The Great Middle East Divide/ Sanctions on Iran?

Feb 15, 2007 | AIJAC staff

Update from AIJAC

February 15, 2007
Number 02/07 #08

This Update features more analysis of the great divide which is currently affecting the Middle East, pitting an axis dominated by Shiite Iran, together with Syria and actors like Hezbollah and Hamas against the governments of the predominantly Sunni Arab states.

It opens with a good summary of what the two sides are currently attempting to do in their struggle, plus some specifics on recent Saudi diplomatic efforts to exploit signs that some in the Iranian leadership are seeking to draw back from full on confrontation over Iran’s nuclear program. It comes from the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), a US think-tank known for its large-scale translations of material from the Middle Eastern media, and thus a uniquely comprehensive handle on what Middle Easterners are saying to each other. For this piece, CLICK HERE. This MEMRI dispatch is the fourth in a series of articles on the state of the Middle East divide based on the organisation’s unparalleled mastery of Middle Eastern media sources –  here are entries one, two and three, each dealing with various aspects of the Middle East crisis. 

Our next feature from the Washington Post looks more closely at the Arab street’s reaction to the growing Sunni-Shiite divide, and its roots in Middle Eastern history. It is notable also for the extent to which many of those interviewed insist on seeing the problem in terms of the conspiracy theories that dominate so much of Middle Eastern discourse – any such divide was created by an American or Zionist plot. For the insight offered by this piece into how the political divide is seen in primarily sectarian terms on the Arab street, CLICK HERE.

Finally, following up on last week’s Update on means of pressuring the Iranian regime over its nuclear policy, foreign policy consultant Olivier Guitta offers some important revelations from a frank internal Iranian report which makes it clear that the right sanctions on Iran could almost certainly force the regime to cooperate vis-a-vis its nuclear program.  Unfortunately, Guitta argues, the Russian, Chinese and French stances mean that the needed sanctions almost certainly will not be imposed. For this essential look at Iranian economic and political vulnerabilities, CLICK HERE.

The Middle East on a Collision Course (4):

Saudi/Sunni-Iranian/Shi’ite Conflict – Diplomacy and Proxy Wars

By Y. Mansharof, H. Varulkar, D. Lav, and Y. Carmon*

Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) Inquiry and Analysis Series – No. 324

February 9, 2007

Mapping the Middle East Crisis

The Middle East is currently in the throes of a comprehensive crisis that manifests itself in three main modes of conflict – political-military, economic, and religious – and in three main arenas – Lebanon, Iraq, and Iran. Since the election of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his intransigent religious-ideological line, all of these conflicts have intensified and have to a great degree merged into a single, comprehensive regional crisis. The various arenas of conflict have become so interdependent as to virtually exclude a local solution for any one of them, and any solution has to necessarily pass through the filter of the Saudi-Iranian conflict.

Iran’s contribution to the intensification of the conflict is expressed in the following areas:

1. The new provocative and defiant approach to the Iranian nuclear program;

2. Increased Iranian political and military involvement in Iraq;

3. Heightened direct Iranian involvement in Lebanon, including the supplying of military aid in the course of the Israel-Hizbullah war, in an attempt to attain de facto control over the Lebanese government;

4. Tightening relations with Syria, to the extent that the two countries signed a joint defense accord one month prior to the war;

5. Heightened support for Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad;

6. The promotion of a messianic ideology which, together with the other elements of Iranian policy, has deepened the Sunni-Shi’ite divide, and in particular has led to a comprehensive diplomatic conflict with Saudi Arabia.

All of these policies have struck at the U.S., Europe, and the pro-West camp in the Arab world (Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, the March 14 Forces in Lebanon, and the forces loyal to Palestinian Auhority President Mahmoud Abbas in the PA).

This regional configuration has led the U.S., Europe, Saudi Arabia, the March 14 Forces, Abbas, Egypt, and Jordan to react so as to face the Iranian threat. The U.S. has of course taken the lead through: its sponsorship of UNSC Resolution 1737, which imposed sanctions on Iran (the broadening of these sanctions will be further discussed at the Security Council on February 13, 2007); the concentration of significant military forces in the Persian Gulf; the new American offensive in Iraq against Iranian operatives and Iranian-allied forces; [1] staunch support for the March 14 Forces in Lebanon; and support for the establishment of an international tribunal which is liable to implicate Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad in the February 2005 assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Al-Hariri.

