Recently, there has been intense debate in the United States about the so-called “Iran deal.” The current administration in the White House has been pushing strongly for it and it is no secret that President Obama considers it to be an essential component of his foreign policy legacy. On the other side of the political aisle, there has been a strong and vocal Conservative opposition to the deal. The debate has centered, almost entirely, on the probability of Iran acquiring then using a nuclear weapon, particularly against Israel. What will this mean for minority groups of persecuted Christians? This article is an invitation to look at the issue from a different perspective, highlighting some major but hitherto non-discussed potential effects.
Those opposed to the deal point to concerns about Israeli national security if Iran were to develop a nuclear weapon. Yet, how likely is Iran to build successfully then use a nuclear weapon against Israel? In 2007 and again in 2012, all of the 16 U.S. intelligence agencies issued a joint National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), stating that Iran did not have a nuclear weapon and that it was not pursuing one. Moreover, even in Israel, voices within the intelligence community are of the opinion that Iran’s nuclear ambitions are exaggerated and that the deal is relatively effective at curbing them. Practically, the restrictions in the agreement, the collateral damage of the use of a nuclear weapon on Muslims living in Israel and in neighboring countries and the strength of the 200-300 nuclear warhead Israeli deterrent render such a scenario both, illogical and improbable.
On the other hand, what the U.S. administration hopes to accomplish with the Iran deal goes beyond curbing Iran’s nuclear ambitions. The Obama White House hopes to turn the long-term animosity between the U.S. and Iran to a collaborative friendship to benefit the U.S. interests in the Middle East. Yet, is this hope grounded in reality or in wishful thinking? Even if we were to ignore the ethical and moral implications of establishing a partnership with a violent extremist theocracy, the relationship between the U.S. and Iran has been permanently damaged by such events of history as the CIA overthrow of Mosaddegh, the U.S. support of the unpopular Shah, the Iran hostage crisis and the negative impression held in either country about the other, at least at the leadership level. Trust has been lost between both nations; thus, a pragmatic alliance is likely to be only short-lived.
The only reason the Iranian leaders are accepting this deal is because it would provide them with the prize they are really after — regional power. By unfreezing more than $100 billion of assets, Iran will have the monetary infusion necessary to empower its economy, support its proxies and in time build its military, moving ever closer to its real goal, not the destruction of Israel but the control of the gulf region. As such, the nation that stands to lose the most from this agreement is Iran’s regional nemesis, Saudi Arabia. A specific reason for the world to be concerned would be the repercussions Iran’s ascendency would have on Saudi internal delicate balance of power.
Even before Saudi Arabia came to be recognized as a nation in 1932, its ethos could be summed up in the alliance between the Wahabi brand of Sunni Islam and the political leadership of the Al Saud dynasty. The Wahabi portion of this alliance seeks the growth of its specific extremist brand of Sunni Islam and it seeks theological world dominance. On the other hand, the Al Saud family desires to rule a prosperous and united country and to benefit from such a rule financially. Al Saud leaders know they cannot achieve these goals without cooperating with America. These two agendas can and have conflicted numerous times in the past. Whenever Al Saud rulers are perceived to have departed from Wahabi goals, or to have aligned themselves too closely with Western interests, the Wahabi elements would start an armed rebellion (as in the 1930 Ikhwan revolution and in the 1979 seizure of the Grand Mecca Mosque), or execute terrorist acts (as in 9/11 2001, where 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi citizens). If the Wahabis perceive the Saudi leaders to be caving in to U.S. desire for a new friendship with a stronger Iran, they will blame their politicians for what they regard as a humiliating defeat at the hand of Shi’a Islam. Wahabis will not have to look far for an alternative to Al Saud. ISIS, founded on Wahabi principles and already enjoying the support of many Saudi donors, will be seen as a viable option. A coup, letting ISIS in to govern Saudi Arabia through the back door, would be a devastating blow to the region and to the world.
Wahabism has been on the rise over the last few decades. In her book “Understanding ISIS and the new Global War on Terror,” author Phyllis Bennis states that Washington supported the “Wahabization” of the entire Muslim world in response to the Iranian threat and to pan-Arab nationalism. From Boko Haram in Nigeria to ISIS in Syria and Iraq, Christians in the Middle East have suffered terribly from the effects of such radicalization of the Middle Eastern Islamic population. Christian populations in Middle Eastern countries as Egypt, Sudan, Lebanon, Jordan, Syria and Iraq had enjoyed peace and prosperity under secular, albeit dictatorial, rule. Nowadays, however, the ascendancy of Wahabi Islam has ushered in an unprecedented wave of persecution that threatens to eradicate Christianity from the Middle East.
If ISIS seizes control of Saudi Arabia, the second-biggest oil producing country in the world, it would acquire the necessary funding to accelerate the export not simply of radical ideology but of oppressive rule through regime change in countries where persecution of Christians is not yet a state policy, such as Egypt and Jordan. A showdown with Iran and is growing power over Iraq and Syria will be inevitable. The Middle East would sink into an all out Sunni/Shi’a war.
Understanding the stakes is essential to devising a strategy to prevent an even greater nightmare than the one we are currently witnessing. Moral and ethical considerations must guide the decision-making process. Amoral, pragmatic politics will eventually degenerate into endorsement of fascism and of genocide. The world needs us to be better men and for the sake of our children’s future we must strive to become so.
Sherif Yacoub is a physician and part-time seminary student. He is an American citizen of Egyptian origin. In addition to his first-hand experience, having lived the first 30 years of his life in Egypt, he has extensively studied the historical, religious and geopolitical roots of current Middle East events. Dr. Yacoub has an online Christian ministry to the Middle East entitled “The Way,” with more than a quarter of a million followers.