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 1995-97Reuse content