Persian or Ottoman? US allies, not empires

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An Iranian parliamentarian recently said that the fourth Arab capital fell into the hands of Iran. Baghdad, Damascus and Beirut were the first to go and finally Sanaa in Yemen. So, the Shiite crescent seems to be all over the region but none of the Arab leaders are talking face to face with leaders in Iran…only Washington is doing the job.

There is a dispute between the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Iran over three islands. There is also another obstacle on the way to establishing a comprehensive diplomatic dialogue between Cairo and Tehran. The Shiite crescent is surrounding the Saudis not only in the eastern part of the kingdom but also from the south through the Yemeni Houthis and the strong presence of Shiites in Bahrain, Qatar, and the UAE.

Moreover, Sunni Arabs are also besieged by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (formerly known as ISIL). It is not only Saudi Arabia that has the Islamic State on its northern borders in Iraq and the Houthis on the southern parts, Libya is also being crushed by Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. Egypt is threatened from the south by a Muslim Brotherhood regime in Sudan, from the East the Muslim Brotherhood – Islamic State Jihadists in Gaza – and from the West by Libyan Jihadi groups of all types. The Maghreb states are no exception. Algeria has its southern borders filled with Jihadists situated in Mali. The Maghreb kingdom has been chasing Islamic State cells all over the country and Tunisia is protected by an American military base, at least for the time being.

The Turks under Recep Tayyip Erdogan have revived their dream of recreating the Ottoman Empire, which Kemal Ataturk renounced more than a century ago and declared a secular republic instead. Primarily, Erdogan supported the Sunnis starting with the Muslim Brotherhood and ending with the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq where the Kurds are confronting the terrorist organisation and threatening Ankara with a Kurdish state.

So, the Middle East has easily been divided along sectarian lines. Nation states are still holding in some Arab states while others are falling into the hands of radical militias. The reported map at the US congress of a Middle East comprised of 75 states is yet to be accomplished. There have been several attempts to coordinate efforts between the US and Turkey to get this mission accomplished but the Saudis and the Egyptians, along with the UAE, on one hand, managed to kick out the Muslim Brotherhood from ruling in Egypt; a major setback for the US strategy. On the other hand, Turkey was not also fully cooperative with the US alliance against the Islamic State simply because destroying that state would not only mean that the Syrian regime would survive the civil war but it would also establish a strong Kurdish state. So, Ankara was sidelined for the time being and Iran came to the forefront.

Thus, President Barack Obama warned congress of renewing sanctions against Iran…feeling the heat, Israel apologised to the Iranians for accidentally killing one of its commanders, who happened to be accompanying leaders of Hezbollah in Lebanon. Tehran’s foreign minister also warned the West of exercising more pressure against his country or else there would not be any nuclear deal come February. The US secretary of defense also stressed the fact that the Houthis in Yemen are partners in the political process and the US is developing contacts with them.

America’s current stand signals a warm honeymoon between Washington and Tehran. Mending the West’s differences with Tehran is better today than tomorrow. The day after tomorrow might show Tehran as part of a Russia-China axis or worse, a nuclear Iran that counterbalances nuclear Israel. Moreover, Iran offers oil and gas supplies that may fulfill the West’s needs in case the Saudis continue working against the American tide of dividing the Arab states.

But the US prefers obedient allies rather than challenging ones. Therefore, allying with Iran might be tricky for the two sides longing to dominate the region. Washington can hardly stand a strong partner not to mention a country meant to be policing the region according to the US’s interests.

In the good old days, both the French and the British who led the world at the time, were able to reach a deal in London, stating that none of the two superpowers should be meddling in each others’ affairs. According to that deal, the French will be free to occupy the Maghreb states and the British will be as equally free to occupy Egypt and the Gulf region to cobblestone its the way to India. By the first world war, the British sent ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ to convince the Arab monarchs to side with Britain against the Ottomans to gain independence; a promise that was on hand for the Egyptians as well. When the British managed to get rid of the old man of Europe (The Ottomans), the Arabs came under full British domination and Egypt was no exception. In 1919, a special delegation headed by the Egyptian leader, Saad Zaghlol, went to France to present their demands for an independent state; a right acclaimed by the US at the time. However, the leader of the free and democratic world, Woodrow Wilson, rejected the notion of an independent Egypt. The two old powers were still holding on to the futures of the world and the rising imperialistic superpower was looking for its share, which it received after World War II. Although the British and the French shared world leadership, the United States longed for a unipolar system and thus got the whole world involved in the Cold War until the collapse of the Soviet Union when the Taliban and Al-Qaeda were created by the CIA and later sent back to the Middle East.

The Middle Eastern states enjoyed a relative independence during the Cold War and tried to establish its development plans but those plans were interrupted by the US and Israel which launched the 1967 war against Egypt. Iran’s plans to establish an independent economy by nationalising its oil institutions was also interrupted by the US when Mohamed Mosadaq, the country’s democratically elected prime minister, was overthrown in favour of the Shah, who better served Washington’s interests and kept not only Tehran but the whole Gulf region as an integrated backyard for American policies. However, when the Shah was ousted by the Mullahs, it was Cairo, rather than the US, that offered him asylum.

The US might try to mend fences with Tehran; a legacy for President Obama. But for how long will the US stand a religious regime? And how long will Tehran be able to digest American policies in the region. More importantly, when and how are the Arabs going to react… if they ever do?

Mervat Diab is Assistant Editor-In-Chief of Al-Ahram newspaper.