Sunnis, Iran, Obama, and New Realities

The possibility of a new US president seeking dialogue with Iran, along with the evolving political landscapes in Lebanon and Iraq, makes it high time for the Arab States to deal with the changing realities in the Middle East.

Now that US presidential candidate Barak Obama has officially clinched the Democratic party vote and seems a possible presidential candidate come the November elections, the Arab States must start setting their agenda. Obama has made clear his intention to start a dialogue with Iran- rather than continuing the Bush Administration’s policy of boycott. Where do the Sunni Arabs fit into all of this?

To date, the Sunni Arab States seem unsure of how to deal with Iran. Open dialogue with the intention of integrating the Islamic Republic into the Middle Eastern fold has been impossible. Now that the US might change its modus operandi should a Democrat leader be elected, the Arab States may need to redress their policies vis a vis Iran and the place of Shi’ism in the Arab World in general.

The new reality in Lebanon, with the official inclusion of Hizbulla as a foremost power broker in the country, cannot be ignored. While some may hope that Hizbulla will at least have its wings clipped should a Syrian-Israeli peace deal come to fruition, the truth is that this political party is an intrinsic part of Lebanese society that may need to eventually have its military might controlled, but should not, and cannot, be marginalized politically.

In many ways, a McCain win would be more in line with Sunni Arab States policies and would be more to their short term benefit. Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Egypt would much rather deal with a Republican president whose fears match those of the Arab States. Such a president would be much more likely to carry out the policies of these states on their behalf.

But on the long term, such a president would prove to be deadly for the Middle East. What we need now is a process of introversion across the Middle East where we question how it is that we got to this point, in terms of inter-Muslim relations, Arab-Iranian politics, as well as the long-standing Arab-Israeli conflict. To keep going on as we have and playing by the same rules is no longer an option, as the stakes are getting higher.

What the Arab states cannot afford is a scenario in which there is dialogue between the US and Iran in which new agendas for Iraq, Lebanon, and indeed the Arab World at large are set, while the Sunni Arab States find themselves yet again on the sidelines of historic changes.

There is a need for the Arab states to accept the changing realities in the Middle East, and to realize that there is no use, and indeed no legitimacy, in fighting it. What will need to take place is a process of negotiation with the Iranians on rules of engagement in the Middle East and a new modus operandi.

We are also in need of an Arab-Iranian rapprochement to heal Sunni-Shia relations, and end sectarianism in the Arab and Muslim World. The fact that both the Iranian and Arab political leaders are fanning the flames of sectarianism in their battle for political influence in the region does not escape anyone. However, this front in the battle is one that should remain a no-go area. It is unforgivable that the Sunni-Shia card is being played in this cold war between the Arab World and Iran.

Iran does have a role to play in this region by virtue of its size, its power, and its geographic location – both in its proximity to Iraq as well as to Central Asia and China. Not to mentions well as its influence on Syria, Hizbulla, and Hamas, and its direct and indirect influence on Iraq. Iran simply cannot be ignored.

Giving Iran a seat at the decision-making table of the Middle East, might force them to somewhat modify their stance and moderate their opinions. It might also lessen their appeal to those sitting on the sidelines, because Iran is often seen as having kept its hands clean, as opposed to other countries in the region.

For their part, the Iranian political establishment will need to start behaving much more like a civilized and modern player in the Middle East. This includes not sticking purely to ideological rhetoric, not exporting religion, not interfering in the affairs of other states, not siding with one political faction at the expense of an entire nation (as in the case of Palestine and Lebanon), and not supporting the Shia militias in Iraq.

The solution to the ‘problem’ that is Iran should be three pronged: a long-term dialogue on Sunni-Shia relations and the place of Shi’ism within present-day Islam across the Middle East, bringing Iran back into the Middle Eastern fold, and forcing the Iranian state to play by the rules while negotiating the role of Iranian and Arab spheres of influences across the Middle East.

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