Saudi Arabia versus Iran – if only both sides could lose

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Henry Kissinger famously said about the Iraq-Iran War of 1980-88 that it was one of those wars he wished both sides could lose. The conflict pitted a bloodthirsty but secular socialist Baath Party Sunni Arab dictatorship against a newly established Persian Shia theocracy. One had to look as far back as the Nazi Germany and Communist Soviet Union for a pair of equally unappealing combatants. Technically, neither side had won, the conflict ending with a stalemate, some one million deaths and untold suffering later. But neither side had lost either.

The parties might have changed over time, but the war continues. The current spat between Qatar and Iran on one side and Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE on the other is just the latest skirmish. The sort of a secular “national socialist” Arabism exemplified by the Baath Party of both Iraq’s Hussein and Syria’s Assad has largely been discredited since the 1980s. It has been abolished in Iraq by the American invasion in 2003, and is getting hammered in Syria by the now largely Islamist opposition. Everywhere throughout the region, the dominant political-military vehicles for the Arab cause are now largely religious, led by the Saudi Wahhabism; General Sisi’s Egypt being perhaps an exception to the rule. On the other side, Shia Iran remains a theocracy, guided by the ayatollahs and their civilian allies.The conflict is now more explicitly about the 14 centuries’ old Sunni-Shia schism than about secular-religious or Arab-Persian competition.

As the media reports today:

Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates all announced they would withdraw their diplomatic staff from Qatar, a gas-rich nation that will host the 2022 FIFA World Cup.

Saudi Arabia said the move was made for the “protection of national security” and Qatari troops would be pulled from its ongoing war in Yemen.

Bahrain blamed Qatar’s continued insistence of undermining the “security and stability” of the tiny island nation and interfering in its domestic affairs for the decision.

It also pointed to “the escalation and incitement of its media and its support to acts of terror and to financing armed groups associated with Iran to carry out subversive attacks and spread chaos in the Kingdom,” a statement published on the Bahrain News Agency said.

Qatar is a Sunni Arab state (though Arabs constitute only 40 per cent of the population), but it is allied with Iran, and for years has been stirring trouble amongst all its Middle Eastern neighbours, from the soft diplomacy and propaganda of its Al-Jazeera news channel to more active support for the Muslim Brotherhood, Wahabbis’ main Islamist competitor for the hearts and souls of Sunni Arabs. Schizophrenically, Qatar hosts a large US air base, while at the same time having either directly supported or at least averted its eyes while its influential residents supported Taliban, Al Qaeda, Hamas, ISIS and others. This bizarre and tiny piece of Middle Eastern real estate seems to be uncertain of the difference between hedging bets and antagonising everyone. While the hardcore Salafi version of Islam dominates (Sharia is the law of the land), in some ways Qatar has been doing Iran’s dirty work in the region, destabilising what many would want to see as the united Sunni Arab opposition to any hegemonic designs by the Shia Persians – though Syria, where Qatar and Iran have been supporting different sides to the civil war, seems to be the exception to the rule.

When you look at the Middle East you are forced to think that the Good Lord has put all those dead dinosaurs underground in the worst possible place on Earth, providing a lot of undeserving people in the region with a financial windfall that has allowed them to export their toxic barbarian ideologies to the rest of the world. And so, the current phase of the war for regional supremacy, where Saudi Arabia in many ways has replaced Iraq as the Arab leader against Iran, is another war one wishes both sides could lose. Faced with two not very palatable choices, and stung by the anti-Americanism of the Iranian Revolution from 1979 onward, the United States has largely supported the Arab side, sometimes covertly, as during the Iraq-Iran War, but more often overtly, as through the latest $350 billion over 10 years arms deal signed by Donald Trump on his recent visit to Saudi Arabia.

In an ideal world, the West, having achieved energy independence, would sit back, let the antagonists fight it out, and then nuke the winner. Both the Saudi coalition and the Iran/Syria/Qatar axis represent the ugliest, most radical and destructive versions of Islam, which not only have turned the region into hell, but thanks to well-financed missionary zeal, have infected many other parts of the world with their poison. Between them, both sides support just about every Islamist terrorist organisation in the world, from ISIS to Hezbollah, as well as the intellectual and religious fountainheads behind them, including Wahhabism, Muslim Brotherhood Islamism and Shia extremism. The West’s pact with Saudi Arabia is a pact with the devil, motivated by the greater fear and dislike of another devil. Like the West’s alliance with the Soviets in World War Two, it might be pragmatic and necessary, but it will continue to bear a bitter fruit.

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