In the volatile Middle East, America's efforts to build friendships have often created new enemies. Many of the divided religious and ethnic factions living in the region view any U.S. move to support one group as a hostile act toward that group's opponents.
After its invasion of Iraq, America tried to "play the Shiite card" by building an alliance with the Shiite Muslim majority that had long been persecuted under President Saddam Hussein, a Sunni. But in doing this, the United States alienated members of Iraq's Sunni Arab minority, who became supporters of the insurgency tearing the nation apart.
Then when Shiite Hezbollah militiamen in Lebanon began raining rockets down on Israel in July, Washington's first instinct was to craft a Sunni Arab coalition against Iran and its Shiite allies. Initially, "playing the Sunni card" seemed to be a successful strategy. The Saudi, Egyptian and Jordanian governments expressed unprecedented criticism of Hezbollah, quietly signaling fears of growing Iranian dominance in the region.
But in yet another rapid turn of events, as Israel mounted a counteroffensive against Hezbollah that claimed the lives of hundreds of Lebanese civilians, Arab governments were pressured by their outraged citizens to shift course and condemn Israel. Shiites and Sunnis seemed to draw closer together in the face of their common Israeli enemy.
Nevertheless, the long-term concern among Arab governments about Iranian influence is only likely to grow in the aftermath of the battle between Israel and Hezbollah. When a cease-fire is ultimately reached, Arab concerns about Iran will quickly resurface and could move U.S. diplomacy back on the track of partnering with Sunni allies to counter Iran and its proxies. But planting the seeds of a more enduring, confrontational Sunni front could produce unanticipated threats to U.S. interests by sharpening sectarian divisions in the region and actually increasing Iran's influence.
Many Iraqi Shiites are increasingly uncomfortable with Washington's tough policy on Iran as that nation moves ahead with its nuclear program, supports Hezbollah and calls for wiping Israel off the map. Far-fetched as it sounds to most Americans, a U.S.-sponsored Sunni coalition could fuel suspicions among Shiites in Iraq and elsewhere that a U.S.-Sunni-Zionist conspiracy is trying to sell out Iraq with the goal of isolating Iran.
Already, some Iraqi Shiite army officers have stated that they believe Sunni Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia are trying to weaken America's commitment to rebuilding war-torn Iraq because those Sunni nations are jealous of Iraq's future potential and fearful of its strength.
The perception of a hostile Sunni bloc backed by the United States and arrayed against Iran could also further bolster domestic support for Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's goal for moving forward on his nuclear program and more broadly increasing Iranian influence in the region.
A confrontational American stance toward Iran also increases Ahmadinejad's appeal among disgruntled Arab populations throughout the Middle East, including the dominant Sunnis. The Iranian president has proven adept at going over the heads of Arab regimes to their subjects, and portraying rulers in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan as weak lackeys of Washington.
In addition, a strategy that reinforces sectarian blocs could further fuel Sunni jihadists and anti-American terrorism. Despite the recent videotaped statement by al-Qaida second-in-command Ayman al-Zawahiri calling for jihad against Israel, radical jihadist Internet chat rooms are filled with sharp criticism of Hezbollah and the Persian-Shiite "menace."
There also is intense criticism in chat rooms claiming that Saudi Arabia's opposition to Hezbollah, while admirable, is actually motivated by a Saudi desire to appease Israel. This claim could put pressure on Saudi rulers to bolster their pan-Arab credentials by deflecting domestic jihadist fury away from their nation and toward Iran.
Radical Sunni jihadists could become useful counterweights for Saudi Arabia against the perceived Shiite threat from Iran, in much the same way that Middle East states endorsed Islamist parties to counter communism during the Cold War.
U.S. actions could give an unwitting green light to this policy, throwing the region deeper into the throes of sectarian violence between Saudi-backed Sunnis and Iran's armed Shiite clients. One of these clients could be dispersed remnants of Hezbollah, ejected from Lebanon but operating on a global scale with new lethality and agility following the al-Qaida model.
The U.S. cannot ignore growing Iranian influence in the region, its nuclear ambitions and its role in the current Middle East conflict. But countering this influence by creating a hostile Sunni bloc — even if unintended and unstated — is a dangerous path that should be avoided.
The tremendous challenge America faces today is to build and maintain friendships — or at least working relationships — with a range of groups in the region, regardless of their sectarian identity.
One way to try to keep ties open with all sides would be for the United States to continue to pursue a reopening of dialogue with Iran on broad range of regional issues. As distasteful as dialogue might be with an old enemy that is creating a new problem, it may ultimately be the best of the bad choices facing the United States.
© 2006 United Press International
Fred Wehrey and Dalia Dassa Kaye are Middle East experts at the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit research organization.
This commentary originally appeared in United Press International on August 8, 2006. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.