Iran and Saudi Arabia: Dangerous liaisons

Iran and Saudi Arabia: Dangerous liaisons

Comment: Sentiments in the region are geared towards a partially justified, partially exaggerated, fear of the spread of Iranian influence. Dangerous conclusions have been reached, says Hamid Dabashi.
7 min read
20 Apr, 2015
Sunni and Shia march in India against divisions and terrorism [AFP]

After a recent visit to Doha to participate in a workshop on the regional repercussions of the Iran nuclear framework agreement I have become deeply concerned about the sudden and menacing rise of sectarian and ethnic nationalist rhetoric incessantly pitting Sunni against Shia and Persians against Arabs, thus categorically fetishizing a deeply flawed and politically alarming identity politics.


By birth and breeding, cultural habitat and political genealogy, I am the product of a period of critical thinking

     The dangerous liaison ... is the symptom of a counterrevolutionary mobilisation.

in Iran and the larger Muslim and Arab world that is entirely alien to such fearful delusions tearing the very fabric of progressive politics asunder. The cosmopolitan worldliness that underlined that world is not a thing of the past and in the deep-rooted rise of the Green Movement in Iran in 2009 and the Arab revolutions of 2011 we have solid evidence of its continued relevance.


One might think that the news that a healthy and robust diplomatic agreement between Iran and the 5+1 might in fact succeed to prevent yet another catastrophic US-Israel initiated war in the region should be welcomed by all parties involved. Afghanistan and Iraq are still suffering the horrors of two successive US-led invasions in the region with dire and still unfolding consequences. Libya is in a catastrophic mess in the aftermath of the US and NATO interference in the Libyan revolution, as is Syria by virtue of both the US and Saudi and other Arab Gulf state interventions in a peaceful Syrian revolution first and foremost bloodied by the murderous Assad regime.


But alas the sentiments in the region are geared towards a partially justified, partially exaggerated, fear of the spread of Iranian influence and thus some leading Arab intellectuals find themselves in the bizarre position of siding with Saudi militarism in Yemen, and thus in effect (though of course not in principle) on the same side as Binyamin Netanyahu and his Neocon supporters in the US opposing the Iran nuclear deal. This is an exceptionally dangerous and misbegotten misreading of the geopolitics of the region and must be immediately stopped before it gets out of hand.


It is of course obvious that political sentiments in Israel and among its US supporters are not happy with any diplomatic solution to the Neocon-Zionist manufactured “Iran nuclear issue”. From Netanyahu to Senator Tom Cotton, the Zionist infrastructure within the US political culture was and remains mobilised to oppose and derail the agreement. There are equally pernicious forces operating within the ruling regime in Iran that are just as bothered by an opening to the world and wish to keep the fanciful revolutionary disposition of the beleaguered Islamic Republic fully charged.


There is legitimate concern among many Arab thinkers, scholars, journalists, etc. that the increasing power and influence of Iran in the region, from Afghanistan and Iraq to Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Bahrain and even Yemen, is a source of menace and resentment in the region. They look at the expansionist role of Iran as a deeply troubling aspect of the current state of affairs in the region. The most progressive wish to see Iran and Iranians prosper, secure within their borders and exemplary in their democratic achievements, but with hands off the internal affairs of other nations in the region.


Logical assessments, misbegotten conclusions


This much of the assessment is logical and perhaps even inevitable. In the aftermath of the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001 and the US-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003, the ruling strategists in Tehran have consistently expanded their sphere of influence in these and adjacent areas, so much so that today anyone from Hizballah in Lebanon through the beleaguered regime in Syria, Baghdad to the Houthis in Yemen are seen as the Iranian proxies spreading sectarian politics and destabilising the region. But this “foreign policy” of the Islamic Republic is actually domestic policy: diverting attention from its internal crisis of legitimacy to external battle scenes in the region is one effective way to relocate the site of politics to its advantage.


