Outside View: A new alliance in the Middle East

WASHINGTON — A major consequence of the installation of a Shiite majority government in Iraq, a first in the Arab world, is the rise of Shiite power in other countries of the Middle East. Although the Shiites represents only 15 percent of Muslims worldwide, the centuries-old animosity between Shiites and the dominant Sunnis has only increased. A number of Sunni governments fear this historical event could lead to an important realignment of the balance of power in the region, and they are struggling to develop a strategic option to counter this trend.

Meanwhile, as Iraq slowly descends into civil war, the United States finds itself at the center of this power struggle between Sunni and Shiite Islam. For decades, two major proponents in this conflict, Saudi Arabia and Iran, have been waging a behind-the-scenes battle for religious influence and political dominance in the region. The United States, instead of taking advantage of this struggle, is caught in Sunni-Shiite crossfire in Iraq, a position being used by all parties to their advantage at the expense of U.S. interests in the region.

Saudi Arabia and Iran are using ethnic and religious sensitivities to rally their constituencies against the other. Saudi Arabia is rallying the Arab street against a Shiite Farsi Iran while Iran is using the Palestinian-Israeli conflict as well as the Muslim street’s anger towards the United States to counter U.S. influence and challenge Sunni hegemony in the region. While Iraq is a main battle front, the Sunni-Shiite confrontation extends across the Middle East to include both the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Lebanon.

The Shiites gains in Iraq are not only worrisome to Saudi Arabia, but are also seen as a threatening shift in the balance of power in the region by Arab States and Western governments.

While American troops on the ground are caught in the military crossfire, U.S. policy makers are caught in the political crossfire by allowing our friends and foes in the region to use our involvement in Iraq to their advantage at the expense of our security and stability interests in the Middle East. It is critical that we guard ourselves from losing sight of our long term interests while keeping in mind that we did not go to Iraq to fight a politico-sectarian war on behalf of one group or another.   

So what are the opportunities for the U.S. in this regional competition for influence and leadership? There is a saying in the Middle East that the enemy of my enemy is my friend. This situation can lead to the intriguing possibility for a new alliance between Sunni Arab countries and Israel that serves their mutual interests.

For many Arab Sunni, the historical struggle against Shiites takes precedent over the political conflict they have with Israel, creating an unprecedented opportunity for an Arab Sunni-Israeli rapprochement. This potential cooperation could provide all of the parties — the U.S., Arab governments, and Israel — to reshape Middle Eastern alliances to their mutual benefit.

Furthermore, an Arab-Israeli coalition could provide the necessary foundation for successful efforts to achieve a comprehensive peace between Israel and the Palestinians, Syrians and Lebanese, a feat that would undoubtedly reduce Iran’s influence throughout the Middle East as well as undermine the main engine of popular support for Islamist groups such as Hezbollah, Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood.

For Israel, the incentives for such cooperation are clear. First, Israel would find ready allies in its fight against a threatening Iran. Second, it would provide a new momentum for the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian problem as well as the Lebanese and Syrian conflicts. Third, Israel would position itself, for the first time in its history, as a partner in the regional political landscape.

Progress on these fronts would undoubtedly be the most significant developments to ensure the long term security of the State of Israel. Such a rapprochement could begin informally with the quiet encouragement of the U.S. Unfortunately, Israel and its potential Arab allies may lack the vision to shed their past animosities and exploit this opportunity.

As the Baker/Hamilton report on Iraq so aptly states, the conflict in Iraq is only one aspect in the broader Middle East chess game. Unfortunately, in Iraq, as elsewhere in the region, the U.S. is largely reacting to facts on the ground rather than pro-actively pursuing its interests. This should not be acceptable to the American public.

It is imperative that we recognize the exceptional set of converging interests currently taking shape in the region and support a realignment of alliances in the Middle East; specifically, to encourage a significant rapprochement between Arab countries and Israel, as long as it respects the interests and needs of both sides. Such an alignment could provide solid bedrock for a satisfactory solution to the Iraqi debacle, the Iranian confrontation, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Lebanese and Syrian issues.

An irony? Perhaps.  But what an opportunity as well!

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