How Obama's speech to the "Muslim world" helps Tehran.

Opinions about events beyond our borders.
June 3 2009 5:11 PM

Obama the Underminer

By addressing the "Muslim world" from Cairo, the president is helping Tehran.

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There are 1.2 billion Muslims in the world, stretching from India to Indonesia and from the United Arab Emirates to the United States, which makes Islam perhaps the world's most heterodox faith. Some pray like this, others like that; some are white, some black; some are Arabs, some are Chinese; a minority think Ali should have succeeded the prophet of Islam directly, the majority think it turned out right with Abu Bakr following Mohammed. In addition to Sunnis and Shiites, there are Sufis and Salafis, Wahabbis and Zaidis, as well as dozens of other minority sects. Islam, despite the simplicity of its profession of faith—there is no God but God, and Mohammed is the messenger of God—is an esoteric creed with more than a millennium of jurisprudence and philosophy behind it. Islam is complicated. But Khomeini reduced this all to one big idea: Being a Muslim means opposition to the West, especially the United States. This is Khomeini's Muslim world—not a caliphate or a wonderful mosaic of various practices and beliefs, but a unity forged on the anvil of resistance. This concept is what bridges, for instance, Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, a Sunni organization, and Hezbollah, Lebanon's Shiite militia.

This ideological bearing has had profound strategic consequences, for if Muslims must be in opposition to the Great Satan, they must also be in opposition to the West's allies, including not only the Little Satan, Israel, but also the Sunni Arab powers that are aligned with Washington. Tehran's public diplomacy campaign is designed to separate the Arab masses from their regimes, a tactic it employed, for instance, in the July 2006 war pitting Hezbollah against Israel. In the court of Muslim public opinion, tacit support for an Israeli war against Tehran's Lebanese client cost the Arab states dearly, that is every Arab state save Syria, an Iranian ally, which also supports Hezbollah.

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The Iranian axis fared less well after Israel's attack on Hamas, another Iranian asset, in Gaza this past winter. When Hezbollah General-Secretary Hassan Nasrallah encouraged the Egyptian masses to topple President Hosni Mubarak for backing Israel against Hamas, Egyptian popular opinion turned against Hezbollah, for as much as the inhabitants of the Nile river valley may support resistance elsewhere, they don't like it at home. How dare this "cab driver," as some Egyptians called Nasrallah, interfere with internal Egyptian matters? Mubarak had struck gold—Egyptians were no longer behaving like fans of the resistance or as an amorphous grouping of "Muslims" supporting transnational Muslim causes; they were acting like loyal Egyptians, in line with the ruling regime. In effect, Obama's speech to the "Muslim world" serves to erase the national borders of our Arab allies, and however questionable those allies are, their borders serve American interests, and erasing them serves Iranian ends.

The president says he understands the Iranian threat and knows how dangerous its nascent nuclear program is to regional stability. He explains that he wants to restart the Palestinian-Israeli peace process because he thinks this will give him leverage against Iran. He hears Arab rulers saying that peace will strengthen the moderates and weaken the radicals, but this is not what they're really saying. The president stopped off in Riyadh before Cairo to ask the Saudis for a few minor concessions toward Israel, like opening an interests section in Tel Aviv, or, as the New York Times put it, issuing a "few symbolic tourist visas for Israelis, or agree[ing] to hold open meetings with Israeli counterparts." But the Saudis will never do any such thing, because they know that at a very dangerous time in the region, it would only show them up as American stooges and crypto-Zionists and thereby enhance Iran's regional status as the stalwart defender of resistance. Washington's Arab allies are telling Obama that Iran is the problem, but he can't hear them while he's doing Tehran's public diplomacy.

AP Video: Obama Speaks in Egypt

Lee Smith is a visiting fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C., and author of The Strong Horse: Power, Politics, and the Clash of Arab Civilizations.