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The Threat That is Iran

Ambassador Curtin Winsor, Jr., at Pipes' Mideast Monitor. Excellent section on Iran: The Bush Administration's reluctance to challenge the Saudis after 9/11 initially encountered impassioned objections from conservative and liberal commentators alike, but the outrage has tapered off as attention … Read More

By / September 14, 2007

Ambassador Curtin Winsor, Jr., at Pipes' Mideast Monitor. Excellent section on Iran:

The Bush Administration's reluctance to challenge the Saudis after 9/11 initially encountered impassioned objections from conservative and liberal commentators alike, but the outrage has tapered off as attention has became increasingly focused on Shiite Iran and its nuclear weapons program. In the view of the administration, the Iranian threat to American national security not only supercedes the threat of Sunni theofascism, but supercedes it to such a degree that a more accommodating policy toward Saudi Arabia is warranted. However, while the prospect of militant Shiite clerics in possession of nuclear weapons is understandably disconcerting to many Americans, the Iranian threat is mitigated by several important factors.

For all of the shrill and unsettling words of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, his government's foreign policy is driven more by Iranian nationalism than Shiite Islamism (this is evident, for example, in Tehran's support for the predominantly Christian nation of Armenia in its dispute with Shiite Azerbaijan). This is not surprising, as Iran (known as Persia prior to the twentieth century) has existed in one form or another since biblical times, while it embraced Shiite Islam just 500 years ago. While Ahmadinejad exploits Iranian nationalism to win public support in his confrontation with the West, it can easily turn against him if he were to embark on a global adventure. Wahhabi clerics may support the Saudi royal family as a necessary evil in order to protect their global proselytizing mission, but they recognize no Saudi Arabian "nation" whose interests take precedence over their agenda. Such is not the case in Iran.

Furthermore, Shiite Islamism does not exhibit theofascist tendencies. Radical clerics in Iran have been responsible for horrendous abuses of power, but they do not regard non-Shiite Muslims as "unbelievers" who must be systematically purged – and even if they did, the fact that Shiites comprise only 10-15% of the world's Muslims would make such a project impractical. Even within the Shiite world, there is no prospect of a Wahhabi-style Iranian takeover of religious discourse because unlike the Sunnis, Shiite Islam is rigidly hierarchical. Iraqi and Lebanese Shiites gladly accept Iranian financial and military support, but they are fiercely loyal to their own clerical establishments.

An even greater fallacy is the widespread belief in Washington that a strong relationship with Saudi Arabia is an asset in confronting Iran. On the contrary, coddling the Saudis makes it more difficult for the United States to deal with Iran. The Bush administration's refusal to hold Saudi leaders accountable for their incitement of Wahhabi jihadists (who have murdered far more Shiites than Americans, mostly in Iraq and Pakistan) is a source of deep resentment in the Shiite world. It is no surprise that the only two major public demonstrations against Al-Qaeda in the Islamic world after the 9/11 attacks were both organized by Shiites (in Tehran and Karachi, Pakistan).

It is interesting to note that the recent escalation of US – Iranian tensions has made the Saudis less accommodating about Iraq than ever before. Reports that the Saudi Government is threatening to openly fund and arm Sunni insurgent groups if American forces withdraw from Iraq are a case in point. In effect, the Saudis are signaling to the Bush administration that they will thwart any American plan to cede control of Iraq to its Shiite-dominated, democratically-elected government, while signaling to the Sunni insurgents in Iraq that they can reject American efforts to broker a political settlement and not be left to face the consequences alone.

Iran has no history of direct aggression against its neighbors, and unlike Saddam's Sunni-dominated Iraq, they have never used weapons of mass destruction during invasions of neighbors or against their own people. The strongest argument for this approach lies with the extent that Iran craves recognition of its actual status as the historically authentic nation state in the Middle East. Iran has long aspired to be and probably will be the region's predominant Islamic regional power.

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