Will a "Sunni bloc" help or hinder Iran?

Will a "Sunni bloc" help or hinder Iran?
Comment: Although the regional conflict appears sectarian, the biggest internal threat to Iran is Arab rather than Sunni.
4 min read
18 Mar, 2015
Iran controls four capitals: Beirut (pictured), Baghdad, Damascus, Sanaa [Getty]
The images of the Quds Force Commander General Qassem Soleimani in Iraq only further antagonizes Sunnis. The general's movements and repeated appearances during the war against the Islamic State group (IS) cannot be considered a coincidence or a normal thing. Soleimani's pictures and YouTube videos seem to be intentional and part of Iran's psychological war against its foes. However, can Iranian influence be contained by forming a counter "Sunni bloc"?

     Iran has significantly expanded its influence in Arab areas.
Iran has significantly expanded its influence in Arab areas over the past decade, especially after the fall of what used to be known as Arabia's eastern gate: the Iraqi state. The Iraqi Baath regime fought a long war against Iran with the financial and military support of most Arab countries, except Hafez al-Assad's Syria that had a strategic relationship with post-revolutionary Iran.

Syria continues to have a special relationship with Iran, however Iraq, which acted as a buffer preventing the expansion of Iranian influence fell thanks to the US occupation. The US is now the ally of the countries that are trying to contain Iranian influence after it established a foothold in four Arab capitals - Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut and Sanaa - by building strong alliances with political forces in those capitals.

However, this "Sunni bloc" is finding it difficult to contain Iran's growing influence, but not just becuase Iran now controls four Arab capitals. It is also because the US is working hard to strike a deal with Iran over its nuclear programme.

Those who understand the colonial mentality will realise that the US is trying to achieve more than just a nuclear deal with Iran. President Barack Obama would not antagonize Congress or spoil his relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu unless a US-Iranian rapprochement was a strategic choice for the US or at least the Democratic Party. This has become apparent in Iraq, in the so called 'war on terror', however the rest of the deal remains cloaked in secrecy in Geneva, where Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has been meeting his US counterpart John Kerry.

At the other end of the scene, the features of the new Saudi king's policies are becoming clearer after a number of regional leaders visited the Saudi capital Riyadh. They include leaders who were at odds with Saudi Arabia during the Arab Spring, such as Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

On the surface, these meetings seem to suggest a reconciliation between the axis of "moderation" and the axis that includes Turkey, Qatar and the Muslim Brotherhood that was established after the fallout caused by the ouster of the Brotherhood in Egypt. Leaked discussions however suggest that the Brotherhood issue has been postponed and the new alliance has prioritised more pressing regional issues.

Confronting Iran

The issues that are leading the new bloc's agenda are: confronting Iranian expansion and fighting the Islamic State group (IS, formerly Isis). However, this process is fraught with difficulties as fighting and defeating IS would require coordinating and cooperating with those fighting on the ground in Syria and Iraq.

It is even harder to decrease Iranian influence, especially because this alliance presupposes Shias are necessarily subject to Iran's will. If confronting Iranian political and military influence requires returning Syria and Iraq to the Arab fold by replacing the regime in Syria with an allied regime, as the new "bloc" assumes, what will they do with Iraq's demographics?

The conflict in the region appears to be sectarian because of the sectarian projects that dominate it. However, the assumption Shias are part of Iran's influence will, undoubtedly benefit Iran,. Confronting it with a counter sectarian bloc will please Iran even more. First, because Iran is a state founded on the basis of sect, and it is far better versed in sectarian discourse and maneuvering than others. Second, Iran is playing outside of its territories in the mixed Sunni-Shia Arab field, and the strongest opposition within Iran is in fact an Arab opposition and not a Sunni one.

In conclusion, Iranian influenced cannot be challenged through a counter sectarian grouping. This is because sectarian projects give Iran legitimacy and a space to operate within in Arab countries, while not providing the same for Arab countries within Iran. The current situation requires the establishment of Arab national security and not a sectarian grouping.

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

This article is an edited translation from our Arabic edition.