Mideast sectarianism a byproduct of geopolitical rivalry


During his speech in Saudi Arabia, President Donald Trump spoke of the need to confront and “isolate” Iran.  But the Iran challenge is more intricate and perplexing than the one faced by his predecessors, says Council on Foreign Relations analyst Ray Takeyh. This is no longer about imposing interim restraints on Iran’s stockpile of enriched uranium, but how to erode the unsteady foundations of the Islamic Republic, he writes for Politico:

This will require disciplined application of both American power and rhetoric. The task at hand is to shrink Iran’s imperial frontiers while stressing its economy. The Trump team must reconstitute the shattered sanctions architecture while making human rights and the plight of dissidents one of its foremost priorities.

Iran and its proxies have effectively found themselves on the side of the United States in fighting the Islamic State in Iraq, while in Syria, they have been adversaries in their support for the rule of President Bashar al-Assad. Saudi Arabia has at times undermined the United States’ efforts to stabilize Afghanistan, The New York Times reports.

“We are picking one side in this geopolitical struggle, and there is very little room for gray,” said Frederic Wehrey, a senior fellow in the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “Sectarianism is a byproduct of this geopolitical rivalry, and we are inadvertently picking one side in this sectarian struggle.”

“It is feeding into the gulf narrative, where they project a lot of their insecurities about domestic politics outward and onto the Islamic Republic of Iran,” said Wehrey. “But is Iran the source of all evil in the region? No.”

The U.S. president had laid blame for terrorism on Muslim leaders who he says have not done enough, said Michele Dunne (right), the director of the Middle East program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

“There are elements of truth to Trump’s narrative, but it ignores the deeper grievances, the political and economic injustices, that make young people in the region especially susceptible to extremist ideologies at this particular time,” added Dunne, a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.

Iran: revolutionary, expansionist ideology

“This administration is committed to a 180-degree reversal of the Obama policy on Iran,” said Mark Dubowitz, the chief executive of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a nonprofit research organization in Washington. “They see the Iranian threat as fundamentally linked to the nature and behavior of the regime and its revolutionary and expansionist ideology.”

Iran has lots of sins to account for — including its cynical support for the bloody regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria. But most radical Islamist terrorists in the region are Sunni, not Shiite, argues Mustafa Akyol (left), a visiting fellow at the Freedom Project at Wellesley College. In fact, in terms of their theology and jurisprudence, they are much closer to Saudi Arabia than Iran.

I think both sides, Saudi and Iran, are bad for using the Middle East as their sectarian playground, adds Wajahat Ali, a playwright and lawyer:

But we must be fair: Sunni extremism has far out exceeded the sins of Iran, which is guilty of abuses in Syria, Lebanon and support of Houthis. But what’s happening in Yemen is a humanitarian crisis, a “sin,” if I can use Trump’s religious language, fueled by Saudi Arabia.

“Going to Riyadh is a big symbolic gesture to Iran,” Mike Pregent, a Hudson Institute adjunct fellow, told VOA, adding that the attempt to forge new alliances among anti-Iran regional powers is occurring because “the biggest threat they see after ISIS [Islamic State] is Iran — and ISIS never goes away because of Iran.”

The region’s authoritarian regimes are “creating a breeding ground” for Islamist militancy, says Council on Foreign Relations analyst Elliott Abrams:

The Sunni royal family’s oppression of [Bahrain’s] Shia majority is in fact creating a breeding ground for radicalism and opening a door for Iranian subversion. Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabi Islam is at least a gateway drug for extremism. All around the world, Saudi money is being used to suppress indigenous forms of Islam. Saudi preachers, mosques, and schools teach that local and moderate versions of Islam are impure and must be replaced by the only true version: the Saudi Wahhabi version. But that version of Islam treats unbelievers with contempt and often hatred, oppresses women, and opposes democracy. RTWT

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