In late 2005, when King Abdullah II warned against an emerging Shi'ite arc, his warnings encountered hostility and, at best, misunderstanding. As the year 2006 unfolded, however, and particularly during the summer 2006 war in Lebanon, the king's warnings were revived--this time generating greater understanding and appreciation. The Shi'ite arc prophecy was being fulfilled.
The warnings, which were subject to many official and unofficial interpretations, centered on the increase of the Iranian sphere of influence from Tehran to Beirut, via Baghdad, Damascus and, following the Palestinian elections, the occupied Palestinian territories. From Jordan's standpoint, the Iranian role threatened polarization of the region along sectarian Sunni-Shi'ite lines. This would lead to further fragmentation within the Arab system into pro-Iran and anti-Iran camps. This, indeed, was the case following the Israeli war on Lebanon and the sectarian domestic unravelling of some Arab states such as Iraq and Lebanon, as well as threats to the stability of some of the other Arab states that have Shi'ite communities.
The warnings from the Jordanian monarch came against the backdrop of the inability of the Arab system to either diagnose or act against the looming threat from Iran. For Jordan, Iranian influence has two major repercussions; these directly affect its eastern and western borders.
In Iraq, the Iranian role is viewed as adding fuel to the fire of sectarian divides among the different Iraqi groups and threatening all-out sectarian conflict between the Sunnis and the Shi'ites. Such a development would have serious and immediate repercussions on Jordan by adding to the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi refugees who have already fled the security situation in Iraq and taken up residence in Jordan, and by threatening the spread of violence beyond Iraq.
To the west, the Iranian role in the region--particularly after the Hamas victory and in view of Iran's alliance with Syria, which hosts radical Palestinian groups, and bearing in mind Iran's support for Hizballah--has contributed to further radicalization in the region. This in turn further hinders efforts to bring a Palestinian-Israeli peace process back to life.
While deterioration in the situation in Iraq might make conditions harder for Jordan, particularly from a security perspective, lack of progress on the Palestinian-Israeli track or deterioration in the security situation in the West Bank would have severe repercussions on Jordan internally. The instability that this might trigger could in turn be exacerbated by pro-Iran forces at the local level.
Since the war on Iraq in 2003, Jordan has strengthened its alliance with the United States and boosted its relations with the Arab Gulf states, and particularly Saudi Arabia, to a degree that exceeds pre-1990-91 Gulf War levels. The emergence of a moderate alliance comprising Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan to counter the Iran-Syria-Hizballah-Hamas alliance following the Israeli war on Lebanon in the summer of 2006 echoed the warnings issued by the Jordanian monarch in late 2005 and enabled Jordan to deal with the threat posed by emerging trends in the region.
Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia share the same concerns with regard to Iranian influence in the region, but to varying extents. The Egyptians do not view the Iranian threat as gravely as do the Saudis and Jordanians. And in the post-Lebanon war era Saudi Arabia has adopted a proactive stance, assuming its rightful leadership role in full, as witnessed by the Mecca agreement, the visit of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinezhad and Riyadh's hosting of the Arab summit conference in late March 2007 for the first time, in sharp contrast with its behind-the-scenes role in the past.
Given its size and resources, Jordan has always relied on its regional allies to advance regional initiatives. Hence a prominent Saudi role enhances Jordan's ability to maneuver in the region, both in terms of countering Iranian influence and in addressing the Palestinian-Israeli issue regionally and internationally.
The main feature of the Arab system today is its fragility and fragmentation, largely due to the deficiency created by the Syrian presence in the Iranian camp and the absence of Iraq as a regional player. The emergence of the Saudi role at the forefront may compensate significantly for these deficiencies. This is turn would allow Jordan to pursue its national interest and more effectively address the challenges it faces.- Published 8/3/2007 © bitterlemons-international.org