Saudi Arabia’s efforts to fend off Iran are expressed in the following policies:

1. Striking at the Iranian economy through increased oil production and sales, which cuts Iran’s export revenues through lowering oil prices;

2. Support for the March 14 Forces in Lebanon;

3. Support for Abu Mazen;

4. Leadership of the Sunni camp (represented primarily by Egypt and Jordan), [2] in an effort to counter Iran on the religious-ideological level.

As a counter to U.S. support for its regional allies, Russia has shown increasing support for Iran. This support is expressed both at the military level, by supplying Iran with advanced defensive weaponry, and at the diplomatic level, through across-the-board opposition to U.S. policy in the region. It should be noted that Russia, whose economy relies heavily on oil exports, has also suffered from Saudi Arabia’s lowering of oil prices.

While Russia is interested in destabilizing the region so as to undermine the U.S.’s allies, it is worried at the implications of a full-scale conflagration, and thus is urging Iran to accept a compromise on the nuclear issue. During a recent visit to Tehran, Russia’s top security official Igor Ivanov expressed support for IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei’s proposal for a simultaneous freeze on uranium enrichment and U.N. sanctions – a proposal that the U.S. rejected. According to the London daily Al-Hayat, Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has expressed Iran’s desire for a comprehensive security and diplomatic treaty with Russia. [3]

President Putin is scheduled to visit Saudi Arabia on February 11, 2007, and, according to his advisor Aslanbek Aslakhanov, he will bring with him “proposals and initiatives.” This visit will likely be an attempt to influence the ongoing Saudi-Iranian efforts to arrive at a comprehensive regional settlement. [4]

Saudi and American Pressures Lead to Rift in the Ranks of the Iranian Leadership

At the same time that the Iran of Ahmadinejad has been dueling with Saudi Arabia, the Iran of Khamenei has been dancing a tense tango with it. Before describing the course of these diplomatic negotiations, it is necessary to review domestic developments in Iran in the wake of UNSC Resolution 1737.

UNSC Resolution 1737, which imposed sanctions on Iran, led to a semi-open rift in the ranks of the Iranian leadership. While all parties continue to support the nuclear program, for the first time Iranian conservatives have begun to criticize Ahmadinejad for his brash pronouncements and ostentatious media presence, which eased the way for the U.N. to adopt the sanctions resolution. [5] In addition, Saudi Arabia’s lowering of oil prices, which has dealt serious damage to Iran’s economy, and its taking the lead role of a more and more united Sunni camp, has led to a change in the approach taken by official Iran under the direction of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. The beefing up of the American military presence in the Persian Gulf likely also contributed to this rift.

In essence, the conservative camp has split into two factions: one under the leadership of Khamenei, which seeks to rein in Ahmadinejad and to arrive at a regional settlement in order to avert the possibility of a total confrontation; and another faction under the leadership of Ahmadinejad and supported by elements in the Revolutionary Guards and the radical religious supporters of Ayatollah Mohammad Taqi Mesbah-e Yazdi. This latter camp scoffs at the warnings that America might take action against Iran, downplays the significance of the sanctions, and supports going ahead full speed with the nuclear program, even at the cost of military conflict.

An unnamed former senior official in the Iranian Foreign Ministry said in an interview with a reformist website on February 5, 2007: “…What we are seeing now is that Khamenei has distanced himself to a certain extent from the line taken by the Ahmadinejad government, and he is leaning towards Rafsanjani and the moderate Right. Khamenei does not really agree with Ahmadinejad’s radical language of threats, and this is the reason that he views favorably the return of [Expediency Council Secretary] Mohsen Rezai to the Revolutionary Guards, so that Rezai and his team will oversee the Revolutionary Guards forces, whose current leaders agree with Ahmadinejad. There are even those who are saying that from now on nuclear policy will be in the hands of the Foreign Relations Steering Council, which is manned by Kharrazi, Velayati, and the moderate forces in the regime, so that Rafsanjani and Khatami will have a greater role in balancing the situation.” [6]

On February 5, 2007, Ahmadinejad spoke in the Iranian Majlis and faced criticism from the conservative majority. The criticism focused mainly on the deteriorating economic situation – which, as previously mentioned, is an issue being used by Saudi Arabia to harm Iran. This is a sore point for Ahmadinejad, who was elected on populist promises to improve ordinary Iranian’s economic situation. In response to the criticism, Ahmadinejad explained that “the enemies” were liable to try to lower oil prices in order to hurt Iran, and said that the domestic criticism he was facing was “part of a struggle over rule in Tehran.” [7]

