I mentioned yesterday that arming the Middle East wasn't a good idea. Brian Whitaker has an interesting piece in the Guardian's Comment is Free section about how the new arms deal for the region could pour gas on the Sunni/Shi'a divide in the Middle East, serving as a "green light for oppression" for ostensibly Sunni regimes to discriminate against their Shi'a citizens in the name of combating Iranian influence:
If the Bush administration's goal was to inflame Sunni-Shia tensions across the region and to spread the sectarian strife in Iraq to neighbouring countries, it would be hard to imagine a more effective way of going about it.
Although Iran is the worldwide centre of Shia Islam, there's an important distinction to be made between Shia Muslims and the Iranian regime. The question is how many people will actually make it. Marginalised Shia communities in the Gulf states and Egypt will undoubtedly feel more threatened, while others will interpret the American move as a green light to oppress them further.
Viewed from Washington, bolstering tyrannical Sunni regimes against Iran might seem like pragmatism - a convergence of interests. But it's a dangerous sort of pragmatism because the American and Saudi interests are ultimately different. The Saudi government isn't really worried about Tehran; it's worried about keeping the lid on its Shia population in the oil-rich eastern province - and in the long term that can only rebound negatively on the US.
Just as there is a need to recognise that Jews in general are not responsible for the actions of the Israeli government, nor ordinary Muslims for the actions of al-Qaida, Arab states must be careful not to automatically treat their Shia communities as tools of the Iranian government, or encourage the public to think that they are.
What the region needs most right now is not more arms but a concerted effort to promote religious tolerance, to combat religious discrimination and prejudice, and to draw the Arab Shia communities into the political processes of their home countries before it is too late.
Incidentally, Iran is not alone in condemning the arms deals. Even Siniora has been quick to complain about the increased military aid to Israel:
"Prime Minister Fouad Saniora has learned with great dismay, surprise and astonishment" about the U.S. defense package to the Jewish state, a statement released by his office said.
"Continuing to back Israel in such a manner will escalate crises and increase feelings among the Arabs and Muslims that their just causes are ignored while Israel's interests are protected," it said.
"This will raise the feeling of frustration among the Arabs and Muslims, and will therefore boost extremist movements which were born and are feeding on the feeling of (U.S.) bias in favor of Israel."
"We were hoping that the American efforts would rather help promote peace," Saniora said in the statement.
"If these funds were allocated to consolidate peace (in the Middle East) and bridge the gap between the peoples of the region, or spent on peaceful projects then the American message would have been different," he said.
"This is a very negative message to the Lebanese and Arabs.
"It will boost Israel's aggressiveness and arrogance ...it will allow the Israelis to continue to think that they can avoid the requirements of a just and comprehensive peace by maintaining military superiority," he said.
If those funds were allocated to consolidate peace, indeed. Wouldn't that be a nice change of pace?