July 24, 2006

July 24, 2006 | Commentary on Middle East

Ground zero for Mideast instability is Iran: Arab world, take notice

While the world focuses on the smoldering conflict in the Middle East, the war's instigator and puppeteer, Iran, must be pretty darn pleased with itself.

While Iranian-backed Hezbollah jolts Israeli cities with rockets and Israeli forces ferret out terrorist militants across Lebanon, Iran has suffered nary a nick, verbally or otherwise.

Moreover, Tehran was skillfully able to keep its atomic aspirations out of the limelight at the G-8 summit in St. Petersburg, Russia.

But when the current clash ultimately subsides, the international community, especially the Middle East, should turn its attention to Tehran's treachery and expose Iran for what it is - a serious threat to regional stability.

Some major Arab states (e.g., Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia), while no fans of Israel, are already grumbling about Iran plunging the region into war. While instability may be good for boosting the price of oil, it's good for little else.

Indeed, the war may lead to a full-scale Israeli ground invasion of southern Lebanon.

The conflict may also spread into neighboring Syria, another state pulling Hezbollah's and Lebanon's strings. And we can put hopes for any progress on the Middle East peace process on ice.

If there's any possibility of an upside to the conflict, other than the possibility that Israel may be able to snuff Hezbollah out, it's that Middle Eastern states may finally realize that Iran's mullahs are a major problem and could easily turn on them, too, at some point.

Sure, some Middle East states might feel secure in the fact that Iran is also a Muslim country. But, Iran is a Shia Muslim country. Most of the Middle East is Sunni.

In effect, Iran is a Shia Persian country living in a Sunni Arab neighborhood. This makes for cordial but cautious relations between Iran and its neighbors, even in the best of times.

Plus, Iran wants to export Shia fundamentalism to other parts of the Muslim world. This doesn't sit well with predominantly Sunni countries, such as Saudi Arabia or other Persian Gulf states with large, restive Shia minorities.

And Iran's increasing willingness to underwrite militancy, terrorism and instability in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Gaza Strip and now Israel and Lebanon, can't make anyone in the Middle East comfortable.

The region's nations are keenly aware of Iran's big power aspirations, too. In addition to large oil/gas reserves, Iran dwarfs most other Middle Eastern states in terms of population (70 million) and land mass (three times the size of Iraq).

Spiritually, Tehran also wants to see Shia Iran lead the Muslim world, putting them in direct head-to-head competition with Sunni Saudi Arabia just across the Persian Gulf, and home to Islam's holiest sites in Mecca and Medina.

And how can its neighbors not be unhappy with Tehran's nuclear program? If Iran joins the once exclusive nuclear club, others will feel obligated to follow for their own security, causing a cascading proliferation effect.

Rumors of covert Egyptian and Saudi Arabian nuclear programs as a hedge against Iran abound. Turkey has openly said that if Iran goes nuclear it will have to reconsider its current non-nuclear stance. Tehran could give Damascus the bomb.

Iran has stealthily advanced its anti-American, anti-Israeli agenda by proxy and terrorism in the past. But it may have overplayed its hand this time, fomenting more death and destruction in the crisis-weary Middle East.

This latest provocation may finally convince Iran's neighbors that Tehran isn't just a serious threat to the United States and Israel, but to themselves as well. The searing question is: Will they do anything about it?

Peter Brookes, a senior fellow at The Heritage Foundation, is the author of "A Devil's Triangle: Terrorism, WMD and Rogue States."

About the Author

Peter Brookes Senior Fellow, National Security Affairs
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy

First appeared in the Boston Herald