So, back to the classifications and alliance building game it is. Now, though, the war cry is not the Iraqi, but the Iranian threat. Four years ago, as they prepared for the invasion and occupation of Iraq, the Americans and their allies across the Atlantic filled the air with talk of Shia persecution by Sunni and the need for their deliverance from the wicked Sunni Ba’ath regime. As the Iranian nuclear project climbed to the top of the Bush administration’s agenda, a new set of terms and concepts had to be manufactured. Out went slogans of democratisation, reform and good governance and in came the fearful “Shia Crescent” blooming from the shores of the Mediterranean to the poppy fields of Afghanistan, only to be confronted by the benevolent forces of Sunni moderation. With it came Condoleezza Rice and her diplomatic envoys, this time gracing the Middle East with their visits to ensure good co-operation with “moderate states” and their secret services.
This “Redirection strategy” was spelt out in a testimony before the Senate foreign relations committee in January by the secretary of state, who announced “a new strategic alignment in the Middle East”, separating “reformers” and “extremists”. Sunni states she declared were “centres of moderation”, with Iran, Syria, and Hizbullah “on the other side of that divide”.
A few years ago, following 9/11, we were told that what threatened the world’s peace and security was Sunni terrorism represented by al-Qaida and the fundamentalist Sunni Wahhabism reared by Saudi Arabia. Today, the clock has been turned back by a quarter of a century, to the days of the Iranian revolution led by Ayatollah Khomeini, and decried by the US as the greatest danger to the region’s “stability”. By a stroke of luck, Saudi Arabia found itself restored back to the administration’s good books, a “friendly” and “moderate” regime, on a par with Egypt and Jordan nothing less.
Far from being predictable, the American classification game is erratic, subject to offer, demand, and ever-changing calculations and priorities. The Shia celebrated in Iraq as allies are demonised as foes in Iran. Iraqi Kurds are “our good friends”, while those a few kilometers away in neighbouring Turkey are enemies and lethal terrorists.
Stranger still, the Bush administration, which made terrorism the title of its endless wars and military adventures, does not hesitate to work with those it regards as terrorists to attain its ends. In a long article published in the New Yorker, the distinguished reporter Seymour Hersh investigated the Bush administration’s covert actions in the indirect funding of radical Sunni groups – some with ties to al-Qaida – to counter Shia groups backed by Iran.
These clandestine operations have been kept secret, in some cases, by leaving the execution or the funding to the Saudis, or by finding other ways to work around the normal congressional appropriations process. “The Bush administration’s reliance on clandestine operations that have not been reported to Congress and its dealings with intermediaries with questionable agendas,” writes Hersh, “have recalled for some in Washington an earlier chapter in history. Two decades ago, the Reagan administration attempted to fund the Nicaraguan contras illegally, with the help of secret arms sales to Iran. Saudi money was involved in what became known as the Iran-Contra scandal, and a few of the players back then – notably Prince Bandar and Elliott Abrams – are involved in today’s dealings.”
Having destabilised Iraq by backing one religious and ethnic faction against the other, laying the door wide open to the violent sectarian strife currently devouring tens of Iraqi lives a day, the Americans have now moved on to Iran. With 40% of its 69 million population non-Persians (16 million of whom are Azeris, seven million Kurds, five million Ahwazis and one million Baluchis), Iran’s colourful ethnic landscape could be easily exploited to undermine its regime. CIA officials are actively helping opposition militias among the numerous ethnic minority groups clustered in Iran’s border regions, which include the Baluchistan-based Brigade of God group, a volatile Sunni organisation that many fear could easily turn against Washington after taking its money, and the Mujahedeen-e Khalq, an Iraq-based Iranian opposition group, currently listed by the US state department as a terrorist organisation.
Such activities have culminated in a wave of unrest in Iran’s border areas with bombing and assassination campaigns against soldiers and government officials. These are carried out by the Kurds in the west, the Azeris in the north-west, the Ahwazi Arabs in the south-west, and the Baluchis in the south-east. According to reports published by the Daily Telegraph, funding for these separatist causes comes directly from the CIA’s classified budget, a fact confirmed by numerous sources in Washington, including Fred Burton, a former US state department counter-terrorism agent, who acknowledged that “The latest attacks inside Iran fall in line with US efforts to supply and train Iran’s ethnic minorities to destabilise the Iranian regime.”
It seems that this part of the world is fated to remain prey to the naming game and an endless chain of bloody lies and illusions.
In 1798 Napoleon invaded Egypt to “liberate its people from the Mamluks’ oppressive yoke” and defend the High Porte in Istanbul. The contemporary Egyptian chronicler Abd al-Rahman al-Jabarti records that Bonaparte convened Al-Azhar’s scholars and, wearing a turban, addressed them as “Shaykh Bunapartah”, the “defender of the faith”.
And when Sharif Hussein rebelled against the Ottomans in the dawn of the 20th century, the British backed him as the “Arab caliph” who would realise the “Arabs’ aspirations for deliverance from the Turks’ tyranny”. Having succeeded in weakening the Ottomans, he found the empire stretching across Arab lands and encompassing the entire span between Egypt and Persia with Mecca as its capital, which the British had promised him, reduced to a few hundreds of kilometres in the arid Jordanian desert.
The lands ‘freed’ from the Ottomans were soon placed under the mandate system of France and the United Kingdom. The “liberty” of the inhabitants was guaranteed by their occupation by European imperial powers
And when the cold war erupted, the US had no qualms using conservative Arab and Islamic governments like Saudi Arabia and Pakistan to confront the threat of “Soviet atheism”. And just as they had exploited traditional Islam to weaken Arab nationalism under Nasser, today, moderate secularism has turned into the new ally against the rising tide of Islamism. (See the RAND report Civil Democratic Islam: Partners, Resources & Strategies.)
Today, the Americans seem to have inherited the British strategy of “divide and rule”. From a source of strength and dynamism, Washington is working to turn the region’s unique make up into deadly fuel for strife and conflict. Kurds against Arabs, Arabs against Persians, Sunnis against Shia, “moderates” against “extremists”, all against all.
What is certain, however, is that this dirty game will not only burn its victims, propelled down the road to self-destruction. For the hand that lights the flame risks being burnt, too.
First Published in The Guardian, Friday 16 March 2007