Arabism, Islamism and Iranian Hegemony


The so-called Arab Spring of 2011 was supposed to overthrow post-colonial Arab regimes and replace them with governments suited to the reality of the 21st century. These new regimes were to have social attractiveness and an Arab and Islamic identity. They were also definitely meant to be anti-Western.

This transformation did not take place. Instead, Arab regimes faced two main threats: radical Islam and Iran’s push for regional hegemony. In the fight against Islamic radicalism, some Arab regimes did not hesitate to appeal to foreign powers (Russia, China or the United States) which had no colonial past in the region. Some have even turned to former colonial powers such as France and the United Kingdom in order to survive the rising tide of radical Islam.

A few have gone so far as to ask neighboring Arab powers and peripheral powers in the Middle East, such as Turkey and Iran, to help block the assault on their defenses by Islamic radicals associated with al-Qaeda. , the Islamic State and the Muslim Brotherhood.

A decade later, Libya is the only Arab country whose regime has not survived. It has turned into a failed state, divided between rival factions, whose south is controlled mainly by radical Islamists.

Libya is not the only failed state. Lebanon also descended into this status for different reasons and joined the dubious club. It struggles to survive as a nation.

The main reasons for the disintegration of Libya are the struggle between its two main geographical divisions – Tripolitania and Cyrenaica – for control of the state, and the conflict between competing tribes in which foreign powers try to impose their influence . Lebanon, on the other hand, is a victim of its sectarian and sectarian body politic mixed with corruption, mismanagement and inability to deal with external subversion of the state.

The Islamic State was defeated by a multinational coalition that included sworn enemies and sworn rivals such as Iran, the United States and Turkey. However, it is still present in the region, nurtured and nurtured by the historic Sunni-Shia schism. This applies in particular to Syria and Iraq, where the Islamic State still enjoys a safe haven among the Sunni population and the old political elite who refuse to submit to Shiite/Iranian-leaning regimes. .

Correlated with the Sunni reaction to regime change in Iraq that was the catalyst for the creation of the Islamic State, the Arab world has sought to dismantle the Muslim Brotherhood, which champions political Islam. The Brotherhood was once seen as a dominant force – even seen by the Obama administration as worthy of inheriting faltering and corrupt Arab regimes – alongside fringe radical Sunni movements linked to al-Qaeda or the Islamic State. Arab regimes rose up to overcome the radical Islamic wave and maintain their traditional rule, with the exception of the US-imposed regime in Iraq and a disintegrating Libya.

To this day, the Muslim Brotherhood is defeated, even decimated, while its leaders are either in exile or incarcerated in detention camps and prisons. In Tunisia, where the Arab Spring began, the Muslim Brotherhood found itself in opposition, constantly hounded by the regime and facing high treason courts.

Iran’s New Role

It is important to note that never in the modern history of the Middle East and the Arab world has there been a situation in which Iran was omnipresent, influential and dictated the policies of local governments to the point that Iranian delegates monitor legislative elections and decide on the choice of presidents and prime ministers. This new stage has seen Iran intervene in regional wars where its involvement has been characterized by military assistance and intervention, as well as financial and political support. Iranian politicians openly boasted that the capitals of Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen were under their hegemony.

The Iranian element has polarized the Arab Middle East, dividing it into two poles: The north extends from Lebanon to Iraq (including Yemen in the south and until a few years ago Sudan), a predominantly Shia region. The other is the southern sub-region wedged between the northern belt and Yemen, predominantly Sunni and deeply anti-Iranian.

The Iranian-dominated northern region has become increasingly domestically destabilized, dominated by sectarian politics and primarily characterized by a crippled body politic unable to establish governmental continuity, equitable distribution of power, consolidation stable economies and defense against foreign intervention.

Through its executive arm – the Al-Quds Force, which is an integral part of the Revolutionary Guards – Iran has managed to create proxy forces in each of the “dominated” states that ensure its paramount position in local politics. This is the case of Hezbollah in Lebanon, the “popular mobilization force” (Al-Hashd el-Shaabi) in Iraq, the Houthis in Yemen, and the foreign legion incorporating Pakistani and Afghan militias in Syria that serve as the praetorian guard of the Assad regime.

Historically, Persians and Arabs have been bitter rivals, even though Persian culture penetrated the Arab kingdom and was deeply integrated into the Arab heritage. Shia communities were scattered throughout the Arab world, but mainly in the Arab Levant, where contact with Persia/Iran dated back centuries. The interaction between these communities and Iran covered all aspects of life while occasionally serving as a refuge for Iranian political or religious figures persecuted by the authorities in Tehran. However, at no time did Iran intend to dominate Arab politics. This changed dramatically with the advent of the Ayatollahs’ regime in Iran, the fall of the Shah and the establishment of the Islamic Republic, which adopted proselytism as its official policy, hiding its intentions under the guise of pan-Islamism.

With the growing influence of the Islamic Republic in various Arab states and Tehran’s dominance over the so-called “Fertile Crescent”, tensions began to rise between the Arabs and Iran. These tensions are not limited to the historic clash between Sunnis and Shiites. They also extend to the Christian community in Lebanon and, far more importantly, to the growing division in the Shiite camp in Iraq between those Shiites who are totally committed to Iran and those who seek to protect their Arab, Iraqi and independent. This inter-Shia schism has produced not only a paralysis of the political system, with Shia factions unable to agree on the choice of a president, a prime minister or the convening of parliament since the legislative elections in October 2021, but he also raised the question of the likelihood of an all-out civil war in Iraq.

Arab protests are also rocking divided Lebanon, where Iran’s Hezbollah agent and proxy is being criticized by Sunni political rivals and parts of the Christian community for its crippling hold on the body politic, which ultimately serves Iranian interests. and pushes Lebanon into a confrontation with Israel. .

More significant is the de facto alliance that has been established between the various Sunni-majority Arab states, which have decided to deal with Iran’s clandestine expansion, either through economic sanctions – as is the case for Lebanon – or by the constitution of a political network supposed to counter Iranian initiatives in the Middle East and Africa.

It is worth mentioning that, from the 10th to the 12th century, parts of the Arab world were dominated by the Shia Fatimids, who built a sultanate that stretched from the Atlantic Ocean to the Maghreb to the Red Sea. It took Salahuddin (Salah el-Din), a Sunni of Kurdish origin, to defeat the Fatimids and replace them with the Sunni Ayyubid dynasty.

The war between Arabism and Iranian hegemony is far from over.

Colonel (retired) Dr. Jacques Neriah, special analyst for the Middle East at the Public Affairs Center in Jerusalem, was previously foreign policy adviser to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and deputy head of Israeli military intelligence assessment.

This article was originally published by the Jerusalem Public Affairs Center.

Previous Monthly briefing: 13 key developments in the region
Next The Angst Nation in the World