on history.
Current Arab rulers have been in power for many years, and even decades in the cases of Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen or Moammar Qaddafi in Libya. What might look like stability is actually stultification. The one-man ruler needs security forces to keep him in power, and for the purpose he has to rely on his own kind: on family and tribe, on sect and ethnicity. Injustice, cruelty, and corruption are inherent, as insiders require favors and outsiders have to be kept down. Opposition and free speech are dangers to be tightly supervised and controlled. These past weeks have been a textbook exposition of what happens when dissent rises above the level where it can be either bought off or contained. The ruler has to choose between suppressing it by force or forfeiting his position. The Tunisian ruler is alone so far in resolving the dilemma by fleeing abroad. Hosni Mubarak in Egypt lost power because the army abandoned him, and the force at his disposal therefore became insufficient. In at least four Arab countries — Yemen, Bahrain, Libya, Syria — the ruler’s security forces have shot and killed protesters and will continue to do so until the issue of power is settled one way or another. Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, and Algeria are on the brink of similar violence.
As though war were being waged, the numbers of the dead must be in the thousands, with the injured many thousands more and still more thousands under arrest. Who knows what tortures await those lifted off the streets and from their homes, or whether they will ever be seen again? Humane conventions are suspended, and there is no mercy. Ambulances and hospitals are shot up, mosques are used as ammunition dumps and shelled accordingly. The brutal vitality that has reproduced the traditional absolute order down the centuries may still do its worst.
The protesting crowds deserve all honor for the bravery with which they confront their rulers and demand justice and freedom. This is not the straightforward issue that it might seem, however, of the oppressed versus the oppressor, because huge historic forces are simultaneously working themselves out. The Islamic world divides between two main sects, the majority Sunni and the minority Shia. The Iranian revolution of 1979 set in motion Shia triumphalism that is destabilizing the Arabs and will continue to do so until the balance of power between the two sects settles one way or the other. That triumphalism further questions the relationship between Islam and the West.
Put in place by Ayatollah Khomeini, the Islamic Republic of Iran is a strange variation of an absolute society, in the hands of a one-man ruler supported by his own kind, in this case a group of corrupt and cruel clerics thriving on injustice. In the years of their rule, they have made sure to stamp out and murder dissidents to the best of their ability. At present they are regularly condemning Arab rulers who order their security forces to open fire, though conducting themselves in much the same way, having recently hanged over a hundred people and arrested many more whose fate is unknown.
Khomeini liked to say that he did not launch a revolution in order to lower the price of watermelons. His grandiose ambition was to transform Islam into a world power. Perceived as hostile, the United States clearly could not be allowed to stand in the way. Many in the West and the Middle East reacted as though this were a wholesale fantasy. In critical negotiations, Americans and Europeans have shown themselves to be feeble or painfully condescending, mastered time and again by people more wily than they are. In the event, Iran has been phenomenally successful in realizing its designs, in the process becoming a full-blown imperialist power.
In one Arab country after another, Iran has been advancing its own imperial interests under cover of skillful manipulation of Shia populations. Lebanon, in which the majority of Muslims are Shia, was Iran’s first colony. In 1982, Iran sent officers to recruit and arm and train Hezbollah, the militia that has pioneered terror and tyrannized other Lebanese. The point has now been reached when Iran, by means of Hezbollah, chooses the government of Lebanon and is the arbiter of war and peace with Israel.
The situation in Bahrain is comparable. Bahrain, a small island linked by a long bridge to the Saudi mainland, has a Sunni ruler — formerly known as the emir but now calling himself the king — but a Shia majority. They are living in a mini-police state and their grievances are genuine. A prominent Iranian minister has declared that Bahrain is rightfully an Iranian province. The American Fifth Fleet is stationed at a naval base there, and Iran’s overriding purpose in whipping up the Shia is to have it closed. When the Bahraini Shia demonstrated in favor of reform, the Sunni king fell into the trap and allowed his security forces to open fire. In panic at the casualties, he then invited a thousand Saudi and Gulf soldiers and police to drive across the bridge into Bahrain, thus acknowledging the Shia threat and his determination to meet it head-on.
Until the arrival of these thousand soldiers and policemen, the clash between Iran the Shia champion and Saudi Arabia the Sunni champion had taken place in several countries, but covertly. Saudi Arabia is one of the most unjust societies in the world, and its king appears to think the remedy is to buy his subjects off with money. The Saudi Shia are treated as second-class citizens. They happen to live in the provinces with the oilfields, and exploitation of their grievances carries the potential of a global economic crisis. Violence in Iraq or Yemen might appear political, but realistically it is a test of where the balance lies between Shia and Sunni. Since President Obama lets it be understood that the United States has no coherent policy to oppose Iran’s drive to regional supremacy and not even the intention actively to support regime change there, Saudi Arabia has to take the strain. It is on its own. Its shield and support used to be Egypt, but that is no longer the case. Iran marked its delight in the downfall of Mubarak by sending warships through the Suez Canal, and by reactivating its one and only Sunni proxy, the Hamas movement in Gaza, already another arbiter of war and peace with Israel.
Syria is the latest Arab country to be overtaken by protest. Half a century ago, Hafez Assad seized power and set in place a classic example of one-man rule. He was an Alawi, that is to say one of the heterodox Shia who constitute approximately 15 percent of the otherwise mostly Sunni population. In 1982, the Sunnis started a revolt in the town of Hama. Assad ordered heavy artillery to shell Hama, killing at least 25,000 people, and possibly many more. Their corpses remain cemented under the town’s central square. The Syrian constitution was shamelessly rigged in order for his son Bashar to succeed him. He too murders opponents or condemns them to life sentences in underground prisons.
The Assads and the Iranian regime share the belief that aggression is more rewarding than friendship. More than Iran’s ally, Syria has become its dependency, offering a naval base on the Mediterranean and shelter for the numerous terrorist movements that advance their joint foreign policy. Obama’s stated hope to peel Syria away from Iran is unrealistic to the point of delusion.
Tens of thousands of people have broken through what is rightly called “the wall of fear” to demonstrate in Damascus, Deraa, and a score of other towns. They are dicing with death. Bashar is as cruel as his father. To him, the protesters are “armed gangs” to be shot. Security forces are already reported to be firing automatic weapons into the crowds. Nobody knows how many have been killed or arrested.
Nobody knows either whether these demonstrators would set up a future government that freed the country from the horrific injustice of the Assads’ one-man rule, or whether they are simply Sunnis bent on massacring Alawis in revenge for Hama. What is certain is that they are putting a check to Iranian imperialism, and the first to be doing so. NATO support for them is as justified as it is for Libyan rebels. The outcome reached in Syria will decide whether the Arab order really has imploded or, on the contrary, will go on much as before.