The division in the ranks of the Iranian leadership has led to a split foreign policy. The strategy of Ahmadinejad’s conservative critics is, on the one hand, to force him to tone down his radical statements – and there are signs that they are succeeding in this – and on the other hand to bypass him and reach a comprehensive regional settlement with the Saudis. Thus, while Ahmadinejad reviled the Saudi “enemy” from a podium in the Majlis, Khamenei conducted his own independent foreign policy by sending his special envoy Ali Larijani to continue his attempts to reach a diplomatic settlement with this enemy. Iranian Foreign Minister Menouchehr Mottaki is not involved in these contacts; he was sent to Morocco.

Continued Saudi-Iranian Diplomacy: Attempts to Agree on a Balance of Power in the Middle East

On February 6, 2007, the Lebanese daily Al-Akhbar continued its reports on the Saudi-Iranian negotiations. [8] The negotiations, at a number of locales, were between Saudi National Security Council Chairman Bandar bin Sultan and Iranian Supreme National Council Secretary Ali Larijani (and their aides). Citing a “well-informed ministerial source,” the daily, which is close to Hizbullah, gave a summary of the negotiations to date. It should be noted that while previous reports on these talks focused on the situation in Lebanon, the February 6 issue of Al-Akhbar report described a comprehensive Saudi-Iranian dialogue, including such subjects as Iraq and Syria.

The Saudi position consisted of three main points: 1) Saudi Arabia is determined to see the international tribunal on the Al-Hariri assassination established and stability return to Lebanon; likewise it is determined to prevent Sunni-Shi’ite sectarian fighting in Lebanon (Iran was reported to have concurred on this last point). 2) Saudi Arabia is not opposed to Iran playing a major role in the region – and especially in Iraq. [9] It holds that Iran can have the status of other important Muslim countries, like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Turkey. However, Saudi Arabia made this agreement conditional upon receiving serious signs that Iran is willing to cooperate in maintaining stability in the region, and first and foremost in Lebanon. 3) For Saudi Arabia, negotiations with Iran are of primary importance, in that they serve as an alternative to the failed negotiations with Syria. Saudi Arabia is not interested in seeing Syria play any substantive role in the regional dynamic. The message that was reportedly delivered to Iran was: if you really want to be a major country in the region, apply pressure on Syria to stop meddling in Lebanon.

Saudi Arabia requested clarifications on Iran’s position. These clarifications were not forthcoming. According to Al-Akhbar, the reason for Iran’s silence was the fact that Syria did not want the Iranians to reply.

Larijani reported to Bandar bin Sultan on the Syrian position. Bin Sultan felt that Syria wanted to foil the previous agreement because it was left out of the negotiations [in addition to material disagreements].

A Hizbullah delegation visited Syria following the last round of clashes in Lebanon (January 23 and 25) and expressed their concern over the escalation in sectarian violence. Their Syrian interlocutors dismissed these concerns, and said that the opposition needs to stand firm, no matter what the cost, until late March, at which point four critical dates will have passed: 1) The UNSC discussion on sanctions on Iran (February 13, 2007); 2) an additional report from the UN committee investigating the Al-Hariri assassination, expected to be published in March; 3) the U.N. secretary-general’s report on implementation of U.N. Resolution 1701; 4) the Arab League Summit in Saudi Arabia, which is scheduled to convene on March 28, 2007.

Al-Akhbar cited reports from recent days that Syria has resolved to continue its diplomatic campaign against the proposed international tribunal on the Al-Hariri assassination, both in Lebanon and in the international arena. For Syria, a “19:11” solution in Lebanon, meaning that the current government will have 19 ministers and the opposition will have 11, will guarantee that the tribunal will not be established.

Al-Akhbar ‘s report ended on a pessimistic note. It cited its ministerial source as saying that both sides in Lebanon understand that no true rapprochement is in sight, and thus that a conflagration is inevitable. [10]

Events in the Coming Week

Bandar bin Sultan has in recent days been in the U.S. and in France conducting secret talks, about which no details are known. Iranian Foreign Relations Steering Council member Ali Akbar Velayati, who is Khamenei’s personal advisor on international affairs, came to Moscow on February 7, and is to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin, with Russia’s top security official Igor Ivanov, and with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. Larijani will be in Munich February 9-11 for the annual Munich Conference on Security, and is to meet with Western leaders. It has been reported that if progress is made in the negotiations on the Lebanon issue, Arab League Secretary ‘Amr Moussa will return to Lebanon.

