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November 2, 2016 4:09 am

Is the ‘Pax Iranica’ Fact or Fiction?

avatar by Josef Olmert

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The Iranian flag. Photo: Wikipedia.

The Iranian flag. Photo: Wikipedia.

Two events that recently occurred in the Middle East may create, or further strengthen, the impression that we are witnessing some type of “Pax Iranica” in the region. One is Monday’s election of a new Lebanese president, the Christian general Michel Aoun, who is a political ally of Hezbollah and, by extension, of Iran. The second is the attack on Mosul, led by the Iraqi Shi’ite army and with the aid of irregular Shi’a militias. This, too, is an Iranian-led initiative and can be called a possible victory for that country.

Given the obvious Israeli sensitivity to everything Iranian — compounded by the typical, though exaggerated, Israeli thinking that all that happens in the Middle East (especially that which concerns and involves Iran) is, by definition, connected with and aimed at Israel — there is a sense that the mighty Iranian empire is at the throat of the Jewish state. This is a genuine, though misplaced, feeling.

At any rate, it is a situation that creates obvious challenges for those in the region, including Israel.

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But is Iran really as powerful as it seems?

Let us more closely study these two most recent developments.

From 1988 to 1990, Aoun led the so-called “War of Liberation” (Lebanon Civil War) against the Syrian-occupying forces and their Hezbollah allies. Not much is known about what happened on October 13, 1990, but what we can say is that the Syrians destroyed Aoun and ended his efforts. The Syrian air force flew over Beirut for the first time since the Red Line understanding of 1976 between Israel and Syria, achieved through American mediation. According to this understanding, Beirut was a no-fly zone for the Syrian air force, and the Assad regime adhered strictly to that understanding. This time, Israel allowed the Syrians to fly over Beirut in their mission to destroy Aoun, in compliance with  American pressure to do so.

The Americans wanted to co-opt Syrian President Hafez al-Assad in the anti-Saddam Arab coalition which they formed, in order to support the war against Iraq, and they heard from the Syrians that they would expect Israel not to prevent the use of their air force against Aoun. Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir agreed, and so Aoun was destroyed and presidents Hafez al-Assad and George H.W. Bush were happy.

Complicated?  welcome to the bizarre world of Lebanese and Middle Eastern politics.

It is also bizarre that Aoun changed his political colors in 2005, when he became an ally of Syria and Hezbollah — for which he is now reaping fruits. This is how politics is conducted in Lebanon, and Aoun, while being the new pro-Hezbollah president, is also aware of the strong Maronite opposition to him, with Shi’ites, Sunnis and Druze also against him. Nor will he turn Lebanon into a battlefield against Israel, because he and his political patrons know that this could destroy Lebanon. If at all, the Iranians and Hezbollah may try to open a front against Israel in the non-state state known as Syria, on the other side of the Golan Heights, but policy-makers in Israel are fully cognizant of this, and a combination of deterrence and containment can work, and has worked until now.

Then there is Mosul.

Mosul, as a non-Shi’ite area, poses greater problems for the Shi’a governments of Baghdad and Iran than meet the eye, especially in the post-ISIS (a Sunni force) world. My advice is to listen to the elephant in the room, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Erdogan says publicly that there are no problems between Sunnis and Shi’ites, but adds that Mosul’s future is as a Sunni region. He also refers in particular to the large, and somewhat unknown, Iraqi Turkmen population (which is predominantly Sunni), and their right to self-determination.

I believe Erdogan when he says Mosul will be Sunni, and I am convinced that the Iranians believe him and take him seriously.

The ongoing Sunni-Shi’ite conflict is known in the Middle East as the “Sushi war.” It is a great regional sectarian struggle, and though the pendulum may be swinging Iran’s way at the moment, it will not to do so indefinitely. The Sunni world will not allow the creation of the much-talked about “Shi’ite crescent,” flowing from Iran all the way to Lebanon, via Iraq and Syria.

This all has nothing to do with Israeli concerns and everything to do with Islamic history.

Still, it is not a situation in which Israel should sit idly by and adopt the position of a passive onlooker. While Israel should not jump into the fray, it can play a role by developing and strengthening relations with Sunni states, especially Saudi Arabia — a process which is already underway. Israel must be ready to swallow some bitter pills and national pride in relations with Jordan and Egypt — though, in the case of the former, it cannot renounce Jewish rights to the Temple Mount in order to form an unofficial, but strategic anti-Iranian alliance. The rapprochement with Turkey, in which Israel had to concede on certain issues, was a right step strategically, as it serves the overall interest and goal to contain, isolate and later defeat Iran.

Removing historical legacies and context when (impatiently) dealing with current Middle East issues is a recipe for failure. Iran is not invincible and can and will face its moment of truth. A regime that executes more than 1,000 people a year is fundamentally weak and vulnerable. Iran’s current moment of seeming expansion is an over-stretch, which may precipitate insurmountable troubles for the mullahs in Tehran.

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