In this context the rise of Islamic State group (IS, formerly Isis) is in fact seen by many as a militant Sunni response to the equally aggressive Shiafication of dissent in the Arab world. From this point forward I have noticed a troubling degeneration of critical thinking into a very sectarian and ethnic nationalist discourse that now pits the Sunni against the Shia and thereafter the Persians against the Arabs, without the slightest sense of critical hesitation preventing such gross generalizations.


This is a dangerous and self-degenerative development that is beginning to have multiple and exceptionally troubling effects:


It is contrary to the lived experiences of people whose identities are mixed and matched in multiple pluralities. It cross-essentialises both Sunnis and Shia as if these are monolithic characteristics and thus rudely exaggerates the sectarian identity politics that is in dire need of dismantling and not exacerbating. It equally cross-essentialises a Persian-Arab divide that distorts the nature and disposition of communal and societal formations. Not all those who live in Iran, Afghanistan, or Tajikistan consider themselves “Persians,” nor does everyone who lives in the Arab world see being Arab in identical terms. Neither do these fictive “Arabs and Persians” all think in identical or diametrically opposed political terms.


The binary of Persian-Arab also categorically glosses over the Indian and African presences and influences in the region. The subterranean work force of the Arab and Muslim world are in fact disproportionately of South Asian and African countries, suffering terrible work conditions in places extending from the disenfranchised Afghan émigrés in Iran to South Asians in the Gulf states to African in North African regions.


This sectarian and ethnic nationalist identity politics is categorically and constitutionally alien to the factual evidence and lived experiences of the transnational labour migrations, subnational civil rights abuses and multinational cosmopolitan worldliness of people living from the Indian subcontinent all the way to Africa to the shores of the Atlantic Ocean. Disregarding these facts and partaking in the sectarian identity politics fomented by the ruling regimes in Iran and Saudi Arabia is unseemly, dangerous and degenerative.


Perhaps most importantly, this myopic vision and troubling discourse is the most unforgivable betrayal of the liberating language of the revolutionary spirit that up until two years ago was the dominant and enabling force of contemporary history.


Clearing the road ahead


I believe it is no longer sufficient blaming any particular outside party — from US/Israeli power mongering to the murderous gangs of IS to anything in-between. Such perfectly legitimate finger pointing will not suffice to dismantle this troubling development. An active articulation of the liberating language of this revolutionary era (that has picked up where the anticolonial struggles of nations from Asia and Africa to Latin America left behind) is the only way out. Any person who finds herself or himself siding with the Iranian interference in any other sovereign nation-state or with the Saudi warmongering in Bahrain or Yemen must stop and examine their politics.


The dangerous liaison between the ruling regimes in Iran and Saudi Arabia is the symptom of a counterrevolutionary mobilization and not a solution to it. The only legitimate resistance to the regional influence of US, Israeli, Iranian, Saudi or any other interference is the continued struggle for national and regional democratization in terms domestic to the anticolonial and anti-tyrannical history of the region, in which project neither Iran nor Saudi Arabia, neither the US nor Israel, could possibly be seen as a champion or standard-bearer.


The amorphous empire that the US seeks but fails to sustain can put not just Israeli apartheid colony, but the retrograde Saudi kingdom and the beleaguered Iranian theocracy to work to its benefit, and it does. Today the ruling interests in Saudi Arabia and Iran have managed to degenerate the political language of revolutionary liberation to a pestiferous parlance of sectarian hostility and forced ethnic nationalism. This is an utterly disastrous development.


No critical thinker — Arab, Iranian, Kurd, Turk, Indian, Pakistani, Sunni, Shia, etc. — must ever fall into this terrible trap. We must aggressively reverse this catastrophic trend, and the more these counterrevolutionary forces seek to drag the discourse in that direction, the more we must push to reverse it towards the open and enabling landscape of a decidedly pluralistic, inclusive, tolerant, and liberating landscape of ideas and praxis.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.