it will require a pan-communal effort to provide equal citizenship and secure diversity, through strong confederal institutions that nevertheless command assent by devolving power and defending minority rights
Uncaged demons are tormenting the Middle East
By David Gardner
At the start of this year, shortly after the US and other world powers reached an interim deal with Iran to negotiate further on its nuclear programme, The New Yorker magazine published a fascinating, discursive interview with Barack Obama. The US president floated the idea of a sort of competitive equilibrium in the Middle Eastto replace the sectarian struggle within Islam between Sunni and Shia, and the proxy wars across the region pursued by Saudi Arabia and Iran from each side of this schism.
If satisfactory safeguards could be agreed on Tehran’s nuclear ambitions, and a wider rapprochement and international reintegration of Iran were to follow, “you could see an equilibrium developing between Sunni, or predominantly Sunni, Gulf states and Iran, in which there’s competition, perhaps suspicion, but not an active or proxy warfare”, the president said. “If you can start unwinding some of that [hostility], that creates a new equilibrium”, which would “allow us to work with functioning states to prevent extremists from emerging there”, he went on.
Alas, almost as he was speaking, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, the jihadi movement that hijacked the mainly Sunni uprising in Syria as the west declined to give mainstream rebels the means to fight Bashar al-Assad’s regime, started its surge into Iraq. In January, Isis took Fallujah and Ramadi in western Iraq. From June this seemingly elemental force seized Mosul, Tikrit and a string of towns in the north and centre of the country, pressing south to Baghdad and east into Kurdistan.
Six months on, Syria and Iraq are not functioning states. Isis, riding a wave of Sunni rebellion against Iran-backed regimes in Damascus and Baghdad, holds a third of both countries. The extremists – and they do not come much more extreme – have declared a jihadi caliphate in the heart of a disintegrating Middle East, and are trying to punch a corridor to the Mediterranean.
Mr Obama’s idea of a self-regulating balance of power has dissolved in an acid cocktail of state failure, sectarian savagery and a jihadist rampage so confident that almost every armed force in the Levant is melting before its onslaught
Is the idea of resocialising Iran into the geopolitics of the Middle East and the world – which would be as historic for Mr Obama as American rapprochement with China was under Richard Nixon – still a runner? Saudi Arabia, the leading Sunni Arab power, and Iran, its Persian Shia rival, have both used sectarianism as a galvanising weapon in their struggle for regional power. Wahhabi fundamentalism is the ideological backbone of the Saudi absolute monarchy and has always abominated Shiism as a polytheist heresy, like the jihadis of Isis who pledge to annihilate it. The Wahhabis first sacked Kerbala and Najaf, the great Shia shrine cities of Iraq, in 1801-02 – and Isis promises to do so again. Iran became a theocracy after the 1979 Islamic Revolution but, unlike the Wahhabis, has no theological animus against other mainstream religions. Yet both countries have uncaged sectarian demons they cannot control.
Saudi Arabia and Iran have both used religious differences as a galvanising weapon in their struggle for regional power
One strand of Iran’s thinking, visible in the nuclear talks, is that it wants to secure recognition as a legitimate regional power and is alarmed by the tide of sectarianism roaring across the Middle East and lapping closer to its borders. But another has been complacent, aggressive and overreaching, lulled by the ease with which Tehran built an Arab Shia axis from Baghdad to Beirut after the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 – to which the Sunni states led by the Saudis will never resign themselves.
This Iranian triumphalism is epitomised by General Qassem Soleimani, commander of the al-Quds Force, external spearhead of the Revolutionary Guards. In February, as al-Quds auxiliaries such as Hizbollah, the Lebanese paramilitaries, were clearing the road from Damascus to the Syrian coast of anti-Assad rebels, he was exulting that “the countries that claim to be leading the Muslim world cannot take over from Iran as the leader of the Islamic world until tens of years later”.
Yet as the ostensible master of the seamless battlefield of the Levant, Gen Soleimani and his masters in Tehran have done little to restrain their local clients. Mr Assad, a ward of the Iranian state, has lost half his country and reduced much of the rest to rubble, killing 170,000 people. Using Hizbollah as shock troops in Syria has blown back into and destabilised Lebanon. Iran’s erstwhile ally in Baghdad, the Shia Islamist prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, hollowed out Iraq’s army with corrupt placemen and emulated the Assads by dropping barrel bombs on Fallujah. Mr Maliki is at last on the way out, with Iran’s complicity, but his sectarian policies have already swelled the ranks of Isis. For a man with a reputation as a consummate poker player, Gen Soleimani has overplayed his hand.
Mr Obama rightly judged that an Iran with a stake in solving the problems of the Middle East, rather than incentives to destabilise it, could be transformative. But the region is very far gone, descending daily to new depths of violence.
If these crumbling states can be reassembled, it will require a pan-communal effort to provide equal citizenship and secure diversity, through strong confederal institutions that nevertheless command assent by devolving power and defending minority rights. But this is theoretical unless this demonic sectarian spiral can be broken. And that will not happen until Saudi Arabia and Iran decide it has to be.