I haven't written much about Iran lately because I don't read Persian (which doesn't stop most other people, I realize) and haven't been really focused on the issue. But I think I'm going to start writing more about it. Partly because of Rice's diplomatic initiative, which I'm delighted to see, though I have some issues. Partly because Iran is likely to become a major issue for international relations and for US domestic politics over the summer and fall whether or not I want it to. And partly because Iran is becoming more and more of an Arab issue, in all kinds of ways. So take the long, rambling post to follow as a first toe in the water - with more to come as I dig into the materials I'm collecting.
How is Iran becoming an Arab issue? Most obviously, Arab states will be directly affected by any military confrontation with Iran, and would have to be active participants in any kind of serious sanctions regime. Gulf fears of Iran are nothing new, and we've been hearing more and more such fears from pro-American Arab regimes outside the GCC. Abd al-Hadi al-Majali, the conservative Transjordanian-origin speaker of Jordan's Parliament, caused a bit of a stir by declaring Iran to be a threat to Jordan's security. This follows King Abdullah's remarks last year about his fears of a "Shia Crescent" from Lebanon to Iran, and Hosni Mubarak's "incautious" remarks on al-Arabiya last month that most Shia were more loyal to Iran than to their own countries.
Official Arab suspicion of Iran isn't new, but extending it to the Shia more generally should be very concerning. For one thing, a focus on the Shia rather than just on Iran aligns America and pro-American regimes with key elements of the Iraqi insurgency. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's intense, fanatical hatred of the Shia and hopes of stirring up Sunni-Shia war are well-known. Abd al-Salam al-Kabisi, on behalf of the Association of Muslim Scholars (one of the key Sunni players in Iraq), just accused Iran of meddliing in Iraqi affairs. During a recent al-Jazeera interview, the prominent Gulf analyst Abdullah al-Nafisi called on Saudi Arabia to intervene in Iraq to tip the balance there against Iran. Kind of wild that the Sunni insurgency and the most wild-eyed jihadi fanatics would become America's supporterrs if it became serious about curbing Iranian power.
On the other side, much has been made of Ahmednejad's play for popular Arab
support. Playing pan-Arab cards like offering financial support for the Palestinians and challenging American
is business as usual for an Arab would-be player, but Iran is not, lest we forget, Arab. Iran is not
part of the Arab identity community or Arab narrative, and can not
simply pick the "Nasserist cloak" off the rack. It's not a member of the Arab League (or of the
GCC -- which has always been something of an anti-Iranian club). Its leaders aren't given
fiery speeches in Arabic. It has real ideological and identity issues
with Sunni Islamists, not just with extremists like Zarqawi. I've heard from people in Egypt and Jordan that pictures of the Iranian President are appearing everywhere - I'd love to hear more from people on the ground as to how true and/or widespread it is.
Another way that Iran is "turning Arab" is that it is receiving more and more coverage on Arab satellite TV. The volume of programmes and news about Iran on al-Jazeera has increased dramatically, and not only about the nuclear issue. Since al-Jazeera has always been rather inwardly-focused, with its talk shows overwhelmingly concentrating on Arab issues, this expansion of its brief to include Iran is noteworthy (especially since critics of al-Jazeera - especially Iraqis - have often labeled it "Sunni TV" for its alleged bias in favor of the old regime and/or the insurgency). In addition to its coverage of Iran, al-Jazeera has also been heavily covering Hezbollah - it seems like there's a live speech by Hassan Nasrallah or an interview with Mohammed Fadlallah every week. Some key Islamist figures like Yusuf al-Qaradawi and Fahmy Howeydi have condemened Zarqawi's attacks on the Shia and have urged open relations with Iran. Al-Arabiya has been paying attention to Iran too, in a more hostile way - most recently, with this interview with the Iranian opposition figure Hossein Khoemeini calling for democracy in Iran and an end to the wilayat al-faqih.
So is Iran "turning Arab" in the sense of becoming an integral part of Arab public arguments and political identity issues? If so, how does it matter? We're already hearing a lot of arguments about Arab attitudes towards Iran that seem to have been lifted unaltered from the Iraq debates - Arab leaders secretly want Iran's regime changed but won't say so in public, the "Arab street" will or won't rise up in support, and so forth, the Iranian people will or won't greet Americans as liberators. My sense is that Iran's role in Arab public opinion and in Arab regime calculations is fundamentally, deeply different from Iraq's in the 1990s-2003 period, and that transposing the Iraq frame onto Iran doesn't really work. Is that right? These are some questions to work on, at least!
UPDATE - and right on cue, here's another Zarqawi broadside against the Shia and Iran, just today - and even against Hezbollah, which like usual puts him strongly outside the al-Jazeera Arabist and mainstream Islamist orbits].