The dilemma of Arab nationalists

While the entire word is gripped with the political turmoil in Iran, its closest neighbors have been collectively pretending not to notice there really is a problem at all. At first unable to contain their enthusiasm with the opposition to a regime they’ve collectively hated for 30 years, various official media outlets have mellowed their tone and practically reverted to the "domestic Iranian matter" line.

And yet Iran’s problem is everyone’s problem in so many ways. Since the advent of the Islamic Republic in a revolution that swept the Shah from power, most Arab countries have at best been uneasy neighbors to Iran, and at worst aggressors. The Iranians had barely begun to come to terms with the fact of having dismissed the Shah when the proxy wars against them began in earnest.

Fighting the dirty war of the bloc of superpowers arming him, Saddam Hussein attacked Iran and bled both countries dry for eight years, especially once the full impact of the US’s dual containment policy was felt. No wonder the Iranians didn’t warm to their neighborhood. Apart from Syria, which particularly enjoyed the fall of one of Israel’s greatest allies and was united with Iran in a common hatred of Saddam Hussein, Arab countries were predominantly hostile.

Arab wariness stemmed less from the fact of the Iranian revolution than the banner under which it was fought. That the powerful, well-armed and internationally supported Shah could fall so easily was one thing: that the revolutionaries did it in the name of Islam was another. For the first time in centuries, two rival blocs faced off to claim leadership of a huge global Muslim community. Both also sat on large oil resources that helped finance their new activism, supporting numerous groups with political and religious agendas. These confronting alignments have now endured for decades, creating a complex set of relations, that it is crucial to understand as an introduction to the way forward, when some Arabs are now more pro-Iranian regime than before, in direct opposition to the critics siding with the "moderate" group.

The mutual animosity between the competing Iranian and Arab regimes, seeping through their respective media outlets, has been evident for years, especially since the invasion of Iraq. Unfortunately, the animosity has filtered down to the popular level, fuelled by inflammatory rhetoric (mostly from the anti-Iranian side) and turning anti-Iranian positions into anti-Shi’ite ones, exacerbated by Iraq and Lebanon and the ongoing Arab-Israel conflict or, more correctly, the Palestinian cause.

There is no doubt that Israel plays a role in this divide, being in fact the lowest common denominator. With the Iranian regime (alongside Syria) openly supporting the so-called radical elements of the Palestinian resistance, and with Saudi Arabia having sided with the so-called moderate Palestinian Authority, Arabs actively opposing Israel have made their choice. The situation is even more pronounced in Lebanon, where the resistance to Israel is the sole domain of Hizballah, a militant group whose umbilical tie to Iran seems to trump most other considerations.

Today, tens of thousands of Iranians are protesting against their regime, officially because of a dubious election which even authorities admit had irregularities, and unofficially because many of them are vying for a relaxation of the strict rules that govern their lives. Importantly, many have expressed their specific distaste for Mahmoud Ahmadinezhad’s needlessly confrontational stances, his foreign policy and his absurd habit of putting into doubt the history of the Holocaust–all of which has only made their isolation more pronounced.

For many Iranians, popular Arab support for Ahmadinezhad remains unpalatable and unforgivable. It makes little sense to them that people who support freedom and self-determination for one people (the Palestinians, for instance) would also support a leader whose domestic rule has been controversial to say the least. Increasingly, young Iranians are expressing anti-Arab sentiments based mostly on their regime’s support of Hizballah (and to a lesser extent Hamas).

Arab nationalists, and Arab liberals to a certain extent, have a serious problem. With the noble causes they espouse, they should technically be equally critical of such regimes. And yet, because of the Iranian regime’s staunch support for Palestinian groups and for the Palestinian cause in general, many Arabs have spared Ahmadinezhad and his regime from the stinging reproaches they extend to other rulers.

Is the enemy of our enemy necessarily our friend, regardless of other factors? Have we become so desperate for support for the Palestinian cause that we would become bedfellows with the least savory of characters? This is not the first time this would have happened. Saddam Hussein, the tyrant who oppressed his own people for decades, acted so magnanimously with Palestinians that Yasser Arafat chose to side with Iraq after its invasion of Kuwait, with disastrous consequences for Palestinians. Likewise, the farcical Muammar Qadhafi remained a vocal supporter of the Palestinian cause while his own people suffered. Many critics of Arab regimes also fall silent on Syria, precisely because of its vocal support for the various militant groups.

Arab nationalists have often explained themselves on this thorny issue, arguing that the choice of allies was dictated by the magnitude of the Palestinian problem and all the issues still touching on Israel. Unfortunately, this position has created huge resentment from the people ruled by the likes of Saddam Hussein, and anti-Palestinian sentiment was common for a long time. Similarly, the antics of Ahmadinezhad have been completely counterproductive, detrimental to the Palestinian cause and resented by many Iranians.

There must come a point when supporters of freedom for Palestinians, under a brutal military occupation and living in much worse conditions than most people, must take the same stand for others, even if the latter live in relatively milder conditions. Until then, we must not be surprised when Iranians, like Iraqis before them, stop caring about fundamental causes, no matter how righteous.


First published by the Bitterlemons International.