Malcolm Rifkind: Arab eyes are fixed on Iran

Iran is now where the Soviet Union was when Stalin assumed power

Share

In the midst of the battle between Israel and Hizbollah, with rockets landing on Haifa and bombs on Beirut, one extraordinary development has occurred which has not got the attention it deserves, but which is a symptom of the dramatic change taking place in the Middle East.

Half the Arab world, in an unprecedented manner, and initially with little diplomatic nuance, began this crisis by holding Hizbollah responsible. It also extended the criticism to Iran and Syria.

The Arab League, at its emergency meeting in Cairo, condemned Hizbollah's kidnapping of Israeli soldiers and attacks on Israel as "unexpected, inappropriate and irresponsible acts". Egypt, Jordan and certain of the Gulf states agreed with Prince Saud, the Saudi Foreign Minister, that Hizbollah's attacks "put the whole region back to years ago, and we simply cannot accept them".

A few days ago the Saudi government issued a statement saying Hizbollah "and those behind them" had full responsibility and would shoulder the burden of ending the crisis "they have created". President Mubarak has been equally terse.

While some Arab states have now hardened their comments on Israel - prompted in large part by the increasing number of civilian casualties - it is difficult to exaggerate the significance of these early statements and of the split that has emerged in the Middle East. During similar crises in the past, all Arab states have joined in ritual denunciations of Israel even if they have done so with different degrees of enthusiasm.

On this occasion it is different. But we should realise its true significance. It does not indicate emerging empathy between Israel and moderate Arab leaders - that would be truly remarkable. Such a development is even more remote given the appalling images of destruction and suffering that are being beamed around the world to millions of Muslims. However, the initial muted response is not evidence that the Iraq War and a pro-American government in Baghdad have lead to a strategic change in the region with greater support for Israel, as American neo-cons hoped and believed. Quite the opposite.

The reason for the Arab criticism of Hizbollah and its supporters is actually fear of the growing power of Iran, seen to be behind Hizbollah. Ironically, the most important consequence of the Bush administration's foreign policy has been the destruction of Iraq as a power-broker and the rise of Iran as the leading power of the Gulf. Iran's current strategy is to seek to extend that power throughout the Middle East.

Over the years these issues were raised under the banner of Sunni-Shia rivalry. In the first phase of the Iranian revolution, after 1979, Ayatollah Khomeini called for the Shias to rise and assert themselves throughout the Arab world. He aspired to Shia dominance from Iran in the east through Iraq and Syria to Lebanon on the Mediterranean.

King Abdullah of Jordan has warned of a Shia crescent. President Hosni Mubarak infuriated Shias throughout the region by suggesting that Shias in Iraq and elsewhere had more loyalty to Iran than to their own countries.

The reality is rather different. There is no religious war in the making. The Iranians are well aware of this. The Shias in Iraq are more interested in power in their own country than becoming subordinate to Iranian theocracy. The same is true elsewhere. Even Hizbollah, which is in close alliance with Iran and looks to Ayatollah Khamenei as its spiritual mentor, should not be seen as merely part of a grand Shia design.

However, although there is no religious war within Islam, either happening or in the making, there is a struggle for political power and hegemony. Iran is now where the Soviet Union was when Stalin assumed power. The Trotskyist belief in world, ideological revolution was repudiated by Stalin even though the slogans and the rhetoric remained. The force of the revolution was turned inwards in the form of forced famines and show trials. Externally, in place of international Communism, went the national interests of the Soviet state, the successor to the old Russian Empire. It was the Soviet state that first allied with Nazi Germany to divide Poland and the Baltic states, only to fight Hitler afterwards and then create the Iron Curtain and dominate Central and Eastern Europe. It was the Soviet Union that was the world super-power, not international Communism.

In the same way, the Iranian state is seeking to become the regional power in the Middle East. It will use whatever allies it can find and, not surprisingly, this is easiest with the Shia communities in Iraq and Lebanon, traditionally downtrodden but now asserting their strength.

For Egypt, the traditional dominant power of the Arab world, this is a direct threat which has little to do with religion. For Saudi Arabia too, which aspires to leadership of the Gulf, Iranian ambitions must be resisted. Hizbollah, at best a serious and unpredictable irritant, at worst an agent of Iran, must be marginalised if Iran's influence and power is not going to extend to the Mediterranean.

This clash between Iran, Syria and Hizbollah on the one hand, and Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan on the other is not a temporary disagreement that can be papered over. The unambiguous language used in the Arab League's recent summit show that it is going to be a bare-knuckled fight.

That is not only important for Israel. It is also of the greatest political relevance for the United States, the UK, EU and the United Nations as they struggle to stop Iran from becoming a nuclear power. It is countries like Egypt, Turkey and Saudi Arabia that are most concerned at such a prospect. It is not inconceivable that they, too, might consider going nuclear if only to protect themselves from an assertive Iran.

So far their concerns have been expressed privately or in nuanced terms. It is now possible that their opposition to a nuclear Iran will become a more public component of their foreign policy. If the majority of the Arab world were now to declare support for maximum pressure against Iran, Russia and China would find it difficult to resist Western proposals. Serious international action, through the United Nations, to require Iran to drop its nuclear weapons programme would be a realistic possibility. The stakes are high, and so they should be.

Sir Malcolm Rifkind MP was foreign secretary 1995-97

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Dublin

£13676.46 - £16411.61 per annum + OTE: SThree: SThree Trainee Recruitment Cons...

Ashdown Group: Marketing or Business Graduate Opportunity - Norwich - £22,000

£18000 - £22000 per annum + training: Ashdown Group: Business and Marketing Gr...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + Commission: SThree: Are you great at building rela...

Ashdown Group: Database Analyst - Birmingham - £22,000 plus benefits

£20000 - £22000 per annum + excellent benefits: Ashdown Group: Application Sup...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Labour leader Ed Miliband unveils Labour's pledges carved into a stone plinth in Hastings  

Election 2015: Smash the two-party system! Smash the voting system!

Armando Iannucci
Tactical voting is a necessary evil of the current first-past-the-post system, where voters vote against what they do not want rather than in favour of what they do  

Election 2015: Voting tactically has become more fraught in new political order

Michael Ashcroft
General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

Flesh in Venice

Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
11 best anti-ageing day creams

11 best anti-ageing day creams

Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

Juventus vs Real Madrid

Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power