In parallel, and after a temporary lull, the Ahmadinejad camp in Iran has renewed its language of threats. [11] On February 11, 2007, at the conclusion of the 10-day Fajr holiday, which commemorates the Islamic Revolution in Iran, President Ahmadinejad is scheduled to give a speech that “will gladden the hearts of the Muslims.” He is expected to announce a further advance in the nuclear program. Two days later, on February 13, the U.N. Security Council will convene to discuss further sanctions on Iran. In the meantime, the Saudi-Iranian negotiations may be the last dam holding back a flood of violence in the Middle East.

* Y. Mansharof is a research fellow at MEMRI, H. Varulkar is a research fellow at MEMRI, D. Lav is a Research Fellow at MEMRI, and Y. Carmon is the President of MEMRI.


[1] According to a number of Iranian opposition websites, one of the five Iranians captured at the Iranian representation office in Erbil on January 11, 2007, was chief theoretician of the Revolutionary Guards Hassan Abbasi, who heads the Doctrinal Center for National Security. In addition, the other four were reported to be members of the elite Quds force of the Revolutionary Guards, which is responsible for exporting the revolution and training and arming foreign insurgents.

For more on Abbasi, see MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 1126, “We Will Endanger U.S. Security and Economic Interests Worldwide…” March 28, 2006, http://memri.org/bin/articles.cgi?Page=archives&Area=sd&ID=SP112606 ; MEMRI TV Clip No. 251, “Islam Has Nothing in Common with Democracy,” May 23, 2004, http://www.memritv.org/search.asp?ACT=S9&P1=251 ; and Clip No. 252, “We Plan to Target U.S. Nuclear Warheads on U.S. Soil…” May 23, 2004, http://www.memritv.org/search.asp?ACT=S9&P1=252.

[2] Prior to the 2005 elections in Iraq, King Abdullah of Jordan warned of a “Shi’ite crescent” that would destabilize the Middle East; Al-Sabah (Baghdad), March 23, 2005. On April 8, 2006, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak told Al-Arabiya TV that the loyalty of Arab Shi’ites was given to Iran, and not to their own countries: http://www.alarabiya.net/Articles/2006/04/08/22686.htm#3.

[3] Al-Hayat (London), January 30, 2007.

[4] Al-Hayat (London), January 30, 2007.

[5] For a comprehensive review of this Iranian domestic criticism, see MEMRI Inquiry and Analysis No. 317, “Iranian Domestic Criticism of Iran’s Nuclear Strategy,” January 24, 2007, http://memri.org/bin/articles.cgi?Page=archives&Area=ia&ID=IA31707.

[6] Rooz (Iran), February 5, 2007, www.roozonline.com/archives/2007/02/002073.php.

[7] Al-Hayat (London), February 6, 2007.

[8] See MEMRI Inquiry and Analysis No. 323, “The Middle East on a Collision Course (3): The Lebanese-Syrian Front,” February 7, 2007, http://memri.org/bin/latestnews.cgi?ID=IA32307.

[9] This is a significant concession in the Saudi position. In an interview with the French daily Le Figaro, Saudi Foreign Minister Saud Al-Faisal expressed Saudi Arabia’s opposition to Iranian “interference” in Arab affairs. Le Figaro (France), January 24, 2007.

[10] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), February 6, 2007.

[11] See MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 1457 “The Middle East on a Collision Course (5): Iran Steps Up Threats in Light of Possible U.S. Attack,” February 9, 2007, http://memri.org/bin/latestnews.cgi?ID=SD145707 .


Across Arab World, a Widening Rift

Sunni-Shiite Tension Called Region’s ‘Most Dangerous Problem’

By Anthony Shadid

Washington Post , Monday, February 12, 2007; A01

CAIRO — Egypt is the Arab world’s largest Sunni Muslim country, but as a writer once quipped, it has a Shiite heart and a Sunni mind. In its eclectic popular culture, Sunnis enjoy a sweet dish with raisins and nuts to mark Ashura, the most sacred Shiite Muslim holiday. Raucous festivals bring Cairenes into the street to celebrate the birthdays of Shiite saints, a practice disparaged by austere Sunnis. The city’s Islamic quarter tangles like a vine around a shrine to Imam Hussein, Shiite Islam’s most revered figure.

