Two sharply opposed narratives are today in confrontation in the Arab world, notably in its Eastern flank. The first has deep historical roots, but suffers from severe attrition and depletion. The second, while newer in its expression, remains confused in its expression and replete with excess and affront to self and others.
According to the first narrative, the Arab region has been subject to successive attempts to overtake its resources, fragment its territory, and deny empowerment to its peoples. The culprit for these nefarious acts is an alliance of inside and outside forces. The most common version of this narrative holds that the alliance is led by the United States, with the rest of the West implicated at various points, and with Israel as its primary regional client and tool. Arab reactionary forces, notably Saudi Arabia, are its puppets which the United States directs at will. Another version places Israel (or alternatively International Zionism, or International Jewry) at the lead, with the United States recast as the tool of the endeavor.This narrative serves as a prolific reductionist interpretive framework to explain the unfolding of events in the region. The invasion of Iraq is thus understood as aiming to divide a state antagonistic to US influence and supportive of Palestinian rights for the benefit of Israel and in order to appropriate its oil wealth. The Syrian crisis is cast as an attempt to topple a regime that constitutes a bridge and a lifeline for anti-Israeli resistance. The foundational elements of this discourse are derived from the grand narratives that shaped Arab political consciousness in the past century, notably nationalism and revolutionary socialism. Today, however, this narrative forms the basis for enhancing the image and supporting the position of Iran in the Arab world. The Islamic Republic of Iran, according to this narrative, is the primary defender of the line of resistance and steadfastness against the triple alliance of imperialism, Zionism, and the reactionary Arab regimes, as in the original political idiom of antecedent narratives, or “global arrogance” in the native Iranian formulation. Iran, thus, is heir to Arabism, the Arab liberation movement, and the Palestinian resistance, or to the positive content of these now often derided concepts.
Whether Iran assumed this role intentionally or not may remain a subject of debate. Evidently, a vacuum had been created when Egypt under Sadat exited the Arab revolutionary camp, and with the revelation of the impotence of other revolutionary regimes, notably Iraq under Saddam Hussain, Syria under Hafez al-Assad, and Libya under Mu‘ammar al-Qadhafi, in reifing a genuine resistance to the triumvirate of imperialism, Zionism, and reactionary Arab regimes.
Within the leadership of the emerging Islamic Republic of Iran, three orientations could be discerned: a principled revolutionary one with affinities to the Eastern Arab milieu, a theological dogmatic one with sectarian Shi‘i concerns, and a pragmatic realist one seeking the fulfillment of the interests of Iran as an influential nation. The action and agency of Iran was informed variably by all three orientations.
The Iranian engagement in creating Hezbollah in Lebanon along dogmatic lines was not an exclusive effort; it occurred in conjunction with outreach in the direction of forces of different religious and ideological identities. This outreach, however, dissipated or diminished with the consolidation of Hezbollah.
The current narrative of confronting global arrogance chooses to focus on the principled orientation of the Iranian revolution—irrespective of it receding severely over the past decades—while minimizing the importance of the pragmatic orientation and adamantly denying the presence or influence of the factional dogmatic orientation.
Despite such denial, the dogmatic orientation of Iranian outreach, with its distinctive Shi‘i factional character, is alive and well. While it cannot be held responsible for virulent Sunni factionalism, its role in provoking and catalyzing it across the region in general, and in Iraq after the fall of the Saddam regime in particular, cannot be ignored.
Iranian factional support in Iraq in favor of Shi‘i formations may have benefited from an overlay of a “principled” justification in light of the majority status of the Iraqi Shi‘i community. No such cover existed in the support accorded by Iran to the Damascus regime. The resistance discourse thus appear in many settings as the thin dissimulation of Iranian interests and Shi’i factionalism.
Sunni grievances in Iraq may have incited many Sunnis across the region, but the effect remained subdued by the reaization of population ratios in Iraq, and of the fact that the previous regime had indeed utilized many Sunnis in its system of oppression; there was therefore some condoning, however grudgingly, of a level of Shi’i retribution. However, with the Iranian systemic support (further enhanced by Shi’i Lebanese and Shi’i Iraqi) of the regime in Syria, attenuating circumstances were depleted, and a discourse of Sunni grievances calling on support from Sunnis region-wide and worldwide emerged without restriction or apology. It was however a call for support that yielded mixed results at best. The putative Sunni nation may have provided Syrians with some aid; it also exported towards them, willingly or not, inquisition, excommunication, and apostacy courts.
However, despite its outrageous excesses, the lack of alternatives has so far insured that the “Sunni Nation” proposition remains the sole credible option with the capacity to mobilize and recruit. And this potential has proven true in spite of the confusion in the definition of the “Sunni Nation” between identity and ideology.
Whether identity and ideology can be disentangled or not, any Sunni proposition constitutes a depletive risk for the Iranian-sponsored resistance narrative. The Arab region thus faces a complex crisis in its political discourse: the only available narratives are conducive to conflict; and these narratives are only available in eroded or malformed versions, lacking the clarity needed to formulate a consistent political position. On the ground the region faces a reality of dissolution, through which systems and structures crumble with no tenable alternatives emerging. In parallel, it experiences a fuzziness in discourse between two opposing narratives, a confrontation with a global arrogance that has lost its prior sharp depiction, and the defense of a Sunni nation that remains uncertain in its features or paradigm. The feedback loop between the collapse of structures and the dispersion of discourse lays on Arab culture remedial responsibilities that it does not seem equipped to address.
Hassan Mneimneh is Contributing Editor at Fikra Forum. Mneimneh is Principal at Middle East Alternatives in Washington DC. Prior to his current positions, Mneimneh participated in several research institutions as senior fellow and assumed leading functions at the Iraq Memory Foundation, the Iraq Foundation, and the Iraq Research and Documentation Project.