Analysis

For Many Sunni Muslim Countries, Iran Is Not Necessarily a Threat

Anyone fond of dividing the Middle East into good Sunnis and evil Shi'ites will have to explain how Pakistan is able to carry on a romance with both powers

Iran President Hassan Rohani meets with Pakistan Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa in Tehran, November 6, 2017.
Iran President Hassan Rohani meets with Pakistan Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa in Tehran, November 6, 2017. ATTA KENARE/AFP

Pakistan’s Chief of Army Staff Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa paid an unusual, “historic” visit to Tehran last week. The general, with numerous medals adorning his dress uniform, embraced the commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps and declared that he had come to Iran in part to learn how to build and deploy volunteer militias like Iran’s Basij in his own country. The two countries also have shared economic interests, like the gas pipeline that’s supposed to run from Iran to India via Pakistan and the Russian oil pipeline that’s slated to follow a similar route.

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None of this would arouse much interest if it weren’t for the fact that Pakistan is a declared ally, and effectively also a protégé, of Saudi Arabia. Riyadh not only invests in Pakistan and donates to its charities, but also employs millions of Pakistanis.

Thus anyone fond of dividing the Middle East into good Sunnis and evil Shi’ites will have to explain how a Sunni state like Pakistan is able to carry on a romance with both Shi’ite Iran and ultra-Sunni Saudi Arabia. And if this isn’t enough, he’ll also have to explain how Shi’ite Iran maintains close relations with the Sunni Taliban in Afghanistan while also helping Afghanistan’s Sunni government.

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If Iran is such a great threat that it justifies Saudi Arabia’s crude intervention in other Mideast countries’ internal affairs – see, for example Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s recent resignation – then why hasn’t Riyadh imposed sanctions on Pakistan? There are two answers to that. First, Saudi Arabia needs Pakistan in its “Sunni” coalition. But no less important, for the time being, it can’t do without Pakistani workers. Lebanon, in contrast, is just a pawn.

One could pose a similar question to Riyadh about its close ties with Turkey, another economic and strategic ally of Tehran. Two years ago, Turkey joined Saudi Arabia’s Sunni alliance (after initially being ostracized by it) without being required to sever its ties with Iran – something Riyadh has demanded of Qatar, though not of the United Arab Emirates, whose trade with Iran is even more extensive. Evidently, the Saudis recognize the limits of their war against Iran.

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The Israeli and American satisfaction with Riyadh’s anti-Iran campaign, which depicts the Iranian threat as the principal axis around which the Middle East revolves, is misguided. This simplistic outlook primarily serves the Israeli and American need to find an ultimate enemy and build a military policy around it. But this view of the Iranian threat is not shared by all Arab states, including ones that have signed peace agreements with Israel.

Egypt, for instance, is Israel’s ally in the war against Sunni terrorist organizations in Sinai and the Gaza Strip, and it defines Hezbollah as a terrorist organization. Yet it also opposes Saudi Arabia’s aggressive stance against Iran and Hezbollah. Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shukri is visiting several Mideast countries this week in an effort to persuade Riyadh and its allies to use diplomacy rather than military threats. Egypt also “rebelled” against Saudi dictates last year when it supported a Russian United Nation resolution on Syria, to which Iran was a party, and suffered Saudi economic sanctions as a result.

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As for Jordan, it is more worried about radical Sunni militias setting up shop near its border than it is about an Iranian presence in the Golan Heights. Jordan also rejected a Saudi demand that it attack forces loyal to the Assad regime on Syrian territory. It too suffered economic penalties as a result: Riyadh stopped the financial aid it had promised.

Riyadh’s need to threaten and punish Arab states that dare to deviate from its anti-Iranian line, or even to question the wisdom of its policies, attests, at the very least, to the extent of the disagreement between Saudi Arabia and some other Arab countries. These countries aren’t happy about either Saudi Arabia or Iran trying to dominate the Middle East and force other Middle East states that are not regional powers to accept dictates that impinge their freedom of action.

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These countries would apparently prefer to be in the same situation as Pakistan and Turkey, which have close ties with both Tehran and Riyadh and can maneuver between them based on their own national interests. But as a result of these countries’ dependence on Saudi Arabia, it seems the real threat, in their view, isn’t Iran, but the Saudi sanctions they can expect if they disobey Riyadh.

Thus the “Sunni axis” is really a “Saudi axis.” This isn’t a group of Sunni countries driven by religious hatred of a Shi’ite country; rather, the common denominator that unites its members is their dependence on Riyadh or their desire to be its economic ally. Moreover, the claim that there’s a risk of Shi’ite Islam spreading in Sunni states portrays Sunni countries as being weak and on the defensive – as if the sweeping Sunni majority, comprising some 90 percent of all Muslims, were actually afraid of the power of the Shi’ites, who comprise only about 10 percent of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims.

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But statistics can’t alleviate a sense of threat, especially not when they must face off against Iran’s consolidation in Syria, its enormous influence in Iraq and its support for the Houthis in Yemen. Iran has become a self-evident threat that needs no further proof, to the point that any attempt to examine the truth of this threat is heretical.

Nevertheless, at least with regard to Israel, it’s worth asking what exactly Israel is afraid of. Iranian forces near its border in the Golan Heights? The ballistic missiles stationed in Iran? The Shi’ite militias? Iran’s nuclear program? And above all, it’s worth asking whether Iran really has an interest in creating another theater of conflict between itself and Israel in Syria.

The Israeli answer, as usual, is “happy is the man who is always afraid” – of everything.