The syncretic blend makes the words of Mahmoud Ahmed, a book vendor sitting on the shrine’s marble and granite promenade, even more striking.

“The Shiites are rising,” he said, arching his eyebrows in an expression suggesting both revelation and fear.

The growing Sunni-Shiite divide is roiling an Arab world as unsettled as at any time in a generation. Fought in speeches, newspaper columns, rumors swirling through cafes and the Internet, and occasional bursts of strife, the conflict is predominantly shaped by politics: a disintegrating Iraq, an ascendant Iran, a sense of Arab powerlessness and a persistent suspicion of American intentions. But the division has begun to seep into the region’s social fabric, too. The sectarian fault line has long existed and sometimes ruptured, but never, perhaps, has it been revealed in such a stark, disruptive fashion.

Newspapers are replete with assertions, some little more than incendiary rumors, of Shiite aggressiveness. The Jordanian newspaper Ad-Dustour, aligned with the government, wrote of a conspiracy last month to spread Shiism from India to Egypt. On the conspirators’ agenda, it said: assassinating “prominent Sunni figures.” The same day, an Algerian newspaper reported that parents were calling on the government to stop Shiite proselytizing in schools. An Egyptian columnist accused Iran of trying to convert Sunnis to Shiism in an attempt to revive the Persian Safavid dynasty, which came to power in the 16th century.

At Madbuli’s, a storied bookstore in downtown Cairo, five new titles lined the display window: “The Shiites,” “The Shiites in History,” “Twelve Shiites,” and so on. A newspaper on sale nearby featured a warning by its editor that the conflict could lead to a “sectarian holocaust.”

“To us Egyptians,” said writer and analyst Mohammed al-Sayid Said, the sectarian division is “entirely artificial. It resonates with nothing in our culture, nothing in our daily life. It’s not part of our social experience, cultural experience or religious experience.” But he added: “I think this can devastate the region.”

The violence remains confined to Iraq and, on a far smaller scale, Lebanon, but to some, the four-year-long entropy of Iraq offers a metaphor for the forces emerging across the region: People there watched the rise of sectarian identity, railed against it, blamed the United States and others for inflaming it, then were often helpless to stop the descent into bloodshed.

“This tension is the most dangerous problem now in the region,” said Ghassan Charbel, editor of the Arabic-language daily al-Hayat.

The schism between Sunnis and Shiites dates to the 7th century, Islam’s earliest days, when a dispute broke out over who would succeed the prophet Muhammad. Shiites believe the descendants of Muhammad’s daughter, Fatima, and son-in-law, Ali, were deprived of divinely ordained leadership in a narrative of martyrdom and injustice that still influences devout Shiite readings of the faith.

Over centuries, differences in ritual, jurisprudence and theology evolved, some of them slight. But the Shiite community — as a majority in Iraq and Bahrain and a sizable minority in Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait — is shaped far more today by the underprivileged status it has often endured in an Arab world that is predominantly Sunni. For decades, the Saudi government banned Shiite rituals; a Sunni minority rules a restive Shiite majority in Bahrain; Lebanese Shiites, long poor and disenfranchised, often faced chauvinism that still lingers.

Episodes of sectarian conflict litter the region’s history: Shiites revolted in medieval Baghdad, and rival gangs ransacked one another’s tombs and shrines. The conflict between the Sunni Ottoman Empire and the Shiite Safavid Empire in Persia was often cast as a sectarian struggle. The 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran was portrayed in parts of the Arab world as a Shiite resurgence.

But rarely has the region witnessed so many events, in so brief a time, that have been so widely interpreted through a sectarian lens: the empowering of Iraq’s Shiite-led government and the bloodletting that has devastated the country; the lack of support by America’s Sunni Arab allies — Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia — for the Shiite movement Hezbollah in its fight with Israel last summer; and, most decisively, the perception among many Sunni Arabs that Saddam Hussein was lynched by Shiites bent on revenge. In the background is the growing assertiveness of Shiite Iran as the influence of other traditional regional powers such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia diminishes.

