The Middle East continues its thousand-year-old tradition of sectarian division. Many worried that Egypt’s decision to attend the Non-Aligned Movement meeting in Iran could be a sign that anti-Americanism was trumping sectarian rivalry, but that doesn’t appear to be the case. Rather, Egypt’s President Morsi apparently went to Iran to berate the Shiites and schismatics in their own den. In his speech today, Morsi said: ”The bloodshed in Syria is the responsibility of all of us and will not stop until there is real intervention to stop it. The Syrian crisis is bleeding our hearts.”
Syria’s delegation stalked out in a huff as Morsi laid on the ultimate insult: comparing the struggle of the Syrian rebels to the Palestinian fight against Israel. Nothing could have wrecked Iran’s hopes for the summit more profoundly. Nothing could have made Iran look weaker or more isolated. Nothing could have done more to increase Morsi’s stature in Egypt and beyond.
The alliance of convenience between Sunni Islamists, America, and the West against Iran remains the most important geopolitical fact in the Middle East today. For now, Israel is not the center of Middle Eastern politics. The big Sunni countries, Turkey, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia, want to expel the Persians from their midst and chase their power out of the Arab world—before they turn to other problems.
Americans need to be particularly careful about confusing this as a struggle for democracy against tyranny. Right now, the Middle East is a place where the logic of geopolitical realism mingles with sectarian hatreds and ethnic assertiveness to create one of the most dangerous conflict zones in the world. Without a clear understanding of these forces, U.S. policy will fall prey to dangerous illusions. The demand for more public control over governments, and the desire of ordinary people in countries like Tunisia, Syria, and Egypt for more accountable governments is a good thing as far as it goes. But for now, and possibly for quite a while into the future, public opinion in these countries can and probably will be manipulated in the interest of sectarian war and bigotry. These are, and in the majority of cases are likely to remain for some time, very imperfect and illiberal democracies. America is going to have to balance geopolitical realism in the short term with its long-term interest in promoting healthier politics and freer, more enlightened societies. It won’t be easy, and we will get the mix wrong more than once.
For now, Iran’s power grab in the region, combined with its nuclear program, makes it the biggest object of fear for many of its neighbors. The U.S. shares its neighbors’ concern, and it should cooperate to limit Iran and frustrate its attempt to dominate the Middle East.
Eventually, this Persian storm will pass, and new issues will emerge to trouble the Middle East. The United States will then have to stop and think once again about who its allies are and where its interests lie.
On a different note, President Morsi’s denunciation of Assad—and, by implication, Iran for backing him—should also be seen as part of his bid to challenge both Turkey and Saudi Arabia for the leadership of the Sunni Arab world.
Turkey wants to pursue a neo-Ottoman path, relying on the attraction of its economic success to bolster its claim to be the leading Sunni power and the defender of Sunni orthodoxy. Saudi Arabia counts on its oil wealth, the religious prestige that comes from being the site of the holy cities, and the fiery appeal of Wahhabi Islam to make its claim. If we were to define a third path to leadership, it would be Egypt as center of the Arab world. Cairo has long been a center of Islamic scholarship. The Muslim Brotherhood also represents a distinct ideological and theological path: more conservative than the Turks and less extreme than the Saudis.
Even as they cooperate against Iran, the three leading powers of the Sunni world are getting ready for the next stage in the age-old rivalry for control over the Middle East.