Sunni Arab view of US-Iran tensions

As the level of tension rises between the US and Iran, I am very concerned that the Bush administration is trying to paint a scenario of the probable consequences of a possible US military action against Iran that is far more rosy than the situation warrants.

One key example: Both Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley have talked about the great threat that Sunni Arab countries perceive from Iran, which is predominantly non-Arab and Shiite. Some advocates of an attack (in the US and Israel) have argued that a US strike on Iran would be welcomed in Sunni-dominated nations and would therefore generally bolster the region's forces of stability. My current tour in Egypt contradicts that. The Egyptians I've talked to so far – including retired diplomats, experienced political analysts, and journalists – have expressed unanimous opposition to any US attack against Iran.

The social researcher and former liberal presidential candidate Saad Eddin Ibrahim recalled the arguments Bush supporters made in early 2003 that the US invasion of Iraq (which he discreetly supported at the time) would be "a cakewalk," and noted that it has turned out to be anything but. He warned, "A US attack on Iran could spread the same chaos we now see in Iraq to a number of other Arab countries. No one wants that."

A former Egyptian ambassador rebutted Mr. Hadley's claim that Arab countries feel deeply threatened by Iran's nuclear program. "We have lived beneath Israel's nuclear weapons for many years, so even if Iran gets nuclear weapons it wouldn't be anything new. Anyway, they are not that close to it," he said.

It is not just in Egypt that prominent voices in the (Sunni) Arab discourse have countered the Bush officials' claims. One very high-level Saudi executive told me he thought a US attack on Iran would be "disastrous for the whole region" and implored Washington to find a way to resolve its differences with Tehran through diplomacy. Even in US-friendly Kuwait, the government-sponsored Al-Rai newspaper has begun to publish stridently anti-US editorials.

It's true there are some concerns among Sunni Arabs about the growing influence of the (sometimes Iran-backed) Shiite populations present in many Arab countries. But well-informed Egyptians have stressed to me that anti-Americanism now runs much, much deeper than any concerns about Iranian or Shiite influence. That anti-Americanism has been hardened, they say, by the policies Washington has pursued toward Iraq and the Palestinian territories, and toward Israel during its destructive attack on targets in Lebanon last summer.

Many Sunni Arab leaders find themselves trapped uncomfortably between those popular attitudes and their own strategic alliances with Washington. Their reactions during last summer's Israel-Hizbullah war were instructive. They started out expressing timid support for Israel's attacks on Hizbullah. But as their publics swung behind Hizbullah, they quickly joined the growing calls for a very rapid cease-fire. In the event of a US strike on Iran, these leaders will probably need to show similar responsiveness to public pressure. And that pressure is now strongly anti-American.

Bottom line for Americans: In 2007, as in 2003, they need to be very skeptical indeed of the rosy scenarios being conjured up by the advocates of war. An attack on Iran risks bringing terrible harm to US forces and innocent civilians both in and far beyond the locus of any such attack.

Back in 2002-03, the Bush administration ignored the advice offered by the vast majority of Middle East specialists. Listening only to ideologues and others with a strong pro-war bias, it rushed the US into a war that continues to have terrible consequences for everyone concerned. We cannot let that happen again. Now, as then, there is no rosy scenario. Now, as then, many diplomatic channels for resolving our differences exist. Our leaders must now use them.

Helena Cobban is the author of "Amnesty after Atrocity? Healing Nations after Genocide and War Crimes."

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