In Lebanon, where the Hezbollah-led opposition has mobilized in an effort to force the government’s resignation, the sectarian divide colors even a contest over urban space. Some Sunnis are angered most by the fact that the Beirut sit-in — in their eyes, an occupation — by Shiites from the hardscrabble southern suburbs is taking place in the sleek downtown rebuilt by a former Sunni prime minister, Rafiq al-Hariri, who was assassinated in 2005.

“Politics is perception,” said Jamil Mroue, a Lebanese publisher whose father was Shiite and mother Sunni.

Sentiments today remind him of the tribal-like fanaticism that marked another sectarian conflict, Lebanon’s 15-year civil war — which, among other divisions, loosely pitted Christians against Muslims before it ended in 1990.

“It certainly conjures up the feelings of the civil war, when Lebanon started disintegrating, except on a mega-scale,” Mroue said. He called it “very scary, because I know that there is a possibility of being moved by this tide.”

“At the end of it,” he added, “people are going to look back and say, ‘What the hell was this all about?’ “

In overwhelmingly Sunni countries such as Egypt, where politics were long defined by Arab nationalism or political Islam, visceral notions of sectarian identity remain somewhat alien. It is not unusual to hear people say they realized only as adults that they were Sunnis. Before that, they identified themselves simply as Muslim. Even in Lebanon, despite its communal divisions, intermarriage is not uncommon, and there is a long tradition of Sunnis becoming Shiites so their daughters can receive a more equitable share of inheritance, as allowed under Shiite law.

Across the region, Hezbollah and its leader, Hasan Nasrallah, in particular, still win accolades for their performance in last summer’s war in Lebanon.

“You have to give him credit for fighting the Israelis,” Abdel-Hamid Ibrahim said of Nasrallah as he stood at a rickety curbside stand in Cairo, boiling water for tea. Overhead were pictures of two Egyptian icons, the singers Um Kalthoum and Abdel-Halim Hafez. “Closest to my heart,” he said. Next to them was a portrait of Nasrallah. “A symbol of resistance, the man who defeated Israel,” it read.

“Hasan Nasrallah, he’s the man who stood in front of the Israelis himself,” said Muhsin Mohammed, a customer.

“Who was standing with him?” Ibrahim asked, nodding his head. He pointed to the sky. “Our Lord.”

Both scoffed at the sectarian tensions.

“There’s a proverb that says, ‘Divide and conquer,’ ” Mohammed said. “Sunnis and Shiites — they’re not both Muslims? What divides them? Who wants to divide them? In whose interest is it to divide them?” he asked.

“It’s in the West’s interest,” he answered. “And at the head of it is America and Israel.” He paused. “And Britain.”

That sense of Western manipulation is often voiced by Shiite clerics and activists, who say the United States incites sectarianism as a way of blunting Iran’s influence. In recent years, some of the most provocative comments have come from America’s allies in the region: Egypt’s president questioned Shiites’ loyalty to their countries, Jordan’s king warned of a coming Shiite crescent from Iran to Lebanon, and last month King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia denounced what he called Shiite proselytizing.

The charge drew a lengthy retort from Nasrallah. “Frankly speaking, the aim of saying such things is fomenting strife,” he said in a speech. He dismissed charges of Iranian proselytizing or the emergence of a Shiite crescent.

“People in the region always complain about a Shiite crescent. You always hear, ‘Shiite crescent, Shiite crescent.’ That’s just a crescent. What about the full Sunni moon?” said Nimr al-Nimr, a Shiite cleric in the eastern Saudi town of Awamiya, who spent five days in police detention for urging that a Shiite curriculum be taught in his predominantly Shiite region.

Shiites make up less than 15 percent of Saudi Arabia’s population, many of them in the oil-rich Eastern Province. The austere Sunni religious establishment considers them heretics. One cleric, Abdul Rahman al-Barak, considered close to the royal family, has called Shiites “infidels, apostates and hypocrites.”

“There are conflicts in Palestine between Sunni sects — Hamas and Fatah — in Somalia, in Darfur. None of that is sectarian,” said Hassan al-Saffar, the most prominent Shiite cleric in Saudi Arabia. “There’s a campaign against Shiites. Why is all this anti-Shiite sentiment being inflamed at a time the United States is trying to pressure Iran because of its nuclear ambitions?”

