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Why Sunni Arab Regimes Fear Democracy in Shiite Iran

Sunni Shiite Regimes Fear Shiites, but Fear Democracy Even More


repression protests middle east

Democracy's fate in the Middle East.

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In early 2009 Bahrain got into a spat over an old Iranian claim that Bahrain has historically belonged to Iran. An Iranian partisan of Ali Khamenei, the "supreme leader" who busily bashed heads in the spring of 2009, repeated the claim publicly, sending Bahrain's governments into apoplectic fits and drawing threats of severing energy deals. It got bad enough that even Morocco got into the act, blaming Iran for meddling with Bahrain's sovereignty.

Bahrain and Iran Work Things Out

Bahrain and Iran worked things out when Iran's foreign minister flew to the tiny island country to put its Sunni rulers at ease. The foreign minister probably extracted a few concessions, too. That's what it looked like during the 2009 uprising in Iran, as Bahrain turned to lecturing the world against "meddling" in Iran's affair.

In a remarkable turn-around for Bahrain, the country's foreign minister, Sheikh Khaled bin Ahmed al-Khalifa, publicly sided with Iran's claims that the United States, Britain and other countries were fomenting trouble in Iran. This coming from the country that plays host to the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet. Not to be outdone, the United Arab Emirates declared itself on Iran's side, calling meddling "unacceptable."

Why Sunni Regimes Fear Iranian Protesters

The two little Gulf states' twin acts of cowtowing are easily explicable, Bahrain's especially. They also say plenty about why Sunni regimes, ostensible enemies of Iran's Shiite Islamic Revolution, are suddenly very nervous about the prospects of a counter-revolution in Iran.

Start with Bahrain. A Sunni minority rules over a restive Shiite majority. The country isn't foreign to riots. It certainly isn't foreign to repression. Shiites have few rights. What Bahrain doesn't want is for them to be inspired by the goings-on across the Gulf. Iran knows that it can turn on the destabilizing factor inside Bahrain whenever it pleases. That's probably what the Iranian foreign minister told Bahrain's rulers in his patch-up trip. It's why Bahrain has been so quick to side with Iran, essentially endorsing the brutal crackdown. The UAE, which also sits across the Gulf from Iran, is doing likewise.

It's not an about-face, if you understand Middle Eastern regimes for what they are. They're not divided by the Sunni-Shiite schism. They're united by their authoritarianism. They'll sell out the Prophet and the memory of all his harem's concubines at the drop of a turban, as Iran's leadership in fact has, if it's a choice between upholding their religious precepts (or presumptions) and holding on to their own power.

Authoritarianism a Default Setting of Arab Regimes

The Arab Peninsula's authoritarian regimes couldn't give a whit about religious precepts. It's all for show, for the flock, for the masses, a palliative of propaganda and play-acting, which is why every regime's sheikhs love to drink and whore it up in Beirut's chic brothels the moment they can get out of their abbayas.

They're not about guarding mosques. They're about guarding power. So they'd certainly not be about any democratic movement. For all the Sunni regimes' hatred of the ayatollahs' revolution in Iran, they'll preferably stick with that than contend with another, more democratic counter-revolution in their midst. That's the real danger to Arab regimes: popular, democratic uprisings driven by the sense of rights denied, of freedom repressed by religious authority that's increasingly, obviously bankrupt. That's why Sunni regimes like the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Egypt have quietly muzzled any support for Iran's protesters. That's why the regimes are perversely praying that their public enemy, the Islamic Republic of Iran, quashes every last protester in the streets by any means necessary.

Authoritarians in their Labyrinths

"That's no surprise, really," as Tim McGirk writes in his Time blog."These leaders sitting on their ornate but uncomfortable thrones must be wondering what's going on beyond their palace walls, in the bazaars and in the universities inside their own little kingdoms and republics. I'm sure the secret police reassure them that they are much loved by their subjects, and then, as proof, they run out and erect even more giant portraits or statues of their heroic leader. But if these despots have any sense at all, they have to be worried about the reformist movement in Iran. The difference is, in these other Middle Eastern countries, any democratic change would probably bring in the Islamists, as happened in the Palestinian territories."

US Enablers of Arab Authoritarianism

It may also be why the Obama administration has been less than eager to embrace the protesters. American policy's cozy (if immoral) accommodation of tyrannies in the Middle East is of long standing. No administration, not even Obama's, wants to see a destabilized Saudi Arabia--even if it means a more democratic Saudi Arabia. So implicitly, the administration is adopting the Saudi-Sunni line: what's good for stability is good for the status quo. That means sticking with the known.

A little democracy can be a wonderful thing in the Middle East. To every authoritarian regime there, it can only be a very dangerous thing. American presidents don't say so publicly. They merely behave accordingly, privately.

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