In Cairo recently, Hassan Kamel sipped sweet tea in a cafe beside the shrine to Imam Hussein, the prophet’s grandson, who was killed in battle in 680 in what is now Iraq. The shrine is believed to hold his severed head. Across the street was al-Azhar, one of the foremost academic institutions of Sunni Islam, founded, ironically, by the Shiite Fatimid dynasty that ruled Egypt for 200 years until 1169. On the shrine’s wall was a saying attributed to the prophet and often intoned during Shiite commemorations: “Hussein is from me, and I am from Hussein.” Kamel pointed to the doors, topped with a Koranic inscription; Shiites and Sunnis like him worshiped at the shrine together, he said.

As cats scurried across the cafe’s grimy floor, he wondered aloud about past conflicts that have splintered the Middle East.

“Egyptians, all their lives, without exception, have endured so many crises, catastrophes and problems,” he said. He listed wars in 1948, 1956, 1967, 1973. “But they have a gift. It’s a gift from God. They have the ability to forget.”

Then he talked about the rest of the region, and whether this bout of strife and tension would pass, too.

“They might forget, they might not,” he said. “Right now, no one knows what’s coming.”

Correspondent Faiza Saleh Ambah in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, contributed to this report.

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Sanctions Against Iran Would Work

Too bad they won’t be tried.

by Olivier Guitta

Weekly Standard, 02/19/2007, Volume 012, Issue 22

After nearly four years of fruitless negotiations between the EU-3 (France, Germany, and the United Kingdom) and Iran over the nuclear issue, the U.N. Security Council on December 23 passed Resolution 1737. It imposed limited, almost meaningless, sanctions on the mullahs’ regime. But it also set a clock ticking: If Iran has not agreed to suspend its enrichment of uranium by February 21, the Security Council may contemplate more severe sanctions.

The evidence that sanctions could work is significant. Consider the economic picture inside Iran. A roughly 100-page report prepared by the foreign affairs and defense commission of the Majlis, the Iranian parliament, and dated September 2006 was recently leaked to the French daily Le Monde. The report analyzes the economic and social consequences of potential international sanctions. The product of six months’ intensive discussion among economists and oil specialists, it was circulated at the highest levels of the regime, and to president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

The report underscores the vulnerability of the Iranian economy–especially the oil sector–to sanctions. At first glance, it might seem that a country with the second-largest gas and oil reserves in the world has nothing to worry about. But as the report notes, 85 percent of Iran’s revenue comes from the sale of oil abroad. At the same time, Iran imports most of the refined products it uses, like gasoline. Iran consumes half a million barrels of petroleum products per day, of which 40 percent is imported, at a cost of $3 to 4 billion a year. In the last few years, Iran’s consumption of petroleum products has increased 10 percent per annum, putting added pressure on the oil sector. Rising consumption should come as no surprise, given population growth and the government-subsidized price of gasoline, among the lowest in the world at 800 rials a liter, or about 33 cents a gallon. Iran exports 2.5 million barrels of oil a day (3 percent of world consumption). An embargo on these exports would have a great impact, though it would not be felt for at least a year.

Heightening the vulnerability of the Iranian economy to sanctions is the fact that half of its imports come from Western countries, including 40 percent from the European Union. In the event of sanctions, the bulk of Iranian industry would be paralyzed after just three to four months. Iran would lose between $1.5 and $2 billion in annual revenue. Not surprisingly, the authors of the report note: “It is important to delay any measures which could affect the population because of the risks of instability.”

The Majlis report recommends “making every political effort to prevent the imposition of sanctions, while protecting the interests of the country and the national honor.” It mentions that Iran can use economic leverage with countries that depend on it for oil (Japan, China) and “political and military dissuasion” with others.

An embargo would destabilize Iran’s economy and weaken its rate of exchange, while discouraging private investment. As a result, the report says, Iran “would be forced to modify its national priorities, and to devote the bulk of its resources to preventing major social upheaval, which could cause a deterioration of living standards for an important part of the population.” It also insists on the need to continue threatening Western nations with a “cold winter,” a way of stressing that rising oil prices would have a huge negative impact on Western economies.

The report amounts to a warning to the regime that it could not withstand major economic pressure, because of the structural weaknesses of the Iranian economy and its fragile financial situation. According to the report, “the members of the regime who were interviewed by the commission indicated that any deterioration of the economic situation could cause social disturbances that would weaken domestic stability.” Interestingly, the commission seems to distance itself from the hard line personified by President Ahmadinejad. It concludes that the simultaneous freezing of Iranian reserves abroad, imposition of an embargo on Iranian crude exports, and a ban on refined petroleum imports would plunge Iran into a deep hole both economically and socially. The implication is that sanctions could seriously weaken the regime.

Unrelated confirmation that isolating Iran might be an effective policy comes from the French experience in the late 1980s. Knowing of Iranian involvement in 11 terrorist bombings in the streets of Paris between December 1985 and September 1986, Jacques Chirac, then prime minister, decided to act. Longtime Chirac observer Franz-Olivier Giesbert, in his biography of Mitterrand, quotes Chirac as speaking contemptuously of the mullahs: “Like all people, Iranians hate losing face. They have their dignity. So if you treat them like chimpanzees . . . ” And, “as long as you behave like savages, we will not have diplomatic relations with you.”

France severed diplomatic ties with Iran on July 17, 1987. Less than a year later, on June 16, 1988, it restored relations–after five French hostages in Lebanon (kidnapped by Iran’s proxy, Hezbollah) had been freed, attacks on French soil had ceased, and Tehran had sought a rapprochement. In that instance, French firmness worked. Apparently Tehran was unwilling to be cast as a pariah on the international scene, preferring to compromise to regain its honor.

There’s no reason it wouldn’t do so today–if it were actually forced into a corner. For either economic or diplomatic isolation to be fully effective, however, every major nation would have to be on board. And the prospects of this are getting dimmer by the day.

It is clear that Russia and China went along with Resolution 1737 only because its sanctions were so mild. In addition, none other than France is now going wobbly. While official French policy remains that a nuclear-armed Iran is unacceptable, President Chirac–who a year ago was leading the effort to secure a tough condemnation of Iran by the U.N. or, failing that, the E.U.–gives every indication of rejecting serious sanctions. While he tried to explain away as an off-the-record slip his statement on January 29 that he could live with one or two Iranian bombs (the real problem, he said, is proliferation), he made the statement in a recorded interview with the New York Times and other major publications. And there are grounds to believe that this backtracking reflects a good deal more than presidential inadvertence.

First, there is France’s alliance with the Gulf monarchies. In the late 1990s, France signed treaties with the United Arab Emirates and Qatar obligating it to intervene militarily to defend these countries. Naturally, in the tense atmosphere of the region, the Gulf states are worried about Iran. Last year, the Saudi daily Al Riyadh reported that the leaders of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, angered by Qatar’s alliance with the United States and allegedly Israel, were threatening to attack Qatari oil and gas facilities by sea and air should a military confrontation occur between the United States and Iran over the nuclear crisis. In any such case, France would be treaty-bound to send troops to the region to retaliate against Iran. Qatari diplomats have been reminding France of its commitments. Such intervention is surely not a prospect Chirac enjoys; so toning town the rhetoric towards Tehran is de rigueur.

Second, Lebanon. Chirac is obsessed with the Lebanese imbroglio, for a number of reasons. Rafik Hariri, the former prime minister of Lebanon assassinated on February 14, 2005, was a close friend of his. Then, too, France has soldiers in the UNIFIL contingent in south Lebanon. And Iran has threatened to renew Hezbollah attacks in France itself if the French take a harsh stance against it at the Security Council. Relations between Hezbollah and France have been rocky in the past few months, and Chirac is probably seeking to avoid provocation.

Third, French business interests in Iran are huge: a staggering $35 billion in investments, excluding the oil company Total’s contracts (Total has invested over $4 billion in Iran). France is Iran’s second-largest source of imports (after Germany), claiming 8.3 percent of the country’s total imports. Also, numerous French multinationals have entered the Iranian market in the past two years. Renault, the leading French automaker, for instance, has invested $2 billion in a joint venture with two Iranian automakers that will be Renault’s second-largest operation in the world, turning out as many as 300,000 cars a year. In the event of economic sanctions, French companies would be hit hard. Chirac is surely taking this into account.

Whatever his reasons, it appears that even Chirac–until recently, one of the toughest on Iran–is giving up. Indeed, it may be that much of the world is resigned to letting Iran have nuclear weapons. But this cannot be the last word, given the stakes–the risk of losing the war on jihadist Islam and enduring a nuclear terror attack. If the United States and/or Israel are pushed to act militarily, some of the blame will belong in Paris as well as in Moscow and Beijing.

Olivier Guitta is a consultant on foreign affairs and counterterrorism in Washington.

© Copyright 2007, News Corporation, Weekly Standard, All Rights Reserved.



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